Citizenship education in Pakistan

Dr Naazir Mahmood

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

There was a time in Pakistan up until the 1970s that we taught civics as a subject to our students at school and college levels. Then as the military dictatorship of the usurper General Ziaul Haq forcibly drove Pakistan towards an extremist mindset, curricula at all levels reflected this trend.

Gradually civic education nearly evaporated in thin air, and a distorted view based on self-righteousness of Pakistan Studies and sectarian education crowded other subjects out. It has been over four decades now that we have seen a creeping and insidious erosion of civic sense in our society. Be it the barbarous killing of Usama Satti by the Islamabad police, or the heartless remarks by our prime minister about what he described as blackmailing by the bereaved Hazara families in Quetta, all point towards a callous disregard for our civic responsibilities, both by civil and uniformed segments of our society.

Fortunately, there are elements of the civil society – both national and international – that are still keeping the flames of civic education alive in Pakistan. Fredrick-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) of Germany and the Pakistan Institute of Parliamentary Services (PIPS) are two such organizations that have worked to promote the introduction of civic education in the country. Fredrick Ebert was one of the two outstanding politicians of Germany in the beginning of the 20th century. The other was August Bebel, one of the founders of the Marxist-influenced Social Democratic Party of Germany.

Fredrick Ebert was a pivotal figure in the German Revolution of 1918-19. He served as the first president of Germany from 1919 till his untimely death in 1925 just at the age of 54. Had he lived longer, perhaps the trajectory of Germany and the world would have been different. The foundation named after Fredric Ebert has been doing valuable work around the world to promote democratic values. In Pakistan, it works in close collaboration with PIPS. When Zafarullah Khan was the executive director of PIPS from 2016 to 2019, both the FES and PIPS did substantial work for implementation of civic education in Pakistan.

As an educationist, one must take keen interest in learning and teaching materials that can help our learners understand basic values of a civil society. That is the reason why, when I come across such materials, I tend to share with my readers my impression. Take, for example, the Module of Civic Education developed by Zafarullah and printed by the FES. Being an ardent supporter of democracy and an authority not only on civic education but also on federalism and parliamentary democracy, Zafarullah appears to be the best person to write such a manual.

The manual is a training guide that sets particular standards of teaching civics. It begins by introducing the various models of civic education with different nomenclatures such as ‘citizenship education’ in a majority of European countries, ‘civic education’ in America and Germany, and ‘political education’ in some other states. All trying to convey the same message that democracy is not an automatic machine; rather each generation benefits from and cares for its own democracy in accordance with their peculiar approach and thinking. By calcifying this, the module establishes a strong case for civic education in Pakistan.

Since Zafarullah has tried to give an essence of other countries’ experiences, the module explains how to learn from them. Not only can schools and colleges benefit, but also interactive sessions can take advantage of this readymade module that otherwise would have been difficult to conduct. The module also gives information about the National Civic Education Act 2018 (NCEC Act 2018). The module is new – printed in 2020 by the FES – whereas a briefing paper on the implementation of the NCEC was published by PIPS in 2019. This briefing paper itself is useful material, authored by Farahnaz Khan who is a lawyer by profession and an expert on governance issues.

As Dr Jochen Hippler highlights in the forward to the briefing paper, “in any democratic state, the trust in democratic institutions and procedures is an essential factor for resilient peace at all levels of government”. And that is one reason why we need civic education in Pakistan. In the context of Pakistan, civic education can play a crucial role in strengthening and promoting democratic principles and values. It is an almost established fact in functioning democracies that a certain level of open-mindedness enhances people’s belief and participation in democracy.

In a country such as Pakistan, where anti-democratic forces have a perpetual upper hand, such open-mindedness is missing. This absence has cultivated discrimination against democracy. Civic education helps us advocate for the elimination of – or at least reduction in – such discrimination that also subsumes inequalities based on caste, class, colour, or creed. Our state in Pakistan has been lamenting over its inability to forge unity among its people, without realizing that such unity should not mean uniformity. We cannot develop a single nation by denying the rights of its nationalities.

We can build a nation not by slogans of unity or by chanting national songs; we can do it only if we enable our citizens to understand their role. That means that the source of power in society is not the barrel of a gun but the ballot box. Civic education teaches us that people’s votes should be powerful enough to hold their leaders accountable, and that accountability is not the prerogative of a select few sitting in courtrooms, or in NAB offices, or at the GHQ. If people feel empowered to judge the performance of their leaders, democracy thrives.

For the past 74 years, we have demeaned democracy, deprived people of their right to make decisions, kicked the civil society around, and maligned and even murdered many of the leaders who believed in people. That has resulted in a populace that feels disenfranchised even if we hold elections under a caretaker government. Many caretaker governments have tried to act not as caretakers but as undertakers of democracy in Pakistan. People need to understand this, and the process starts with basic civic education at our educational institutions, at the community level, and at local government tiers.

Zafarullah Khan has also developed information packs for Civic Education Acts for all provinces in Pakistan. For example, the Information Pack for Civic Education Act in the Provincial Assembly of Balochistan serves as resource material for the consideration of the Balochistan Assembly. The pack highlights the importance of civic education for youth so that they can play an effective role in strengthening democratic values in their province. To do this, some fundamental knowledge of the constitution, fundamental rights, and the parliamentary institutions in the country is a necessary ingredient.

We should be delighted that the parliament of Pakistan passed the NCEC Act in 2018 but that was only for the Islamabad Capital Territory. We can also take pride that MNAs from both the opposition and the treasury voted for it. But our delight and pride remain unfulfilled unless our provinces also legislate similar bills. Since education is a devolved subject, the ball is in their courts now.

Our education ministry at the federal level is more interested in brokering an insipid and uncalled for activity – that of introducing a ‘single national curriculum’. It may take up the challenge of promoting civic education across the country.

It is not the federal government’s domain anymore, but at least it will be indulging in something worthwhile and no sane person would object against civic education if the federal government promotes it as a separate subject to teach across the country in all education institutions, including seminaries.



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Docente - Investigadora Educativa.
Doctora en Cs. de la Educación, Magíster en Desarrollo Curricular y Licenciada en Relaciones Industriales.

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