Rights groups demand regard for religious freedom in Punjab’s education system

LAHORE, Pakistan: The Peoples’ Commission for Minorities Rights, Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), Pakistan Minorities Teachers Association, Cecil and Iris Chaudhry Foundation, Catholic (National) Commission for Justice and Peace, and Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA) in a joint statement have expressed grave concerns over the recent developments regarding the education system in Punjab province.

The Working Group on Inclusive Education, a voluntary body of experts in the field observed, “Single national curriculum agreed by federal and provincial governments is awaited but the government of Punjab has moved to enhance the scope of teaching religion in the education system during June 2020 in utter disregard to religious freedom and respect for religious diversity.

Moreover, the provincial assembly took upon itself a task which is basically the domain of executive functions.”Punjab’s education system - Peoples’ Commission for Minorities Rights, Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), Pakistan Minorities Teachers Association, Cecil and Iris Chaudhry Foundation, Catholic (National) Commission for Justice and Peace, and Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA) in a joint statement have expressed grave concerns over the recent developments regarding the education system in Punjab province. The Working Group on Inclusive Education, a voluntary body of experts in the field observed, “Single national curriculum agreed by federal and provincial governments is awaited but the government of Punjab has moved to enhance the scope of teaching religion in the education system during June 2020 in utter disregard to religious freedom and respect for religious diversity.  Moreover, the provincial assembly took upon itself a task which is basically the domain of executive functions.” This is in spite of the fact that for nearly four decades now, all public and most of the private schools and colleges have been teaching Islamiyat as a compulsory subject in all classes.  Nazrah Quran (recitation of the Arabic text) is taught from class I to V and reading translation of the Holy Quran for classes VI-XII has been made compulsory in the Province since 2018 as per the Punjab Compulsory Teaching of the Holy Quran Act 2018. Moreover, 20-40 percent content in social studies, history and languages is based on teachings of the majority religion, violating Article 22 (1) of the Constitution of Pakistan which prohibits the teaching of religion to the students other than their own. In addition, the Punjab Governor Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar through a notification on June 4, 2020 made the award of degree in all public Universities conditional to passing an exam based on the reading of the Holy Quran with translation.  The Working Group on Inclusive Education is of the view that this is unprecedented in the world of university education and clearly contravenes the concept of rigorous training in specialized disciplines at the university level. In any case, before entering university, students spend several years in studying the Holy Quran with translation. A member of Working Group on Inclusive Education Dr A H Nayyar stated, “While the priority tasks of educating all the out of school children and enhancing quality of education remain unfulfilled, inserting more religious content has repercussions on the quantity and quality of educational content. This step will defeat the purpose of preparing students for a highly competitive environment in the world.” In another disturbing development on 9th June 2020, the Provincial Assembly of Punjab approved an amendment (inserted Section 2(a) to section 10) to the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Act 2015 by subjecting all textbooks to approval by the Muttahida Ulema Board.  This amendment again seeks to place control of educational content in the hands of religious groups rather than experts in education. Baela Raza Jamil, a core member of the Working Group on Inclusive Education stated, “These developments backed by legislation without public debate are of deep concern that will be socially divisive, undermine the freedom for inquiry based learning and critical thinking in education systems of Pakistan”. Peter Jacob, head of CSJ and PCMR, and Baela Raza Jamil of ITA said, “We call upon the government of Punjab to review these measures which are clearly in conflict with the right to freedom of religion guaranteed in the constitution of Pakistan under Articles 20 and 25.”

This is in spite of the fact that for nearly four decades now, all public and most of the private schools and colleges have been teaching Islamiyat as a compulsory subject in all classes.

Nazrah Quran (recitation of the Arabic text) is taught from class I to V and reading translation of the Holy Quran for classes VI-XII has been made compulsory in the Province since 2018 as per the Punjab Compulsory Teaching of the Holy Quran Act 2018.

Moreover, 20-40 percent of content in social studies, history, and languages is based on teachings of the majority religion, violating Article 22 (1) of the Constitution of Pakistan which prohibits the teaching of religion to the students other than their own.

In addition, the Punjab Governor Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar through a notification on June 4, 2020 made the award of degree in all public Universities conditional to passing an exam based on the reading of the Holy Quran with translation.

The Working Group on Inclusive Education is of the view that this is unprecedented in the world of university education and clearly contravenes the concept of rigorous training in specialized disciplines at the university level. In any case, before entering university, students spend several years in studying the Holy Quran with translation.

A member of the Working Group on Inclusive Education Dr. A H Nayyar stated, “While the priority tasks of educating all the out of school children and enhancing the quality of education remain unfulfilled, inserting more religious content has repercussions on the quantity and quality of educational content. This step will defeat the purpose of preparing students for a highly competitive environment in the world.

In another disturbing development on 9th June 2020, the Provincial Assembly of Punjab approved an amendment (inserted Section 2(a) to section 10) to the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Act 2015 by subjecting all textbooks to approval by the Muttahida Ulema Board.

This amendment again seeks to place control of educational content in the hands of religious groups rather than experts in education.

Baela Raza Jamil, a core member of the Working Group on Inclusive Education stated, “These developments backed by legislation without public debate are of deep concern that will be socially divisive, undermine the freedom for inquiry-based learning and critical thinking in education systems of Pakistan”.

Peter Jacob, head of CSJ and PCMR, and Baela Raza Jamil of ITA said, “We call upon the government of Punjab to review these measures which are clearly in conflict with the right to freedom of religion guaranteed in the constitution of Pakistan under Articles 20 and 25.”