By Zubeida Mustafa
The religious parties in Pakistan are at loggerheads with the government on yet another issue: the so-called “exclusion” of some Quranic verses from the biology textbook for Intermediate classes. What has annoyed the MMA?
It all began three weeks ago when in reply to a question in the National Assembly, the federal education minister explained that the inclusion of Quranic verses is not a requirement of the curriculum.
While replying to a supplementary, the parliamentary secretary further provoked the self-appointed guardians of our morals, when he attempted to reinforce the minister’s argument by questioning the relevance of the excluded verses to biology.
This created quite a rumpus in the House and the opposition staged a walk-out. It was later persuaded to return to the chamber to hear the information minister dutifully tender an apology and the education minister assure the House that no change was made in the curricula on any external pressure.
But, intriguingly, the controversy has refused to die down. A fortnight later the Punjab teachers union announced its decision to launch a protest movement from Gujranwala from April 15 if the verses, which pertain to jihad, were not reinstated.
It has been reported that at the heart of this controversy is a report released by the SDPI, an independent think tank. Titled The Subtle Subversion: The State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan, this report, which draws extensively from the research on the subject by Dr Rubina Saigol, an educational sociologist, without adequately and specifically acknowledging it, points out that the curricula and textbooks in Pakistan were insensitive to the existing religious diversity of the nation, incited militancy and violence, and encouraged prejudice, bigotry and discrimination towards fellow-citizens, especially women and religious minorities.
The religious parties are not too pleased that the curricula prescribed by the curriculum wing of the Ministry of Education and the books produced by the textbook boards have come under the spotlight.
Since the days when General Ziaul Haq used his authority backed by military power to induct religion into every sphere of national life and then use it to perpetuate a narrow right-wing ideology, the public sector education system in the country has been harnessed to promote a mindset which upholds retrogressive values.
But why was no notice taken of this state of affairs before? The fact is that for at least two decades the media has been trying to draw the attention of the authorities to the dismal state of the textbooks and the distortions in their contents. But all the editorials and articles have proved to be a cry in the wilderness.
Much before the SDPI commissioned this report, Dr Rubina Saigol wrote a profoundly insightful paper, “The boundaries of consciousness: interface between the curriculum, gender and nationalism” in a book called Locating the Self (published by ASR, Lahore, in 1994).
In this paper she showed with several examples how our textbooks construct India and Hindus as enemies and how they incite permanent enmity, hatred and alienation with India. The author’s contention was that these books promote militarism and violence and indirectly justify a heavy defence expenditure.
Since then, she has been expanding relentlessly and painstakingly on this subject in several publications to show how an ultra-nationalist, hypermasculine, militarized state is constructed in our textbooks and what effects this has on our identity and society. Some other scholars, such as Dr Mubarak Ali and Prof K.K. Aziz have also published their reports on this issue.
In 1999, the National Committee on Education, which was constituted under the chairmanship of the federal education secretary on the prompting of some eminent educationists, prepared a report National Curriculum 2000: A Conceptual Framework calling for a paradigm shift in the curriculum in order to produce “involved, caring and responsible citizens”. This report was stored away somewhere in the ministry’s records on some dust-laden shelf.
Several women’s groups have carried out extensive studies from time to time to identify the gender bias in our textbooks. The exercises they have carried out have demonstrated again and again how these books denigrate women and relegate them to a secondary status.
Therefore it is difficult to understand why at this stage the SDPI’s report, which is not presenting something new, being in Dr Saigol’s terms “a complete plagiarism of my work” and “intellectual dishonesty”, should draw the ire of the religious parties. The SDPI has come under attack for implementing the “American agenda”.
The furore this time can simply be explained in terms of the growing power of the religious parties which hold office in two provinces. They want to preempt the Musharraf government from heeding the voices of sanity being raised on this matter.
The fact is that after the nationalization of schools and colleges had all but destroyed the education infrastructure in Pakistan, the system has suffered from a serious dichotomy.
Two parallel streams have run side by side in the country. Those in power remained quite indifferent to the mindset of the masses fed on the ideological and hate contents of the government prescribed curricula.
As the impact of these textbooks filled with hate and the teachings of the madressahs is being felt generally, the syllabus has set the alarm bells ringing. The subtle poisoning of the mind of the students has been clearly established by another report produced by the Karachi-based Social Policy and Development Centre (SPDC).
In its Annual Review 2002-2003 (The State of Education), the authors of the report observe about the Pakistan Studies textbooks, “Entire periods of history are missing and other events have been casually mentioned. No attempt has been made to identify circumstances leading to particular events or to establish the relationships between different events.”
It continues that as a consequence of these books, “Instead of being able to acknowledge diversity in points of view, they (students) are likely to look at the world in over-simplified, uncritical, ‘black and white’ and ‘us versus them’ terms and to develop single dimensional, exclusivist mindsets.”
What the school textbooks are doing to the thinking of our students is indicated by a survey of school children. The opinions of children in Urdu medium schools (who are not exposed to progressive literature in the English language) are quite instructive.
A little less than half of them do not support equal rights to minorities. A third of them support the jihadi groups. Two-thirds of them want the shariah to be implemented. Nearly a third want Kashmir to be liberated by force and nearly 80 per cent of them support Pakistan’s nuclear status.
In other words, it is not the madressahs alone which are creating hatred and militancy among the younger generation. The indoctrination is affecting everyone and probably this is now causing concern in the government circles which are now trying to battle religious bigotry.
In this context, the most meaningful recommendation in the SDPI report comes from Zarina Salamat in the chapter titled “Peace Studies; a proposed programme of studies in schools”. Ms Salamat suggests that peace building and conflict resolution be taught to children from an early age. They should be told about the inhumanity of violence and the brutality of war and the forces which lead to them.
At the same time children should be made aware of the value of peace and the dignity of human life while they are taught the ways of developing their capacity to maintain peace in society and at the national and international level.
The positive aspect of the SDPI report – though one wishes the sources of the analysis had been adequately given credit where it was due – is that for the first time in years the issue of textbooks contents is receiving some attention from the authorities, although the press – at least this paper – and the educationists who care had been crying themselves hoarse for decades about the poor quality of the textbooks that are being taught in our schools.