March issue 2004

By | News & Politics | Published 20 years ago

On the freezing winter night of February 15, a group of miscreants went around Daarayle valley in the Diamer district of the Northern Areas, torching six girls’ schools.

Four days later, unidentified people blew up another girls’ school with a hand grenade in the city of Chilas. The following day, a modest two-room school for boys was targeted in Akhrot near Chilas. Later, another attempt to torch a school was foiled by locals.

Luckily, no one was wounded in these nightly attacks. The incidents are a major blow to efforts to promote literacy in the country’s backward areas, specially female literacy. Last year, a girls’ school in the area was burnt to ashes.

Some of these girls’ schools were set up under the government’s Social Action Programme (SAP) six years ago, with the help of non-governmental organisations. They are run by the communities themselves, with aid from NGOs. .

The local authorities and the police place the blame for these attacks squarely on orthodox mullahs who hold sway over the people of Diamer, who belong to the Ahle Sunnat group. “The people behind these attacks are those who oppose the construction of community schools with funding from international agencies. They believe foreign aid renders them unIslamic,” says a police official.

The police has apprehended 22 suspects. “We’re investigating the whole matter, but from the manner in which the attacks have been conducted, it is obvious who the culprits are,” said Inspector General Police, Northern Areas, Sakhiullah Tareen.

Home Secretary Saeed Ahmed Khan maintained that he could not pinpoint the organisations involved in the incident, but the suspects under detention belong to religious extremist groups. “Two of them belong to jihadi outfits,” he added.

The major trouble spot is believed to be the remote mountainous Darel area, some 240 kilometers south of Gilgit. It is here, officials believe, that jihadi activists are concentrated. The government set up community schools in these areas to meet the demands of the local population. The opening of new schools has led to a fall in admissions in the seminaries. “This is what is troubling these jihadis. They don’t wish to lose the base from where they derive their strength,” said an official, on condition of anonymity.

Incidentally, schools are not the only target of extremists in this erstwhile tourist destination. Development organisations have also been hit in the past. “The whole concept of change has been difficult for these elements to digest,” says Mohammad Farooq, a local journalist in Gilgit.

Last year, two unidentified attackers hurled hand grenades at the offices of the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Chilas. The police said at least 10 hand grenades were thrown into the IFAD building but fortunately only two of them exploded. Even so, the damage was considerable. According to locals, this was the seventh attack on the IFAD and UNDP offices in various parts of Diamer.

The Pakistan government, UNDP and IFAD have worked jointly for the development of the Diamer district since 1999. Some extremist groups have been suspicious of their motives. “Right from the start, the IFAD and UNDP offices have failed to gain acceptability among the local people, who are extremely conservative in their traditions and religious beliefs,” says an official of the Northern Areas administration.

Given its chequered history, it is no surprise that educational indicators in the extreme north are among the worst in the country, and are especially low for women and girls. According to the 1998 census, the overall literacy is 33 per cent in a population of 1.5 million, with a 12 per cent literacy rate for women. Prior to 1947, education had been virtually non-existent. There was not a single secondary school across the entire region though there were a few primary schools and one or two middle schools. Very few would embark on the onerous task of travelling all the way from Gilgit or Skardu to Srinagar for higher education.

With the liberation of the Northern Areas, a new era dawned. But secondary education became available only in the ’70s, when the first college for boys and another for girls were established in Gilgit. However, over the last two-and-a half decades, the region has witnessed a prolific growth of educational institutions, mostly up to the secondary level, in both the public and private sectors. Until very recently, people were not comfortable with sending their girls to schools with male teachers. But the situation has changed with the setting up of these community schools.

In 1993, the government launched a Social Action Programme (SAP) through which the federal government tried to improve social services, including primary education. The programme envisaged increased collaboration with local communities and non-governmental organisations in the education sector.

Working together, the Aga Khan Educational Service Programme, the Aga Khan Development Network and the government have used SAP funds to establish community schools in partnership with villages. The World Bank is also involved in education programmes in the Northern Areas. The recent arson attacks on the community schools could prove to be a setback to their plans to promote literacy in the region.

Meanwhile, officials have set up two different committees to investigate the arson attacks on schools. The administration hopes the committees would complete their work soon, but whether their findings will be made public is a moot point.