There are only a handful of issues in Pakistan around which most socio-political stakeholders can form a consensus, and education is often referred to as one such issue; political elites, bureaucrats, civil society and ordinary folk alike tend to agree that education is the vanguard of a new Pakistan. And as such, the governments of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa (KPK) are rightly paying special attention to end what is being called an education emergency in our country. In recent days we have seen a concerted effort to increase enrolment, decrease dropout rates and build key infrastructure. Measures are also being taken to improve teaching quality through training and the establishment of scholarship funds. But alongside these commendable steps is another worrying trend, where the influence of extremism within our educational institutions is growing with little resistance from the concerned authorities.
The seemingly disparate but interconnected events that have gained public attention in the past few weeks all point to the state of education in Pakistan. An al-Qaida operative has been arrested from the Punjab University campus; administrations at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) and other institutions are enforcing more conservative dress codes on students; the Punjab government has initiated legal action against a private school in Lahore for teaching the subject of Comparative Religions to its young students; the Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa (KPK) government has decided to reincorporate ‘jihadi’ teachings in the school curriculum. The direction or the cumulative outcome of these events is not hard to discern.
There is however a historical context here, with the domains of education and mass media having been in the firm control of right-wing elements ever since the Zia days. Over decades this has cultivated a mindset predisposed to ideological indoctrination, religious intolerance and xenophobia. And today we seem to have reached a point where our educational institutions are helping foster an environment where the likes of the Taliban and their ilk can find safe haven.
The above mentioned incidents are but a continuation of the government’s desperate attempts to avoid the unavoidable: a challenge to militancy on all fronts. The Punjab and KPK Chief Ministers have already demonstrated their unwillingness to act against the Taliban, although the fresh wave of attacks the country has recently been subjected to should make our policy-makers reassess their earlier calls for negotiations with the militants.
Depending on its capability or will, our state may have varying policy perspectives, but it remains imperative that we as a society learn from our experience with militancy and the heavy price we have had to pay for it. Whatever happens in the future with peace deals and armed operations, it is all too clear that the real effort against the militants has to be waged with equal vigour on other fronts, education being the foremost of them. If this battle of hearts and minds is to be won, our government must nourish our young minds with independent thought, critical faculty and civic values at par with the modern world.
(Editorial Issue 12)