By Wahid Haidari

‘Quota system’ fanning ethnic prejudice in Afghanistan

March 6, 2019

TEHRAN - In Afghanistan, the criterion for admission to institutions of higher education is tribe and region, rather than merit and qualification. The bitter reality dawned on students yet again this year.

Recently, Marshal Fahim National Defense University announced results of Kankor (entrance examination) for admission to higher educational institutes. Instead of being a source of joy and celebration for meritorious students, the results came as a rude shock.

The results were widely critiqued by the country’s media and academia and it only revived an old debate: what is the criterion for admission in institutions of higher education in Afghanistan?

Asmatullah Alizada, who belongs to the ‘minority’ Hazara ethnic tribe in central Uruzgan province, amassed 312 marks out of 360, with an impressive percentage. But, much to his disappointment, it still wasn’t enough to get him a place in university.

Another student from the same province, belonging to the ‘majority’ Pashtun ethnic tribe, scored 124 marks out of 360 and he was declared successful by the country’s examination authority.

The glaring discrepancies in the examination system, in which a meritorious student from a minority tribe is snubbed and a student from a majority tribe is given preference, has again put the spotlight on the phenomenon of tribal bias that has been institutionalized in the war-ravaged country.

The latest case of discrimination and favoritism on the basis of tribe and ethnicity has sparked a debate in intelligentsia circles and prompted the country’s civil society activists, academics and students to start a social media campaign in support of students like Alizada.

“Our demand from the government is to look into this issue with utmost seriousness, find the people responsible for it and impeach them,” Khalid Pashtun, a member of Afghan parliament was quoted as saying by Tolo News. “That will set a right precedent and prevent such occurrences in future.”

“We love our country and put forward our best talent to serve. But the response is ignominious and outrageous,” Reza Sarvar, a student at American University of Afghanistan wrote on Twitter. “Please break this ugly cycle of discrimination and obstruction. We want the national wealth, privilege and pains to be equally shared.”

Hazara community, which accounts for up to 20 percent of Afghanistan’s 30 million population, has been persecuted and wronged throughout the country’s history. In recent years, however, the persecution has mostly been in the form of lack of opportunities and blatant discrimination.

Alizada’s case is a sad illustration of that deep-rooted prejudice, discrimination and official apathy.
The case was brought to light on Twitter and within no time it snowballed into a major controversy and a big embarrassment for the Ashraf Ghani-led government.

Many people wrote about it on Twitter and Facebook and unequivocally condemned what they termed ‘blatant discrimination against the Hazara community’.

“No wonder there’s a massive sense of marginalization among Hazaras despite the vaunted ‘progress’ they have made,” tweeted Ahmad Shuja, Fullbright scholar at Georgetown University and a noted Afghan commentator. “The kind of systemic discrimination in a democracy reawakens memories of generations of racist policies that kept Hazaras on the margins.”

Ghani’s national security advisor (NSA) and former spokesman Hamdullah Mohib quickly reacted.

“This kind of discrimination is unacceptable. A full assessment will be conducted to ensure we put an end to any discrimination in ANDSF (Afghan National Defense Security Force) recruitment and appointments. The only acceptable criteria in ANDSF must be merit and patriotism,” he tweeted.

With the controversy refusing to die down, President Ghani invited Alizada to the presidential palace and issued an order for his appointment in the military university. He also promised to review the admission process and introduce necessary reforms.

Civil society activists have accused the Ghani-led government of discrimination and have called for the annulment of ethnicity-based quota system and favoritism in all sectors.  

“Quota system is an apartheid regime feature which builds big walls in academic institutions,” says Mohammad Jawad Borhani, a university teacher. “Only selected people are allowed this side of the wall while everyone else is asked to stay on the other side.”

Ahmad Ghalib, a noted Afghan commentator, says the quota-based system does injustice to hard-working students and is unjustly tilted in favor of those who want everything served on the platter.

“It’s an undeniable fact that students belonging to a particular tribe work hard to excel in education, and if this quota system did not exist, they would take all important positions in various government departments and military forces,” says Ghalib.  

While the case of Alizada has resurrected the debate over ethnic discrimination, this issue has a long history and has prevented hundreds of students from moving forward, believe analysts.

“If the President is honest, he should ask the ministry of defense to disclose the list of applicants in the military academy with their Kankor score,” says Asadullah Saadati, member of Afghanistan parliament, adding that the only criteria for admission should be merit.

A few months ago, the Afghan government approved a quota system for Kankor examination. According to it, 75 percent seats are allotted based on province’s population and 25 percent seats are reserved for some special provinces.

In this ‘flawed’ system, talented students fail to make the cut as the quota allotted to their province more often happens to be insufficient.  

This quote-based system has been widely denounced by civil society, students and even political outfits.

“This quota-based system is against Article 22 of the Afghanistan constitution, as it affects the quality of education and discredits Afghanistan’s academic and educational centers in international circles,” Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan said in a statement recently.    

Article 22 of the Afghan constitution says: “Any kind of discrimination between the citizens of Afghanistan shall be prevented. The citizens of Afghanistan, man and women, have equal rights and duties before the law”.

Article 43 adds that the education is the “right of all citizens of Afghanistan, which shall be offered up to the B.A. level in the state educational institutes for free of charge by the state.”

This quota-based system applies to admission in educational institutes, military academies, governmental offices and other departments, with tribe and province as important criteria for selection.

“In our country, after the fall of Taliban regime and during the Karzai government, everyone sought power on the basis of their tribe and ethnicity, while merit, qualification and experience took the backseat,” says Ahmad Saeedi, university teacher and political analyst.

“In Afghanistan, until the power distribution is based on tribe, language and religion, until the Pashtun people maintain unchallenged monopoly on everything, this specter of discrimination will continue to loom over us,” he adds.  

Etilaat-e-Roz, a vernacular newspaper published from Kabul, recently carried an investigative report on the institutionalization of ethnic bias in governmental offices.

According to the report, the majority ethnic tribe (Pashtun) has disproportionately high percentage of positions in government offices while other tribes are kept on the fringes.

For example in the office of president’s chief of staff, Pashtun constitute 53%, Tajik 44%, Hazara 3%, Bayat 2% and other ethnic people like Uzbek, Turkman, Baloche, Pashaee, Qizilbash, Aimaq, Noristani, Hindu, Gajar, Pamiri, Tatar and Arab have absolutely no presence.

Activists believe this quote-based system is the first step in dividing a nation and its geography.

“If things continue like this, we will go beyond the definition of a nation and a country, and it will bring a sense of pessimism, superiority and weakness among the ethnic groups of the country,” says Ghalib.

“Here, the definitions of national value become obscure, giving rise to a sense of alienation among some ethnicities,” he further adds.

Writer is an Afghan journalist and researcher.

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