16th December 2014 began like any other day. Here in Islamabad, just at the time when I, like most dwellers of the city, was getting ready for a long day of work. There in Peshawar, children of Army Public School in Peshawar, like most school going children everywhere in the world, were getting ready to go to school. Around the same time, and not too far from us, the devil was also at work. Hours later it struck with a brutality that has no equal in the modern times.
What that fateful day brought home to us was not just a display of monstrous barbarity by a group of marauding terrorists, but the resilience, courage, and supreme sacrifice of the teachers among several others. Saima Tariq was one of the teachers at Army Public School. She was married to an Army officer. As her husband, Brigadier Tariq Saeed, told me that she was a very religious person and was fasting on the last day of her life. She was also afraid of darkness and always asked someone to accompany her when going out at night. However, when faced with the worst of the terrorists, she was transformed into a tigress, standing defiantly between the terrorists and her students. They ended her resistance by torching her alive.
Afshan Ahmad, another teacher at the APS, also leapt in front of her students to defy the terrorists. She was also burnt alive. She kept telling her students to run for their lives as she burnt and breathed her last.
Tahira Qazi, the principal of APS, had been retrieved by the rapid response force. But she went back inside the APS to save her students. She was shot in the head while rescuing her students.
The sympathy and respect for these heroes have been pouring in from all over the world. The world in general and the global community of educators in particular unites in mourning for them and in condemnation of the marauding terrorists who took their lives in that orgy of violence.
Pakistanis are in prayers and vigils to mourn and remember the martyrs of the APS. But will it be a matter of time before we forget them? What must we do to immortalise the memory of teachers and their students who lost their lives on December 16, 2014? Should we name schools after them? Should we build memorials to remember them? Should we just tell, and retell, their stories?
Yes, we should do all of the above, and much more. In an update after the departure of Saima Tariq, her husband had this to say, “I am proud of my wife’s sacrifice and courage. She has not only made her family but whole nation proud and sowed the seed for change.” Indeed, Saima and other teachers of the APS who valiantly resisted the terrorists and laid down their lives have made us proud. Unlike some who think Pakistan is a country without hope and dreams, I see a country in which ‘seeds of change’ have been planted.
There is an unprecedented seriousness with which the need for action and change is being felt across the nation. We must ask what we must do to nourish these seeds of change that Saima and other teachers and children have sowed with their blood? What this means is doing all it takes to transform the conditions that made this carnage possible. The only true homage to them is to give to our future generations a country free of extremism, bigotry, and terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.
The terrorists are not born. They are produced through a process of misguided training. It requires years of indoctrination and training. The terrorists who went on a killing spree on 16/12 were also children once. Odds are that they were amongst the many millions out of school children, whom we have failed. Some of them could have been at the same age as the secondary school students of the APS. What the political elite of Pakistan never does is recognise that it is its own enemy. There is not a single stable, secure, and open society in the modern world, which has become so without universal, free, and compulsory public education. We failed our children and we are responsible for turning some of them into terrorists.
There would be no terrorists if all children were educated in publicly run or regulated schools through a curriculum carefully developed to turn them into tolerant, respectful, law-abiding, productive, creative, and critical citizens.
Think about the kind of training the brutal executioners of Saima Tariq, Afshan Ahmed, Tahir Qazi, and hundreds of our innocent children must have received. Think about how successful their trainers must have been in eliminating any trace of humanity from their hearts. Now think about the dismal failure of the state in using education to produce all the traits that I mentioned above.
As if the failure of state’s system of education was not enough, we have let madrassas proliferate. I am certainly not against seminaries that develop religious scholars. But what business do the little children have in a seminary. Is it too much to ask that children until age 16 should only attend public or publicly regulated schools. No child under 16 should ever have to go to a Madrassa. Which country has allowed millions of its precious children to go to entirely unregulated religious seminaries? None that I know of!
Seminaries ought to be places where adults seek higher education in religion. Does it make any sense to limit a child’s options at the very beginning of his education and virtually force him to become a khateeb? What state would permit such usurping of the basic rights of its children? Pakistan turned a blind eye to enrolment of minors in religious seminaries at its own peril.
Nearly all seminaries favour one or the other sectarian denomination where these young children learn, implicitly or explicitly, to reject all other denominations except their own. Last year, after the unfortunate events in Rawalpindi on 10th of Muharram, large public meetings were held in many places in the country. A friend captioned pictures of one such gathering in Rawalpindi with these words, “So scary. So much anger and such power”. Who were these people and where was this anger and power coming from? The TV footage of the same events showed that many of them were adolescents, some were even younger. They were so full of zeal, and hatred for the ‘other’.
With over 25 million children out of schools, with millions of those out of school children enrolling in religious seminaries of one sectarian denomination or other, we are an imperilled nation. But Pakistani elite continues to turn a blind eye to this peril. It is certainly not enough to go after the terrorists in their hideouts when you have their breeding grounds in your backyard. It is true that all seminaries do not nurture terrorists, but it is still educationally unfair to put little children in religious seminaries.
Its time we recognise that education is not just about economic progress and personal fulfilment. Both of these are worthy aims of education. But more importantly, it is also about security. No country, which has achieved peace and stability, has done it without universalising public education.
If we are serious in nourishing the ‘seeds of change’ sowed by the martyred teachers of APS, then military action is only one of a large range of responses that this calls for. Taking education of all school-age children seriously being one of them. We should make an all out effort to retrieve and mainstream madrassa students without necessarily antagonising the madrassas and we should do it in the name of educational justice for all children.
The only true homage to those who laid down their lives is a transformation in the state of our education. No child should be left alone to drift into the abyss of terrorism. None of them should have their life choices curtailed by being placed in religious seminaries at a tender age.
Last, but not the least, we should dignify and honour our teachers. Good education depends on good teachers. Putting children in regular schools is unlikely to work if we do not provide them with worthy teachers. Over the last two decades we have done anything but denigrated them in the name of education reforms. Unthinkingly, we have been torching the professionalism of our teachers. Instead of half thought measures to make teachers accountable, we should spend some time thinking about how to turn teaching into a dignified profession.
By laying down their lives, the teachers and children of APS have shaken us out of slumber. It would be a pity if we did not act to transform the conditions that brought their lives to an abrupt and brutal end. This transformation will only come about when all children of Pakistan have access to a decent and equitable education.