Whither education?

June 21, 2020

The Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board (Amendment) Bill 2020 requires Pakistan Studies, Urdu literature and language books to be approved by the Muttahida Ulema Board

We have been asking this question for a long time so some people will dismiss it as yet another instance of ‘crying wolf’. But consider the facts and decide for yourself. The newly passed Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board (Amendment) Bill 2020 declares that all books connected with Islam will go to the Muttahida Ulema Board, Punjab to get their stamp of approval. These are not only books on Islamic studies but also Pakistan Studies, Urdu literature and language. Let us leave the case of Islamic studies and take the other subjects.

First, then, the case of Urdu language and literature. I carried out some research on the textbook of languages in Pakistani schools (in my book Language, Ideology and Power: Language-learning among the Muslims of Pakistan and North India, OUP, 2002). In that I suggested that in the government schools Urdu had been made an ‘ideology carrying language’. The texts selected for students ignored the Urdu ghazal, progressive writers, humour and romance. In fact, the religious right wing was always against Urdu literature. Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanwi in his Bahishti Zewar put a ban on novels, short stories, the ghazal, the masnawi and other forms of Urdu literature. Some people had gone to the extent of banning them from their families on charges of being erotic, romantic and frivolous (lahw o la‘ab). There is a highly painful scene in Deputy Nazeer Ahmad’s novel Taubat un Nusuh where the protagonist, Nusuh, burns his son Kaleem’s Urdu classics. This did not, however, happen on a large scale but the orthodox suspicion of Urdu literature remained in place. Even now the curriculum Urdu has a lot of Iqbal but very little of the romantic ghazal. So now if the ulema have a hand in deciding what is Urdu literature and what is not, it is obvious that they will not allow a large part of that literature to be taught. At least I cannot imagine them allowing the teaching of Ghalib’s poetry unless someone comes up with the forced interpretation that Ghalib’s beloved is the independence of the motherland and the rest is all metaphor. Indeed, not just Ghalib but the whole pantheon of the classical poets of Urdu will be taboo. Some sanitized versions of Mir Dard and Bahadur Shah Zafar and maybe a few others may be allowed but the main work of the Lakhnawi school will be beyond the pale and the Delhi school will not fare any better. I am sure Meer Taqi Meer will be completely beyond the pale. And what about the novels of Qurratul Ain Haider; not to say anything about Manto or Asmat Chughtai? What about feminist poetry for which people like Kishwar Naheed struggled throughout their lives? Of course, I can well imagine the fate of Fahmida Riaz’s Badan Dareeda and, indeed, anyone who is intelligent enough to depart from the right-wing cultural script.

We do not teach anything like history to our students anyway but now we will further misinform them.

Let us now come to Pakistan studies. There is nothing wrong with the idea of area studies of which it is a part. South Asian studies is taught in many universities in the world. The problem is the way it is taught. In Pakistan it was introduced by ZA Bhutto’s government for an ostensibly propagandist purpose i.e. to combat ethnicity. This was in response to the birth of Bangladesh where most Pakistanis felt that the fault lay with the Bengalis who asserted their ethnic identity. However, ethnicity is combated by giving all ethnic identities equitable rights, share of material goods, share in power and respect. So, in Pakistan the discipline of Pakistan studies began as a tool of governance not an academic study. In time it too became a handmaiden of the right-wing lobby. During Zia ul Haq’s period it was made even more propagandist than before. Academics could not point out that any of Pakistan’s wars were the result of faulty decision. Indeed, students were not taught what happened in the 1971 war or even why the war took place at all. To understand these things there were army officers and others’ memoirs but students did not read them. If the ulema get control of what Pakistan studies is, we will be reinforcing our societal habit of misinformation. We do not teach anything like history to our students anyway but now we will further misinform them. Perhaps the worst outcome of the monopoly of the ulema over what is taught in the country in the field of Urdu studies and Pakistan studies would be that the few scholars who still want to write truthfully in this country will be even more alienated from the rest of the academic community. They will be unable to connect with their students, publish in Pakistan and find the kind of recognition they deserve.

The subject of Islamic studies can legitimately be guided by the ulema subject to the fact that we have many sects, sub-sects and forms of belief and anything we teach should not offend anyone. Another problem is that even the teaching of the translation of the Quran can guide the learners to a certain point of view. Thus, what is crucial is who is teaching it? What is the interpretation the teacher is offering to gullible students? For instance, if the teacher translates fitna as ‘persecution’ he or she may argue that the order to resist and fight fitna is simply to resist persecution. Once persecution ends, the war ends. On the other hand, if it is translated as ‘unbelief’ then the war does not end. Thus, a teacher can take students in the direction of radical extremism or tolerance and accommodation in international relations. In short, these are not simple and straightforward issues and I doubt whether our learned lawmakers have given adequate thought to them.

The ‘adequate thought’ I am talking about will comprise a public debate on these issues. In my opinion it may be more appropriate to take scholars of Urdu literature and South Asian Studies on board when we are dealing with those subjects. A debate will bring other points of view to the fore and help us decide what is best for us.

The author is an independent, occasional columnist.

Whither education?