A goonda, or hooligan, is usually imagined as a crude, violent, and poorly educated man. A smartly dressed black-coated young man boasting a law degree and earning a good income doesn’t seem to fit the description. But many individuals do! Think of last week’s mob of stick-wielding lawyers that stormed the intensive care unit of the Punjab Institute of Cardiology in Lahore, Pakistan. In multiple stomach-turning videos one sees lawyers smashing everything in sight while terrified nurses, doctors and patients scurry for safety. Some attackers are said to have ripped off oxygen masks from critically ill patients, three of whom subsequently died.
The lawyers were in high dudgeon after an altercation in November when a black-coated lawyer sought to jump a hospital queue and was chased away by white-coated doctors. A video taunting the lawyer and his supporters was subsequently produced by a PIC doctor. It went viral after which the lawyers went ballistic.
If this were Srinagar instead of Lahore, and if those attacking hospital patients were Indian security forces, it might have made some sense. What’s baffling here is absence of connection with the usual drivers of conflict – national politics, class, race, religion, ethnic differences, or alcohol/drug use. There’s no fascist or Nazi-type ideology at work either. We could call the attackers juvenile delinquents but this legal term is reserved for deviants in the 10-18 year bracket.
Sizeable sections of Pakistan’s professional classes are outright hooligans and gangsters. So much so that the pejorative term ‘wukla-gardi’ – violence by lawyers, derived from ‘goonda-gardi’ – has entered the Urdu lexicon. Rampaging mobs of young doctors, as well as college and university teachers, are not unusual either.
Following every such incident, commentators blame the police for delaying action. Politicians offering excuses for PIC’s sacking, like PPP’s Raza Rabbani and PTI’s Hamid Khan, have been accused of shameful opportunism. True enough, but police inefficiency and political expediency is old stuff. It doesn’t at all explain the sea of hate-filled young faces lunging at patients on a hospital bed. The subcontinent has seen multiple kinds of violence for a century but such gross inhumanity from Pakistan’s educated ones is brand new.
To clinically analyse hooligans in the high professions, picture someone who is 25-35 years old today. He most probably went to some ordinary Pakistani school sometime in the 1990s. That’s around the time when Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s particular vision of education, conceived around 1981, had fully caught on.
The state prioritised stuffing student’s minds with paranoia, parochialism, and hyper-religiosity. These young foot soldiers were expected to dutifully preserve and protect a praetorian, ideological state of which they could eventually become a part. To produce students with empathy, moral sense, and capacity to reason independently was not just unnecessary, it was undesirable.
The schoolboy’s mental universe was restricted to a narrow trench. His textbooks celebrated violence in the form of conquests and wars, heroes and bravery. What lay outside his trench was to be regarded with suspicion. That’s why, for example, the class-6 social studies curriculum document in 1995 issued by the Federal Ministry of Education demanded that students learn to “acknowledge and identify forces that may be working against Pakistan”, be aware of “India’s evil designs against Pakistan”, and “Make speeches on Jehad and Shahadat”. Education centered upon religious ritualism.
But the laws of man took a distant second place. Almost never was that schoolboy told to respect a queue, obey traffic rules, and desist from littering. Exam cheating and degree buying, though widespread, was not decried as a moral crime. Machoism was promoted as a virtue, not treated as a disease. Nowhere was he taught to appreciate those who are different culturally, ethnically, religiously, in physical appearance, or perhaps ability-disability.
Let’s now refocus upon that ‘educated’ lawyer who triggered the fight by muscling his way to the queue’s head. He knew it was an abuse of status and power but persisted. What use is your status if not for pushing people around? The rich and powerful do it all the time. No general or colonel, politician, professor, or doctor ever queues up. This young man’s only mistake was to expect that his black coat could always awe others into submission. Sadly for him, this time he miscalculated and got a thrashing.
This solves half of our puzzle. Indeed, education with wrong values and open contempt for man’s laws is widespread. But it doesn’t explain everything. Imagine that some lawyers had attacked a nursery school and tortured toddlers to death. Most probably other lawyers would have rallied to their defence. Indeed, as we know, the Punjab Bar Council and Lahore Bar Association are steadfastly defending the hospital attack. Why?
Answer: young people are particularly vulnerable to the phenomenon of bhair-chal. This Urdu word nicely picturises mindless sheep moving in herds. The weaker an individual’s ability to reason critically and to use his own mind, the more likely that he is a yes-man and seeks refuge in groupthink.
In academic parlance, groupthink originates from a psychological urge to become an ‘insider’ in a larger social group. As with Argentinian soccer fan groups famed for violent behaviour – 300 died in various 1964 soccer riots! – membership in an in-group produces a dizzying sense of invulnerability against those from out-groups. Any out-group can then be safely mocked and jeered.
Pakistan’s educational institutions are churning out weak-minded soccer types who cannot properly process their own feelings, identify emotions, or self-regulate. Paranoid and intolerant young males perennially hovering at the edge of boiling anger and abrasion are lethally dangerous. The slightest provocation can tip them over into violence.
The solution? Only a long shot involving a very difficult transition can work. Instead of education serving the needs of a security state, it must seek to produce well-informed, thoughtful, law-abiding, considerate, and caring citizens capable of independent thought and critical reasoning. Ziaism in education has proved catastrophic but nevertheless remains largely intact even today. It must be dumped. Else the mass production of hooligans with high degrees will continue unabated.
This article first appeared on Dawn.