Pakistani children need schools, not indoctrination
One of the last things the Imran Khan government did in March before being swamped by the Covid-19 crisis sweeping Pakistan was approve a new ‘uniform’ curriculum for classes I to V for the country’s schools. This has implications that are likely to contribute to unease within the federation.
Khan’s ruling party made curriculum reform a priority in its 2018 election manifesto, also emphasizing it among its urgencies in its first 100 days in power. Now two years late, it instead equates ‘curriculum reform’ with a ‘uniform curriculum’ to be implemented in phases. In phase one, a new curriculum for classes 1 to 5 is now ready and will be implemented by March 2021. The phase two curriculum will be for classes 6 to 8, to be ready by March 2021 and implemented by March 2022, while the phase three curriculum will be ready for classes 9 to 12 by March 2022 and enforced by March 2023-- the next election year.
Curriculum is a controversial and divisive issue in Pakistan. The federal government of Prime Minister Khan wants a uniform curriculum for all the country even though it constitutionally does not now have authority on the matter after the 18th amendment of 2010 devolved the subject of education to the provinces.
The provinces are opposed to a uniform curriculum as they find their respective socio-political histories cut out from a ‘national’ curriculum, from a state that historically frowns upon political pluralisms. The provinces have repeatedly asserted against the questionable wisdom of imposing a centralized version of national priorities when a federal state is supposed to be the sum of its parts. The latest attempt by the government is set to reanimate the acute sense of provincial grievances the landmark consensus 18th Amendment so painstakingly helped curtail.
At the root of the historical grievances of the provinces in terms of educational policies, is the penchant of the federal government to uniformly make religious nationalism and militaristic patriotism the cornerstones of school curricula. They have been opposed to the inclusion of pre-Pakistan, but non-Pakistani personalities, especially figures and their exploits and ideologies from Arabic, Turkic and Afghan regions, as ‘national heroes.’
The provinces are interested in teaching religious, political and socio-cultural pluralisms to their resident children rooted in native languages, ethnic heroes and diverse ideological histories to reflect on their plural make ups and shared histories and rights movements based in the region.
The provinces are opposed to a uniform curriculum as they find their respective socio-political histories cut out from a ‘national’ curriculum, from a state that historically frowns upon political pluralisms. The provinces have repeatedly asserted against the questionable wisdom of imposing a centralized version of national priorities when a federal state is supposed to be the sum of its parts.
However, the centralized state and Islamist parties allied with its centrist ideologies and aimed at propagating forced ideological coherence, has resisted freedoms to teach local histories and political movements not aligned with the dominant narrow religious nationalism.
For example, when the Awami National Party, based in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) revised the curriculum during its 2008-13 stint, it included among other people, Bacha Khan, the freedom fighter and secularist-nationalist Pakhtun leader to the school textbooks. But the next coalition government of Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaf and ultra-religious party Jamaat-e-Islami reversed the ANP pluralisms. For added measure they injected additional Islamic teachings in an already Islam-infused curriculum and declared recitation of Quran in Arabic as mandatory from classes 1 to 12. In 2019, Punjab province, also ruled by Khan’s party, mandated similar additions in its new curriculum.
Now the new federal curriculum for primary classes includes personal emphasis of the Prime Minister to optimize the doctrines and teachings of the Prophet and founding fathers of Pakistan – Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Muhammad Iqbal. This was puzzling because not only is the overall curriculum already infused with their stalwart teachings but all Pakistani students at all levels already have to mandatorily pass the subjects of Islamic Studies and Pakistan Studies that are full of their teachings. Why other subjects also need to include the same content can only be attributed to the Prime Minister’s own personal and deeply religious beliefs.
The latest ‘curriculum reforms’ prove that yet another government in Pakistan has steered away from the more urgent task of improving literacy – currently at a dismal 58 percent according to UNESCO. Over 24 million Pakistani children of school-going age are out of schools, over two-thirds of them in the Khan ruled provinces of KP and Punjab. This staggering situation itself is a violation of Article 25A of the constitution which mandates the government to provide all children between the ages of 6 and 16 free compulsory education.
Pakistan is a federal democracy and the principal mandate of the federal government is to consolidate, not erode devolved power and authority to the provinces. The provinces should be determining what to teach their children, not the federal government whose job is not curriculum development but ensuring no child remains out of school. It is sadly failing on this count.
– Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.