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No space for children of religious minorities in government’s unified educational system

Islamabad: To implement its grand vision for a unified educational system, the PTI government has introduced a new study road map called the Single National Curriculum (SNC) for Grade 1 to 5 students, but it seems that children of religious minorities have no space.

The new curriculum offers an optional subject for the children of all five religious minorities but at the same time making them bound to study Islamic content in compulsory subjects such as Urdu and English.

Article 22 of the Constitution safeguards the basic rights of minority communities and confirms that “no person attending any educational institution shall be required to receive religious instruction… if such instruction relates to a religion other than his or her own”.

However, a team of educationists and rights activists, who is familiar with the new curriculum development, says that it has found approximately 9 per cent content of the Grade 3 English textbook, 23 per cent of the Grade 4, and 21.42 per cent of the Grade 5 textbook in violation of the said article.

There is a footnote, which instructs that teachers do not force minorities’ students to study Islamic content, at the end of each page of the textbooks. These instructions alone will be difficult to enforce in classrooms where Muslim and non-Muslim students study together, they informed.

A well-known historian Dr Yaqoob Bangash, in his interview with a leading news website, was found as saying religious content has dramatically increased in the new curriculum. Dr Bangash, who has also seen the school books, further said, if you add religious content once to a compulsory subject, it is very hard to retract it.

No government, even 50 years into the future, will be able to reduce it, the historian informed.

Centre for Social Justice Executive Director Peter Jocab said that he was surprised when he saw the final curriculum, adding that the recommendations he subsequently sent to the government, asking for the revision of the content, were ignored.

Jocab was initially taken on board as a counsel by the PTI government when the curriculum was being drafted last year. However, he wasn’t consulted while giving the final touch to the curriculum.

The SNC is not inclusive, but Islamized as the religiously neutral subjects Urdu and English maintain religious content which reinforces religious instructions for minority students inconsistent with their conviction, said Dr A.H. Nayyar, a noted educationist and policy expert.

It promotes rote learning rather than critical and creative thinking among children. The harmonization of education in the name of equality will end up inculcating static thinking, which is dangerous, said MPA Bushra Anjum Butt while speaking at a seminar in Lahore.

Members National Curriculum Council (NCC) in a meeting to discuss unified curriculum. The Reporters/ File

Giving With One Hand & Taking Away With Other

English and Urdu are two compulsory subjects to study under the new curriculum. One contentious issue for religious minority children has been the teaching of Islamic content in the compulsory subjects, the CSJ executive director said.

Besides coercion, this is discriminatory because children belonging to minority communities are required to study and take exams for these subjects, Jacob explained in his interview with The Reporters.

Jocab says, “It seems the government is giving with one hand and taking away with the other.”

On one hand, the government’s developed curriculum offers an optional subject to non-Muslim students and on the other hand, it forces them to study Islamic content in compulsory subjects, he lamented.

He termed the SNC a set of complications for approximately 40 per cent Muslim and non-Muslim students enrolled at primary level in Pakistan, adding that “it has made education from easier to difficult and local to international for students”.

He was of the view that religion based conflicts are the central issue to discuss and address because the growing level of intolerance and attitudinal changes in the governance system keep minorities under pressure.

Ulemas’ Positive Role Stressed

Former member National Assembly Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani said that there was a need to make necessary changes in the curriculum for students from school to universities to create and promote interfaith harmony in the country.

Dr Vankwani said promoting fraternity and harmony among various communities could help ensure peace and prosperity in society and all this could be achieved through making changes in the curriculum from an early stage.

He said extremists and other inhuman acts have shaken the societies around the world and in this situation, it is necessary to encourage tolerance, peace and patience here in Pakistan, adding that religious scholars and Ulemas could play a constructive role in this regard.

Dr Vankwani further said absence of non-Muslim literature in the national curriculum and misuse of blasphemy laws are some of the challenges, which need to be addressed in the light of basic Islamic principles.

He said religious minorities played an important role in the independence of Pakistan and they have equal right to enjoy freedom expression and faith.

The former member provincial assembly said that there should not be hate material in the national curriculum as Islam is a religion of peace and prosperity. It is a moderate religion with respect to humanity and does not provide space to extremist elements, he maintained.

The Shift in Power

Taking notice of growing incidents of violence, intolerance and discrimination towards religious minorities in Pakistan, the Supreme Court (SC), in its 2014 verdict, directed the state to develop national curricula to create and promote interfaith harmony in the country.

To implement the court directions, the National Curriculum Council (NCC) was formed in August, 2019.

While the NCC was working on development of the unified curriculum under the supervision of the Ministry of Education and Professional Training, when through a new bill, MuttahidaUlema Board (MUB) was formed to review changes in the curriculum. With the approval of MUB, this single national curriculum was finalized.

Does SNC Offer a Solution to Faith-Based Discriminations?

“She is not of my religion so she cannot sit with me, these were the arguments of one of my classmates when my teacher asked me to sit with her at my first day in school while we were in Grade one,” J* recalled her childhood experience of faith-based discrimination in a school in Islamabad.

J* is now an A-level student and she belongs to the Hindu community. The youth is active in promoting interfaith harmony among different religious minorities.

“We were too young to be taught hatred against each other’s faith at school as it was our first day, but she was expressing the hate she had consciously and unconsciously learned from the environment she was brought up in,” says J*.

J* says changes in the national curriculum are good to promote peace and harmony in the society but there is a need to discuss the constructs this society has developed about religious minorities in this country.

“Hindus deceived Muslims in support of the British Army at the time of Independence,” it’s a common notion that has been used against Hindus  and it has spoiled our loyalties with this country, despite our forefathers having made great sacrifices for this country, J* said.

“Hindu and Muslim could never be friend and will never be, does not matter if they spend 100 years together” is another widely repeated rhetoric that impacts negatively.

This rhetoric has not only confined our freedom of expression, but our sacrifices and loyalties with our motherland [Pakistan], J* deplored.

Such anti-Hindu rhetoric not only increases our vulnerability, but incite hatred and violence against us in society, she informed.

About curriculum changes, J* said giving an option to religious minorities is not the solution to address faith-based discriminations that have been practiced in society since independence. There is a need to deconstruct the narrative of the society for religious minorities, she emphasized.

“Why teachers don’t teach students about the real spirit of Islam which emphasized peace and interfaith harmony among all religion, rather making comparison between different religions,” the A-level student inquisitively asked.

A student belonging to religious minorities feels insecure and harassed when a teacher in his/her presence teaches how our religion is superior to other religions in the class, J* added.

It does not matter which religion we belong to, it’s a fact we are citizens of Pakistan. Our ancestors rendered sacrifices for the independence of this country and we have the right of freedom of faith and expression, said A*, another Hindu student.

No efforts to create and promote interfaith harmony will succeed until we stop comparing between different religions and continue portraying the negative role of Hindus, A* added.

A* said minority students are routinely subjected to psychological ill-treatment, including being segregated, bullied and teased on multiple occasions by classmates, teachers and people in society.

Justice Yet Afar

According to a recent book titled “Justice Yet Afar” by Peter Jacob, the religious minorities increasingly approached the courts seeking protection of their socio-economic interests, and their civil and political rights in 1985.

Two major concerns were prominent in the minorities’ choice for seeking legal remedies. The first was about the policy of nationalism of educational institutions in 1972 that impacted some religious minorities’ communities, Christian in particular.

According to the data collected by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) from the Education Boards and Examination Commission in Punjab, ethics was not a preferred option for minority students in 2018. Only 0.07 per cent students opted to be examined in ethics at Grade 5 level, while 0.06 percent students at Grade 8 studied ethics.

SDPI, while mentioning the 1998 census, in its 2013 report stated that Hindus in Pakistan account for approximately 1.85 per cent of the country’s total population.

However, the Pakistan Hindu Council has estimated that the total Hindu population now exceeds 7 million. Of this, approximately 94 per cent inhabit Sindh province and the remaining Hindu population resides in small pockets of Punjab, KP and Baluchistan.

The Only Way Forward

We can end religious intolerance and backwardness by understanding the blurred contours of history and contextualizing Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s vision of a forward looking society, said Peter Jacob from CSJ.

The focus of our academics, scholars, thinkers, writers, civil society and even political class should be to revive the idea of egalitarian society, he maintained.

*Name has been changed to protect survivor’s identity.

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