School girls attend the school assembly before their classes in Mingora. — Photo by AFP
In late September 2013, the chairman of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Textbook Board received a letter stamped as “Most Immediate”. Signed by Bashirul Haq, a section officer at the Elementary and Secondary Education Department of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the letter mentions a “consultative meeting” held at the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Textbook Board in Peshawar on August 15, 2013, which had decided that the next textbooks to be published in the province needed “amendments of immediate nature”. It also carries the signatures of two more officials – the Secretary Editorial and Printing and the deputy secretary – both of whom have written brief notes on the letter, suggesting further discussion and further necessary action, respectively. Everything becomes muddled after this stage.
According to the provincial government’s rules for its internal operations, a section officer of the education department cannot write a letter to the chairman of the textbook board suggesting amendments in textbooks. Amending textbooks is the mandate of the curriculum wing of the department whereas the textbook board is only a printing agency which cannot make changes to any book on its own. To confound the situation further, the provincial government informed the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly that the letter was actually fake.
Section officer Haq, however, admits to have written the letter. “It is a matter of routine to issue such letters on the recommendations of the committees formed by the department,” he says. “It was, indeed, the beginning of correspondence between the textbook board authorities and the education department,” he tells the Herald.
girls walk up to their classes at a school in Mingora, the same school which was also attended by Malala Yousufzai. — Photo by AP
Whether authentic or otherwise, the letter has gained a lot of attention for its subject matter — a consultative meeting to review textbooks. The provincial assembly members belonging to the Awami National Party (ANP), which headed the previous ruling coalition in the province, reacted strongly over the fact that such a meeting took place. They were enraged that the provincial government was trying to reverse changes in the curriculum that the ANP-led government had made during 2008 and 2013. Their protest in the assembly forced Muhammad Atif, the provincial minister for elementary and secondary education, to declare the letter as fake. He denied that a consultative meeting had taken place to review textbooks and that there had been any official correspondence between his department and the textbook board on the issue.
This should have ended the confusion but it did not, as the government took no administrative action against the official, or the officials, involved in writing the ‘fake’ letter. The government mererly transferred the writer of the controversial letter to another section of the education department.
The ANP legislators, therefore, are worried that the government might be covering up its attempts to change the curriculum. Another development on the same subject – and, incidentally, taking place the same day as the consultative meeting took place – suggests that their worries are not entirely unfounded.
A working group, comprising senior teachers, academicians and curriculum experts, did meet in Peshawar on August 15, 2013, and discussed curriculum reforms. But the meeting was neither official nor did the group include officers of the education department. It consisted of activists belonging to Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the second largest partner in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s coalition government. Sources in JI tell the Herald that the working group did come up with certain recommendations for curriculum changes.
Senior JI leaders in Peshawar tell the Herald that the meeting took place because the issue of curriculum changes is important for the party. There is a strong demand within the JI to do away with the changes made in the curriculum by the previous government, says Shabir Ahmed Khan, the provincial general secretary of JI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “We want those changes reversed.”
Girls are pictured during an on going lecture in class at a school in Mingora, KPK. — Photo by AFP
Shabir Ahmed Khan accuses the ANP government of having ignored the Muslim identity in the revised curriculum. The chapters on important Muslim personages, including the Prophet of Islam and some of his caliphs, have been removed from the books and some sketches have been included which go against local norms and traditions, he adds. “Can anybody even imagine that a girl in the Pakhtun society would wear a skirt or shorts?” he says. To him, it matters little if the girl shown in a book wearing a skirt is not real but just the sketch of an imaginary table tennis player.
The JI working group has reservations over how the changed curriculum does not include pro-jihad lessons. “In a book of Islamiyat, a four-page chapter on jihad has been removed,” says Shabir Ahmed Khan. For him, such a change is not in tune with the times that Pakistan is going through. “Our homeland is under threat. It is being droned by American forces and we have to defend ourselves against the Americans. In these circumstances, is teaching our youth the ideology of jihad a sin?” he asks.
The working group also has objections over the inclusion of an essay on International Parents’ Day which the JI considers as being against the teachings of Islam. The group also objects to a paragraph in a history textbook for class six students, wherein Emperor Ashoka has been portrayed as a kind-hearted ruler who would consider his subjects as his family. The group also wants Darwin’s theory of evolution altogether removed from textbooks.
In addition to these major changes, the JI also does not want textbooks to show hospitals, ambulances and operation theatres with the sign of a cross (+) on them. That sign must be replaced by a crescent, recommends the party’s working group. The party also demands authorities to remove pictures of pet dogs and of the Roman Catholic Church from textbooks.
The ANP leaders aver that the curriculum was changed in accordance with the 2006 recommendations of the Education Sector Reform Commission, a high-profile forum comprising eminent historians and educationists, among others. Dr Khadim Hussain, an ANP ideologue and the managing director of the Baacha Khan Trust Educational Foundation, says that the provincial government of his party made curriculum changes after the 18th Constitutional Amendment empowered it to do so. “The curriculum wing, as long as it was a federal department, was reluctant to implement the recommendations of the commission. In the wake of the Constitutional amendment, the wing was devolved to the provincial government,” he says. This made it easy for the provincial government to carry out the recommended changes.
Girls are pictured during a lecture at a school in Mingora. — Photo by AFP
Hussain says the changes were aimed at cleansing the curriculum of the content included in it during General Ziaul Haq’s regime, which was focused on producing a mindset needed to serve jihadi ideology. Glorification of war heroes, demonisation of other races and religions, gender imbalance, neglect of indigenous culture and history, and marginalisation of minorities were major elements in the curriculum that the ANP tried to change, he says. The Quranic verses and sayings of the Prophet regarding jihad, with special focus on killing infidels, were introduced in textbooks during Haq’s era to achieve certain foreign policy objectives, says Hussain. The demonisation of the followers of other faiths, as preached in textbooks, has now degenerated into the demonisation of people who do not belong to your sect, he adds.
The ANP government, instead, included chapters on its leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as Baacha Khan, in school textbooks for different subjects and different grades. Non-Muslim students were also given the option to study ethics, instead of having to read Islamiyat as a compulsory subject.
The JI, however, considers Baacha Khan as a controversial figure whose ideology is not in line with the majority of people residing in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “As far as including indigenous culture and history in textbooks is concerned, we have many other Pakhtun leaders who deserve to be given space in our textbooks but the ANP government only glorified its own leaders like Bacha Khan, Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan – popularly known as Dr Khan Sahib – and Khan Abdul Ghani Khan,” says Shabir Ahmed Khan. The ANP government did not take into consideration the services of “real and non-controversial” heroes of the Pakhtun soil, he claims. For example, he says, Sheikh Mali introduced the land settlement system in Swabi, Buner, Shangla and Swat districts even before the British came up with a land settlement system for the Subcontinent. His other hero is Bayazid Ansari, who is believed to have invented the Pashto script. “But there is not a single word about these heroes of Pakhtun land in the changed curriculum. That is why we want to reverse the changes made in the curriculum,” says Shabir Ahmed Khan.
But in its recommendations, the JI working group has been as selective as it alleges the ANP to have been. For instance, the group has recommended the inclusion of the Al-Khidmat Foundation, the party’s social welfare wing, in the civics curriculum for class 11, in a section that covers non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
Girls taking lessons in a school in Swat. — Photo by AFP
Shabir Ahmed Khan, however, clarifies that his party has, so far, not taken up the recommendations of the working group with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the main partner in the provincial ruling coalition. The JI has informally discussed some of the reservations it has over the curriculum with the education minister but there has been no formal consultation between the two parties, he says.
Atif, the provincial education minister, says the entire brouhaha over curriculum changes is a storm in a teacup. According to him, such changes are not on the priority list of the PTI government. “We are focusing on governance issues in the education sector, and changes in curriculum will be taken up at some other time,” he tells the Herald. When asked about the letter, Atif says no such communication took place. He also does not feel the need to take action against officials who are signatories to the one that exists.
The minister may do better by investigating more about the letter — who wrote it and what for. After all, knowing who is doing what under his ministry should be a part of the better governance he is talking about.Comparative disadvantage
By Xari Jalil
A private school’s syllabus has come under scrutiny for the wrong reasons
“I will not tolerate any interference in my religion,” an angry parent told Mubashir Lucman, the controversial ARY News talk-show host, on September 16, 2013. She was discussing the change that the Lahore Grammar School (LGS), an elite private educational institution, had made in its syllabus — allegedly replacing Islamiyat (a compulsory subject in Pakistan) with comparative religions as a subject.
While lambasting the school for teaching children things they did not need nor understand, Lucman called on the Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif to take immediate action and right the wrong. The chief minister promptly listened. Within a week, the school was barred by the Punjab government from teaching comparative religions, pending an official inquiry about what the subject contained. Almost four months have passed since then but the school has not heard from the government about the outcome of the inquiry and whether the teaching of the subject could be resumed.
Lucman and, by extension, the Punjab government have failed to realise that LGS had introduced comparative religions as a subject two years ago, and it had not replaced Islamiyat. Nasrene Shah, the head of the main branch of LGS in Lahore’s Gulberg neighbourhood, tells the Herald that the school cannot remove Islamiyat from its syllabus since it is a compulsory subject. She adds that most of the students and their parents had no problem with the introduction of comparative religions as a subject. “The fact is that our students were very happy with it and we received a positive response concerning the subject’s introduction,” says Shah. A handful of parents, she adds, did raise a few objections. “I told them that the school was not putting an end to teaching Islamiyat.”
But, once a television channel and the provincial government got involved, the issue became too hot for the school to handle by simply meeting and talking to parents. “It clearly has become a political issue,” Shah says, and adds that she has sent the contents of the school syllabus on comparative religions as per the official direction to the government “but there has been no response”.
The Punjab government, on its part, has constituted a committee to see if there is any “objectionable material” in the syllabus. The committee comprises three senior officials — Secretary Schools Education Abdul Jabbar Shaheen, Punjab Textbook Board Chairman Nawazish Ali, and Punjab Curriculum Authority Chairman Saleem Akhtar Kiani.
Even as the official word is awaited, those who want the youth to be aware of people of different religious backgrounds so as to understand them better and, possibly, treat them better, are upset. The Facebook page representing LGS carries a post with a similar message. “Our institution believes in inculcating values such as tolerance and empathy in all our students … We aim to educate about Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism — and their fundamental teachings. Doing so, we believe, will enlighten our students about the importance of ‘peaceful coexistence.’”
Many parents readily agree with this. “Not tolerating the study of other religions and still claiming that Islam is the most tolerant religion in the world is highly ironic,” says the parent of an LGS student. “These double standards have become a part of the social DNA of Pakistan.”
Baela Raza Jamil, who heads Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi, a non-governmental institution (NGO) working in the field of education, is even more vociferous in her criticism of the official action. With such restrictions, she says, we will have “a curriculum that is afraid and knowledge that is limited”. Without reading about other religions, she says, we will never accept the existence of people who have beliefs different to ours. “We will be living in a world without friends.”
Dr Taimur Rahman, a professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), believes that the government should have had no business interfering in what an educational institution is teaching. “Institutions all over the world guard their academics fiercely so that their students are equipped with new ways of thinking,” he says. Rahman also says that the Punjab government should have paused before taking quick action over a television talk show. “How has it become a big issue now when the subject was being taught for two years?” he asks.
Dr Mubarak Haider, a historian based in Lahore, agrees. “At a time when the society is so deeply polarised, the government should have treaded very carefully.”
Officials, however, claim that the government has unrestricted powers to control what is being taught at private schools. Ali, chairman of the Punjab Textbook Board, cites a 1984 law that allows the government to monitor what is being taught at private schools and even change it, if needed. He, however, does not name that law.
Punjab Education Minister Rana Mashhood Ahmad Khan says the government will do exactly that — change the curriculum if needed. The three-member government, he says, “will propose necessary modifications in the syllabus” for comparative religions before the subject is allowed to be taught at any school. “No one will be allowed to change the basic ideology of Pakistan,” the minister warns.