An Oxford University in Pakistan? In a country described as potentially the “most dangerous place on Earth” by Newsweek? You’d have to be kidding, right? Well apparently not according to Pakistan cricket legend turned maverick politician, Imran Khan.
“I want a proper university like Oxford and Cambridge,” says the determined Khan, himself an Oxford graduate. “So I have this beautiful place, miles and miles of land on a lake and mountains behind.” He is talking about his dream project, Namal College, located in Pakistan ’s Mianwali district.
The newly inaugurated institute has already been granted the status of an Associate College by the University of Bradford, of which Khan is, incidentally, the chancellor. “With Bradford University we are setting up a Technical College to begin with,” he says. “And then a full blown university.”
But these days Pakistan seems to have best captured the world media’s imagination as the land of the Taleban and Osama bin Laden’s last hiding place. However, it could be argued that it is education – or rather the lack of it – which is the real problem Pakistanis face. Remember this is the sixth most populous country in the world and, remarkably, the literacy rate for its 160 million people still hovers at around 50 per cent.
Arguably a very strong link exists between education and the poor electoral choices that haunt the Pakistani people. For this is one corner of the globe where the centuries old curse of feudalism is still alive and kicking, and the continuation of the Bhutto dynasty in the absence of any credible leadership is living testimony to this.
“The only private sector university in the rural areas,” says the enthusiastic Khan about his ultra-ambitious Namal project. “And the main thing is that majority [of students] will be from scholarships. We will attract bright students. Our agents will go and find them and bring them to the university.”
In today’s Pakistan it is an established, well-honed practise for parents to send their children abroad for higher education, almost a rite of passage if you will. But this applies only if one hails from that tiny minority that can afford such luxury.
As Khan explains it: “Pakistan is an elitist economy. Everything is catered for a tiny elite.” Urdu is the national language, but in private “elitist” schools it is English that is given preference. Urdu medium schools are reserved for the poor and the struggling middle classes. Indeed the late Benazir had been the object of much derision in the local press for the state of her Urdu.
“You can’t have just English medium for the elite and for the majority… the whole school structure is collapsed,” says Khan. Ghost school are another phenomenon. These are supposedly state-run schools but which in reality exist only on paper.
So how does one tackle such dire inequalities of wealth and education? “The solution is direct taxation,” claims Khan. “Also subsidising the small farmer of Pakistan when 70 per cent of the people live in the rural areas.”
For a politician who is seen on Pakistani television stations debating so vociferously for democracy and the restoration of the judiciary, Imran was a quiet, albeit, determined child. “I was shy,” he recalls. “But I knew exactly what I wanted. I was undetered by setbacks and failures. I used to learn from my mistakes and keep going. When I went out collecting money and when I started in politics I had to change myself [by becoming less shy].”
The money collection Khan does for the cancer hospital he built in 1994 is said to provide over 70 per cent of its patients with free treatment facilities. He dedicated the hospital to the memory of his mother, Shaukat Khanum, who died from cancer and after whom the hospital is named. “We are working on a second cancer hospital in Karachi,” he says.
What Khan is doing, through his Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital and Namal College, should actually be the job of the government. But this is a country where the idea of state hand-outs are very much an alien concept.
With the new administration in place – a shaky coalition of parties that appears to be in a constant battle to survive – it seems to be left up to Khan and others like him to run mini welfare-states within Pakistan.
“I think people like us who have been given so much by our country have a responsibility,” he says. “The only way to fight for a change is through politics, there is no other way.”
So how has Khan been rewarded for his efforts? Back in the 90s he was accused of being party to a Jewish conspiracy by his critics for marrying Jemima Goldsmith. In more recent times Musharraf is said to have branded him a terrorist without a beard. And last year Khan was temporarily arrested following the infamous imposition of emergency rule as the country’s judiciary got the sack.
Asked on who he counts among his supporters he is silent for a moment. “The youth, women” he says finally.
Khan is a frequent visitor to the UK, home to his now ex-wife Jemima and their two sons.
And judging from the attendance at the talks he delivers in London, he enjoys considerable support, or at least sympathy, from many British Pakistanis. As one woman last year confided during a demonstration outside Downing Street to protest Musharraf’s emergency rule: “If we do not support Khan he is going to be finished.”
Suggestions that Imran Khan’s popularity is on the rise are, however, untested. He boycotted elections earlier in the year in what some would say was a missed opportunity to prove he does hold electoral clout.
But Khan insisted he would not take part in a vote until the restoration of the country’s judiciary – part of tendency to take a moralistic stance which has been both to his detriment and his unique selling point.
Opponents assert Khan is a impractical man. And perhaps building Oxford University in Pakistan will prove his mettle. On the other hand perhaps it’s just a step too far in a country struggling with growing militancy and the threat from Al Qaeda.
But for his young supporters it is Khan’s professed principles and idealism that remain a draw. “I am an idealist – the rest, it doesn’t matter if we create a utopia.”