ISLAMABAD: The National Assembly threw on Tuesday its weight behind the government’s plans to reform madressahs, adopting an opposition resolution calling for improving and regulating studies at religious seminaries. But, thanks to a ministerial dithering, a similar vote against a 1-1/2-year-old ban on YouTube video-sharing social website was put off.
However, on a day of strident attacks against dubious moves advanced in the name of Islam, most criticism across party lines, in an opposition-initiated debate, focussed on militants obstructing polio vaccination in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and adjoining Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and was marked by demands that the government make protection for polio vaccinators as condition of peace talks with Taliban rebels.
The government did not oppose the one-sentence resolution demanding that it “take steps to improve and regulate madressah education”, which was moved by a Pakistan People’s Party lawmaker, Nafisa Shah, who cited a similar aim set by the government in its recently announced “national internal security policy” as part of plans to secure madressahs against radicalisation or terrorist indoctrination of their students.
A government-allied religious party, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-F, many of whose senior members are running religious seminaries, has vowed to resist the planned reform that it says is part of a Western agenda, but none of its members came out to oppose Tuesday’s resolution, ensuring its adoption without a negative voice vote.
Ms Shah too acknowledged that only “some” of the thousands of private madressahs were involved in objectionable activities, crediting the majority with providing education to “the poorest of the poor” as she called for their “mainstreaming” with the inclusion of subjects like science and computer education in their syllabi so their degrees were recognised by the formal system of education and their graduates qualified for jobs.
Minister for Religious Affairs Sardar Mohammad Yousaf resisted Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq’s advice that he need not speak after Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Shaikh Aftab Ahmed said he would not oppose the resolution, showed some soft corner for madressah operators. He said that most of things said against them were based on mere propaganda or lack of knowledge and that the government was already working with five madressah educational boards for the inclusion of “other subjects” in their syllabi.
The minister of state later cited the presence of just one word, “immediate” in the text of PPP lawmaker Shazia Marri’s resolution — that the government take “immediate steps to lift ban on YouTube” — for opposing the move against the September 2012 ban imposed by the previous PPP-led coalition government after YouTube uploaded a video derogatory to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
After Ms Marri and Arif Alvi of the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf seemed to have convinced the treasury benches that time had come to lift the ban with adequate safeguards in view of the advantage of the hugely popular website, a US court decision asking the Google search engine to remove the objectionable video, the two sides seemed to have agreed on a revised text of the resolution. An amendment moved by Awais Leghari of the PML-N deleted the word “immediate” and gave the government up to two months to remove the ban “with adequate safeguards”.
But an apparent afterthought, also involving the speaker, Science and Technology Minister Zahid Hamid and PPP’s senior member Naveed Qamar, and after a reference was made by a ruling party member to a petition on the issue pending before the Lahore High Court, the vote on the resolution was deferred to the next private members’ day on April 8, the last day of the session.
It was again a motion moved by PPP’s Ms Marri seeking a discussion on “steps being taken by the government to completely eradicate polio in the country” that prompted some senior lawmakers to join the cause. Some of them warned the house about a time when out of the three countries not yet declared polio-free (Afghanistan and Nigeria being the other two), Pakistan could have an added stigma of remaining the only country in the world afflicted with the menace because of militant attacks on polio vaccinators.
A spirited call from Qaumi Watan Party leader Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao for including the issue in the agenda for government’s ongoing peace talks with Taliban militants was supported by several other lawmakers while some other suggestions included that the house pass a resolution making it obligatory for all its members to participate in vaccination campaigns and that parents of polio victims be punished for not getting their children vaccinated.
The chair ruled that the debate be continued on next Tuesday.
The day also saw a two-pronged move four Jamaat-i-Islami members of the house to oversee people morals met with a partial success when the house adopted a resolution moved by them asking the government to “take steps to impose immediate ban” on what it called immoral programmes on state and private television channels, but got a cold shoulder from Inter-Provincial Coordination Minister Riaz Hussain Pirzada over their call-attention notice against perceived “obscene musical programmes on private channels.
The minister’s remark that accepting the Jamaat members’ demand to ban singing and dancing could suffocate society led to some angry exchanges between the two sides.