Last week was hard on all who want the Constitution and the rule of law to reign supreme. The unfolding of the Faizabad dharna and subsequent response of the government was a tragedy that requires serious reflection. As has been written and discussed, it exposed a weak government unsure of itself and unable to act, an interior minister who was both powerless and conflicted, an army that stepped in when it did not have the constitutional mandate and used the misguided ‘both sides’ argument, and a demoralised police force that faced the brunt of thuggery with little guidance, poor planning and obsolete tools. The political landscape shifted and showed the bare fangs of selfishness and short-sightedness. Some parties that have ruled in the past remained irrelevant, others used the opportunity for cheap point scoring and siding with those who believe in mob rule.
While the discussion about the political fallout is getting ample coverage, there are other equally important casualties that do not get adequate attention. These less discussed topics are just as critical for our future as the shifts in the political landscape. Chief among these is the assault on education. The fact that those who desire to create chaos and make a mockery of the rule of law will have a say in writing of the textbooks is deeply concerning for several reasons and will have long-term repercussions.
First, the textbooks are a vehicle to inform the student, advance his or her thinking, create awareness and are a means to shape discourse in the classroom. Textbooks influence millions, and each aspect of the textbook should be based on critical thought, rigour, discussion with experts and an eye towards improving learning and enhancing the quality of education. Education and textbooks should not be a bargaining chip for a group that takes pride in creating chaos and bullying the government. No one who represents a group that revels in making the lives of millions miserable, destroying public property and engaging in vulgar discourse should be allowed anywhere near a textbook board. This has nothing to do with a particular ideology but with fundamental values of decency, dignity and respect for the rule of law.
Second is the issue of precedence. If we allow one particular group to have presence on the textbook board, what message does it give to others? This means that anyone can not only block the arterial highway of a city but also impact millions more for years to come? If every group did that, what would it mean for our already fragile curriculum and error-prone texts associated with it.
Third is the issue of impact on our fractured education system. Pakistan has multiple parallel (but unequal) education systems. It is reasonable to assume that the presence of the said group will be on the textbook board of the national (and provincial) system and not on the foreign textbooks of private schools. Our national system is already struggling, the students are already vulnerable, the teachers already underpaid and underappreciated. This would further disintegrate the system and drive more people out of it, thereby making it even weaker. Instead of integration and cohesion, this would further create division within our education system with terrible long-term consequences.
We have to resist any interference in textbooks that comes as a consequence of political deal-making. This won’t be easy, but ultimately the change has to come from within. Educationists and academics, and particularly who have or currently serve on the textbook boards, must stand up against bigotry and outside influence. Education, curriculum and texts should not be created into a turf used for negotiating political settlements. A lot was lost last week, but we must pick up the pieces and not allow for an assault on the future of our youth and country.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 5th, 2017.