Last week, the Federal Ministry of Education and Professional Training released a press note on their official Twitter account in a supposed bid to counter what in their opinion was a ‘concerted campaign’ to ‘discredit the remarkable effort made by the government to devise the much-hyped Single National Curriculum’ (SNC). The ministry went on to term some of those concerns as ‘falsehoods’. These included: the role of Ulema in reviewing science books, the recruitment of Qari’s from madrassas in all schools and finally the discrimination against minorities in the SNC.
In doing so, the Federal ministry gave the impression as if ‘fake news’ was deliberately being spread around the implementation of SNC which was then shared widely on Twitter to further strengthen and shape this narrative against those who dared to question the sacred single national curriculum.
We live in times where hardly any inquiry or effort is made to read/investigate beyond the headlines and social media applications enable the far, wide and swift spread of curtly-worded posts and hashtags that succeed in retaining the focus on the headline as opposed to facts and details. Therefore, the responsibility to draft and disseminate such headlines, especially by the government, increases manifold because of their ability to influence and shape the opinion and narratives in the general public, for what is to be part of official public record.
Having said that, it is important to analyse each of the three aspects in the press note that were dubbed as ‘false’ or ‘fake’ by the Federal ministry to assess the extent of the accuracy of this accusation.
- Role of Ulema in Reviewing Science Books
The concern related to Ulema reviewing books related to science and mathematics first came to light when the Fawaz Niaz, the President of the Textbook Publishers Association (TBA) was quoted in a news report in Dawn, dated 4th June 2021, as saying,
“The members of the MUB (Muattahida Ulema Board) committee have issued a direction that the words ‘interest’, ‘markup’ be excluded from the mathematics textbooks,” he wondered, saying how these basic concepts would be taught to the students if the direction was enforced. He also said some of the religious scholars, who were members of the committee, also directed the publishers not to print any diagrams or sketches in the biology textbooks showing human figures “sans clothes”.
In addition to this, the ‘Scheme for Development of Textbooks and Supplementary Reading Material 2021’ issued by the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board (PCTB) states on page 4, para x that,
x. The manuscripts of Islamiyat, General Knowledge, Social Studies, Pakistan Studies, History, Urdu, English or of any other subject containing content related to religion (Islam) shall mandatorily be reviewed once by Muttahida Ulema Board before forwarding the same to the Apex Advisory Committee.
What is especially interesting to note is the fact that the Federal ministry itself acknowledged in the same press note that the Punjab Assembly had approved a law whereby the Ulema Board approves all Islamic content in the Curriculum and went on record to state that the Federal Ministry had been informed by the Punjab government that no change had been made in Biology textbooks by the said Board.
In light of the statement of the President of the TBA discussed above, this may need to be revisited and the PCTB may need to explain whether or not any such directions were in fact issued by the MUB or not.
While it is encouraging to note that the Federal Ministry has clarified that its own process to the extent of its jurisdiction does not involve any consultation with the MUB, the assertion to the extent of Punjab, however, is not ‘fake’, ‘false’ or ‘factually inaccurate’. The role of Ulema in reviewing every book is in fact very much present and the civil society is well within its rights to raise and record its concerns regarding the role of Ulema in reviewing books of subjects other than those of Islamiyat for which they do not poses the expertise or the qualifications.
Even though the Federal Ministry may have the right to issue a statement to clarify its own position, it must not give the impression in the headline as if the concerns related to the SNC of the wider stakeholders, parents, textbook publishers and minorities are false or frivolous particularly, when those concerns were acknowledged by the Federal ministry itself and were in any case directed at the provincial level.
2 -Appointment of Qari’s in Schools
The second assertion that was stated to be false by the Federal Ministry was related to the recruitment and appointment of Qari’s from madrassas in schools. This clarification in unequivocal words by the Federal Ministry that, no order mandating appointment of Qari’s from madrassas has been made by the government at any level and that the decision about whom to hire for this instruction is of the individual school whether public or private and not the Federal government is welcomed. It is hoped that the Punjab government would follow suit and not impose its direction over the schools in a bid to be more loyal than the king.
3- Discrimination against Minorities in SNC
The third and final assertion that the Federal ministry attempted to declare as ‘false’, relates to the rights of minorities and the discriminatory elements against them in the curriculum.
The Federal ministry said that it is ‘totally not true’ that the curriculum discriminates against the minorities. It went on to cite examples of a separate subject with select minority faiths that will be introduced from this academic year.
To begin with, the minority faiths such as Zoroastrianism, which have not been included in the religious module created for minorities will find this exclusionary and discriminatory which is why Sindh did not accept it; but even those minorities, who have been promised a separate subject are discriminated against when it comes to the secular and technical subjects like languages which have content from the majority faith.
A case, filed by citizens belonging to minority communities, which is pending in the Supreme Court of Pakistan (C.P No 62/2017) makes a similar point and highlights the breach of Article 22 of the Constitution of Pakistan 1973.
According to Article 22 (1) of the Constitution,
‘No person attending any educational institution shall be required to receive religious instruction, or take part in any religious ceremony, or attend religious worship, if such instruction, ceremony or worship relates to a religion other than his own.’
As highlighted by the Working Group on Inclusive Education (WGIE), a voluntary body of educationists, lawyers and civil society members by Centre for Social Justice headed by Mr. Peter Jacob said that, 20-40 percent of the content in secular subjects like languages (English, Urdu) and even history and social studies books, which all children, regardless of their faith have to study equally is based on teachings of the majority religion, violating Article 22 (1) of the constitution of Pakistan.
In addition to Article 22, Peter Jacob has also on record called upon the Punjab government to review these measures for being in violation of Articles 20 (Freedom of Religion) and 25 (Equality of Citizens) of the Constitution.
As noted in the response issued on 24th June 2021 by the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) against this Press Note of the Federal ministry, further evidence of the spill over of Islamic content in secular subjects, ‘comes from the expanded jurisdiction of the MUB to review manuscripts of Islamiyat, General Knowledge, Social Studies, Pakistan Studies, History, Urdu, English or of any other subject containing content related to religion (Islam) as mentioned in the Scheme for Development of Textbooks and Supplementary Reading Material 2021 by PCTB quoted above which leaves no room and scope for doubt that content pertaining to majority faith can be and is found in books related to secular subjects which is in violation of Article 22 of the Constitution of Pakistan and hence, discriminatory against minorities.’
The denial of the Federal government to dispel this very serious concern as ‘totally not true’ is therefore, not tenable. The Federal and provincial governments must recognise these discriminatory elements in secular subjects against minorities and review their content with an inclusive lens rooted in pedagogy as opposed to ideology, read the statement by WAF.
Having considered these anomalies in the implementation of the SNC, it appears that most of the concerns of the stakeholders are valid. At least one of the concerns under discussion today i.e. that of minorities, relates to the SNC at both the federal and provincial level such that the Federal ministry giving an impression that this is false is wrong.
The concern related to role of Ulema Board in reviewing textbooks is also valid and true to the extent of Punjab as acknowledged by the Federal ministry itself. It is unfortunate, that despite these being genuine concerns, an impression was created to dispel this as unfounded and even sinister. Here, the responsibility is on the media which ought to do more responsible reporting.
Only the clarification about appointment of Qari’s appears to be merited but this does not mean that the civil society is on a concerted mission or campaign to malign SNC without any reason or just cause.
The government would do well to take the critical engagement and criticism over the SNC as an opportunity to fix it, as opposed to playing victim of a ‘concerted campaigns’. The concerns raised are genuine and must be addressed.