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Playing with fire: Urdu syllabus changes

March 27, 2013

POISED to transfer the reins of government from one elected party to another, there is no doubt Pakistan is at a historic juncture. But instead of this giving the political elite confidence, what we are seeing are increasingly craven electioneering tactics. Viewed through this prism, the Punjab government’s reaction to criticism of its changes to the province’s 10th class Urdu textbooks acquires a far more serious dimension. In the new edition of the textbooks published in February, the government had excluded several chapters of prose and poetry that discussed Islam. This is something that has been argued for by reformists for years, given that the curriculum already has an entirely separate, mandatory subject — Islamiat — on the topic. Why should similar material be included in textbooks that teach the art of writing and articulating concepts in Urdu, when far more diversity is available? State-set curricula have over the decades faced legitimate criticism for the manner in which the dominant religion and a jihadist ideology have seeped into them, feeding into the polarisation of society and the further shrinking of space for minority and progressive groups.

But instead of standing by the reformist move, the Punjab government did a pusillanimous about-face when the exclusions were pointed out on Sunday. Swayed, no doubt, by the temptation to not be seen as doing anything that might disturb mainstream sentiment, it announced that the old chapters would be restored. That Shahbaz Sharif was, in fall last year, a proponent of the changes on his official Twitter account only makes the latest move more unfortunate. Is Punjab’s political elite really as insecure as this? Yes, there’s an election to be won, but much more important in the larger context is that there is a country to rebuild, and this will not happen unless leaders learn to set Pakistan’s house in order in more ways than one.

Whatever the shape of the next government, winning will only be the beginning of the battle. The far more serious challenge will be to somehow claw the country back from the edge of the abyss into which it is currently staring and redirect it towards progressiveness, prosperity and security. This will involve making tough choices and going against right-wing sentiment where necessary. Yet there are few signs that the political elite have the courage and commitment to do so.