July 8, 2021
By Suneel Malik
Ever since the new public textbooks for primary grades under the Single National Curriculum (SNC) have been published, several independent experts have expressed serious apprehensions about the problematic content present in the curriculum.
They have also objected to the role of the Muttahida Ulema Board in reviewing and approving the content of public and private textbooks for all subjects, prior to their publication in Punjab, which they say is tantamount to placing the control of education in the hands of religious groups that lack the qualification and expertise needed.
For the PTI, the criticism coming from various quarters on the party’s most ambitious project ‘One Nation One Curriculum’ has been indigestible. This compelled the federal minister for education to take the floor in the legislative assembly, where he went on to say that the voices of dissent were a ‘concerted campaign’ to malign the SNC.
The federal ministry of education claims to have been inspired by the curriculum being used in places like Singapore, UK, Malaysia and Indonesia and says that the SNC is aligned with international standards. However, the final product of the SNC and the textbooks make us believe that the government did not benefit in the least from the curricula followed in these countries; rather it seems to be inspired by nothing more than the madrassah curriculum, which is to say there are religious insertions in almost all the textbooks.
There is nothing wrong with mainstreaming madrassas, but having madrassah inspired school textbooks is the limit.
It should be noted that the federal ministry of education presented a report based on what they called was “inclusive content” in curriculum and textbooks. This basically meant including names of characters that belonged to religious minorities, for example, Michael, Anjali, Harjeet Singh, Daler Singh, John, Priya, and Joseph; carrying material about their festivals, etc. But in the same report, the government officials did not include what really was problematic content. The report was presented before the Supreme Court of Pakistan in March 2021.
It is appalling that public office-holders from the prime minister to the chief ministers, governors, and ministers, down to legislators, and heads of advisory bodies all take oath under the Constitution of Pakistan before assuming their responsibilities, but when it comes to abiding by the same constitution, they are least bothered.
In this case, they are adamant to advocate for mainstream religious content (Islamic content only) in all textbooks even in religiously neutral subjects, which is an infringement of the human rights of teachers and students, adherents of different faiths other than Islam.
No action has been taken to exclude this discriminatory material which is also a total disregard to Supreme Court orders, which have directed the government to prevent any forced teaching of religious instruction and to ensure adherence to Article 22 (1) of the Constitution.
It is evident that the textbooks developed under the SNC end up adding more religious teaching in subjects that are essentially non-religious such as languages and social sciences.
Even though neutral themes like diversity, tolerance, human rights, and respect are also part of the curriculum, the authors tend to mostly rely on religion to elaborate a neutral topic, quoting examples from the lives of religious personage.
In this way, they are deliberately ignoring religiously neutral stories that students from diverse communities can also relate to, encouraging a positive response in the students’ attitudes and behaviours. The use of religious instances only leaves an impression that good deeds are carried out by religious personalities only, and that they cannot be expected from any ordinary person no matter what the religious background is.
Most authors have also taken the liberty to include material from the perspectives inspired by their own religious convictions which have ended up making the content even more religious. This has indirectly reinforced an impression that the textbooks are meant to be taught solely to Muslim students, and the examples of tolerance are present in Islam only, and no other religion, which further marginalizes, devalues and isolates minority students.
Review Committees & Irrelevant Religious Insertions
The responsibility for approval lies with the review committees which evaluate the textbooks on the standards of quality of content, assessment, originality, sensitivity, and creativity, conformity with local context and international commitments. Yet, they have badly failed in effectively discharging their responsibilities when it comes to monitoring the insertion of religious content in what are meant to be religiously neutral textbooks.
There is neither creativity nor originality in including religious passages in subjects that do not require them – for instance, English and Urdu. In actuality, in order to have their books approved without hassle by the review committees, religious content has been added purposefully. Evidently, no reviewer has ever dared to even question why religious teachings should be included in non-religious subjects such as English or Urdu language books, even though they know that it is irrelevant to the subject.
Eventually, they have ended up endorsing this religious material in all the textbooks to avoid facing potential public backlash, which may be caused if they give their professional feedback in favour of relevant, inclusive, and tolerant content.
The government needs to realize that letting one religion pervade over others through textbooks, and in every subject is against the spirit of tolerance and non-discrimination. Incorporating religious content in textbooks is easy, but its retraction is exceptionally difficult to keep the essence of learning other compulsory subjects.
It must objectively consider implementing equality of opportunity and treatment in education, as it is the duty of the state to ensure that no one is forced to receive religious instructions that are not inconsistent with their own convictions. It must also take effective measures for abrogating any statutory provisions and discontinuing any administrative instructions that involve discrimination in education.
The SNC is unacceptable to many parents, educationists, sectarian and religious minority groups. This is why the government needs to take diverse stakeholders on board by making the review process inclusive and transparent, particularly it should invite the input of independent experts for a thorough review of SNC and textbooks to make educational reforms relevant, inclusive and comprehensive.
In September, the apex court is likely to decide the fate of SNC based on the Constitution and will ascertain whether the content violates Article 22(1) or not. Even if the federal ministry of education manages to fully implement the SNC despite a court intervention, the SNC still has a bleak chance to survive long and will die an untimely death in a year or two.
It may face overhauling for its controversial nature once a new government assumes power in 2023. Since the incumbent government changed the name of the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) and did not consider improving the draft education policy 2017, to craft the new education policy 2021, why would the next government want to continue with SNC that is a PTI trademark? More dangerously it will end up inculcating a particular ideology among children, which may favour certain political parties that resort to religion for their political gains.
The writer is an advocate of human rights. He tweets @maliksuneel, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org