In mid-January, an interesting episode unfolded in Islamabad when the federal government rejected the Sindh government’s plea for action against ‘suspected’ seminaries. The federal government, otherwise keen on encroaching upon provincial spheres in mainstream education, had suddenly found the information given by Sindh government in this regard to be “incomplete and without concrete evidence”. In many other cases, the federal government with its organs and agencies has shown remarkable alacrity in Sindh. With this issue they found provincial concerns to be “insufficient, ambiguous, and without any credible evidence”.
The correspondence came to surface when the federal interior minister rebuked the Sindh government by asking it to furnish detailed information regarding any action that the Sindh government had taken against such seminaries. The federal minister was quick to remind Sindh that the provincial authorities were responsible for action if there was concrete evidence.
Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, our media-loving interior minister, disclosed that Sindh had sought proscription of 94 seminaries that the provincial authorities reckon to be suspect and liable to be proscribed.
In his characteristic style of mocking, he termed the provincial plea as ‘ridiculous’.
The interior minister has lately been shown to have hobnobbed with sectarian outfits, making it clear where his and his ministry’s priorities lie. This is very much in contrast with what Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been saying and doing.
In the recently concluded Literary Conference in Islamabad, the PM talked about a Zarb-e-Qalam, implying that the pen should be used to fight against obscurantism and to enlighten the masses. Right after the conference, four liberal and secular human-rights activists and bloggers were abducted by ‘unknown’ people, who are no longer unknown after the interior minister himself gave assurance that efforts were being made to get these bloggers released.
Then almost at the same time, the honourable minister asked the media to differentiate between the sectarian and terrorist organisations, explaining that not all sectarian organisations were terrorist outfits. According to him, sectarianism has been there for centuries — as if sectarianism itself is unavoidable, and should not be confused with terrorism.
It was in the same timeframe that action was initiated against the civil society organisations working for human rights, improved governance, and to raise awareness about religious and social harmony. A case in point was the South Asia Partnership (SAP-Pakistan) which had been asked to curtail or stop its activities.
This blatant chain of events is not unexpected as the state’s inclination to suppress the liberal and support the sectarian has been around for seven decades. What is new is the paradox of conflicting signals emanating from different quarters of the government and the state. The PM invites the bright face of Pakistan, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, to screen her film at the PM House; names a department at the Quaid-i-Azam University after Dr Abdus Salam, and announces allocation of Rs500m for the promotion of literature. The interior minister outshines the PM by sending exactly the opposite signals; and then the chief of the army staff declares Saudi defence as tantamount to defending Pakistan itself.
To add to this, the Taliban assume the responsibility for the terrorist attack in Parachinar, killing 25 and injuring dozens others but the interior minister still wants us to make a fine distinction between the sectarian and terrorist organisations — so much for the National Action Plan and being ‘on the same page’.
To top it all, there is a recurring news item about geotagging of seminaries being carried out to give us assurance that something is being done to control unbridled religiosity in society.
Geotagging is not unique to seminaries, it can be done with anyone or anything provided you have the technology, which nowadays is in almost anyone’s hands, thanks to smart phones. In its generic form, geotagging is the process of adding geographical information to various media in the form of metadata. We know that such data consists of coordinates i.e. latitude and longitude, but may also include bearing, altitude, distance and place names. In everyday use, geotagging is commonly used with photographs and helps people get specific information about where the picture was taken and the exact location of whoever logged on to a service.
The abductors of activists and bloggers mentioned earlier may have used such data to kidnap them. The kidnappers of Abdul Wahid Baloch near Karachi were also reported to have used a mobile device to ascertain the identity of their target.
So what does geotagging of seminaries entail?
Simply speaking, geotagging location services can be used to find location-specific information based on positions and coordinates often directly taken from a global positioning system (GPS). For example, if somebody visits a seminary, the tagging may be done by the camera after processing the shot — just as we do while tagging on Facebook.
Most high-end cell phones now have a built-in GPS to geotag information using the phone. Recently, the Sindh Home Ministry announced that their Special Branch had completed geotagging of over 7,700 seminaries. The Sindh government was expecting a pat on the back from the federal government for completing the task that was given to the provinces by the National Counter-Terrorism Authority.
But the point is that geotagging simply enables the authorities to know the location of every seminary that has been geotagged.
This information should have already been available with every police station that keeps a tab on all important locations within its jurisdiction.
While announcing the completion of geotagging, the Sindh government also claimed that out of over 10,000 seminaries 2,300 have been sealed that were found to be unregistered or being run ‘illegally’. Now even if just 100 students are enrolled in each of the 10,000 seminaries, the number of total seminary students must be close to a million just in Sindh. Just in Karachi the number of seminaries is around 4,000. Applying the same formula you have around half a million seminary students in Karachi alone.
How will the geotagging help if all these students, devoid of any skill but perhaps proficient in sectarianism cherished by our interior minister, come out on the streets?
In Hyderabad, the number of seminaries is over 2,000, in Sukkur close to 1,500, and in Larkana around a 1,000. With that many seminaries and their inhabitants, boasting about geotagging is a futile exercise. What is needed is a database on the pattern of EMIS (Education Management Information System). The information obtained through geotagging should become part of this EMIS that is functional in almost all provinces but lacks information about seminaries.
Then there is the question of using this data by the authorities.
Unless there is a change in the attitude at the federal level, the provinces will remain helpless in executing any meaningful action against the ‘suspect’ seminaries. If the recent chain of events, and statements are any guide, the ‘suspects’ will not be touched for want of a ‘credible’ evidence and a lack of evidence will not deter the authorities in their onslaught against the civil society activists that are putting their lives in danger by calling for religious harmony and action against sectarian outfits which, to our interior minister, are not terrorists.