Fiercely patriotic about their country and its future, politically aware, career-oriented, and India-friendly.

As I walk around the Karachi campus of the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), a premier business school, and chat with the students, I could have been in any of our upmarket colleges… an IIT or an IIM. Meher, a third-year BBA student, sums it up neatly when she says that at a recent international student event in Singapore, where 2,500 had participated, “I met many Indians… they dress, eat, talk, and even look like us!”

So would she like to visit India? “I've been asked by an event management company to do so in August,” she beams. As I talk to the students outside their class or in the canteen, one thing becomes clear. There is a healthy, but not undue interest in India, and no antagonism. I understand what many industrialists had reiterated: “We owe it to our children not to leave behind for them the baggage of Partition”. And, a nation that is sliding downhill, grappling with increasing levels of crime and violence, fundamentalism and radicalisation brought in by Pakistani and Afghan Taliban.

Wasim Mirza, Managing Director of Karachi-based Swiss Speciality Chemicals, says his son recently returned from Canada after his Masters and said: “Baba, what have you done for us? You have failed us; you have deprived us of a normal childhood. Bahar mat jao, amma pareshan ho rahi hei (Don't go out; your mother is worried) and constant questions of when are you returning home.”

“He has joined my business, but can opt for Canadian citizenship and get a job there. I said, ‘it's your decision, but at my age I can't go anywhere else; my family, friends, my roots are in this country'.”

This is the dilemma facing many educated Pakistani youngsters from rich families with moderate/liberal religious views. More than once I also heard how India is now the “beneficiary of reverse brain-drain; your youngsters are returning as your economy is robust. They get better salaries and lifestyle in India than in the US or Europe.”

Youth will bring change

But Mirza is “absolutely positive” that Pakistan will emerge stronger after the present churn because “the majority of our population is between 20 and 35, and they are not willing to listen to us anymore…or buy our story. They are saying, ‘you had your innings, get out of the way. We will write a new chapter.' That is our hope. If I tell my child there is no hope, run away, it's a very negative message I'm giving.”

Returning to the IBA, students fiercely defend their country and its future. In the canteen Zahra, Meher, Humaira and Salman engage in an animated conversation with me on Pakistan's present and future, and on India.

Meher shrugs about the holdups and snatchings in Karachi. “Yes, it has happened to me, but they only want your mobile phone. We are students and don't have much money anyway, and none of us like wearing gold jewellery either. So it's not like your life is in danger.”

Zain Salim, a second-year BBA student, says the snatchers hail from poorer parts of Karachi. “We have a rice mill, and three days ago somebody from a poor area called demanding Rs 10 lakh. These are poor people who don't get jobs, and hence resort to such crimes.”

Zain is dressed differently from the majority of IBA students; he dons a white topee and has what is labelled Muslim beard (without a moustache). Along with two batchmates, Kainat and Ali Qasim, he has set up an entrepreneurial venture offering a pool table on rent, and selling brownies. The IBA has given seed money of Rs 1 lakh; within a year they have to make a decent profit, failing which they'll have to do community work.

What radicalisation?

I ask them about “growing radicalisation and religious extremism” in Pakistan. Kainat replies in a flash: “That is more propaganda than truth. We don't see that at all, particularly in our college. Here we have two very different kinds of students; Zain is a very religious person, but he is not a radical. Everybody is entitled to their religious point of view. I am not religious at all; so it's a wide spectrum. Pakistan doesn't have as much radicalisation as portrayed in the media. I live in Karachi, a multicultural society.”

Adds Zain, “I condemn extremism in the name of religion. But I think there are more ills due to poverty than religion in Pakistan. The biggest evil in Pakistan is corruption, particularly at the lower levels, and we have to control it. The problem is that integrity levels are coming down in Pakistan, and people think it is okay to lie, cheat, steal.”

Would he want a better relationship with India?

Dekhiye, relationship sari duniya se sudharni chhahiye; kisise dushmani kyo rakhen? (We should improve our relationship with all countries; why have enmity with anybody?)”

With the US, too, I ask. “Of course. If we walk along with India or with the US, we will benefit. Has war helped anybody?”

Zain has travelled extensively but never visited India. Nor would he like to. “Why? Because it has the same culture, people, clothes, places and food. If I am to go for a holiday, why not go to a different country and experience a different culture?”

An unpleasant Indian experience

But Zahra is “extremely open-minded when it comes to India. Yes, on the political front there is a lot of hostility, but I don't see any young Pakistani having negative sentiments about India.” She would love to visit India, but her expression darkens and her smile disappears as she recalls how a friend of hers visited India twice through the Wagah border. “She went with her friends to Amritsar, Jaipur, etc, and simply loved India. Her only unpleasant experience was at the police station. About 10 girls had gone; they were kept at the police station for a few hours, asked all kinds of questions and videographed. They felt terrible, but thankfully that was their only negative experience. I'd love to visit Jaipur and Goa!”

Quraish, her batchmate, says resolving Indo-Pak disputes will take some time. “But I know that in India there are many people with progressive thoughts. They are very intelligent; some of their comments on YouTube are brilliant. I find Indians have objective views... not always coloured or slanted.”

But Humaira, a final-year BBA student, is honest enough to admit she hardly thinks about India. “Actually, it is not one of my priorities. My priority is my career, my future. Once I pass out I'd like to work… get a good job.” This is a concern for all these students because, with the Pakistani economy struggling at a bare 3-4 per cent growth, and foreign investors hardly gung-ho about investing in it, well-paying jobs are few and far between. Small wonder that many students want to start their own enterprises and create employment.

Kainat too prefers to see countries other than India, “except for the Taj Mahal!”

But she doesn't agree with Ali Qasim's rather flippant comment that Partition “shouldn't have taken place, because then we'd have such an awesome cricket team!” She thinks Partition was “very important, inevitable. There were so many differences at that time; we couldn't have done without it. But better ties with India are very important. We are a poor nation; once upon a time they were our biggest buyers, but then our relationship deteriorated. India is a big market for us. We are an agro-based economy and you have a large population that needs food. So if we improve our relations, it would be of mutual benefit, more for Pakistan.”

She adds that the younger generation wants to improve ties with India; “anyway, we feel the US is a bigger enemy.”

Change is for better

I ask them about Imran Khan, and all the five, who have been sipping a Coke or coffee at one table, are all smiles. He is obviously their hero. Says Salman, “Yes, we are with Imran Khan; we'd like him to come to power as we are sick and tired of the same old corrupt and inefficient politicians.”

But isn't he backed by the Pakistan Army?

“We don't know, but even if he is, so what? If you look at his rallies, he is drawing huge crowds. We need change. Look at the difference and huge changes our young mayor, Mustafa Kamal (from MQM), made to Karachi city. We trust Imran Khan.”

Hardly a couple of girls can be sighted on the campus in a hijab or purdah. When this is mentioned, Basith, seated in the canteen quips: “There are about 10 girls here; forget hijab, hardly anyone is wearing even a dupatta.”

But the more serious issue is how many female graduates would take up a career, and all of them say they would. Of course, Pakistan is grappling with serious gender issues. As Sayeed Ghani, IBA's Deputy Dean, points out, “More young women are getting educated in Pakistan, but then we also have honour killings.”

In premier educational institutions, not only more girls get in (the general ratio is 60:40 in favour of girls), “they are also extremely bright, very focused and there are many opportunities available for girls today.”

But he admits that a large proportion of highly educated girls don't work or take up a profession. “Even if they do, that is second priority; home and the children come first, and that is important as well. So there are pros and cons; families in which both parents work long hours, somebody has to take a hit, and I've seen that Pakistani girls give more importance to their role as wives and mothers. And it is not as though they are forced; it is voluntary.”

(This article was published on March 8, 2012)
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