Where we went wrong

August 01, 2013


IT was supposed to be an occasion to felicitate Malala on her birthday and use her speech at the UN Youth Assembly to inspire the audience. Party representatives were to be brought together on a common platform to renew their pledge to educate Pakistan’s children, especially girls.

In this context the South Asian Women in Media, with the support of the South Asian Free Media Association, took the step of convening a seminar on ‘Women’s education and terrorism’ at the Karachi Press Club the other day.

Regrettably, the seminar failed to achieve the objective it had set out to do. It became a forum for politicking rather than focusing on the issues at stake in education. I was hoping to hear the party representatives spell out the strategies they were planning to promote education in the country. Instead we heard a lot of loud talk extolling the virtues of education, as though we didn’t know. Do our leaders believe we still have to be persuaded about the advantages of education?

Since this was a seminar in honour of Malala and her brave stand against the Taliban, it also became an occasion for Taliban-bashing. One speaker very wittily said they should be called the Zaliman. How right she was. Another said that our society’s mindset had been Talibanised and that had endangered education. Correct again. This did not surprise anyone as the Taliban have emerged as the bête noire of the liberal section of Pakistani society. They have certainly harmed the country immensely. But they have to be dealt with in the national security context.

This tough talk took away the focus from education. The impression conveyed was that the education sector was all hunky dory before the Taliban entered the scene. The fact is that if education had been on the right track the Taliban could never have made the kind of headway they have made.

Those of us who predate the Taliban know very well that education has received a bad deal ever since Pakistan was created as a homeland for the Muslims. Inheriting the Macaulay tradition we failed to expand our education base fast enough for the common man while schools for the elite were given full support. Over the years there was a slide in the system till Z.A. Bhutto’s well-intended but poorly executed school and college nationalisation policy in 1972 came as the proverbial straw on the camel’s back.

There was no stopping after that. Ziaul Haq injected the pseudo-Islamic dimension which many were complaining about at the seminar. The decade of the nineties could not stop the slide and as commercialism was given a boost by the neo-liberal economics of that decade, education became the great divider. The only new factor that has come with the Taliban is that little Malalas are actually being shot at for going to school. Thank heavens for girls like Malala who show courage and refuse to be deterred.

What is actually disturbing is that this Taliban syndrome has become a smokescreen to conceal the malaise which has led to the collapse of our education system. What is not admitted generally is that this malaise preceded the Taliban.

Take the destruction of schools. Even before the local Taliban emerged on the scene, Pakistan’s education authorities had spawned the ghost school syndrome. This proved to be an insidious mode of destruction of schools and therefore more dangerous.

With school buildings in rural areas used as baithaks or cattle pens and school teachers in the employ of landowners, children were turned back from what were supposedly their schools. According to the last statistics quoted there were 12,000 ghost schools in Pakistan at one time. The Taliban have blown up about 500 schools and unwittingly spurred the girls into action. They still have to learn from our education authorities.

Even before the mindsets began to change so dangerously towards religious dogmatism in the Zia era, the ground had already been paved by the People’s Party government’s school nationalisation programme. Teaching posts were filled up with party activists whose main qualification was their loyalty to the party and not their commitment to education. Funds were siphoned off from the treasury to dole out their salaries.

The Sindh Education Minister, Nisar Khuhro, who was the chief guest at the seminar, immediately entered into a blame game saying that his government was being attacked when the original sin had been committed by military dictators. Why weren’t they being criticised, he wanted to know.

He also took a swipe at civil society and the indifference of parents towards their children’s education. It was unfair of the minister to blame parents when the majority of them are themselves uneducated. They deserve credit for accepting change and sending their children to school when they themselves had not been there.

Civil society, more the media, must share some of the blame as education for the underprivileged has never ranked high in their priorities. But that doesn’t exempt an incumbent government from its responsibility for which it made promises in its election manifesto and collected taxes from the people. Does it mean it will not act if it is not pushed by civil society? The PPP had a full five years in office to make a start.

What was disappointing about the seminar was that no clear-cut strategies were spelt out or commitment expressed to clean the Augean stables. Hadn’t we gathered for that?