April 27th, 2021 

By Suneel Malik 


LAHORE

The government of Pakistan claims to have developed exemplary model textbooks under the Single National Curriculum (SNC), free from any kind of hate material against any religious belief or minority community. In this regard, the Federal Ministry of Education submitted a report based on inclusive content in the model textbooks and uniform curriculum to comply with the apex court order vide Jillani judgment (SMC No. 1/2014 etc.).

After having assessed the government’s compliance report, the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) found it unsatisfactory during the hearing held on March 30. This is not all, the Court reprimanded the ministry’s officials and warned them to face dismissal in case they fail to develop the inclusive curriculum in line with court directions. The Court observed that the Ministry of Education seems to be dragging its feet as it has failed to develop an inclusive and tolerant curriculum and textbooks despite the order was issued almost seven years ago.

Ever since the Supreme Court has ordered the Ministry of Education to improve the uniform curriculum and present the revised report in the next hearing, several influential actors have joined forces in the mainstream and social media to criticize the One-man Commission, established by the Supreme Court.

The reaction from all quarters came after the One-man Commission in its parallel report to SCP revealed that textbooks of all subjects continue to maintain religious content, which compels minority students to involuntarily receive the religious instruction they are not adherent of. This is dubbed a violation of fundamental rights given in the Constitution of Pakistan.

Dr Shoaib Suddle designated as head of the One-man Commission recommended the Court direct the Federal Ministry of Education that religious content from textbooks of other subjects be consolidated, and be included in the dedicated subject of Islamiyat instead. This must be done in order to comply with Article 22(1), the right to freedom from coercion in religious instruction.

Since the One-man Commission’s recommendation does not favour excluding Islamiyat at all, and the Supreme Court has not yet passed any order regarding the religious content in public textbooks, the reactions on mainstream and social media seem to be an organized campaign that may intend to leave a message for the Supreme Court that it should interpret the provisions of the constitution keeping this kind of ‘public opinion’ in consideration, or to malign the repute of the Shoaib Suddle Commission.

The Commission has been engaging with public stakeholders, asking them to take substantial measures towards improving compliance with court orders relating to the development of inclusive curricula, enforcement of job quota, protection of worship places, and the establishment of statutory minority rights council, etc.

What made this issue the talk of the town so quickly, despite the fact that this matter had been discussed several times in recent years before the Supreme Court? Ostensibly, the matter has been presented in public as a religious issue in order to create confusion and generate controversy, despite the fact that in actuality it deals with the curricula, and its provisions relating to basic human rights protected under the Constitution.

Several questions arise here – has this campaign been launched intentionally to shift its focus from the SNC to religious content in textbooks, or to secure the positions of the concerned officials? Or is it to avoid the accountability of officials designated for developing uniform curriculum and model textbooks; to avoid review of curriculum and textbooks by independent experts or to take revenge for reprimand and embarrassment that officials had to face?

The actors involved in provoking such radical public sentiments using the pretext of religious content in public textbooks are not well aware of what new education scheme the government has planned to offer, which may make the school setting worse.

It is appalling that the Ministry of Education has presented before the SCP a unique strategy – though impractical – to address the religious content in textbooks of all subjects by adding special instructions that ask teachers neither to compel minority students to learn the religious material other than their own nor to assess the progress of minority students on religious content. For instance, if the above-mentioned strategy is applied as it is designed, it would be highly discriminatory in both cases whether minority students are compelled to either stay in the classroom to avoid the embarrassment caused by segregation or they are asked to leave the classroom to avert receiving religious instruction that is not intended to be taught to them.

If this was not enough, setting the alternative examination questions to minority students would disclose their religious identity which may result in further discrimination against them in the examination. The government needs to realize that the enforced social segregation of students generated through education policies or practices hinder fostering social cohesion and promoting mutual respect and religious diversity.

The Supreme Court is the most appropriate forum to interpret the provisions of the Constitution of Pakistan, therefore, the actors involved in instigating public sentiments must avoid trying to influence the court proceedings, instead, they should let the apex court decide and ensure that the content in the curriculum and textbooks are in complete harmony with the human rights guarantees given in Constitution.

Since the apex court has directed the Ministry of Education to adhere to Article 22(1) which guarantees that: “No person attending any educational institution shall be required to receive religious instruction, or take part in any religious ceremony, or attend religious worship, if such instruction, ceremony or worship relates to a religion other than his own”, it is incumbent on the government to regard the apex court orders and include more inclusive content in curriculum and textbooks, and offer review by independent education experts, in the case ordered by the SCP, which may serve to promote respect for religious diversity and foster the values of social cohesion.

The writer is an advocate of human rights. He tweets @maliksuneel, and can be reached at [email protected].