First, do no harm —Syed Mansoor Hussain

Politics, especially retail politics that requires asking an entire electorate for votes rather than just getting a few likeminded people together, is an important skill that requires ability as well as training

A few days ago I had the good fortune to attend a function organised by the King Edward Medical University branch of something called the International Federation of Medical Students Association (IFMSA) in collaboration with the Punjab Rescue Squad. The purpose was to award prizes to people who had become certified in Basic Life Support (BLS), or in layman’s term, ‘first aid’.The importance of such training for medical students as well as the lay public cannot be emphasised enough. And I applaud the medical students organisation for taking this initiative. For me though, if nothing else, attending this function cleansed my palate as a good intermezzo should, in the middle of a multiple course meal of ‘all politics, all the time’.

While we the members of the chattering classes collectively bemoan everything to do with Pakistan these days, it was good to see that young people out there are living their lives with vigour, enthusiasm and an irrepressible sense of optimism that only comes with youth. And it was particularly gratifying to see young women lead the charge.

As I saw young people including hijab- and niqab-wearing women, bearded young men and those with the most modern grunge look walking around on the stage in perfect harmony, I kept saying to myself, ‘the Taliban will never be able to do them in.’ More importantly, it seemed that the future of Pakistan, if left in the hands of these young people, would be just fine.

Many years ago, when my children were typical untidy teenagers, I used to try and convince them about keeping their rooms neat by challenging their sense of ecology and environmental propriety. The idea I presented to them was that as human beings we should try and live our lives on this earth and in our homes in such a way that we leave them both no worse than how we found them.

Today as we stand at the threshold of a new era in the political history of Pakistan, the advice that I once gave my children comes back to me. If only those that are in positions of power and authority at this time leave this country no worse than what they found it as, then perhaps when the likes of the young people from IFMSA are ready to take things over, they can make a real difference.

Interestingly enough, sometimes just making sure that things don’t get worse makes things better! As this discussion started with medical students, it is worthwhile to repeat one bit of advice given to young physicians as they start off their professional careers: ‘primum non nocere’, translated as ‘first do no harm’. Good advice, I dare say, even for the new president of Pakistan.

But back to those young men and women. Whenever I attend such functions it brings back memories of a time long ago when I was a student at KE. We were similar and yet different in important ways. My generation also grew up and matured under a military and then a quasi-military dictatorship like these students, but the big difference was our attitudes concerning politics.

Student power had just become an established political fact and students all over the world, including Pakistan, were busy joining hands and fighting against oppression. The agitation against President Ayub Khan essentially started on university and college campuses and in time swept the entire country. On the other hand when the agitation started against President Musharraf, students were not involved in any substantial way.

All this does not mean that the young people of today care any less for the world around them than we did when we were in college. As a matter of fact they are much more aware of what is going on than we ever could be. The information glut that is a fact of modern life has its downside. When all voices are equally loud then it is easy to ignore the ones that say important things.

It is perhaps more for this reason than any other that students must get involved in politics. How can people at the age of eighteen cast a vote to choose their leaders when they have no idea what these leaders stand for, and more importantly are not aware of the issues and have never had a chance to debate or discuss them in open forums?

More importantly, by denying genuine political voices to thrive on campus, a vacuum is created that allows only the religious organisations to penetrate the student arena. This creates an imbalance that leads to the sort of skewed attitudes we see in many of our young people these days. Worse, it politicises religion and helps fuel religious extremism.

Also, when our chatterati moan and groan about the low quality of our political leadership, they forget that by denying students a chance to enter the political arena at an early age, we also deny them the opportunity to choose politics as a profession much like any other profession. Of course by being involved in the sort of activities mentioned above, students do get real life experience about management, networking and community service.

But politics, especially retail politics that requires asking an entire electorate for votes rather than just getting a few likeminded people together, is an important skill that requires ability as well as training. Student’s unions in colleges and universities offer this chance to all those interested in acquiring such skills since an entire student body has to be approached and canvassed for votes.

At least it did during my days as a student in Government College and then in KE (before they got the ‘U’ attached to their names). And contesting an election for the KE student union that I lost badly taught me an important lesson: I was better off doing medicine!

Syed Mansoor Hussain has practised and taught medicine in the US. He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times, 8/9/2008

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