National College of Arts (NCA) is one of the oldest institutions in Pakistan, which is credited with quality education in the fields of arts, design and architecture as well as acknowledged for leading the creative production of modern arts in the country. Some of Pakistan’s top most architects, designers, artists, film makers and performing artists attribute their worldly success to their education at the NCA. For many, the word NCA has become synonymous with creativity, innovation and freedom.

Despite its federal status, NCA remained grounded in Punjab with its two campuses in Lahore and Rawalpindi. With the devolution of the legislative subjects of education as well as culture to the provinces in 2010, NCA as an educational and cultural institution was likely to be devolved to the Punjab province, on both accounts. However, the devolution of NCA was averted largely due its elevated status in public imagination as a symbol of federation. NCA was retained with the federation and placed under the Cabinet Division, with Prime Minister of Pakistan, as the controlling authority.

From its inception in 1875 as the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore, till 1972, NCA was part of the education department of the Punjab government. The NCA’s journey with federation started with the government of Pakistan’s People’s Party (PPP) in the 70s. President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto understood the role of the institutions of art and culture in the emergence of a strong federation. With the passing of Constitution of Pakistan in 1973, the administrative control of NCA was transferred from the department of education, Punjab to the Federal Ministry of Education. A legal framework for establishing a federal democratic ethos of the NCA as the Centre of Excellence was cultivated by reserving seats for eligible students from all provinces of the country as well as ensuring employment of arts teachers from all the federating units and Azad Jammu Kashmir and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

A multi-cultural ethos was nurtured through a representative body of the Board of Governors (BoG), with equal representations from all stake holders, including students, teachers, academia and civil society. The opportunities for equal participation in the governance of the college generated a sense of collective ownership and creative independence, among the NCA teachers, students and alumni, turning the institution into an island of intellectual freedom. It was the democratic ethos of governance, which made it possible for NCA to resist the anti-art policies of the draconian regimes of General Zia. Among other things, NCA continued to teach painting and sculpture, when it had been nearly abandoned, by all other institutions, out of fear of backlash from the government.

In the lure of autonomy for the college and upgradation of its diploma certificate into a degree, NCA was yoked under the bureaucratic regime through a revised piece of legislation in the form of NCA Ordinance passed in 1985 by then President Ziaul Haq 

The free spirit of the community of artists and intellectuals of NCA had to be tamed by the Zia regime. In the lure of autonomy of the college and up-gradation of diploma certificate into a degree, hitherto given by the college, NCA was yoked under the bureaucratic regime, through a revised piece of legislation in the form of NCA Ordinance, passed by President Ziaul Haq in 1985. To curb the democratic ethos of NCA, the constitution of the BoG was revised to exclude representations of academia, civil society, as well as students, and teachers of the college. The democratic bodies of the college such as Student Guild and Teaching Staff Association were banned. In the new arrangement, the numbers of ex-officio members on the board were increased and the numbers of nominated members on the board were restricted to a class of relevant professionals, with the exception of a women representative. Moreover, the ex-officio members would continue to be on the Board by virtue of their office, the nominated members would have tenure of two years. Most of the ex-officio members belong to the federal bureaucracy, and also include representatives of judiciary, universities and industry.

The institutional implications of the NCA Ordinance of 1985 for the governance of NCA have never been mapped nor has its impact on the quality of art education been gauged by art historians and scholars. However, the loosening of internal checks and balance by the representatives of students and teachers and gradual tightening of control by the federal bureaucracy has led to erosion of democratic ethos of the NCA.

Earlier this year, National Assembly’s Standing Committee on the Cabinet affairs, led by MNA Rana Mohammad Qasim Noon and Asad Umer, made recommendation for the expansion of NCA into the provinces, by opening up campuses in Peshawar, Quetta, Karachi and Islamabad. If this move by the federal legislatures to make NCA a truly federal institution, can survive the storm in the parliament, then the revision of the presidential ordinance with a democratic piece of legislation may be the first step towards democratising NCA. It is time for the legislature to remove the shackles of dictatorships imposed by a dictatorial regime over NCA. This is the only way to reinvigorate the losing spirits of creativity, innovation and freedom that gave NCA’s its charisma.