The government has announced that it has laid the groundwork for the establishment of a new directorate under the Federal Ministry of Education to regulate seminaries. This positive news is welcome; we have been hearing of the ever elusive madressah reforms for a while, with never a concrete decision taken by a sitting government over how this is going to be executed. Proposals were brought forth and later shelved due to opposition from religious parties and seminaries. For years we have been told that seminaries will be registered – this was also one of the salient points in the National Action Plan – their curriculum regulated and include contemporary education in a bid to provide madressah students to also find work beyond the seminary.

It is a wonder then that the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government has actually managed to achieve this – according to the Education Minister, the recruitment for employees of this new directorate has been completed, the office is set up and beyond the federal capital, branches in 16 other cities have also been announced. A specific date has not been announced, but one can assume that the notification for this directorate will be sent out in this week.

The government should be commended for a move that has been perpetually “in process” for years on end. Registration of seminaries and regulating their curriculum will go a long way in preventing hate speech and radicalisation, the provision of contemporary education will also prove to be a counter against both and it is high time religious education is made complimentary to contemporary, instead of forcing parents to choose either one for their children.

The timing of this announcement – the decision was made months in advance and the government has been quietly working to achieve this – is suspect, however. With an impending march to the capital led by Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman – the leader of a party (JUI-F) that controls many seminaries across the country – any madressah not registered with the new directorate will not be allowed to operate. Since JUI-F has not been formally brought on board with this decision, a confrontation is expected. A sceptical mind would argue then that the government is only looking to register seminaries immediately because it knows its opponent leads followers from madressahs and has not taken part in the discussion surrounding this step; the new directorate would provide it with the impetus to shut down JUI-F’s madressahs for reasons other than the protest.

Politicising this issue will be detrimental to the registration process. Religious parties must not be able to use the victimisation card against this important step; the government has already made the same mistake with its accountability drive – let us hope that it does not use the law to only stifle opposition opinions and not as a means to solve the many real issues in the country.