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August 17, 2020

Dictating discourse, banning books

Opinion

August 17, 2020

The writer works as a development practitioner for a local consultancy.

On May 10, 1933 – in a revolting incident not witnessed in Europe since the Dark Ages – students in Berlin carted over 25,000 books to the State Opera square, where they were incinerated for propagating ‘un-German’ ideas.

Among the volumes targeted were those identified as being subversive or opposed to Nazism, including books authored by Karl Marx, Heinrich Mann, Karl Kautsky, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Ernest Hemingway. According to historian Karl Bracher, the purging of “left, democratic and Jewish literature took precedence over everything else”.

Scenes similar to this played out all over Germany on that fateful evening. In university towns, nationalist students sang Nazi anthems and marched in torch-lit parades against the ‘un-German’ spirit. In Berlin, Joseph Goebbels called the debacle a “great and symbolic deed”, and in a fiery speech urged a captivated audience to: “[say] No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes, to decency and morality in family and state!”

A nation that had long been admired as the land of thinkers and philosophers had made it evident to its most creative and talented minds that they were no longer welcome. Thus, setting the foundations of a diabolical era of ruthless state censorship, and rigid cultural control.

One is reminded of these events in the wake of alarming developments in our polity. The recently passed Tahaffuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam (TBI) Act and the banning of 100 textbooks in Punjab are reminiscent of attempts at thought control perpetrated by numerous authoritarian regimes. In the latter case, while it is encouraging to note that the managing director of the Punjab Textbook Board has since been unceremoniously removed from his post, as of the time of writing, no efforts have been made to undo his rather absurd measures. Neither has an inquiry been made as to why a sweeping ban was enforced on the whims of an individual without the publishers being given a chance to defend their case.

The TBI bill, unanimously passed by Punjab Assembly members in July, has since been opposed by many of the same lawmakers after pressure was exerted by educationists, activists, and other professionals. Apart from the contents of the bill, which have the potential to exacerbate sectarian differences and cause further disharmony in an already fragmented republic, what is also perturbing is that our lawmakers had not even bothered to read a bill of such sensitive nature before approving it. This sheer lack of concern and sense of responsibility is just one of the myriad reasons the country continues to languish at the bottom of most human development indices.

Expectedly, those who seek to brandish their religiosity oppose any attempts at the rollback of this bill. It would not come as a surprise if the government ultimately caves in to their demands. After all, we have been witnessing relentless efforts at ideological and cultural control for over half a century, from our classrooms to our society, with the state complicit in furthering these actions.

Regretfully, the state has been more concerned with ensuring the suppression of critical thinking in schools and colleges rather than the promotion of education. On the pretext of nation-building and promotion of unity, it has cracked down upon dissent and diversity of opinion. In its bid to strengthen its grip on the dominant narrative, it has sought to punish and remove any alternative thought. This fits in with Foucault’s theory of how power and knowledge are used as a form of social control.

This latest attempt at pandering to the religious-right will continue to stoke religious intolerance, a lesson we appear unwilling to learn from experience.

At the peak of the Afghan War, the United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars to fund a chain of madressahs and proliferate anti-Soviet and pro-militancy literature to radicalise primary school-going Afghan children. Matched dollar for dollar by Saudi Arabia, and ably supported by Pakistan, these textbooks provided the perfect fodder to mujahideen to peddle their propaganda and turn an entire generation of children into jihadists.

Books such as ‘The Alphabet for Jihad Literacy’, funded by USAID and published by the University of Nebraska’s Centre for Afghanistan Studies (CAS), continued to thrive long after their official sanctioning was halted in the 1990s. In fact, academic researchers have reported that the Taliban continue to re-print old US-sponsored jihadist books in areas where they still hold sway. Ironically, after 9/11 when the US bombed its way into Afghanistan again, the same CAS was tasked with ‘cleaning up’ the textbooks – this time at a fraction of the amount doled out two decades earlier. Needless to say, their half-hearted attempts hardly improved matters.

The Afghan War provided a steroid-infused boost to the Pakistani state in its bid to enforce its ideological agenda. For decades it has peddled outlandish claims and promoted an Arabised lineage as opposed to a distinctly South Asian one.

In what can only be described as dangerous expediency, our political parties have willingly played a supportive role in the promotion of such warped ideologies. Nothing sells better with the state and helps win more votes than the invocation of religious nationalism in Pakistan.

Hence, we find our only two Nobel Prize winners reviled, one for his faith and the other for purportedly being a ‘Western agent’ despite being shot in the head by a religious extremist. We dismiss conscientious teachers who dare to promote curiosity for being ‘too political’. We silence journalists and news channels that have the audacity to view events with a critical lens. We crack down upon students and abduct progressive activists, but turn meek when confronted with the religious right.

We ban books that hurt the morale of some institutions. We jail defiant political opponents without charges and launch trumped up cases against principled judges. We prevent a temple from being built in the capital and burn down entire communities on false accusations of blasphemy.

We peddle hate and shun diversity of opinion, thought and belief, yet have the temerity to wonder why the world views us as being intolerant. Through all this, we have been swift in labelling dissenting voices as unpatriotic, but in doing so, failed to realise that it only exposes the insecurity surrounding our notion of patriotism.

The recently introduced Single National Curriculum (SNC) appears to contain all the ingredients for the infusion of further religiosity on impressionable young minds. While details are yet to be unveiled, if initial reports about its contents are to be believed, the SNC could detrimentally impact our future generations.

It cannot be stressed enough that our textbooks need to be cleansed of all material that incites hatred and promotes discrimination against any section of society; that we need to promote an education system which does not foment animosity against any sect or religion, nor indoctrinates hostility against other countries. The way to do this is through broadening our minds, not by restricting them to a narrow, ideological view. It is achieved by promoting critical learning and reading more widely, not by rote learning and banning books.

In 1933, after the Nazis had revelled in their bonfire of knowledge, Helen Keller published an open letter asserting: ‘you may burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas those books contain have passed through millions of channels and will go on.’

Let us cherish diversity, creativity, and critical thought, and not succumb to the same scorching temptations.

Twitter: @ShahrukhNR