Throughout the years of turmoil and instability in Pakistan, the education sector has remained a central target of all parties engaged in armed conflicts. Enraged over the threats from an underground Islamic extremist organization that led to the forceful closure of girls' schools in Pakistan's largest province of Balochistan earlier this month, the public has come out on roads to expostulate over the ban.
The government's response to the extremist group's warnings has been totally unsatisfactory which has, in a way, sent a message of encouragement to those who want to keep girls away from education. Dozens of girls' schools remain shut in the Pakistan-Iran border town of Panjgur simply because the government is either unwilling or unable to provide them security from armed religious fanatics. Pakistan's federal and provincial governments' response is inadequate to push back the opponents of girls' education and inculcate a sense of security among the threatened young female students.
Increasing public protests in Balochistan demanding the continuity of girls' education and elimination of extremist groups challenges Pakistan's state-sponsored narrative about the resource-rich province. For years, Pakistan's civil and military rulers have cleverly skirted their responsibilities with regards to educating Balochistan. Islamabad has absurdly created this impression that the people of Balochistan are not interested in sending their children to schools. Now that thousands of parents and students are marching on the roads asking for uninterrupted education for the daughters of Balochistan, the government is missing.
The Pakistani media, with the help of the central government, has promoted this perception across the board about Balochistan that the tribal chiefs of the province oppose construction of schools and the promotion of education among the people because the tribal chiefs fear losing control over the local population once everyone starts going to school. In theory, it makes a logical argument but in reality the landscape in Balochistan isn't black and white.
The tribal chiefs, who oppose the promotion of education in Balochistan, are actually permanent members of the Pakistani ruling establishment. In spite of not enjoying ample support among the masses, these pro-Islamabad tribal chiefs have been aided by the Pakistani intelligence services from generation to generation to get elected to public office and then guard Islamabad's interests in Balochistan. As long as Islamabad continues to patronize these tribal chiefs, Balochistan's legislature will comprise of politicians who will refrain from imparting education among the local population. An informed population will most likely rise against the central government's excessive exploitation of Balochistan's mineral resources. Hence, there is a need to halt and annihilate the factory that churns out and imposes pro-establishment politicians on Balochistan.
Islamabad has numerous interests in Balochistan. One such interest is to promote Islamic fundamentalism to confront separatist tendencies among the Baloch youth who are demanding a free Baloch homeland. The popularization of one Muslim identity is seemingly the only antidote available to the Pakistani policymakers to exterminate ethnic nationalism in the gas-rich province. This is a very costly as well as a deadly strategy. Pakistan has had a consistent history of using Islamic extremist proxies but it also has a consistent history of failures and catastrophic consequences that, in resultantly, cost the lives of tens of thousands of Pakistan's own population.
The actions of the extremist group that has successfully disrupted girls' education are incongruous with Pakistan's Islamist agenda. In the backdrop of this situation, the provincial government will distance itself from the assault on education because it does not have the authority to contest federal policies with regards to Islamabad's marriage with armed religious groups. These networks have, unfortunately, become somewhat indispensable for the Pakistani state to protect its domestic and foreign interests. Just like its growing nuclear arsenal, Pakistan's network of Islamist allies inside and outside the country is alarmingly expanding.
While extreme positions adopted by the Pakistani government and the Baloch nationalists have escalated and perpetuated the conflict in Balochistan, what is deeply worrying is how both sides have chosen to drag their battles inside educational institutions instead of fighting them in political battlegrounds.
The Baloch nationalists, mostly represented by underground armed groups, have also found the educational institutions a soft target.
In a 2010 report, Their Future is at Stake, the Human Rights Watch said at least 22 school teachers and educational personnel had been killed in Balochistan between January 2008 and October 2010.
The H.R.W. mainly blamed the Baloch nationalists for these killings.
"While individuals from all professions have been the victims of such "targeted killings"," the H.R. W. reported, "teachers and students constitute a significant proportion of victims because militant groups view schools and educational personnel, particularly ethnic Punjabis, as representatives of the Pakistani state and symbols of perceived Punjabi military oppression of the province."
Armed Baloch nationalists have strictly dealt with school teachers who insisted upon raising Pakistan's national flag or making students sing the country's anthem. After some teachers were shot dead, most schools began to play the Free Balochistan anthem and display the nationalists' flag on school buildings. The nationalists counted this as their victory.
The Baloch nationalists are reluctant to admit that the killing of the non-Baloch, mainly Punjabi, teachers and forcing them to leave the province has negatively affected Balochistan's education. Since the forceful explosion of non-Baloch teachers, the province faces an extraordinary dearth of math and science teachers. Whenever I inquire from Baloch nationalists about the cost of attacks on teachers, they have a quick response: "So what?" And, I reply, ""so what?" isn't an answer to my question." "So what" does not clearly reflect the demands of a political movement nor can it be a durable policy.
Tragically, there isn't an organized battle for protecting the educational institutions of Balochistan. The government and the Baloch nationalists tend to only highlight one side of the picture to make each other look inferior. On the contrary, bad politics on both sides is risking the future of thousands of children in Balochistan.
The Baloch separatists should respect teachers based on their services rather than their ethnicity. They should reopen Balochistan's doors for all those teachers who were forced to leave the province whereas the government, on its part, should immediately dismantle the religious groups that are threatening girls' education. Those who keep girls away from education anywhere in the world, including in the conflict-stricken Balochistan, are not our allies for a better future.