Imposing bans on books or restricting their circulation has a long history. Civilizations have witnessed destructions of libraries numerous times in history, from the library of Alexandria to the burning of manuscripts at the University of Nalanda in India, and from the throwing of books into the river in Baghdad to torching them in Nazi Germany.
Then we have also had examples of such books that were ultimately considered masterpieces of history, literature, philosophy, and even psychology that were banned at various times not only by authoritarian regimes but also by democracies. Be it ‘The Decline and fall of the Roman Empire’ by Gibbons and ‘Lolita’ by Nabokov or ‘Das Capital’ by Karl Marx, there is a long list of books banned. Some governments preferred to ban the culled writers’ works in their entirety. Even scientists, thinkers and writers such as Balzac, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Dante, D H Lawrence, Einstein, Flaubert, Freud, Galileo, Hugo, Pasternak and many others had to see their works banned or even burned.
Luckily we have not reached that stage in Pakistan, not as yet at least. Recently we heard about the imposition of a ban in Punjab on over a 100 books published by various publishers. Before that we had seen the banning of books written by Leslie Hazleton. The Urdu translation of Muhammad Hanif’s ‘A case of exploding mangoes’ was confiscated without a notification or even a search warrant. We have seen legislation passed by the Punjab Assembly ensuring that an Ulema board will have the authority to approve books of English, Islamiyat, social studies, and Urdu.
Then the managing director of the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board (PCTB) went a step ahead by announcing that over ten thousand books were being scrutinized. These stories have multiple aspects and we need to see them in their proper perspectives. A look at the list of 100 books banned reveals that eight textbooks for English, 12 for Islamiyat, as many as 65 textbooks for social studies, and for Urdu 15 books have been deemed inappropriate for use in schools. As you can see nearly two thirds of the books banned belong to the discipline of social studies.
Textbook development is a technical field and it requires proper qualifications and training to draft a quality textbook. For example, textbook development for the English language does not require a teacher who has been teaching English for say 20 years. Nor does it call for a teacher of English literature at a university. It needs a team of textbook developers who are familiar with learning theories, with the latest English language teaching methodologies, with child psychology and with learning and teaching material development and evaluation, including allied material with the syllabus itself.
Apart from internationally known and respected publishers affiliated with universities such as Cambridge and Oxford, hardly any Pakistani publisher has qualified professionals in textbook development. A look at the PCTB website shows that its chairman is Lt-Gen (r) Muhammad Akram Khan and the managing director (MD) is Rai Manzoor Husain Nasir, a bureaucrat who has served as magistrate and deputy commissioner in various districts of Pakistan. In the past two years, the PCTB has had five MDs. The incumbent has received an ‘integrity idol’ award from the Jamaat-e-Islami chief Sirajul Haq.
According to the PCTB website, it has had 18 chairpersons in the past 25 years, including retired captains and majors. One would like to know how many properly qualified curriculum and textbook developers are working at the PCTB. The chairperson and director of the PCTB should ideally be curriculum experts with a doctoral or at least a Masters degree in education with specialization in curriculum development. Confining ourselves to the English language teaching and textbooks, one would also like to know how many doctoral or Masters degree holders in English language teaching there are at the PCTB.
According to the details available on the PCTB website, the authors and publishers of textbooks need to be registered separately. The registration form for publishers begins with personal details, for example the date of birth, gender and marital status of the publisher. For married publishers, if they are women their husband’s name and CNIC is required, but no such condition is there for a male publisher. One wonders what difference it makes to the PCTB if their publisher is married or not or if it is a man or a woman. This is outright discrimination on gender and/or marital status basis.
For publishers’ assessment there are marks for experience of publishing, printing facilities, financial position, and showrooms, but there is no mention of the qualification or education of the publisher. Apparently, the publisher is not supposed to be educationally qualified to publish books, as it is the responsibility of the author to develop the textbook. Then the question arises why no name of the author is mentioned for the banned books and only publishers are mentioned. The scheme for textbook development given on the PCBT website outlines the criteria for authors and editors as follows: “Teaching/ writing experience in relevant subject: 15 years for MSc/ MA; 10 years for MPhil/ MS; and five years for PhD.” Then the manuscripts will be sent to internal and external committees mostly consisting of subject experts with at least two PhDs in the relevant subject. The assumption is that subject experts are the best judge, and there is no need to have qualified curriculum and textbook developers. That’s where the problem lies. If the government is serious about making some improvements in textbooks, it must have in addition to subject experts some educationists properly qualified in curriculum development, syllabus design and education management.
As a result, the quality of English used in textbooks and even in circulars issued by the PCTB is poor. For example, one PCTB circular of May 20, 2020 available on the website starts as follows: “It has come to know that the subject cited booklet series published by …” The MD has duly signed it. Most of the circulars, notifications and other documents of the PCTB use stilted language full of threatening expressions such as ‘you are warned’, ‘if you fail to comply’, ‘you are directed to stop’, and ‘strict action will be taken’.
That’s what you get when you don’t have educationists but civil and military bureaucrats heading your curriculum and textbook board. The PCTB has banned most of the English textbooks not because they had poor quality of the English language – that would be a consolation – but on some cultural, ideological or nationalistic pretexts. We should assess English language textbooks on the basis of their potential as a tool for English learning and teaching, and not on the basis of ideological differences.
The PCTB has also banned 12 books of Islamiyat. No doubt this has become a sensitive matter, and that is one reason religious education should ideally be left to parents, and the state should have no business with or interference in children’s religious education. Modern education systems are based on secular education while religious education becomes a personal or family matter. The more a government body interferes in people’s beliefs, the more problems it creates for itself and for society.
To be continued
The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.