THE reaction to the one-member Shoaib Suddle Commission report, which recommended that content on Islamic teachings and history be only carried in Islamic Studies textbooks was not unexpected. The report came at a time when the protests of the now banned Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan was underway and the state could not afford an upsurge in emotions.
The Council of Islamic Ideology and the National Commission on Minorities both denounced the report. However, it was on the directives of the governor of Punjab that the Department of Human Rights and Minorities Affairs withdrew the notification to implement the recommendations of the Supreme Court-appointed commission.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan had formed the one-member commission in 2014 to implement the judgement of the justice Tassaduq Jillani-led bench for the protection of minorities’ rights. According to the judgement, the federal government was required to set up a task force for developing a strategy on religious tolerance, revisiting the curriculum for the promotion of a culture of tolerance, establishing a special quota for minorities in the federal and provincial services, acting against hate speech, and establishing a special force for the protection of places of worship of minorities.
Since then, Dr Suddle has been handling this multidimensional task. In the process of developing the recommendations on curriculum reforms, he consulted all relevant stakeholders from the power corridors, law enforcement, civil society and religious minority groups. Nor are the recommendations new, as one can find in them a reflection of the recommendations of multiple human rights bodies in the country.
The CII and NMC have denounced Dr Suddle’s recommendations on educational content.
The government and state institutions may not pay attention to the recommendations for reasons of a possible backlash from religious groups and their allies in the media. Even previous federal and provincial governments had withdrawn curriculum changes whenever the clergy objected. The curriculum has become an area of influence for the clergy in Pakistan, and governments are often seen to accede to their demands in this.
Unfortunately, because of the state’s negligence, religious extremism has become a regular feature of Pakistan’s educational curricula for the past 40 years. For the state, the core purpose of education is to disseminate vague state ideologies as part of its nation-building project. The intellectual development of the citizens has never been the goal.
The textbooks promote narrow worldviews often at the cost of other faiths. The teaching of religion is not a problem in itself, but the way the majority faith is projected and imposed as the sole religious identity in Pakistan is highly challenging and one of the causes of radicalism that we see in a country that is home to diverse peoples, cultures, languages and belief systems.
The government is chiefly concerning itself with the curriculum of public-sector education; both the madressahs and the private education sector resist if the government tries to touch their curricula. Overall, public-sector education in Pakistan is facing a number of challenges and it has reached a level where diagnosis has become difficult. At one end, the madressah sector is encroaching on public-education spaces and at the other, the private-education sector is eyeing the public sector’s educational infrastructure. Apart from employment concerns for its graduates, the madressahs have ideological motives. Islamic Studies and many other faculties of humanities in the public sector are dominated by madressah graduates. Largely, the private sector is the ultimate beneficiary of the poor quality found in public-education institutions. Now the private sector wants to capture the physical infrastructure of public institutions.
The same motives have been identified as being behind the removal of the chairman of the Higher Education Commission, who was resisting an ill-conceived programme of public-private partnerships, which was a means of facilitating the grabbing of university lands. A powerful education mafia wants the leftovers of public education in the country while proposing lucrative but non-transparent actions to the government.
The madressahs and the private-education sector have a common aim to destroy public education in the country; the former has ideological and economic motives, and the latter eyes wants profits. This is interesting because the government is supporting both the madressah and private sector in the name of reform. Some scholars lament that the state has privatised education. They assert that education is a fundamental right of the citizens, and the state has privatised the people’s fundamental rights. On the other hand, madressahs have also mushroomed, adding to the perception that the state has abandoned its responsibility of providing education to the country’s children. While overall public education remains in tatters, the madressah sector, in contrast, has seen constant expansion over the last two decades. Government estimates put the number of madressahs at 35,000 with only 9,500 (about 27 per cent) of them registered with the madressah educational boards. Exam attendance figures show that some 275,000 students studied in madressahs registered with Tanzeematul Madaaris, and over 175,000 were enrolled in madressahs registered with different Wafaqul Madaaris.
The private sector has eroded and discredited public schools and is now eyeing higher education institutes. The government too is experimenting with public education and has come up with a plan to enforce a unified educational curriculum across the country. Called the Single National Curriculum, the new educational plan is premised on the idea that teaching more religion will produce better citizens, though Pakistan’s experience shows that such a practice has only produced extremism in society. Nevertheless, the plan seeks to inject more religious content into the curricula. Though the SNC is currently being rolled out in phases, there is still no transparency. Based on the details available, some leading academicians believe that under the SNC, the government is planning to impose madressah education on non-madressah students. If this is the case then who will pay attention to Dr Suddle’s recommendations? This will only serve as another reminder about the sorry state of the education system in the country.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2021