As part of my professional commitments, I have recently had the pleasure of documenting natural and cultural heritage in Dera Ismail Khan (DIK) district where I also conducted workshops with school teachers. DIK is considered to be one of the most underdeveloped and impoverished districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. A volatile security situation due to the region’s proximity to the restive Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which have over the years become a hub of militancy and terrorism, further compounds this dismal state of socio-economic indicators in the area.

Thepeace-loving communities of DIK have been adversely affected by the rise of Islamic militancy. The Islamic militants considered all elements of cultural diversity — be it tangible such as Hindu shrines and tombs of Muslim saints or intangible like folk dances and music — as evil and, un-Islamic,and tried to purge them from the cultural life of the people of DIK.

For years, citizens in DIK had to suffer the worst form of terrorism, leading to sectarian bloodshed. People were barred from celebrating cultural festivals involving traditional games such as kabaddi (wrestling), chapri (tent pegging), and watta chawan (stone lifting). Likewise, the Indus riverside summer festivity of Dhawni was discouraged by extremist groups, labelling it as a Hindu cultural practice. Even annual fairs of popular Muslim saints including Mela Bilot Sharif were only reluctantlyallowed by the district administration for fear of attack from extremist groups.

Given their impressionable minds, the children of DIK have been particularly vulnerable as they can easily fall prey to the extremist propaganda and can be recruited by militants for their nefarious designs. Social psychologists believe that when children have the opportunities to explore diverse cultural, ethnic and syncretic religious traditions, they are likely to develop more pluralist identities, in contrast to an identity based on strict adherence to the worldviews of a single group. Protection and transmission of knowledge of cultural heritage, therefore, equates to the very survival of our society and its cultural diversity, which contributes to giving meaning to people’s life and can lead to sustainable development.

School children of DIK can gain an early awareness of being part of multiple civilizations by learning about painted potsherds of the pre-Harappan archaeological site of Rehman Dheri and visiting fort complex of Kafirkot dating back to the Hindu Shahi period and richly decorated royal tombs of Hunderey from the Sultanate period. Highlighting the cultural heritage of the area in the curriculum taught at schools can help cultivate an awareness of local cultural history and can offset the closing of mind at the hands of extremism.

One of the ways in which this could be achieved is by adoption of the UNESCO guidelines on transforming provincial curricula and school textbooks. All kinds of cultural stereotyping of religious and gender minorities should be eliminated from provincial curricula to promote peace and social cohesion. Educational systems should, as far as possible, reflect the actual diversity in society in terms of cultures and religions.

Teachers of primary and secondary education in DIK can be trained to use references from local cultural elements. For instance, instead of teaching European fairy tales such as Red Riding Hood for an English language class in primary schooling, school teachers may be encouraged to use English rendering of popular Saraiki or Pushto folk tales like Mai Budhrri Da Phulla (Grandma’s popcorn).

Proverbs, containing the age-old wisdom, are a significant part of Saraiki folklore. These can be gainfully employed to teach moral values to students. For instance, a Saraiki proverb pertinentfor a lesson in social cooperation could be: Hamsaya Mann Piyu Jaya. It means that neighbours are like siblings in a family. Similarly, while teaching social studies, the teachers can draw on examples from local natural and cultural history.

Thanks to recent improvements in law and order, the cultural life of DIK is fast changing. The dark clouds of obscurantism are being lifted, but a long-term change in the society will take a generation to happen.

A lesson learnt from DIK’s experience is that integration of knowledge of cultural diversity in school education is the only sustainable way of conserving heritage and achieving lasting peace and social cohesion in conflict-ridden societies. Combing operations to eliminate extremists from society will not help without weeding out ideas that germinate extremism. Similarly, fortifying borders of school buildings alone will not protect us from extremism. For this, we need to extend the frontiers of our cultural knowledge into school teaching and learning — as education has the power to transform the mindset of a whole generation.