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Hilal English

Education and Media: Tools of National Cohesion

December 2022

Radio Pakistan and Pakistan Television were platforms of national cohesion. However, since the advent of electronic media and different educational systems in Pakistan, both education and media are acting different as platforms of divide rather than unity.

It was sometime in 2010 when I had veteran broadcaster, play-write and one of the pioneer team members of the Pakistan Television, Agha Nasir sahib as a guest on one of my current affairs shows, in which he briefly spoke about the initial days of radio and television in Pakistan and the kind of role they played to promote the Pakistani identity and national cohesion.
Yes, we all know that soon after the partition of British India in August 1947, Pakistan was struggling to set-up new institutions and expand the ones which already existed. Resources were scarce and the challenge of making the new country work and stand on its feet was humongous. In the initial years of independence, Radio Pakistan was the only nerve-center of electronic media in the country, attracting a galaxy of creative minds, including writers, poets, drama artists, singers and musicians. The who’s who of Pakistan’s intellectual world were associated with Radio Pakistan, carved out of the All India Radio. The Pakistan Television made its entry sometime in 1964. Agha Nasir had served both the institutions in their formative phase.
One of the key challenges for the nascent state and its pioneers was countering the Congress propaganda which banked on oneness, the commonality and shared culture and values of the people living under British rule in South Asia. For the Indian National Congress and its followers, the creation of Pakistan was just an aberration in history that would soon be corrected.
But for the founding fathers of the new Muslim homeland, it was the sharp difference and contrast in the religious and cultural values of Muslims and Hindus that led to the creation of Pakistan. And that point had to be asserted and reasserted on every front. The state-run Radio Pakistan and then later, the Pakistan Television were the vanguards of this battle of narratives that raged full blown in the initial decades of independence.
According to Agha Nasir sahib, there was a drive to carve out a separate Pakistani identity in every field. “We even coined new Urdu words for the broadcast medium,” he said. For actor, it was adakar, voice artist, sadakar,musician, musiqar vvvvv, song-writer, naghma-nigar, director, hidayatkar etc., the veteran broadcaster recalled.
This small anecdote shows the passion and the kind of effort the first-generation of Pakistanis put into developing this country on each and every front, focusing even on the small details, like thinking up new words and phrases so that the baggage of British India can be thrown away altogether. We had mega problems, but there was hope and drive. The objective of nation-building was clear. And in the task of nation-building, concepts, perceptions, ideology and narrative take precedence over brick-and-mortar. Yes, only big visions and dreams can make brick-and-mortar work for the nations.
In the initial formative decades of Pakistan, despite the presence of the fringe centrifugal political forces, the dominant narrative stressed on developing the Pakistani identity and the uniqueness of the world’s biggest Muslim state, which the country was at that time until the tragic fall of Dhaka in 1971.
Pakistani cinema, music, radio and television, art, literature, including fiction, poetry and even the genre of detective novels roared in the mainstream of the country in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and to an extent in 1980s. The Pakistani public followed Pakistani actors and actresses, many of whom became larger than life personalities in their own right. The soft power of Pakistan was potent, vibrant and growing.

The state-run Radio Pakistan and then later, the Pakistan Television were the vanguards of this battle of narratives that raged full blown in the initial decades of independence.

Compared to the Pakistani media of yesteryears, today there has been massive expansion of electronic media, but its traditional role to inform, educate and entertain stands undermined. When it comes to the news channels, unfortunately they are overwhelmingly contributing to intensifying polarization and creating divide in the society through sensational content, half-truths and ill-informed and biased discussions and opinions. There are hardly any investigative reports, documentaries and even informative news packages aired by any of the dozens of 24/7 news channels. Even entertainment channels appear nowhere when it comes to advancing the national cause. No wonder then it is left to the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) to come up with new national songs and even support the production of television plays and movies.
In the Pakistan of yesteryears, Radio Pakistan (the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation of today) and Pakistan Television used to churn more content for national cohesion and unity than all the private channels and radio stations of today put together.
Coming back to the country’s formative phase, serious work was being done on history to ensure that it helped promote Pakistani identity and contribute to the task of nation-building, overriding ethnic, sectarian and provincial differences and biases.
The first generation Pakistanis were the thought leaders of this unannounced nation-building project and needed no schooling in it. The literacy rate was low, but the educational institutions, including the government-run schools–which were the backbone of the education system–worked and produced future leaders of the nation in every field, from sports to leading scions of civil and military bureaucracy.
The belief was that Pakistan–a bouquet of different languages, and sub-cultures–would develop and help transform them into a grander and bigger Pakistani identity and culture by assimilating them under one umbrella. While the uniqueness of regional languages and sub-cultures would be very much there, this one colourful bunch be the representative of all under the flag.
In the nation-building process, the most important front is education, which also feeds and strengthens the country’s soft power. Education not only leads to national progress and development, but also serves as the main vehicle to bring about national cohesion and unity and develop a common narrative that serves as a bedrock for any state.
Unfortunately, here as a nation, we lack the most. I remember reading in a work of an Islamic scholar that nations get defeated in the battlefield later; they first lose at their educational institutions. And yes, here we are losing the most.
Although an estimated 22.8 million children aged 5-16 years old, representing a massive 44 percent of the total population in this age group are not attending school, according to the United Nations International Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF), still many could argue that the picture is not that bleak on the educational front, given a massive expansion in the number of schools, colleges and universities in the country. They can rightly point out that compared to 1947, Pakistan’s literacy numbers have increased. Yes, the standards of the government-run schools have gone abysmal, but the private sector has come forward to bear the burden. In a nutshell, to many die-hard optimists, the graph is showing signs of improvement.
This may be the case, if one counts the number of buildings, including some very plush and elite educational institutions, but the basic question remains: are they contributing to the goal of nation-building as they should have? 
If on the one hand, the 22.8 million out of school children is a tragedy, on the other, the multiple systems of education and their quality should also be a cause of concern.
In Pakistan, we have not one or two, but many systems of education running parallel to one another. We have seminaries mainly for the poorest of the poor, we have government-run schools–a vast number of which are deprived even of boundary walls, toilets, and clean drinking water along with trained and motivated teachers. Then we have various categories of private-run institutions which cater to the demand from the lower middle class to the elite. The Cambridge system is also there, in which even the Pakistan Studies textbook has been penned by a foreign author.
Instead of uniting the nation, education has become a divider. There is a divide between the Urdu and the English-medium institutions, the divide between seminary and the rest, between institutions of poor and middle class and elite and the rest, between those institutions which follow the Cambridge curriculum and those which do not. The world view and aspirations of students being churned out from each set of these institutions is different from the other. Each for their own bubble and look at the other suspiciously. The system and type of education give a head start to some in their lives and not to the others. Each set wants to create and mold Pakistan according to their own liking. 
In the past few years, there has been an effort to introduce a single national curriculum, which is being resisted tooth and nail by the vested interests as they try to dilute it as best as they can. Even many in the so-called intellectual elite are opposing the single national curriculum. Perhaps they want to see education continue to remain as the main social and class divider in the country. 
While one can rightly debate and argue about the quality and content of the single curriculum, at least on principle, one should agree that there is a need for one. Of course, the intent of the single curriculum should not be seen as dragging down the standard of education, but instead of raising it. For this, a constant review and debate would remain necessary in every generation, so that the national curriculum ensures that students develop a critical thinking and a creative and questioning mind. However, whatever basic education is being given to one set of students should also be given to the other, regardless of the class or which part of the country he/she belongs to.
A special emphasis needs to be given to two languages–Urdu and English and subjects of mathematics, science and Pakistan Studies up to the higher secondary or intermediate level, so that all students have got a common grounding before they embark on higher and more specialized education.
Without a common education system, and a common and shared story of our history, the nation building task would remain incomplete and the goal of national cohesion and unity elusive. Therefore, the project of a single national curriculum should be taken as a state project, which should continue despite the change of governments. Education is the first step and the most important front of the task of nation-building, aimed at promoting Pakistan, its uniqueness and a shared national ethos and ideology.

The writer is an eminent journalist who regularly contributes for print and electronic media.
E-mail: [email protected], Twitter: @AmirZia1