Thursday, June 22, 2006

From Gawadar to Darkut: Hundred Years of IQRA

What appeared as a very small school in the impoverished sea side village of Gawadar was to become the zero point for a hundred years old Aga Khan Education Services Pakistan. AKESP, one of the five agencies working under the Aga Khan Development Network, is providing academic facilites to over seventy thousand students across Pakistan. This year while AKESP is celebrating its centennial ceremonies, there is a need to reflect upon the impact of its academic operations. The various ways AKESP affected our societies and regions is a part of the impact analysis, apart from the educational paradigm shift that has resulted in the northern areas. In mid fifties of the past century, Gilgit-Baltistan was divided into various small princely states. The region was being governed by the British rulers, through the Maharaja of Kashmir. Gilgit used to be the head quarter of the administration. In those times education was often unheard a terminology, among the masses and the rulers alike. There was hardly any facility for education in the entire region. The only Boys High School was present in Gilgit town. The school was not attended by majority of the people. Our forefathers were busy in herding their cattle and working for their rulers. The British rulers were least bothered about the abject academic state of the region. Some influential people, usually the sons of the rulers and their ministers were able to go to Sri Nagar for continuing their academic quest. In 1949, the then Imam of Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, turned his attention towards the northern areas. The money that was generated from the world famous Diamond Jubilee Celebrations were funneled into a fund and that fund was used to create schools across the globe, many of them being in the northern areas. My village, Gulmit, was lucky enough to host a school. Primary, middle and high schools were created through out the Gilgit and Ghizar Regions. And thus the educational revolution, that was unheard of, materialized. Those who were receptive to the changes offered by the advent of AKES were able to reap the profits, with both hands. Children had one hand reserved for books, while they directed their herd with the stick in the other hand. Girls and boys, all were experiencing a very different phenomenon: one that promised change. What the change was, however, was not very clear. Time kept on moving. People started leaving the mountains as they passed into higher grades. And thus the society experienced change, for the very first time probably. The change brought with itself new cloths and new tales of cities. Those who returned did not have to wait for long, for being employed. A matriculate was hard to be found. Those who reached this milestone would soon be appointed as “Master” in a village school. The caravan of light was on the mark. Batches of students kept on coming out of the AKESP and government schools of the northern areas. The cultural and social impact of the mass education movement was also remarkable. Some might have felt a cultural shock in the cities, but most of the shock was observed in fast changing villages. There were transient uproars, scuffles, but change survived and progressed. People felt the blessings of economic prosperity, as they ventured into very new fields for earning bread and butter. The biggest impact that AKES had on the people of northern areas was in terms of the awareness that resulted due to the process of education. The government also played a very constructive role in the whole process. The educated generations soon spotted holes in their societies and traditions and the process of reform started. Students led the movement that toppled the princely states in Hunza and Nagar, in the year 1971. Most of the leaders of the Tehreek-e-Aazadi Hunza Nagar, like Mir Baz Khan, Gul Muhammad and Maula Madad, were students of AKESP run schools. The glory that is attached with provision of knowledge soon dawned on the region. Shah Karim Al-Hussaini, the present Aga Khan, has termed the situation in the 1960s as “terrible”. But this was not to be the same, thanks to the visionary steps taken by Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah and the present Imam of the Ismaili Muslims. In the due course of time, as Pakistan became independent in 1947, the government also realized the lacking of the northern areas and government sponsored schools were also constructed in huge numbers, High School Gilgit being the most prominent. Together AKESP and the government schools altered the entire outlook of northern areas. After the preliminary bulk production phase came the vital phase of standardized education. In the early eighties, the foundations of Aga Khan Academy Karim Abad and Aga Khan School Sher Qilla were laid. The most stunning feature of these would-be centers of excellence was that they were exclusively for female students. The graduates of both these academies have played a highly laudable role in the evolution of indigenous societies in their respective regions. The graduates of various AKESP schools, coming from poor economic backgrounds, were able move into professional colleges. The result was stunning. The society that could hardly have a matriculate was now producing doctors, engineers, and army professionals and civil services personnel. Highly qualified academicians emerged from within the rocks and completely transformed the society. This polar development in the Ismaili communities was soon felt by the sister Muslim communities. The competition that resulted might, largely, have been under the fear of being dominated but it had far reaching impact in the overall development of the northern areas. The AKESP then stuck to a line for quite a long period of time. But there definitely were plans in the making. In 1996 the rumors of another centre of excellence were heard. And in 1997 Aga Khan Higher Secondary School, Gilgit admitted its first batch of forty students. The voyage did not stop there. In 2004, Aga Khan Higher Secondary School Gahkuch came into being. And now they say that one AKHSS would be built in Tehsil Mastuj, in Chitral. These progressive and sustained expansions of AKESP show that it is committed towards the complete overhaul of the social makeup of northern areas. Despite of all the glorious successes that AKESP has attained in northern areas, there is a sort of discontentment in the society. Critics say that the schools were largely concentrated in the regions were the followers of Aga Khan were in majority. While the statistics justify this assertion, the realities of the then hostile environment of the region can also be taken as major hindrance. Fatimids had been on war with the Abbasids and the Ommayads, or their successors throughout the history and thus there was a sense of bitter rivalry. Thus rejection and avoidance of the DJ funds was an eminent reaction among most of the non-Ismaili communities, living in northern areas. The same reaction continues today, in the most remote part of the mountainous regions. At times the reaction becomes severe and hostile. The AKESP is accused of spreading “westernization”, secularism and, at times, KUFR, by clerics and other fanatics. That the west rules all field of knowledge is not something hidden. We all know that. So if in the process of education people think that they need to westernize some factors of their lives, it is their own decision. The students of public sector and other private schools westernize also. These accusations are voiced in the local press using dubious terminologies. Some conspiracy theorists have been projecting the AKES as a propaganda tool for, what they call, the “Aga Khan State”. This propaganda has been sponsored by hard line clerics who are not happy with the history of the Ismailies and the Aga Khan. Zarb-e-Momin, Takbeer, Wajood, and papers of that caliber have been printing such hatred material for long. But, His Higness the Aga Khan has explicitly condemned the rumors about a state in his name. Logic also supports his condemnation. We all know that Ismailies are spread across the world, in small and large numbers. In most of the societies the Ismailies are in minority and any such measure is going to cause immense trouble for them, especially in Muslim dominated societies. Also the Aga Khan Development Network has earned respect and name globally for its philanthropic and society centered activities. Why would the Aga Khan jeopardize his investments across the globe, for the sake of a rugged piece of land in a highly hostile region? While some might ignore these reactions as prejudiced conservatism, I think there is a communication gap that has baffled the situation. AKESP has not been very strong in conveying its non-sectarian face to the northern areas. People still think of it as a “Tablighi” effort, meant towards “Ismailization” of northern areas. The AKES has now more than sixty years of presence in the northern areas. In this course of time regions have opened up and people from the benchmark conservative regions have come out to embrace AKESP financed school projects. This indeed is a very well come development but a lot has to be done in this regard. Last year some miscreants blew up UN sponsored girls schools in the Tangir region, showing that there are vistas that have to be framed, yet. The accusations regarding the AKESP being a Tablighi movement are, obviously, not authentic. During the past half century AKES has been teaching students belonging to all theological and sectarian circles, but religious fall outs are unheard. Those who work for, or study in the schools of AKES are not asked to alter their religious views. And that is why a growing number of non-Ismaili locals are utilizing their professional acumen for the uplift of the organizational objectives. The accusations regarding spreading Secularism are also baseless. The concept of God is an essential concept of the Ismaili belief and the Aga Khan has strictly asked his followers to believe in the presence of the divine being. The Aga Khan has also said on many occasions that Ismailism is a TARIQAH, a form of Islam that has evolved with the passage of time. The Ismailies follow the holy prophet, Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH) as the seal of prophet hood, like sunnies, and Hazrat Ali as the first Imam, like the Shias. So those who blame AKES of spreading secularism don’t seem to be clear in their definitions of the terminology. AKES is also accused of mismanagement. The choice of highly expensive hotels as venues for workshops and trainings and the usage of AKESP vehicles for personal purposes specially come under fire. These are purely administrative issues and thus irrelevant in the context, but these have tremendous effect on the perceptions of the people. When the expensively trained teachers are not able to bring about good results, people have the right to object. The management has some screws that have to be fixed. The voyage has continued, uninterrupted. Light has spread across the northern horizon. IQRA, the logo of AKESP, inscribed in an open book, is a word from the holy Quran. We, Muslims, believe this word to be the first divine word unveiled by Gabriel, the spirit. It means “read”. What the Aga Khan has taken out of the word IQRA is best narrated in the mission statement of the AKESP. The mission of AKESP has been narrated by the Aga Khan as “to enable many generations of students in gaining knowledge and the essential spiritual understanding to balance that knowledge…….” It seems that the Aga Khan has taken the spread of education as a divine mission. He has executed the mission very well by erecting a network of internationally acknowledged centers of knowledge, from Karachi to Maputo, and from England to Gurno Badakhshan. It is time that we, the ordinary people, realize the importance of the task and rise to support this cause in the wider interest of the Muslim Ummah. The writer is a student of business administration at Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology, Karachi.


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