Schools un­der siege

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Ha­jrah Mum­taz

AMES­SAGE cir­cu­lat­ing over the in­ter­net amongst Pak­istani cir­cles in re­cent days is ti­tled ' How to sur­vive a school or univer­sity shoot­ing un­til re­sponse'. The 10-point guide ad­vises run­ning away if pos­si­ble and adds: "Grab any weapon like [a] sharp scis­sor or any other thing which you can use in case the at­tacker is on your head." Peo­ple in the line of fire should "play dead as a last re­sort", it says.

And thus it is that across the coun­try, par­ents and guardians are won­der­ing whether, and how, to broach the sub­ject, with their young chil­dren, of what to do in case their ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tion is at­tacked by mil­i­tants. In terms of older stu- dents - more than, say, seven or eight years - such grim talk­ing points are al­ready un­der de­bate; the threat is im­pos­si­ble for even the younger ones to be un­aware of.

The coun­try's schools and col­leges, the places of learn­ing where the fu­ture is shaped one build­ing block at a time, are un­der di­rect as­sault. The fear is real and pal­pa­ble, and was most ob­vi­ously ev­i­denced by the chaos last week when many in­sti­tu­tions across the coun­try shut down tem­po­rar­ily, one af­ter the other, in many cases with­out any no­tice. The clo­sures did not oc­cur as a re­sult of any cen­tralised or uni­form de­ci­sion by the gov­ern­ments at the cen­tre or the provinces; it seems to have been a case of panic.

And why not, one could ar­gue, given the state­ment that was is­sued in the wake of the Charsadda at­tack by the TTP vis-àvis its in­ten­tions about those at­tend­ing places of learn­ing. The dis­tinc­tion is im­por­tant: schools have been blown up in var­i­ous parts of the coun­try for years, so that the phe­nom­e­non be­came, in a way, old news. Malala and her col­leagues were shot; but now the threat level has es­ca­lated to a new level al­to­gether.

Ramp­ing up se­cu­rity at and for­ti­fy­ing the bound­aries of ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions has be­come nec­es­sary, as has per­haps the need to en­ter into dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions with young peo­ple who should have no truck with weaponry. But this sit­u­a­tion raises other dis­tress­ing talk­ing points as well. It is ap­palling that chil­dren, es­pe­cially younger ones, walk into school un­der the shadow of snipers and gun­men. The pres­ence of weapons on cam­puses, whether in the hands of guards or teach­ers, raises the pos­si­bil­ity of ac­ci­den­tal shoot­ings, a few such cases hav­ing al­ready oc­curred over the past year. The heads of stu­dents and teach­ers should be filled with pos­si­bil­i­ties, but not the pos­si­bil­ity of an armed as­sault.

Add to th­ese ter­ri­ble dif­fi­cul­ties the more pro­saic ones: ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions must be pro­tected, and it is pri­mar­ily the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the state ap­pa­ra­tus to achieve this (in­clud­ing en­gi­neer­ing a peace­ful en­vi­ron­ment). But clearly, dis­man­tling the mil­i­tant/ter­ror­ist net­work is a painful, long-drawn-out task, hav­ing been al­lowed by no less than the state it­self to grow to such mon­strous pro­por­tions. Mean­while, there is a limit to how many law-en­force­ment per­son­nel can be pulled off the street and de­puted out­side schools and col­leges.

In­sti­tu­tions have been in­structed to ramp up their own for­ti­fi­ca­tions, in­clud­ing metal-de­tec­tion gates, barbed wire and trained guards; in re­cent days alone, over 230 have been or­dered shut for fail­ing to come up to stan­dards. But most schools do not have the re­source-mar­gin to achieve this, and there is a limit too on how much of the cost can be passed on to those pay­ing the school fees.

In the fore­see­able fu­ture, Pak­istan's schools might look less like places of learn­ing and more like max­i­mum-se­cu­rity pris­ons; it is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that they are un­der siege.

There is a prece­dent, though, of sorts. Dur­ing the 1971 war, be­cause of the threat of air raids, stu­dents were made aware of what it meant to be at war; they un­der­went evac­u­a­tion drills, and many learned emer­gency re­sponse and first aid tech­niques as well. Sev­eral in­sti­tu­tions saw trenches dug on their premises.

Trenches will do no good in Pak­istan's cur­rent war. But per­haps there is ben­e­fit in the state and cit­i­zenry, no less than the de­fence forces them­selves, recog­nis­ing in this new, es­ca­lated, phase of con­flict a threat to the coun­try's fu­ture ex­is­tence that is as for­mi­da­ble as a tra­di­tional as­sault of oc­cu­pa­tion by a ri­val power. The rhetoric so far has been that Pak­istan is mainly al­right, there's just a prob­lem of mil­i­tancy that needs to be sorted out. But Pak­istan is the op­po­site of al­right, and the threat is greater than it has ever be­fore been in nearly seven decades, more so be­cause it comes from within and car­ries no badge of the en­emy. If this were recog­nised, we might pro­duce the sort of pres­sure needed to force those at the helm and the de­fence forces to un­der­take a per­ma­nent sea change in pol­icy in ad­di­tion to deal­ing with the threat as it ex­ists now.

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