Madrasa education has been a bone of contention in the country for almost three decades now. Till the mid-1990s, the madrasas were considered a major source of religious education in Pakistan. However, when the Taliban formed their government in Afghanistan in 1996, the Western countries started objecting to not only to the Taliban government, but also to madrasas in Pakistan, as a large majority of the Afghan government functionaries were graduates of the seminaries, situated in Pakistan.
Former president General Pervez Musharraf had to crackdown on madrasas in the country under pressure from Western powers. Various local and foreign functionaries time and again called madrasas factories of terrorists, but no definite policy was ever formed by the government of Pakistan to tackle the issue.
However, following the Army Public School massacre of 2014 – in which 141 people, mostly schoolchildren, were killed by the Taliban – the country’s military and civil leaders devised a 20-point National Action Plan (NAP) which, among other things, sought registration and regulation of religious seminaries. The plan also included reforming the curriculum of the madrasas by introducing modern and secular subjects.
However, it is a pity that little headway has been made on this objective in almost all provinces of the country, Islamabad Capital Territory as well as other regions and areas including Gilgit-Baltistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Azad Jammu and Kashmir, etc., during the past four years.
Population-wise, the largest and most developed province Punjab has taken almost no steps for bringing about reforms in madrasa education. Almost four years after the provincial government announced plans to register and reform madrasas as part of the National Action Plan implementation, the ruling party is virtually shying away from taking steps to reform the seminaries.
According to an official document shared with the lower house of the parliament last year, the Punjab government had closed only two madrasas over suspicion of contacts with militant groups despite having well over 10,000 seminaries. On the other hand, Sindh, which followed a “zero tolerance policy”, has shut down 167 seminaries which were suspected to have links with militants.
The independent sources say the original number of madrasas and students studying there are much more than the official figures, and thousands more are being registered by these institutions annually. “Around 18,600 madrasas are registered with us countrywide, and they are imparting religious education to more than 2 million students, both boys and girls,” said Abdul Quddus Mohammadi, a spokesman for Wafaqul Madaris Al Arabia.
The board for madrasas belonging to Ahle Hadith school of thought is the Wafaqul Madaris Al Salfia, which has 1,400 registered institutions with around 40,000 students. Also, there are around 460 seminaries affiliated with the Wafaqul Madaris Al Shia, with strength of around 18,000, mostly boys.
According to Pakistan’s Board of Madrasas, there are about 2.5 million students enrolled in more than 3,500 registered madrasas across the country. Additionally, there are thousands of unregistered madrasas for which the government has no exact count.
The report presented in the National Assembly claimed that Punjab had completed an “extensive and exhaustive” work of mapping 13,782 seminaries in the province. Sindh and Balochistan lag far behind, having completed only 60 per cent of the exercise. Though the federal government had intricate details on seminaries in Punjab, it failed to provide similar figures for Sindh or Balochistan beyond a percentage for how far along the process was.
However, practically all these provinces have failed so far to chalk out a comprehensive roadmap for implementing the National Action Plan in letter and spirit. Last year, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial government received a lot of criticism for what it claimed were “measures for mainstreaming of the madrasa education”.
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led provincial government released Rs. 577 million for its ally Maulana Samiul Haq’s seminary, Darul Uloom Haqqania. Party Chairman Imran Khan, while defending the move in a television interview, said that Maulana Samiul Haq had pledged that he would keep on informing the party chairman about the syllabus and reforms in the seminary.
A spokesman for Imran Khan told this writer by telephone that the madrasa students were not terrorists and it was a part of the KP government’s agenda to facilitate and mainstream those studying in a seminary, similar to those getting an education in any other institution. He said that the KP government’s vision was to help other seminaries through the aid to Haqqania madrasa, so that the students, after completing studies, have both formal and religious education and are not dependent on anyone. But analysts say the funds allocated by the provincial government have been used to expand and renovate the seminary’s vast campus, and not to modernise or diversify its teachings.
Experts on Pashtun culture and politics of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa believe that reforming madrasas in the said province is an uphill task due to its specific cultural and religious circumstances. “Bringing reforms seems to be a tall order,” says Rahimullah Yousafzai, a Peshawar-based journalist.
In a telephonic talk with Cutting Edge, he said that these religious schools and their ideology had become entrenched over a long period and now there are millions of students who have graduated from them. Reforming and mainstreaming them would require a long-term and persistent policy, he says.
A report published recently in English-language daily Dawn said that about 3,000 seminaries are registered with the government in the province. However, the government has no data of the students enrolled in the registered and unregistered seminaries. It has also no information about the curricula or faculty of such seminaries.
The statistics received from the federal boards of the five religious schools of thought show that the number of seminaries operating in the province was more than twice of those registered with the government departments. The data provided by provincial heads of each religious school of thought shows that actually 6,733 seminaries are functioning in the province with 1.022 million enrolled students.
Sympathisers of the PTI government, however, appreciate the latest steps taken by it for mainstreaming madrasa education. In a major policy shift, the provincial government recently placed seminaries under the supervision of the elementary and secondary education department. Minister for Elementary and Secondary Education Mohammad Atif Khan told Cutting Edge by telephone that the responsibility of registration of seminaries was shifted to his department recently.
“The mechanism for registration of seminaries has not been chalked out, rather it is under discussion in the education department,” he said adding that nothing was yet final regarding registration.
The provincial government is delicately handling the affairs of seminaries, as it is a very sensitive issue, said the minister. Some elements in seminaries consider their registration a positive step while others looked at it with suspicion, he added. For the first time in the province’s history, the education department would handle the registration, curriculum, examination, monitoring and other allied activities of seminaries.
The minister said that the establishment department had amended the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Rules of Business recently to give the Education Department the role of supervising seminaries. He believes that the process of reforming and mainstreaming madrasa education would be completed in the next three to four years, during the time the PTI would be having its government in the province.