Of the 100 books recently banned by the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board, 65 are from the discipline of social studies. A majority of these books are banned on issues such as maps or ‘culturally inappropriate’ content, religiously objectionable material etc.
The PCTB managing director has also said that the banned books “were portraying Pakistan as an inferior country to India”. According to the worthy MD, “a book published by Cambridge tried to promote crime and violence among the students on the basis of unemployment in the country”.
Almost at the same time, a bill was approved by the Punjab Assembly, according to which some new points were added to an already long list of points already enacted through PTCB Act of 2015. The new law, which is called PTBI Act 2020, is in fact extending the purview of the PTCB Act 2015 beyond the boundaries of educational institutions and textbooks.
So now there are four issues at hand. The first is the PTCB Act 2015, the second is the provision that books of English, general knowledge, Islamiyat, social studies, and Urdu to be scrutinized by the clergy, third the PTBI Act 2020, and lastly what the MD himself has uttered.
Through the PTCB Act 2015, the government of Punjab had already banned the use of any supplementary material without the approval of the board. This was a highly contentious decision as all modern education theories encourage and promote the use of alternative narratives – especially in social sciences. The question is what kind of new generations we want to nurture and groom. If everybody is fed just a single narrative and just one version of events and people, how are we going to develop a critical approach in our children?
Second, we need to promote cultural diversity as it engenders tolerance in society. It seems the new laws and notifications have a single point agenda: to close the minds of our children and teachers to every possibility of thinking even slightly differently. We do not need our bureaucrats and the clergy to tell us what is culturally appropriate and what is not. Let this be decided by the educationists and by properly qualified social scientists who are aligned with the requirements of a 21st century education.
The present government claims to take the country forward but nearly all actions it has taken, especially in the education sector, smack of a medieval level of thinking. In other words, the academic leeway that educational institutions should be enjoying has been reduced to a minimum. For all authors, editors and publishers of textbooks, the noose has been tightened. And now this is being extended to all publications even if they are not textbooks. According to the PCTB Act 2015, the board will not approve anything ‘contrary to the integrity, defence or security of Pakistan or any part of Pakistan, public order or morality’.
This is a typical case of loosely defining and confusing defence, integrity and security. This mantra of defence, integrity and security we have been chanting for over seven decades now, and you can judge for yourself what this obsession with the three terms has given us over the decades. People tend to defend their country when they love it; and love emanates from a feeling of care and consideration. People love their country when they see that their state cares for them; when their basic needs are fulfilled, and their human rights are respected and protected by the state.
If people of a country feel that they are being exploited, no sermons can make them love their state. Similarly, ‘public order and morality’ are vague terms. Order is essentially adherence to law, and the constitution is the supreme law of the land. We cannot violate our constitution again and again, and then expect our people to obey the law. They have every right to ask what happens to those who violate the constitution with the help of the gavel and the gun. If I am the head of my family, I need to set an example to my children by observing certain etiquettes and respecting family members.
If I shout at them, beat them black and blue, and then expect them to maintain order, I must be a fool. The same applies to morality. This is a debatable topic and there must be some flexibility in the manner we impose the moral code on our society. Even if you go to Muslim majority countries such as from Azerbaijan and Bangladesh to Malaysia and Turkey, you will find that moral codes are relevant to public choices. You cannot and should not allow a band of clerics decide a whole society’s morality.
As long as people are not being violent, they must have a choice to decide about their personal lives. The new PTBI Act 2020 prohibits the printing of any ‘comment, observation, or pronouncement, based on sectarianism, ethnicism, or racism’. Again, these are contentious issues and a majority of books in history, literature and religious studies can be prohibited using a long whiplash. From the history books of Ibn Khaldun and Tabari to books of religious law and literary masterpieces from Dante and Shakespeare to ‘Arabian Nights’, ‘Tilism-e-Hoshruba’ and short stories of Ismat Chughtai and Manto can all be banned.
It is interesting to note that on the one side we have the approved and recommended books of Pakistan Studies and we encourage and promote the books of writers such as Naseem Hijazi and also want our viewers to watch pseudo-historical dramas such as Ertughral; but on the other side we enact a law that prohibits ‘violence or hatred or create interfaith disorder’. The same law also does not allow ‘any material that is likely to jeopardize or is prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan or the sovereignty, integrity, or security of Pakistan’.
Do we need to explain that ideologies are always debatable and only an acute and critical discussion helps us understand them? If an ideology is ‘jeopardized’ by debate and enquiry, don’t we need to reconsider it? If an ideology is sound enough it should withstand the growing criticism directed towards it. Ideologies cannot be defended by forbidding discussion. People should be able to make up their mind about ideologies thrust upon them. We should not force our people – adults and children alike – to accept ideas without questioning them. They are not empty receptacles in which you can pour whatever you like.
Perhaps the most devastating and rather foolish point in the new law is about empowering the DGPR to do what it should not be doing at all. The powers granted to the DGPR officers are draconian and unprecedented in the history of Pakistan. They should be resisted by activists, book publishers and sellers, civil society, educators, editors, journalists, and all those who do not want to see Punjab slide into an abyss of fascism. The drafters of this law seem to want to convert Punjab into an area without basic freedoms of expression in any written form.
Now publishing, translating, and writing of books of fiction, history, politics, and any other social science that may impart some independent knowledge to the people of Punjab will become an uphill task. The time to act is now.
The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.
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