The time for introspection is here. For Pakistan, it never went away. But in Salmaan Taseer’s murder, it is time again to look at the kind of society we live in.
Time perhaps to recall the painful political history of the country and the lessons we did not learn. A time to review the problematic textbooks and how we induced hatred among our own children and let them become "Zia’s spiritual children." A shuddering thought but these indeed are times when a person who violated the law and took another person’s life has been showered with rose petals and kisses by those who are supposed to uphold the supremacy of the law.
And it was about time for the churches all over Pakistan to hold memorial services for the man who laid down his life for the minorities in this country and a better Pakistan. A grim but true reminder of how the minorities in this country must be feeling.
Hazy times when the long-held beliefs and truths have been reversed. Till about a week ago, it was said with certainty that those who called the shots on the basis of their street power did not constitute the majority in this country. Today, it seems, these very people dominate the national discourse. One almost wants to believe any voice that contradicts these prophesies and suggests that this is a land of sane people.
These are times then for some self-criticism within the media which ironically remains the only institution that is "keeping the debate alive."
And finally the state and one hesitates to use the word "failed" as a prefix; a state that refuses to haul up those who incite murder and those who celebrate the murderer. Today’s Special Report is a reflection on the sad times along with a hope that these shall pass.
Times we live in
In order to make sense of the atmosphere of fear, it is important to distance oneself from essentialist readings of Muslim culture as being inherently intolerant
By Ammar Ali Jan
It is difficult to point out what is more painful to witness; the brutal murder of a Governor of the largest province of the country because he had dared to express dissent on a controversial law or the public celebration of this violent act by extremist forces, with complete impunity from the state. What is particularly shocking, however, is the muted response of secular political parties in the country in the wake of this assassination. Despite enjoying complete electoral hegemony over religious forces in Pakistan, mainstream parties are finding it increasingly difficult to speak out against discriminatory practices in our society, owing to the growing domination of religious forces in setting the contours of our cultural discourse.
In order to make sense of the atmosphere of fear Pakistanis live in today, it is important to distance oneself from essentialist readings of Muslim culture as being inherently intolerant. Instead, a deeper reading of history will reveal how "Muslimness" has remained a contested concept throughout our history, and it is only through particular historical circumstances religious forces have gained hegemony in the cultural domain.
It should be noted that the first major riots for the ‘sanctity’ of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in Pakistan occurred in 1953 in which protestors demanded the declaration of the Ahmadiyya sect as non-Muslim. This led to a high level government inquiry on the merits of the demand, headed by Supreme Court judge Justice Muhammad Munir, which conducted in-depth interviews with a wide range of Muslim scholars on the precise definition of a Muslim and that of an ‘Islamic’ state. In a paternalistic manner, the report concluded that the religious scholars had absolutely no definition of a Muslim, and mockingly suggested that each Muslim sect can be declared outside the ambit of Islam according to the varying definitions gathered by the commission.
The report further recommended that the state should not indulge in defining the boundaries of religion and should limit itself to the tasks of secular, worldly issues, leaving religious matters to private individuals while simultaneously guaranteeing freedom of religion to all citizens.
Surely, we cannot conceive of such a report in the current environment gripping Pakistan, where advocating mere amendments to a strict blasphemy law can cost one his/her life.
Pakistani culture and ideology was a contested site in the 1950s. Sure, Islam was consistently utilised by sections of the state to justify their existence, but there were also alternative narratives that challenged the state; the Progressive Writers Movement was a dominant literary and cultural force that challenged the elite structures in the country; ethnic nationalism, particularly strong in Bengal, resisted the homogenising narrative of the state; and the presence of liberals within the ruling party (Muslim League), the bureaucracy and the army, periodically provided support to liberal forces in the country.
During this entire period, the only movements that were able to galvanise the masses were led by secular forces such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP or Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman’s Awami League. After the debacle in 1971, however, the balance of forces shifted decisively. Having lost its eastern wing, where fellow Bengali ‘Muslims’ accepted help from ‘Hindu’ India to win their freedom, the state faced its most acute crisis of authority as the entire premise of the ‘two-nation theory’ stood challenged.
Instead of opening up debate on the reasons for the humiliation in Bengal, the state resorted to constructing a reified identity of Pakistanis as ‘Muslims.’ This naturally meant that all differences on the basis of ethnicity, gender, class etc had to collapse into a unified category of ‘Islam.’ By marginalising all alternative histories, the state wanted to carve out a singular identity for its citizens.
This task was carried out simultaneously through the ideological and coercive apparatus of the state. The education system, the media and an ‘Islamic constitution’ were all aimed at serving the need for perpetuating the ideology of the state. Those who continued to use alternative narratives to demand rights, such as nationalists in the National Awami Party, were conveniently labelled traitors and crushed with brutal military operations.
That Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, one of our most enlightened and popular figures in contemporary South Asia, would emerge as the central figure in this drive to construct this perverse national identity is one of the most disappointing chapters in our history. Apart from being wedded with the statist discourse on nationalism, the incorporation of Islam within the state apparatus served another important function for Bhutto; by accepting the demands of the religious right on the cultural front (such as declaring Ahmadis non-Muslim, banning drinking, gambling etc), Bhutto wanted to dilute their politics and hence mitigate any threat to his electoral supremacy.
With hindsight, we can now claim that this flirtation with the religious right not only failed to prevent the overthrow of Bhutto’s government, but also led to a normalisation of the discourse around Islam by completely ceding the cultural front to extremist forces.
Much has been written about General Zia’s Islamisation and I do not feel the need to go into further detail. However, I would like to point out that the ‘Islamisation’ of our curriculum and the legal system that began during Bhutto’s era was intensified and consolidated during Zia’s time.
Hence, the consolidation of a particular kind of religiosity was not established through a mass movement. Instead, it was acquired through the penetration of important levers of power by the clergy that increased its influence in setting the agenda on cultural discourse. Successive civilian governments have accepted the status quo by not venturing into the legal and cultural territory claimed by the mullahs. One can also argue that that civilian governments have often been content with not questioning the power of the military in matters of ‘national security,’ or the diktats of international financial institutions in formulating an economic policy, leaving for itself the meager task of distributing the remaining resources amongst its clients.
While political parties are ready to cede ground to these forces, the same cannot be said about the religious right that, which despite enjoying a hegemony in the cultural sphere, often attempts to dislodge popular political parties from power. Whether creating conditions for military coups and later joining military regimes, or violently targeting its opponents or making a direct attempt at grabbing state power (like the Taliban in Swat), the policy of appeasement has created the conditions of possibility in which the religious right can significantly enhance its role in power politics.
With a complete hold on the education system, a deep penetration into the media networks and the armed forces, an ability to mobilise its supporters at critical junctures, and backed by thousands of armed supporters ready to murder opponents with impunity, the religious right has gained an ascendency it had never enjoyed in our history.
The most difficult part of any problem is to formulate a prescription for it. The first and foremost issue that requires clarity is that a power-sharing equation in which liberal forces give up their agenda on social issues, is simply not a sustainable one. A shameful silence on the part of our mainstream parties on Salmaan Taseer’s murder or on the blasphemy laws reflects the amount of liberal capitulation to the right that has occurred over the past 40 years. It has already given over a large segment of our youth into the hands of conservative forces and it is time that progressive forces challenged the monopoly of religious right in the fields of education, media, legal issues etc.
Second, we must accept the bitter truth that this battle will not be won just through the intervention of civil society. Neither do they have sufficient numbers to present a coherent challenge, and to be fair, nor is it their job to build popular movements. This is not just a debate on rationality; instead it’s a political battle that can only be won through a combination of rational arguments backed by political strength. For this purpose, it is essential for the political forces to turn their massive electoral strength into concrete political strength when facing the challenge of extremism.
Last, there is no way we can find a durable solution to this ideology of hate until and unless we start to question the premise of our statist project. The attempts at converting Pakistanis into homogenous, Muslim subjects has led to the marginalisation of all those groups who have rejected the universalising narrative of the state, while simultaneously placing the mullahs and the military in a position of strength and hence, curtailing the space for democratic politics. With the interests of our political class embedded with the perpetuation of state power, it is difficult to foresee any significant rupture from the ideological foundation of the state. Unfortunately, without recognising and challenging such structural constraints by a national security state, it is difficult to imagine a long-term solution to a crisis that now threatens the very foundations of our socio-political culture.
Arguments have died without even being made or heard and all lawyers should lament that
By Waqqas Mir
Symbolism definitely has its place in life. The images of lawyers showering petals on Mumtaz Qadri, a product of the bigotry and ignorance we have cultivated, have legitimately troubled all thinking minds. Something about those images and their intensity makes one queasy. Yes, there is no harm in holding a particular point of view and even celebrating it but never before has such a vast cross-section of our society condoned, if not lauded, a murder of a leading politician.
Bigotry and brilliance have a depressingly common characteristic -- both can achieve heights defying expectations. The first day that Qadri appeared in court, a significant number of lawyers from Rawalpindi helped lay down what constitutes ‘the unthinkable’: an amendment to the law on blasphemy as it stands today.
Just like any other member of society, lawyers are a part of something greater than themselves. At the same time, lawyers’ role in society holds added importance because what we do reflects and sometimes helps shape the law of the land through arguments. This links in with the most troubling aspect of the reaction of a large section of the legal community to the talk of amending the law on blasphemy; the refusal to even hear an argument. We as a community are betraying our own trade. It is not as if there is a lot that the lawyers in Pakistan can be particularly proud of, either in terms of the system we contribute to or the ethics we defy. But one would have hoped that men and women who argue for a living would at least have the intestinal fortitude to at least discuss something, to go beyond what the bigoted corner mosque mullah is doing. Sadly, that is not to be.
There are many who are shocked at the reaction of the lawyers and that shock is understandable. At the same time, let us not be ignorant of the fact that signs of this hardened and uncompromising mind-set among a vast section of society have long been there and the lawyers do not operate in a vacuum. Do not forget the days when Facebook was banned and lawyers distributed flyers announcing that anyone using Facebook would be liable to be declared an infidel and hence not worthy of life.
If you ever come to the various Bar rooms at the Lahore High Court, it is not uncommon for you to be handed a pamphlet urging you to take up arms and save Islam. The names printed at the bottom of the pages are often those of banned organisations but they find sympathisers in the bar rooms. You can legitimately find it odd that those who work in a profession that believes in everyone’s right to make an argument in their defence are now in the forefront of strangling debate but surely you cannot ignore the fact that they too are the product of the same society.
The most troubling thing about being a lawyer in this country is that there are so many un-thinkables. There is so much that needs to be said in this country but it is said in hushed voices, whether in bar rooms or on the street. The public space available for discourse has been ceded to those who have the loudest voice. It does not matter whether they are in black coats or black turbans, they will pronounce a judgment about your faith, your status and the requisite punishment.
Freedom survives at some level but it survives through whispers. A protest here or a vigil there will not solve anything. Today, you in your right mind cannot imagine a protest in the High Court’s courtyard calling for an amendment to the law on blasphemy without expecting a violent clash. I still do not know whether it is more fear or hypocrisy that is making lawyers look away from all the tales of the abuse of this law. In private conversations, many will acknowledge the need for a debate. In a crowd the same people could hurl stones at you for raising a voice.
There is an intense poverty of criticism of the laws of Pakistan as they stand today. Lawyers, based on their experiences and skill-set, are often well placed to raise these causes and lead the way. However, the Bar Councils hardly ever bring people together to debate the merits or demerits of a law. And, since neither the system of legal education nor the legal profession itself in this country encourage intellectual rigour, it all becomes a part of the status-quo, the environment ensuring your survival, your source of real and perceived power. There are clear exceptions and many among Pakistan’s lawyers are breathtakingly brilliant but the survival of the ideas that they stand for is threatened. The Lawyers’ Movement was a popular cause, those who led it knew that they had the measure of the pulse of the general public and moved full throttle.
The law on blasphemy is the tailor-made nightmare cause that you can expect to be confronted with. All of us and not just the lawyers need to raise their voices and do so assertively. Vigils will honour the memory of the honourable dead but they will not build a better Pakistan for our children, but making an argument might. It could be more courageous than the one we live in. There is no doubt that a large section of the lawyers, disappointingly, have declined to take a stand for an amendment to the law or against Mr. Taseer’s murder. This just brings to light how deep the menace of militant conservatism, which breeds cowardice in individuals but not mobs, has penetrated into our society. Arguments have died without even being made or heard and all lawyers should lament that.
"Rightists don’t hold any solid ground"
--Dr Rasul Bukhsh Rais, eminent
By Ather Naqvi
The News on Sunday: You have maintained, in one of your columns, that Salmaan Taseer’s murder does not signify the rise of the religious right as some analysts are projecting? Don’t you think that even if it’s not the majority it’s a formidable and potent force?
Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais: The religious right has become noisy over the years, it has become more violent but it should not be seen as representative of Pakistani society at large. There is a tendency that whenever a high-profile terror incident takes place, such as suicide bombing or a bomb blast, the immediate reaction of some analysts and observers of the political scene is that it is perhaps a reflection of the Pakistani society and that people have become intolerant and extremist. But I don’t think people like Mumtaz Qadri and many others who issue fatwas, represent the Pakistani society. Since it is the age of free media, as we are told, such individuals have acquired greater visibility now than they did a few decades ago. So, in my view, the rightists do not hold any solid ground among the Pakistani society.
TNS: How do you look at the twin aspects of ‘street power’ and ‘electoral strength’ of both the religious forces and the secular political parties? Why is the strength of one the weakness of the other?
RBR: Both the religious parties and the religious forces have numbers with them in the street. They consider street power their strength. But to me, violence or coercion is not the symbol of strength. In a democratic society, or even in a non-democratic society, political strength is measured by popular support and vote and not by acts of violence. To me, it is a sign of weakness on the part of some religious groups that they carry out acts of violence. In Punjab, for instance, religious forces now have their support in urban Punjab where surplus money for various charities has gone into extending support to madrassa network. True. But still, I don’t think that in the coming years the religious right will be able to gather considerable political power to transform their street power into a legitimate democratic struggle.
TNS: Would you agree that the political agenda is set by those wielding street power and that it is irrelevant for them to come in the assemblies?
RBR: I think, yes. But I interpret it in a different way. Since the religious right is not able to make it to the national and provincial assemblies in a big number, what they do is act as pressure group and try to influence policy-making as we have seen in the case of recent blasphemy incident. Don’t forget to add to it religious elements within the media, among the middle class, and in urban areas that toe the line set by religious parties over issues about Islam and politics and Islam and society. So, in my view, religious forces, not just in Pakistani society but at other places around the world, have been able to pose a threat to the institutional set up of a democratic government. Also, in our context, if a political set-up continues to perform poorly in governance issues, religious forces would have space to be vocal and violent.
TNS: Some analysts have said that the liberals will need to co-opt the right in order to get the laws changed in their favour? How realistic does that sound to you and what could be the strategy?
RBR: Well, I call those from the religious right who have been part of the political system as ‘institutionalists’. The JI and the JUI, for instance, are institutionalists in that they joined the political system in different governments. They have been in coalition with national and provincial governments. We also had the MMA etc, but their presence has been minimal in terms of their numbers in the assemblies and their agenda hardly ever made it to the centrestage of decision-making through political means.
TNS: Some people have also seen in this murder a class aspect apart from a religious-versus-liberal angle. What are the fault-lines along which the society is divided?
RBR: Well, yes, if the disaffection of the people from the government continues to grow and the gulf between the rich and the poor continues to widen at the speed that it is going, the religious right will certainly find more space to fill in the society.
The few left
Minorities feel further sidelined by the recent events in Pakistan
By Waqar Gillani
Lahore Cathedral was packed last Sunday. There were not only Christians but members of the civil society present, despite the foggy morning to ‘warm up’ against rising extremism in a Muslim Pakistan.
A number of catholic Christians were also active in the old, red-brick hall of the main protestant church of Lahore. Salmaan Taseer, a liberal man, was assassinated by his official security on calling to review the blasphemy laws under which a Christian woman was sentenced to death.
The main churches held special prayers for Taseer last Sunday to pay tribute to Taseer’s advocacy for minority rights and opposing the death penalty to the blasphemy accused Aasia Bibi.
The atmosphere was gloomy even as the church was lit with candles and adorned with flowers. In the centre a picture of Taseer was placed, showering it with flowers and calling him a "martyr for Jinnah’s Pakistan".
"We condemn the assassination of governor Taseer who fought for the rights of minorities in Pakistan," says Bishop John Alexander Malik, adding, "It seems that raising voices against extremism is getting harder."
"Religion in our country has always been a sensitive issue but after the brutal killing of Salmaan Taseer, we as a minority group feel that the less we talk, the better it is," says Amna Ayaz, a teacher by profession.
She believes that with the recent level of intolerance in our society, it is difficult to decide whether to speak ‘less’ is safer or to simply keep mum.
"In college I try to avoid a discussion on the subject but it is difficult to avoid it especially if you are a student of mass media" says Imran Azeem, a student from a public university.
In a heated argument just days after the governor’s murder, Imranhad to face a lot of criticism. "I was defending Taseer’s act of going to Aasia Bibi but my class fellows started hostility over 295-C and its ‘fruits’. Here, we take everything very personally and don’t want to listen to the other person’s point of view. This is actually saddening because the space for minorities like us is shrinking.
"Even the professor sided with them and just shunned my outlook. I think that’s a little unfair to youngsters like me. We will eventually leave this land and go where we will have the liberty to speak, at least. "
Similarly, Sana Tanveer, an entrepreneur, speaks up: "When I saw the people justifying Governor Punjab’s murder and siding with the killer, I just couldn’t comprehend why in these times and age, we have this cave-mentality. One of my colleagues asked me rather teasingly, if Taseer was following an American agenda. I just asked him if Aasia is an American? Are all those being victimised or slaughtered in the name of blasphemy Americans?"
Of course the ‘gentleman’ had an answer for it but this is the so-called educated/professional class. "We as Christians are not considered Pakistanis but Americans and the same lynching and mob mentality was seen in Shantinagar, later in Gojra and now we want to silence all minority rights activists like Taseer."
"Taseer’s courage shows his love and concern for minorities," Father John Bishop tells TNS, "He raised a voice for the oppressed classes and his name will be written in golden words." John feels that the divide between the extremists and moderate circles of Pakistan is deepening and minorities and the oppressed classes will be feeling more insecure now, as the state fails to end this phenomenon.
Ayesha Kamran, a female member of the provincial assembly who belongs to a minority, says the killing of a brave person like Taseer shows that to raise voices for the minority and human rights is difficult in Pakistan, especially in a situation when the country is gripped by extremism and religious fanaticism." She says that Taseer was a true representative of Jinnah’s Pakistan and we will continue his mission.
Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, in his August 11, 1947 speech to the first constituent assembly of the country set the agenda for Pakistan, urging for full freedom and respect of all communities’ rights in the state.
"We will not bow down and let the extremists succeed in spreading their agenda in Pakistan," Shahbaz Bhatti, Federal Minister for Minorities tells TNS, adding, "unscrupulous elements want to dismantle peace and harmony in Pakistan." Bhatti asks liberal and progressive forces to come forward and join hands to eradicate all those forces that want to harm peace and stability.
Names of the interviewees have been changed to protect their identity. The writer can be contacted at email@example.com
Even after the introspection and self-criticism, there will still be all kinds of media content
By Farah Zia
The media is under fire again. It is being said that the media played up Salmaan Taseer’s views on the need for improvement in blasphemy laws leading thereby to his murder (the view may have gained strength after the views of some anchorpersons were aired hours into this murder).
But media it was that picked and highlighted the news of Aasia Bibi’s death sentence in the first place. And is perhaps the only institution that has been trying, before and after January 4, to push the boundaries -- to create a debate around blasphemy laws and keep it alive. There is the usual diversity and the unusual fluidity; the vernacular and the English language media stand apart on this issue again but, at the same time, there are liberal views being heard in the vernacular and vice versa.
That’s how the media works. The revolutionary expectations after the advent of private television channels were somewhat misplaced; free media could not have subscribed to one worldview. Today, the educated find it crass, the liberals find it right-aligned, the right-wingers think it too modern and so on. But judging by the growing number of channels and the revenue that makes each one of them viable, perhaps it has struck a chord with the masses.
And that brings us to the eternal question -- whether mass media is a social enterprise or a marketing enterprise. Some have concluded the latter as true to justify all its acts. The media-people sell what the people want to buy, or at least they ought to. The bestselling books and films and all commercial theatre survive on this principle.
Though the media’s case is a little different, I would say. It presupposes a public good element which the best-selling art forms don’t. A set of people decides what constitutes news; whether that news is going to interest the people or benefit them rests on something called their editorial judgement. The sensational aspect is a necessary corollary of all news (I’m sure no one wants to hear the man bites dog example anymore). As a matter of fact how to keep this aspect -- sensationalism for the heck of it -- in check is what constitutes editorial judgement, in my view.
Suffice it to say that not all is well with the media.
Some might say that the problem lies in the medium. Tv relies more on opinion than analysis because the experts are few; even those few are inarticulate or academically inclined. But tv, they say, needs interesting soundbites which come from politicians and more so the arguing or fighting ones.
Now that is not a correct assessment of the medium. On television the format of the programme determines the content; a studio talk show must get ‘interesting’ soundbites because there is no visual relief, the camera isn’t moving nor does the scene change. The talk show ends up as a chat show, with no authentic views on the subject aired or received.
Tv may have picked up this catchy soundbite tradition from the print medium which too is headline and statement-oriented. For an ordinary reader, the headline is like a soundbite, an over-simplified message. Nuance, hah!
But not all is bad with the media either.
Sufi Mohammad was not a product of the mainstream media. When he or his spokespersons were brought on television to express their views, it was considered a disproportionate coverage to an unelected man. Truth is that he may not have been in the assembly but he was doing politics by all means. His views on democracy followed by the media’s decision of repeatedly showing the public lashing of a woman in Swat turned the public opinion against him.
Generally speaking, the problem with the medium and the message persists. The dumbing down of issues and ideas is the trend. There is investment on the marketing, production and technical sides but none for critical thinking in editorial content. The over-emphasis on religious programming is turning the people more sectarian, inward-looking and less tolerant of other religions. And, talk shows feature predominantly at the expense of documentaries and news packages. There is, we hear, a lot of discretion in what not to show but that must be extended to what not to say.
My sense is that even after all introspection and self-criticism has taken place, there will still be all kinds of media content. Such is the nature of the beast. What is perhaps being asked is that there ought to be some good quality media content for those who yearn for it. Is that asking for too much?
"These are Zia’s spiritual children"
-- A. H. Nayyar, academic and peace activist
By Farah Zia
TNS: The response to the Salman Taseer murder is a grim reminder of what people like you warned time and again. Some people now are saying that in today’s Pakistan, a literate person is more dangerous than an illiterate person? What and how much is the contribution of wrong education in creating this mindset?
A.H.Nayyar: Back in 1984, when Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy and I were examining the history textbooks of Pakistan for our chapter in Air Marshal Asghar Khan’s book Islam, Politics and the State, it was possible for us to see the impact of the changes in curriculum being brought about by Ziaul Haq on the young minds. We had noted, "A new concept of education now prevails, the full impact of which will probably be felt by the turn of the century, when the present generation of school children attains maturity." I think what we see now is precisely Zia’s legacy. These are Zia’s spiritual children who practice, advocate and approve religious vigilantism. Numerous studies have shown that the public education system in its present form is as much responsible, if not more, as the Madrassas for the raging militancy in the country.
Pakistani education system faces a challenge of textbooks and learning material for students that are (1) attractive to students, (2) pedagogically sound, (3) free of errors, (4) and, more attuned to enhancing learning abilities of students than impacting them ideologically.
TNS: Did the curriculum wing of the ministry of education make any changes in the text books after your last report "The Subtle Subversion" in 2002?
A.H.N: As a result of the intense debate on the curriculum and textbooks in 2004, the Federal Ministry of Education set up special task forces to (1) devise new school curricula, (2) draft a new national education policy, and (3) draft a textbooks policy. The school curricula were revised for all the subjects and made public in 2006. A National Textbooks and Learning Materials Policy was drafted and adopted in 2007, and passing through several processes, the new National Education Policy was put in place in 2009.
The new curricular guidelines clearly corrected the wrong the old ideology-driven curriculum had in it. The new guidelines were professionally designed, focusing more on the competencies to be generated in young students than on making a narrow-minded, uncritical and bigoted believer out of them.
The new textbooks policy envisaged a system allowing multiple school textbooks produced by private publishers, and turned provincial textbook boards from being the sole publisher and printer of textbooks into more of a regulatory body.
The new National Educational Policy, however, remained, like its predecessors, a collection of pious rhetorics, tall promises and misguided priorities, a document that no one believes in, and no one will open for the rest of its life.
The above changes all came during the dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf. It is amazing how little attention education receives during the few democratic spells during the last two decades. After initial mishandling by the Minister for Education Zubaida Jalal, the new minister Gen. Javed Qazi took all the above initiatives.
It is astonishing, however, that in spite of a near dictatorial effort on the part of the General to change curricula and textbooks, the new curricula have not been implemented yet. No textbooks, save for class I, have been prepared and approved for use in classrooms. Even after 6 years of formulation of new curricular guidelines, the same old textbooks that were judged to be problematic, are still being used in classrooms. The democratic government of PPP seems absolutely unconcerned about the adverse impact of those textbooks. Teaching of hate, distortion of history, violation of the constitutional rights of religious minorities, glorification of the military, etc, all continue the way they were before the curricular reforms.
In addition, the forces that want education to serve ideological purposes continued to tinker with the new work. I will cite two examples here. One, a new chapter on Islamic education was inserted in the National Education Policy 2009 in the later stages of its formulation without any regard for consistency of the whole document. The second example is that of the Urdu curriculum. Unlike curricular guidelines of any other course, the Urdu course contains ‘suggestions’ on the titles of chapters of Urdu textbooks. Interestingly, if these suggestions are followed, the Urdu textbooks will look exactly like those that they are supposed to replace. I am told by the formulators of curricular guidelines that these suggestions were not a part of the initial draft. Although these are only suggested chapter titles, but it is clear that when Urdu textbooks go for vetting by the Curriculum Wing, they will be judged on the basis of this suggestion.
It is clear that education is an ideological battlefield in most societies, but it is more so in Pakistan where some have no hesitation in trying to eke political benefits out of it.
TNS: Till the dream of a "progressive, moderate and democratic Pakistan" is realised, do you think the elected governments have the mandate or authority to bring in the desired changes in the curriculum? Or is it as difficult as changing the blasphemy law? Will the deep state allow this?
A.H.N: I have no reason to doubt that the elected governments have the mandate and authority to bring in changed to the public education system for the better. They also have resources to do so. What they have lacked, however, is the vision and the will to embark on such a project. Unfortunately they do not accord the priority that the national educational system demands from the state. Their political expediencies make them compromise over any principles they may have on the matter. Take the case of new textbooks according to the revised curricula. A visionary politician would have taken it as an urgent task to bring out new textbooks as quickly as possible. After all, any further exposure of impressionable minds to obscurantist ideas should have been seen as politically unacceptable. New curricular guidelines were ready. The new Textbooks and Learning Material Policy would have required private publishers to prepare new textbooks. What was required of the civilian government was to set in motion the process of vetting the textbooks submitted by private publishers. This was not done. Instead, a very long gradual process of introducing new textbooks was adopted, which meant that until those textbooks came, the students would continue to be exposed to Zia-era textbooks. This was a callous attitude towards public education.
TNS: What about the mindset of the teacher and his role in the classroom even if the curriculum is changed. How do you propose to change that?
A.H.N: The mindset of teachers and the role of teachers in moulding young minds in classrooms is a difficult challenge. Teachers, especially the politically motivated ones, have a direct impact on their students’ thinking and actions. Of the million or so school teachers in the country, most come from deprived classes, have themselves received education of the kind that was shaped in Ziaul Haq times, enjoy a lowly social status, and have a loose governmental control with no promise of a career growth. We can make textbooks as good as we like, but the final shape in which the learning material reaches students will be through teachers.
Teachers receive their sensibilities not just from their training, which in itself is, more often than not, very defective. Their sensibilities are also formed by factors like print and electronic media. No amount of reform in education can mitigate the effect of media on the general public. If the media glorifies militancy, general public will become tolerant and supportive of militancy. Mosque is another institution that influences public mind through sermons.
TNS: How to reform the faculty. Do we need teacher trainings on content apart from methodology?
AHN: Raising the quality of school teachers is now recognized as central to enhancing the quality of education in general. It was shown by a study that Pakistani public education is short of teachers by 30 - 50%. In addition, those in service are poorly educated and poorly trained. To meet the required number, the urge would be to employ any educated person as teacher. But that would be a wrong step. No one without at least two minimum qualities should be allowed to teach in schools: a sound subject knowledge, and a good training in pedagogical skills. Public school teachers have generally had pre-service teacher education and several sessions of in-service training. But the fact is that most of them remain poorly trained. There is a need to extensively strengthen continuing training programs for in-service teachers. In fact innovative methods, especially those that use advanced technology, are needed to meet the training requirement. The pre-service training programs also need to be strengthened.
TNS: You’ve pointed out in the report that along with Islamisation of education in Pakistan, there was communalisation of education going on in India. What are the trends there now? And does it impact the policy here?
A.H.N: Indian did experience a period of communalization of education during the BJP regime. Even now, the states under direct BJP rule enforce communalized education. But under the Congress government at the central level, things have changed in a remarkable manner. It is important to take cognizance of it and learn lessons from it. The Indian National Council of Educational Research and Training redesigned the entire curriculum and produced model textbooks that are admired by all. It is quite unfortunate that such a thing did not happen in Pakistan. NCERT curricula and textbooks are available online for anyone to benefit from.
TNS: What about the state of private English medium institutions? Are they conscious of distorted textbooks because we see retrogressive streaks among them as well?
Students of private English medium institutions preparing students for foreign examinations are certainly fortunate to have very attractive and pedagogically sound textbooks prescribed for their studies. However, when it comes to studying about Pakistan, these students are forced to follow a curriculum and textbooks that are as bad as the ones used in public schools.
TNS: Can you state for our readers again what is wrong with our textbooks and what needs to be corrected?
A.H.N:. As our report The Subtle Subversion had shown in 2003, the textbooks being used in Pakistani public schools were grossly harmful to young minds. Instead of providing a useful citizenship education to school children, they contained (1) insensitive to the religious diversity of the nation, (2) incitement for militancy and violence, including encouragement for Jehad and Shahdat, (3) inaccuracies of facts and omissions to substantially distort the nature and significance of actual events in our history, (4) perspectives that encouraged prejudice, bigotry and discrimination towards fellow citizens, especially women and religious minorities, and towards other nations, (5) glorification of wars and use of force, and last but not the least (5) omissions of concepts, events and material that could encourage critical self-awareness among students.
It is tragic that in spite of pointing out these deficiencies several years ago, the textbooks being used in public school contain more or less the same material, and cause nearly the same harm to young minds by propagating the same harmful ideas and attitudes.
The interview was conducted via email