Nirupama Subramanian

All the focus is on madrasa reforms but Pakistan’s schools are also seen as encouraging extremism, while the government has shown little urgency about implementing a revised curriculum.

On a recent weekday afternoon, a small group of youngsters gathered at a meeting hall in Islamabad to discuss how to combat extremism, militancy and terrorism in Pakistan. Listed were top-notch speakers, including two members of Parliament and the well-known physicist, Pervez Hoodbhoy.

Dr. Hoodbhoy, who teaches at the Quaid-e-Azam University in the Pakistan capital, spoke passionately and at length, on a theme that he has worked to highlight for years: the education imparted to Pakistani children is flawed and encourages extremism, intolerance and ignorance. He showed the group, mostly undergraduate students, slides from an illustrated primer for the Urdu alphabet he picked from a shop in Rawalpindi: alif for Allah; bay for bandook (gun); tay for takrao (collision, shown by a plane crashing into the Twin Towers); jeem for jihad; kay for khanjar (dagger); and hay for hijab.

This was not a prescribed textbook, but another set of slides he showed had excerpts from a 1995 government-approved curriculum for Social Studies, which stated that at the end of Class V, the child should be able to acknowledge and identify forces that may be working against Pakistan; demonstrate by actions a belief in the fear of Allah; make speeches on jehad and shahadat (martyrdom); understand Hindu-Muslim differences and the resultant need for Pakistan; India’s evil designs against Pakistan; be safe from rumour-mongers who spread false news; visit police stations; collect pictures of policemen, soldiers, and National Guards; and demonstrate respect for the leaders of Pakistan.

“Instead of teaching our children about the nice things in this world like the colours of flowers, about the wonders of the universe, we are teaching them to hate,” he said. The school curriculum was one reason, he said, why Pakistanis were in denial that the militants and extremists now terrorising the entire country were home-grown products, and why many tended to externalise the problem with conspiracy theories about an “external” hand.

At the end of the discussion, which included a question-and-answer session, the group was asked how many thought Pakistan’s present problems were the consequence of an “Indian hand.” A quarter of the group put up its hands. Next, the students were asked how many thought the problems were the result of an American conspiracy to destabilise Pakistan and deprive it of its nuclear weapons: more than three-fourths of the group sent their hands up without a moment’s hesitation.

The irony was that this was the “youth group” of a non-governmental organisation, the Liberal Forum of Pakistan. The students had reserved their maximum applause for a speaker who projected the widespread line that Pakistan’s problems began only after 2001, and are the fallout of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

“Was there a single incident of terrorism before that? A single suicide bombing? No.” he said. The speaker was an official of the Ministry of Youth Affairs.

In the search for solutions to the crisis sweeping Pakistan and threatening to tear it apart, the international community has tended to focus on madrasas as “terrorist factories.” But for Dr. Hoodbhoy and others who have been fighting a long battle for urgent changes in Pakistan’s national school curriculum and the prescribed school textbooks, children getting a government-approved education in the public school system are at equal risk.

“Madrasas are not the only institutions breeding hate, intolerance, a distorted world view. The educational material in government-run schools do much more than madrasas. The textbooks tell lies, create hatred, inculcate militancy…” This was the damning conclusion of a landmark research project by the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute.

For three years, 30 scholars commissioned by SDPI pored over textbooks in four subjects taught for Classes 1 to 12: Social Studies/Pakistan Studies, Urdu, English and Civics. The startling findings of their labour came out in a 2004 publication, “The Subtle Subversion: The State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan.”

The much-written about research unleashed a huge debate on what was being taught in Pakistan’s schools, and became the basis for a major revision of the national curriculum undertaken by the Musharraf regime in 2006. The new curriculum has made several big changes. There is a conscious move to teach tolerance and respect for diversity, and the open vilification of India is absent. It also does not insist on imposing Islamic religious teaching on non-Muslim students. Religion is to be taught in focussed courses, rather than being infused in Social Studies, Civics, Urdu and English.

Unfortunately, so far, no move has been made to introduce new textbooks that reflect the changes.

“The revised curriculum is a huge departure from the earlier one. But whether the changes it prescribes will be implemented at all is not clear to us. The more it is delayed, the less and less we are sure it is going to come,” said A.H. Nayyar, research fellow at SDPI and one of the initiators of the project.

The changes in the curriculum are up on the Internet site of the Ministry of Education. For Grades 4 and 5 Social Studies, the curriculum has dropped the learning outcomes prescribed by the 1995 and 2002 curricula, focussing instead on providing an “unbiased” education that aims to build informed citizens equipped with analytical skills and “values such as equality, social justice, fairness, diversity, and respect for self and diverse opinions of others.”

The SDPI recommendation that history be taught as a separate subject instead of being lumped into Pakistan Studies was accepted by the framers of the revised curriculum. So, for the first time, a curriculum has been framed for history as a separate subject from Grades 6 to 8.

In contrast to the earlier approach in the Pakistan Studies curriculum, in which the history of Pakistan begins with the day the first Muslim set foot in India, the revised curriculum includes a study of the Indus valley civilisation, of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, and of the ancient Maurya and Gupta dynasties.

The curriculum appears keen to emphasise a composite South Asian history from which Pakistan took birth including the “joint Hindu-Muslim” efforts in the struggle for independence. The Pakistan Studies curriculum for Grades 9 and 10 wants children to learn about the multicultural heritage of Pakistan and “get used to the idea of unity in diversity,” a big no-no earlier.

The revised curriculum also has a component on “peace studies” and conflict resolution.

One reason new textbooks based on the revised curriculum have not come out yet, Dr. Nayyar speculated, may be that the 1998 national educational policy introduced by the shortlived Nawaz Sharif government, remains in force till 2010. The Pakistan People’s Party-led government could be waiting to introduce its own education policy, and usher in the changes to the curriculum and the textbooks along with this, he said.

Even the draft new education policy is ready, based on a two-year-old White Paper. It too reflects a major shift from the 1998 policy, which laid down that education should enable the citizens to lead their lives as true practising Muslims according to the teachings of Islam as prescribed in the Quran and Sunnah. It also made the teaching of Nazra Quran a compulsory subject from Grades 1 to 8, and the learning of selected verses from the Quran thereafter, in clear violation of the Constitution that Islam will not be imposed on non-Muslims.

By contrast, the draft new policy makes it clear that only Muslim children will be provided instruction in Islamiyat, while minorities will be provided an education in their own religion. The new policy will provide the framework for the implementing the new curriculum and introducing new textbooks.

The bad news is that in April, the federal Cabinet put off approving the draft indefinitely. Only after the Cabinet approves the policy can it be placed before Parliament. A report in Dawn newspaper said the Cabinet wanted the Education Ministry to make the policy “more comprehensive, covering every aspect of education sector which needs improvement along with an implementable work plan.” But no urgency is visible in the Ministry to get cracking on this task. Another concern is that the Education Minister is not known for his progressive views, especially on gender issues.

“My fear,” said Dr. Nayyar, a soft-spoken physicist who retired from teaching at the Quaid-e-Azam University some years ago, “is that the government may not have the political strength to bring in a progressive education policy. They may succumb to pressures of various kinds and end up bringing in a hopelessly muddled policy.”

Yet the need for reforms in education has never been as urgent and necessary as now. As Dr. Hoodbhoy has pointed out in several recent articles, while a physical takeover of Pakistan by the Taliban may be a far cry, extremist ideology has taken root in young minds across the country, thanks to a flawed education system.

Compared to the 1.5 million who study in madrasas, an estimated 20 million children are enrolled in government schools. Dr. Nayyar laments that in the five years since the publication of the SDPI report, children who were 11 years old at the time have completed their matriculation. They read the old textbooks, and learnt a way of thinking about themselves and the world that will prove hard to change.

“Another generation has been lost because the process has taken too long,” he said. And until the new textbooks are introduced, millions of children will continue to learn in their Urdu lessons in schools about the differences between Hindus and Muslims in a hatred-generating way, about “India’s evil designs against Pakistan” in their Social Studies, and that Bangladesh was a result of a conspiracy by India with assistance from “Hindus living in East Pakistan.”