PUTTING Amartya Sen’s words in a local context, a person may be, without contradiction: a Pakistani citizen, of Lahori origin, with Bengali ancestry, a woman, a Muslim, a researcher, a dancer, a believer in gender equality, a volleyball player, and a Vital Signs fan.
While personifying all these simultaneously, it highlights the idea that these traits give her a multitude of identities that can coexist without their meaning being derived from the annihilation of another. Instead, when identity is derived from a singular aspect (be it a political, racial or a religious one) it creates violence. This is the ‘martial art’ of the creation of sectarian violence. A cyclical process is born: a singular identity breeds violence, which in turn reinforces this identity. This is where education matters.
Pakistan’s education policies have been reflective of the political context and had clear implications on how we as a nation perceived our identities. Influenced by socialism, Islam had a restricted role in the curricula during the 1950s. Pedagogy also reflected this ideology. Children were taught the early history of South Asia, including that of prehistoric times.
The books that were part of the curriculum described the earlier empires including the ancient mythology, Mauryas, Guptas, early Hindus and Buddhist kingdoms, early Muslim conquests and establishment of Muslim sultanates in north India. Students, hence, were inclined towards an understanding of their own societies in the larger context of the world, recognising that this region’s geography and history were inextricably tied to that of many others.
Pakistan’s education policies have robbed citizens of critical reasoning.
The political context began to change as Islamic socialism slowly disappeared. Religion now took the responsibility of national cohesion. The shift towards ‘Islamising’ Pakistan’s education policy was bolstered during the Zia era (which remained unaltered for the most part until 2006). The redesigned curriculum provided a one-sided view of our national experience, in which history was now taught to begin from the time Muslims first stepped foot on the subcontinent. Coupled with misrepresentation of historical events, non-Muslim Pakistanis were either deprived of their national identity or were rejected as inherently immoral.
Two things had taken place. First, while teaching methodologies began to crumble, the academic goal became result-oriented and students were expected to reproduce the material they had been taught. Such a ‘banking method’ of teaching treats students as mere repositories that teachers must deposit information into. These repositories have no agency of their own and are not expected (in fact, discouraged) to engage critically.
The text (any given piece of literature), in other words, is deprived of the myriad of meanings it beholds. It is comprehended only in such a way that there is never an expansion of knowledge or critique. Citizens were robbed of their capacity for critical thinking and reasonable, authentic self-expression. This textual violence, like the aforementioned ‘martial art’, manifested itself in constricted spaces for discussion and open debate, brewing intolerance and hatred.
Textual violence often precedes physical violence. As a result, we produced a generation of millennials who helplessly defy Hegel’s concept of Geist — that human race is divided in dialectical stages and is bound to get better as each stage progresses.
Second, the state’s objective shifted from students’ learning to exercising greater control over them. The illusion of security and ‘right path’ was amplified to make people believe there existed only a constricted version of true faith and national ideology that must be followed. In light of the ongoing Soviet war, this was crucial to provide national support to the jihadists. This narrative blamed all acts of aggression on the external because this otherisation helped in affirming our own sense of identity. By giving a singular facet of identity such uniqueness and inevitability, we rejected all else as impure. Meanwhile, the real challenges that existed within the mindsets of the citizens were not problematised, even decades after the policy was implemented.
In the context of religious fundamentalism, there has been much recent debate about who a ‘true Muslim’ is. Such debates do not help the cause because it still encourages people to be put into boxes. Historically, all religions have had people belonging to a wide spectrum of identities; defining what constitutes a ‘true Muslim’ is a religion-centred political approach that only cements a particular people as the other. As Amartya Sen wrote, “It is the Anti-Semite who makes the Jew.” What is required is a clear-headed education policy that reflects an understanding of the importance of freedom to reasoned public voice. n
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2019