For the last few months, the Single National Curriculum has been one of the most debated topics. Analysts, educationists and teachers have been reviewing the SNC syllabus and pointing out the need to take into account the ground realities in our society.

Over the years, extremism, radicalisation and intolerance have been woven in the fabric of the society. The lack of an inclusive and progressive syllabus has often been blamed for the rise in hate and intolerance. Minority students have been complaining of hate speech and violent views against minorities in the text. Problematic attitudes among students are reinforced by what they are taught in class. Many students belonging to the majority religion do not want to mingle with class fellows belonging to other faiths. This results in a divide not only in schools but also in the society.

Tony Sarfaraz, a Christian Pakistani residing in the UAE these days, recalls his experience of studying in Karachi. He recounts some positive experiences and emphasises that he has some wonderful Muslim friends too but also says he had to deal with painful experiences on account of belonging to a minority community.

“The real problem is not in schools but madrassas where children are taught hatred and discrimination against minorities. Teachers there sow seeds of hate. When their students join schools and colleges, they behave according to those teachings. Can we really blame them when the constitution of the country also does not recognise us as equal citizens? Some history books relate the achievements of minority citizens but otherwise we have no status in the country.”

He says, “Such behaviours are not limited to school and college life. They are carried into professional lives, too. Even in Dubai when I say salam to a Pakistani Muslim, I never get a complete response. Muslims from other countries never discriminate against us. The roots of this hatred cannot be removed by a single national curriculum. The state needs to take drastic steps if they really want to promote peace and harmony.”

Students are not the only ones who have been a victim of intolerance and violent attitudes, teachers have suffered gravely too. According to data provided by the Centre for Social Justice, 35 teachers and 13 students – most of them belonging to the Punjab – have been accused of blasphemy between 1987 and 2020.

Peter Jacob, the CSJ executive director told this scribe, “No one has ever analysed the content in our school books and its effects on the society. Now the government wants to apply an SNC but soon the teachers and parents will revolt against it as they will face tremendous difficulties.”

He says, “The kind of behaviour shown by the Punjab Textbook Board in confiscating books carrying Malala’s picture reflects that they have already offered themselves as hostage to a conservative mindset that is armed with not only hate speech but violence too. We will very soon see the fruits of these seeds that are being sown in the young minds. Everyone should pay attention to the content and how it is going to impact the society.”

Nida Usman Chaudhary, a diversity and inclusion advocate who has been studying the potential impact of SNC for the past one-and-a-half year, believes that while the rhetoric that the SNC has been packaged and sold to the general public and the diaspora with, may appear to be a desirable, progressive and egalitarian project, having looked at the means of implementation of the SNC as well as the textbooks of certain subjects very closely, “one can say that there are very serious causes of concern for parents, students, teachers, publishers, minorities, women, provinces and other stakeholders.”

Chaudhry adds, “It is necessary to acknowledge our diversity, history, language and ethnicity to create inclusive and diverse policy spaces that allow room for their inclusion and dissemination on an equal footing. The very notion of ‘single’ is exclusionary because it entails only one standardised and accepted version, vision and view. Curtailing and controlling education is a disservice to critical thinking, engagement, research and analytical tools and resources that are needed for any modern-day child to have access to for not only competing globally, but also developing and adopting skills of critical inquiry that enable original research, scientific and academic contributions to ensure that they take the society and the country forward.”

Incidents of grotesque violence and intolerance as in the case of Mashal Khan are painful reminders of the fact that the state needs to look at the safety of teachers and students after the SNC is introduced. Chaudhry says, “I don’t think that is a consideration at all, let alone a priority. The government in the Punjab in particular, is very rigid and closed to the idea of engaging with any critical voices in a constructive manner. I don’t think anyone from amongst the concerned departments, ministries or authorities have woken up yet to the dangers that suppression, conflict and a narrow worldview will have on the populace, the teachers and students in the long run.”

Introducing a new, single curriculum at the national level is unlikely to change anything if the syllabus does not account for the need to curb growing intolerance and violent attitudes. The government needs to take into consideration the suggestions presented by analysts and educationists. School authorities and teachers need to be sensitised, trained and equipped with rules and procedures to handle and de-escalate situations when an issue of religious intolerance arises. The disciplinary committees need to be empowered and educated to take unbiased decisions and deal with students according to law. An uncritically designed single national curriculum is likely to make the matters worse.

This piece was originally published in TNS