Tuesday, May 9, 2017

OPED: Pakistan at the Frontlines of Educational Reforms



Originally Published by Global Affairs / May 2017. Written before the Mashal Khan tragedy in Mardan




A terrifying document surfaced the other day on the social media that suggested a possibly extremist agenda in the education department in KPK - Pakistan. The letter dated 2015, ostensibly from Pervez Khattak directed DCTE Abbottabad to seek input from proscribed groups - the ASWJ for devising the curriculum. It was an alarming discovery and the comments that followed on the twitter timeline of the social activist who shared the story were even more alarming for they appeared to support making terror outfits stakeholders in the academia.

In a different part of town a few good Samaritans put forward a timely proposal that promised salvation for young Pakistani’s at the mercy of the hardliner’s pen.

Representatives from 7 organizations presented a pilot project launched to defuse the ticking time bomb of bigotry and hate. They dubbed it - ‘Badal Do’ – ‘Ignite the Change Within’ - a compelling vision that brought out a message of inclusivity, empathy, compassion - a commitment to embrace all the colors of Pakistan, a revival of its original values based on social justice and equal rights. In a word - humanity. These were attributes the society desperately needs at the moment; a belief system that can alter the fabric of life.

The scale was ambitious. Their overarching plan however had earmarked the perfect place to start - with the children. The audience that day was made up of educators and the idea was to ignite the spark where it could have the most impact and gradually filter down to society.

It was a well articulated design that offered hope to the masses; a way forward for its ‘at risk generation’ in an increasingly polarized world. It appeared to be the perfect antidote to the poison peddled by the media and mullahs and mullahs on the media.

It was ironic that they had identified a key element needed for the success of Operation Radd-ul-Fassad though the term counterterrorism did not figure in any of their conversations. Instead they delved into training for teachers – for field trips to promote a deeper understanding of the cultural bonds they share and historical contours of the cities they lived in. They suggested the need for children to identify heroes from within communities, seek out role models in imaginative ways to tackle gender biases and nullify class differences. They offered a quaint little skit performed by school kids that dealt with changing mindsets – that countered mean attitudes, deep seated prejudices and petty differences with humor and grace.
It was not an alien concept at the heart of their dream - ideals that forged this nation had been dusted off and presented for consideration.

By taking a stand, they did the unthinkable. Generate optimism about the future darkened by conflict, distrust and melancholy. It was telling that the luminaries featured in their ‘In Memoriam’ section reflected the very diversity they were hoping to safeguard. These were the pillars of society like Sister Mary Emily, Dina Mistry, Bishop Lobo, Fatima Surriya Bajia, Gool Minwala etc who had contributed to Pakistan’s greatness. Their names served as reminders of their country’s tolerant roots and deep potential.

The people at the helm of this project represented a cross section of corporate society. It was clear that they meant business for they unveiled their striking vision early in the day, without much fanfare, customary red carpets, mandatory celebrity appearances or vacuous displays of wealth and privilege. No long drawn out speeches or political heavyweights sapped the energy. And there was surprisingly little coverage in the mainstream media, perhaps because of the missing glitz and glamour that has become the staple of most events. Even the piteous condition of the chosen venue (Arts council, Karachi) reflected the misplaced priorities of the authorities and the resolve of these pioneers.

The pitch itself was brief yet powerful in its simplicity. It was a revealing moment that proved that society is not ready to surrender, and that they intended to fight till the last.

These were architects on the frontlines of educational reforms who insisted that their concept was fluid – they had allowed it room to grow, adjust, and expand over time. Since a battle for the soul of a nation was already being waged in different theatres, the theme went well with the message of the COAS Qamar Bajwa who deemed every citizen of Pakistan as a soldier in this war. Some are already in the trenches.

Such initiatives show the next generation a way out. There was no shortage of motivation on that sunny day in March. This was not a pipedream to be left at the mercy of self serving politicians, though the local government had reportedly thrown their weight behind the project. It would be a people’s movement that aspired to reach every citizen and make them stakeholders in their children’s future.

They also intended to reclaim the shrinking spaces – art, culture, literature - leaving room for free thinkers to rebuild the foundations of a kinder, more accepting Pakistan. There were cafes that would introduce the cuisine of different cities and allow conversations to promote an appreciation of their diversity. A platform along the lines of Ted Talks where educators could speak about their experiences and the lives they changed; where all employees regardless of their social standing would be welcome provided they had something worthwhile to share. The power of theatre, radio, film would be harnessed to take their message further.

Present day Pakistan has a very high threshold for corruption, fanaticism and violence. Introducing these values in such a toxic environment is bound to be a challenge. There will be resistance from those whom the broken system benefits. Who misuse its flawed principles to rally street power, contaminate impressionable minds and silence liberal avenues of expression. Their voices are loud enough to drown out any debate on rationality, ride rough shod over human rights and chase mirages of blasphemy for political expedience. The nation’s voice must be louder.

Which is why it is imperative that movements such as these be protected, and the authors of this new script encouraged. Whoever wins this battle controls the future of Pakistan. Wresting that power away from the keepers of the hardliner interpretation of an ideology and giving it back to its rightful owners will be a test of the citizen’s commitment to their children’s future and their own.

Their strategy, even in its simplified form was viewed as a lifeline. Should ‘Badal Do’ succeed in implanting seeds of tolerance; it could be the ideal narrative needed to counter the hate peddled by some that has been exploited by extremists in our midst and is increasingly gaining traction. That leads to shocking outbreaks of violence like massacres at a shrine in Sargodah at the hand of faith healers, or unleashing mob justice on minorities. That makes it ok for Nobel laureates to be disowned and their families targeted because of their religious beliefs while murderers of sitting Governors are honored with monuments by radicalized factions. Terrorism may be a global threat but conditions that allow it to take root and thrive have been ripe for sometime.

Rolling back these trends begins with awareness, introspection and education.

It is worth a shot. And if this experiment succeeds, a version of it can perhaps be transplanted on the seminaries in need of reformation which is one of the primary tenets of the famed National Action Plan - NAP.

Follow BadalDo @BadalDoPk

Image Source: BadalDo Twitter

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