As Babar Sattar pointed out on Saturday in his excellent column, education has finally caught the media’s and the nation’s imagination, but the ongoing debate is a hideously twisted one. He made several important points: that whilst 25 million children are not even enrolled in school, the ongoing discussion is focusing on the rich and privileged demanding private education at a lower price than being offered by private schools; that one third of our grade five students possess reading skills of a grade two level; that the elite of the country instead of asking government to fix the public sector is demanding price regulation of private education for their children etc. And whilst he rightly points out that regulating a free market economy does not mean price fixing but managing the demand-supply dynamics, I do not agree entirely that this is an ‘intra-class fight within a morally bankrupt privileged class that is now hurting due to the rising cost of private education’. Inflation is at an all time low in Pakistan. If you research the salaries paid to teachers in private schools, they are abysmally low, what to speak of other staff; facilities for sports etc. are non-existent in the vast majority of private schools. Yet, fee increases are astronomical. I am not advocating fixing of prices. But the government, i.e., its education department, does need to audit school financials to check whether they are offering teacher and teaching quality, sports facilities, libraries and other co-curricular activities commensurate with the fees they are charging students.

However, this does not detract from the fundamental point that the state has failed in providing education to all, leave alone provision of quality education. It is certainly not enough to pay lip service to education for all by simply inserting a clause in the constitution and then washing one’s hands of the responsibility. Clearly, if the private sector got tough competition from the state, prices would rationalise.

This is not all though. The issue of education is even more twisted than what is currently being talked about. There is no mention of the role madrassas are playing. Last week I was on a television talk show where madrassas came under discussion in context of the National Action Plan to fight terrorism in the country. Completely aside from the issue under discussion, a co-guest, a retired Lt. General stated that whilst it could be argued the children of madaaris may not be given the right education, it had to be acknowledged that the madaaris were providing food, housing, clothing and ‘education’ worth 30 crore a day to the students that the state could ill afford. It is one of the most regressive statements one has heard on the state of, and solutions to, the education emergency in the country. To a question as to whether there was capacity to employ masjid imams in the numbers (millions) of children graduating from madrassas, the general countered whether there was capacity to employ the numbers of MBAs being churned out each ear.

Clearly, the MBAs who do not end up leading business firms, will end up doing mid level management, finance, government, teaching, journalism etc. How he could compare the plethora of business schools with the hundreds of madaaris churning out virulently sectarian hate mongering men and women is beyond the pale. And men like the general are the elite, the powerful class in whose hands our fate has lain for decades. Men like him clearly do not appreciate the fact that not only are madrassa children not being ‘educated’, but that MBAs are not taught in business schools to hate everyone who does not believe what they do, that the ‘other’ is not ‘wajibul qatal’, that they do not randomly explode themselves in schools, masajids, markets or airforce bases, nor are they brainwashed to do so. Further pearls of wisdom on the subject were shed by an ex-IG Punjab Police: that in a country of low taxation, madrassas indeed had a role to play; that they were providing a ‘social service’; that not all madrassas were involved in terror activities; that registration would be a first step and monitoring, deciding their curricula, checking backgrounds of their teachers would be the next steps in their reformation.

In making this statement the gentleman cleanly sidestepped the question of what the fundamental point of having madrassas was. That if science, art, humanities were to be taught at madrassas, and backgrounds of their teachers brought in line with mainstream schools, what was the need for them? And will the funders of the madaaris countenance these changes? Were the funds meant to impart modern education, they would already have been doing so. Further, what ‘social service’ do people like him refer to? The sectarian hate and terrorism ripping the country apart? Are people like him arguing that it is alright for the state to abdicate from its responsibility to educate citizens even if they are ‘educated’ by madrassas to then go on to provide the social service of ignorance, hate, divisiveness, and terrorism? Is the solution to the education problem the demand for better taxation, or insistence on a ‘role’ for madrassas? The argument that not ‘all’ madrassas are involved in terrorism, and therefor there is no harm in madrassas proliferating, is an ingenuous one. Does it not occur to these apologists that even the madrassas not indulging in active terrorism have no place in a civilised society?

Why do these gentlemen, and those that they represent, not demand the basic right of a decent education for a bright future of the country from the state, as opposed to making excuses for a grotesque anomaly to exist within the education landscape of the country? Until these mindsets become more cognisant of the need of the times, our future will remain a question mark at best, no matter Zarb-e-Azbs or National Action Plans.

An excellent point raised by the host of the show was that every madrassa belongs to, and teaches, sectarianism, and how that could be thought of as an innocuous activity. To expand on this a little, the arguments messrs general and IG made do not acknowledge an iota that there’s no free lunch in this world. When they make the ‘social service’, ‘taxation’ and ‘not all of them’ arguments, why do they omit to admit that each and every madrassa’s basic job is to advance its sect and teach the most bilious hate against all other Muslims and non Muslims, which is the foundation of recruitment to Islamist terrorism; why cannot they admit and see that the funding of these madrassas has a specific purpose, and that that purpose is not ‘social service’.

In the overall education debate, therefore, let’s not forget the role of madrassas, the apologists for them, and the state’s abdication from the responsibility of educating its citizens. Let’s begin by acknowledging that the funds for madrassas have specific purposes that are harmful and divisive for the country. Indeed, one of the foremost longer-term goals of the National Action Plan ought to the provision of education to all and the elimination of this freakish disgrace in our educational system, and hence our society.