June 8th, 2021
By Rehan Piracha
The action to remove religious content from compulsory subjects other than Islamiyat under the Single National Curriculum (SNC) is at a standstill, as the Punjab Government has refused to do so, despite the Supreme Court’s directives for the implementation of minority rights. Now, the apex court is all set to hear the matter on June 11 as this will be a part of proceedings on the implementation of a 2014 SC judgment focusing on minority rights across the country.
‘One system of Education’
The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) has been pushing for the implementation of SNC across the schools in the country as part of an election promise. The federal education ministry says that SNC is a step in the direction towards having ‘one system of education for all in terms of curriculum, medium of instruction and a common platform of assessment so that all children have a fair and equal opportunity to receive high-quality education.
Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood had announced that all provinces had agreed to implement the SNC from primary classes in schools from the new academic session starting in August.
But the Sindh government has said that it will not be in a position to implement the SNC from the academic year this year.
In a landmark suo moto verdict taken by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Tasaduq Hussain Jillani in 2014, the Supreme Court bench directed the implementation of minority rights in the country.
The apex court has constituted a one-man commission, headed by Dr Shoaib Suddle, who was also the former Inspector General of Police and head of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), to regularly submit reports on the implementation of court directives under this verdict. Its eighth report was presented to the Supreme Court in March.
Speaking to Voicepk.net, Peter Jacob, Executive Director of Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) and the Chairperson for the Peoples Commission for Minority Rights (PCMR), said his organization along with other rights activists had petitioned the Supreme Court regarding the discrimination against minority communities in education as well as protection of their rights guaranteed under Article 22 of the Constitution.
Religious content in the curriculum
Explaining the background of insertion of religious content in subjects other than Islamiyat in school textbooks, Jacob said the inclusion of the religious content in other subjects began soon after the country’s independence in 1947.
“Every education policy that has come has led to the inclusion of religious content in other subjects as well as a general decline in the standard of education,” said Jacob. He said this was augmented with special legislation as well as the insertion of Article 31 in the Constitution. “In 1959, the Justice Sharif report recommended that religious education should be taught separately from the curriculum and should not be included in the curriculum,” he said.
However, in total disregard of this recommendation, the government made religious education compulsory in the national education policy in 1972.
“The Zia martial law regime introduced further inclusion of religious content in other subjects,” he added. Peter Jacob said the education policy further augmented the inclusion of religious content in textbooks other than Islamiyat in 1998.
Jillani Judgement on the role of curriculum
Jacob said the 2014 judgement came in the background of rising extremism and violence in the country.
“We had the church bombing in Peshawar prior to the SC judgment,” he said. “The judgment directed that the curriculum should be made a medium of religious and social harmony,” Jacob explained. He said they petitioned the apex court in 2015 but unfortunately the bench was not constituted even in the following two years.
“In 2018, CSJ, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the Cecil and Iris Chaudhry Foundation (CICF) and other organisations filed a fresh petition in the apex court against the widespread discrimination in the education system regarding hate material and violation of Article 22,” Jacob said.
What is Article 22?
Article 22 of the Constitution of Pakistan covers rights of all citizens regarding educational institutions in respect of religion.
‘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,’ reads Article 22(1).
“The inclusion of religious content in compulsory subjects will force students from minorities to receive religious instructions other than their own, which is a direct violation of Article 22,” he explained.
In February 2021, the Supreme Court bench, headed by Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed, directed the federal education ministry to submit a report on whether the SNC safeguards Article 22 provisions, Jacob said.
In the hearing on March 31, the Supreme Court rejected the federal education ministry report which stated that in their opinion the curriculum was not violative of Article 22 provisions.
“In the SNC, it has been ensured that students from minorities are not compelled to study any material that is based on religion other than their own. In this regard, instructions for teachers have been added. Moreover, for assessments, the teachers have been asked to give alternate questions for minorities’ students. In case of any assessments from the chapters containing text from the religion other than their own religion,” reads the report of the education ministry.
However, the SC-mandated commission, headed by Shoaib Suddle, disagreed with this assertion.
“That the idea of alternate exam questions for non-Muslim students instead of Islamiyat would also be discriminatory, and in fact can prove harmful to them by revealing their identities. The examiner marking the papers would come to know the faith of non-Muslim students and may exercise his/her religious prejudice against them. Similarly, the paper-setter may get a chance to exercise his/her religious bias against a non-Muslim student by asking a difficult alternate question,” reads the commission’s report submitted to the Supreme Court in response to the Federal Education Ministry.
“In view of the above, the SNC and model textbooks being violative of Article 22 and also the aforementioned obligations under various international treaties, require to be appropriately reviewed,” the commission said.
The apex court had directed the federal education ministry to present a fresh report saying that the ministry cannot pick and choose implementation of constitutional provisions, Peter Jacob said.
Punjab govt’s refusal to implement recommendations
However, the commission’s recommendations for removal of religious content from subjects like English, Urdu, General Knowledge, in the SNC reached an impasse when the Punjab government withdrew a letter to the Punjab Textbook Board by the provincial human rights department.
In a joint statement, Punjab Governor Muhammad Sarwar and Punjab Assembly Speaker Pervaiz Elahi said the recommendations would not go down well with the majority of the population.
Special Representative to the PM on Interfaith Harmony Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi, also the chairman of Muttahida Ulema Board, told a press conference that the board meeting had rejected the commission’s recommendations and demanded the Punjab chief minister initiate action against those who forwarded these suggestions.
“I believe that the Punjab government’s refusal to implement the recommendations are clear cut violations of Article 22,” Jacob said. The letter simply asked the textbook board to uphold constitutional provisions relating to students from minority communities, he said.
“A campaign is underway to incite violence and public anger in a bid to stop implementation of the law,” Jacob said.
Only 24% SC directives implemented since 2014
The Supreme Court will take up the 8th implementation report of the commission as well as the fresh report of the federal education ministry in its hearing on June 11.
Peter Jacob said that his organization has also a published a third report titled ‘Justice Yet Afar’ on the implementation of directives given by the Supreme Court regarding minority rights in the country. The report reveals some shocking failings on part of the successive governments where minority rights are concerned.
“In the last seven years, the government has implemented only 24 per cent of the Jillani Judgment directives,” Jacob revealed.
Sadly this only means that the minorities in the country have to wait for many many more years to finally receive basic rights enshrined in the Constitution.