The youth policies the governments in Pakistan and other countries of SouthAsia develop are normally full of cliches that regurgitate the same banal statements. Education policies are also an example of this verbiage that makes tall claims and fails on most fronts.
By Naazir Mahmood
The Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS) gathered some of Islamabad’s finest minds for its recent consultation titled ‘Promoting narratives of diversity, inclusion, and peace among youth’. Among the speakers were A H Nayyar, Ishtiaque Ahmed, Khalid Masud, Khursheed Nadeem, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Qibla Ayaz, Romana Bashir and others.
PIPS has been working for the promotion of diversity and inclusion in Pakistani society and the event provided an opportunity for the participants to express their views. Amir Rana, encouraged the audience to speak their minds without reservation. Dr A H Nayyar focused more on the educational aspect of the official Pakistani narrative which has been inherently anti-diversity. He cited the example of the Single National Curriculum (SNC) the PTI government tried to foist on the country (and succeeded to an extent). Dr Nayyar has been a strong critic of the SNC and has been writing about it.
Dr Khalid Masud, a judge of the Shariah Appellate Bench in the Supreme Court of Pakistan talked about the disconnect between qualitative and quantitative research in Pakistan. Most universities in the country, he said, have been conducting quantitative research at the cost of quality – they survey, compile data and produce reports that do not necessarily reflect the qualitative changes taking place in society. Dr Masud suggested that a discussion on democracy and the Constitution requires a qualitative understanding of these concepts. He said that the same applies to citizenship education that Pakistan’s educational institutions need to prioritise.
Ban on students’ unions
Khursheed Nadeem pointed out that in Pakistan people, somehow, lack an understanding on how to distinguish between various aspects of religion. Now, Khursheed Nadeem is a renowned scholar of Islam, though he very modestly introduces himself as a student of Islamic history and ideology. He is a prolific writer with a wide readership in Urdu.
Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy lamented the continuous ban on student unions in Pakistan’s colleges and universities. In his view, students’ involvement in associations and unions trains them as constructive interlocutors in the political dialogue. Successive governments in Pakistan – especially military dictatorships – have stemmed the flow of ideas in nearly all institutions, resulting in a stagnant intellectual atmosphere in which no creativity survives. A majority of faculty members lack fundamental understanding of the basic concepts even in their own fields of specialisations. That is one reason university graduates have degrees but no skills in applied and social sciences.
Dr Muhammad Ali from Quaid-i-Azam University talked of the education system’s failure to follow a student-centric approach to learning and teaching. Most faculty members possess degrees in their own fields but do not have any training in teaching methods. He suggested nobody should be entrusted with teaching without first acquiring some practical skills and a theoretical knowledge of classroom interaction and the ethics of pedagogy. The system of promotion that requires 10 years’ experience and 15 published papers is faulty and needs reconsideration as it has goaded teachers to indulge in a rat race to publish substandard papers.
Dr Qibla Ayaz, chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology is a clear-headed thinker who stressed on the need for de-radicalization on campuses. He suggested that a stagnant approach to education in terms of religion should give way to a more dynamic understanding of beliefs, rather than targeting other faiths. Without this dynamism, he said, society itself becomes intolerant. A wider understanding of religion where constructive discussions take place is a better option than rote learning and memorisation. Religious radicalism is a clear and present danger that needs serious considerations.
Romana Bashir, a human rights and minority rights activist who has devoted at least 25 years to promoting harmony and peace in Pakistan shared experiences that students from various religious groups go through in Pakistan. She highlighted the importance of mutual respect in education so that students grow up as tolerant and friendly citizens rather than as an intolerant lot that targets students of other faiths. She suggested that teachers need special training in fostering harmonious relations among students practising different belief systems. She also held political parties responsible for not doing enough for promoting harmony in society.
Participants at the event also received a research report titled ‘Making sense of Pakistani youth’. PIPS does analysis of independent and innovative studies, since it is essentially a research and advocacy institution. Recognising that the radicalization of young people is threatening social stability in Pakistan, the study sought to understand incidents of religiously motivated violence at educational campuses. Growing radicalization among educated young people is resulting in youth-led vigilante crimes that are becoming increasingly common in countries such as India and Pakistan – both victims of their own radicalism. The study by PIPS (available online) aimed to unpack this ugly phenomenon.
Of course, there is a perilous combination of factors with an unmanaged youth bulge being one of the foremost. Coupled with it is the declining rule of law that reflects itself in law enforcement being unable or unwilling to intervene – or coming too late after the crimes have claimed lives and properties. The Gujarat massacre in India and recent violence is a case in point. In Pakistan there have been numerous attacks on non-Muslim settlements and places of worship. Even Muslims with a slightly different bend of mind are not spared by other young people who take it upon themselves to ‘punish the culprits’ even if they have done nothing wrong.
Doctrinal, exclusivist education
Youth policies that governments in Pakistan and other SouthAsian countries develop are normally full of cliches that regurgitate the same banal statements. Education policies are also an example of this verbiage that makes tall claims and fails on most fronts. These policies create more ambiguity than providing clarity of thought and state functionaries thrive on these ambiguities. The more opaque a policy is, the harder is it to hold anyone accountable for its failure. In India and Pakistan, the States themselves have become promoters of extremism, while masquerading as tolerant.
The state of Pakistan has nearly always had a doctrinal and exclusivist education, whereas India is catching up fast under BJP rule. In some ways, the BJP-RSS nexus has managed to outdo Pakistan in this destructive race. In Pakistan, state-approved education allows only peculiar interpretations of history. Education in India was more inclusive under Congress rule. But now, the BJP appears to be following in Pakistan’s footsteps to teach only a BJP-approved versions of history. This approach has stunted cognitive growth in Pakistani youth. The same is now happening in India.
Promoting democratic norms
An educational discourse that instills suspicion for multiculturalism is bound to add to religious radicalization, and that is exactly what happened in Pakistan and the same is now taking place in India. So, what is the solution? At the PIPS discussion, there was near consensus about promoting democratic norms in society and promoting respect for basic human freedoms through education and the media. Sadly, both education and the media are controlled and regulated by the State and even seemingly private educational institutions are unable to hold free debate, as such discussions are strictly monitored under the lens of national security.
There has to be a swift move away from an illiberal education and propaganda to a more liberal interpretation of history and society – at least in its social dimensions.
The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at [email protected]