WHAT must it feel like to have armed men burst into your classroom and tell you that what you’re studying is forbidden under Sharia? How much worse is that feeling than the realisation that your state is unable — or unwilling —- to keep you safe from such intimidation while you pursue your education?
Sadly, students in Panjgur, Balochistan, have had to answer these questions in recent weeks following threats and attacks against private and co-educational schools and English learning centres. The Tanzeem-ul-Islam-ul-Furqan, a previously unknown group, has been circulating written threats against schools with female students and teachers, warning against “vulgar, Western” education. The group has also targeted van and taxi drivers who transport girls to school. To make sure the point was well taken, the group on May 14 shot at and burnt a van on a school run.
The extremist assault against education is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan — more than 600,000 students are believed to be out of school in KP because of militancy in recent years.
Just last month, the provincial assembly debated the extent to which militancy had impacted education provision in KP. The education department claimed 160 primary and secondary schools in the province, including 13 in Peshawar, remained closed owing to the activities of militant groups. Others contested the figures, saying they were as high as 385 closed schools, including 295 for girls. The numbers are likely much higher, and do not account for the dozens of schools that have been destroyed through bomb attacks by militants since the mid-2000s.
The situation in Panjgur has invited comparisons with the activities of the Boko Haram in Nigeria, currently in the international media spotlight following the kidnapping of over 200 school girls.
Closure of schools in Panjgur will give more room to madressahs.
It has also highlighted how militant groups are able to take advantage of the poor security situation in Balochistan, exploiting the uncertain environment to serve their own ideological agendas despite the significant military and paramilitary presence in the province. And it has once again raised troubling questions about the capacity and willingness of the government and state security forces to push back against militancy.
The school closures have no doubt taken a psychological toll on Panjgur’s population, making the future imposition of obscurantist ideas on a historically moderate society easier. But it is worth highlighting the more cynical motives behind the militants’ focus on schools. The closure of private, co-ed and English-language schools is likely to create greater space for madressahs, and by extension, more support for militant activities.
Recent intelligence reports from Islamabad have reiterated the connection between madressahs and violent extremist groups. Not only do madressahs provide new recruits and attract funds that are often diverted to militancy, they also play an important networking role, helping militant groups connect with each other. There are reportedly already 2,500 registered and 10,000 unregistered madressahs in the province.
In this context, the rise of the Furqan group brings credence to recent claims that state security forces are giving increasing leeway to extremist groups in Balochistan in the hopes that religious ideology might trump growing nationalist sentiments.
There is no shortage of reasons why the government should eradicate militancy, but its impact on education is certainly among the more compelling ones. Protests in Panjgur against government inefficacy in the face of the militant threats are an important reminder that ours is still an aspirational society, one that seeks progress and opportunity. The failure to check the impact of militancy on education will lead to the unnecessary loss of a generation.
(Admittedly, the poor state of education in Pakistan is not only a fallout of the security environment — it is well-known that the state does not consider education to be a priority. Think of interior Sindh, where the incidence of extremist militancy remains low, but where every seventh school is a ‘ghost school’.)
The negative outcomes of militancy’s chilling effects on education cannot be understated: democracy cannot function without the contributions of a literate population equipped for civic participation and critical thought. Without receiving an education, Pakistanis will also lack the skills needed to contribute to the globalised economy and thereby reap the demographic dividend. The chances of international employment for Pakistanis will also decline, dealing a blow to an economy that relies so heavily on foreign remittances. Moreover, the fact that schools in KP and Balochistan have been harder hit could fuel further inter-provincial tensions as the discrepancies in development indicators with other provinces widen.
As such, in addition to its more obvious toll in the form of loss of lives, militancy can put indirect pressures on the polity, and is likely to do so, unless checked.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2014