Two harrowing wake-up calls – the Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014 that saw over 140 children killed, and the more recent attack on the Charsadda-based Bacha Khan University – and two well-publicized APCs later, there are yet few reassuring signs that our ruling elite has learnt any lessons from the traumatic experience that the nation has gone through in the past two decades.
In particular, it seems to have acquired little understanding of the importance of education, not only in the ongoing war against terror, but also as an integral part of national development.
The current wave of anti-education terror that gained salience in the wake of the Taliban insurgency, resulting in the near-fatal attack on Malala Yusufzai and her friends in 2011, has terrorised the nation’s school-going children and their parents and teachers and has made education virtually a hostage to terror. There is a culture of impunity surrounding egregious violations of human rights, which represents a major barrier to education. Attacks on children, teachers and schools, and recourse to widespread and systematic rape and other forms of sexual violence as a weapon of war are among the starkest examples of violations that have been unleashed in Pakistan in recent decades.
Children and schools in Pakistan today are on the front line of terrorist attacks, with classrooms, teachers and pupils seen as ‘low-hanging’ targets. There is a growing fear among children to attend school, among teachers to give classes, among parents to send their children to school and among school administrators to preemptively close down schools to avoid public criticism of their laxity and accusations of ‘security lapse’. Insurgent groups have repeatedly attacked education infrastructure, girls’ schools in particular.
While the state institutions responsible for keeping the fear of terrorism at bay are in a state of disarray and confusion, riven by turf issues of who is responsible for what and who is to blame for what, the ordinary citizen just shudders at the prospect of leading a life with the constant risk of losing her or her children’s life, limb or dignity. Many are commending extreme steps such as shutting all the schools down, indefinitely or – for those who can afford it – leaving the country permanently. These reductionist and defeatist reactions can only further embolden those who are sworn enemies of education, especially for girls and the underprivileged.
After endless quibbling for over a decade whether the war on terror, which the military was willy-nilly dragged into after the 9/11 attacks on the US in 2001, was ‘ours’ or ‘theirs’ and whether the Taliban were our friends or foes, we suddenly awakened – rather late in the day – to the reality of the fundamentalist threat our ‘friends’ from across the Durand Line (and their allies in Pakistan) posed to our existence. It was only after the 2008 elections and Gen Musharraf’s forced resignation from the presidency that some serious, if half-hearted, efforts to counter the internal insurgency threat began to be taken.
Ironically, the ownership of the fight against militancy increased under a civilian democratic government compared to Musharraf’s rule. The PPP government, showed greater determination to seriously engage in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations, and launched Operation Rah-e-Nijat led by Gen Kayani. Despite these ostensibly serious efforts to stem the tide of terrorism, there were serious gaps in establishing the writ of the state, not only in Fata, but also in southern Punjab and lately in Karachi. Neither were any serious efforts made to put in place an institutional structure to deal with the likely blowback from the military operations against insurgents, both Pakistani and foreign, who had found safe havens across the country – especially in unsuspecting urban areas. It was, however, left to Gen Raheel Sharif to lead the more decisive and ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan, despite some initial feet-dragging by the civilian leadership.
Educational development receives the lowest priority in the development agendas of our ruling elites, who find colourful mega projects such as Orange lines and Red metro-buses, urban development and shining malls much more appealing to their middle class vote-banks, as well as yielding more lucrative kickbacks to themselves and their cronies. They fail to realise that bringing education to those who for generations have been denied even basic access for reasons of social, economic or geographic exclusion is the most urgent priority if we want to emerge as a self-respecting nation.
Education (or the lack of it) has also been a driving force of terrorism and has been an underlying element in the political dynamic fuelling violence. Intra-state armed conflict is often associated with grievances and perceived injustices linked to identity, faith, ethnicity and region. Education can make a difference in all these areas, tipping the balance in favour of peace – or conflict.
Too little education, unequal access to education, and imparting the wrong type of education can be a catalyst in helping terrorist groups to recruit susceptible youths for undertaking terrorist attacks and suicide missions, as in the case of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, sectarian groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-ieSahaba and Lahkar-e-Taiba and, more recently, Isis and their sympathizers in Pakistan. Many such groups often enjoy the patronage of intelligence agencies, within and across the country’s own borders for potential use in proxy wars against perceived adversaries.
There is also a strong, if intractable, nexus between limited or poor quality of education and unemployment and poverty, which fuels the terrorist juggernaut. When large numbers of young people are denied access to decent quality basic education, the resulting poverty, unemployment and frustration serve as forceful recruiting agents for terrorist outfits. The ‘youth bulge’ – often considered as a blessing in disguise – turns out to be a bane and a potential threat as the terrorist’s reserve army.
Notwithstanding the loud proclamations by successive governments at domestic and international fora, education has always been at the backburner of policymaking for decades after independence. The long period of neglect of education in general and of marginalised sections in particular has sown the seeds for the huge backlog that exists in the universalisation of elementary education even today. As many as 25 million school–going age (5-15) children were currently estimated to be out of any schools (with the minimalist brick and mortar definition), according to a report by the NGO, Alif Ailaan.
The war on terror, however existentially important it may be to Pakistan, should not be allowed to divert our attention from the primacy of education as a national goal. It is about time a high-level national conference, even more well-structured than the two APCs on terrorism and more representative of the stakeholders – including educators, civil society representatives and those of the working poor, such as trade unions, child labour activists and primary school teachers – were held with a view to putting education back on the frontline of the national agenda and drawing a definitive roadmap of removing illiteracy and terrorism. The roadmap should spell out the modalities, financial implications and institutional responsibilities to help realise the nation’s educational dream.
The writer is a former professor of economics and has had a long professional association with PIDE since the 1960s.