The deadly attack on Bacha Khan University in Charsadda on January 20 highlighted, yet again, the increasing dangers students in Pakistan have to face at the hands of the Taliban. The incident took place barely a year after the massacre at Army Public School in Peshawar in which more than 140 people were killed, most of them students.
For those seeking to better understand the threats educational institutions in the country are under, “Frontier of Fear: Confronting the Taliban on Pakistan’s border” is a new and timely book by British author David L. Gosling about his time as the principal of Edwardes College in Peshawar between 2006-2010.
“I was confronting the Taliban not by sort of hiding behind a wall taking shots at people, but by promoting co-education,” he tells Weekend Review. “That was to them the most confrontational thing. And it was for that I received a death threat, a fatwa, specifying this is my greatest sin. But I am actually quite proud of that because I think the education of women, especially in that province, is a vital priority. I think that was probably one of the best things I did.”
I interviewed Gosling at his home in Cambridge, the English city known for its historic university and tourists. It is a world away from the hustle and bustle of South Asia. Did Gosling have any reservations about going to Peshawar, which is not the safest place in the world? “It was fine when I arrived there,” he says. “The first evidence of troubles ahead was within six weeks when there was an American drone attack in Bajaur, in which 85 boys were killed at a madrassa. Then, of course, the public became very angry and I had to close the college.”
It was about a year into his time at Edwardes College that Gosling received the death threat early one morning. The staff used to keep dailies on wooden slabs for the day scholars to read in between classes. The warning notes, issued on two-page sheets, were kept on those slabs and at other places in the college.
Gosling was a little bewildered and discussed the matter in the staff room. “At first the teaching staff thought this was all rather silly and we shouldn’t take it very seriously,” he says. “But since the [provincial] governor was the chair, I spoke to his staff. They were quite concerned and sent the security people around. The intelligence bureau and Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI] officers came around as well. They were a bit concerned about it and gave me some advice. They encouraged me to increase the security of my part of the college. But that was all really.”
His morning routine at the college included going around classrooms and informally interact with students. “I place great importance on those informal contacts. Otherwise people might have regarded me as a rather stuffy and remote English man. I didn’t want to be seen like that and I don’t think I was. I have still got students writing to me, sending me e-mails.”
Gosling has a background in nuclear physics and is also a priest. “I am but I have spent my life in the academic world, not very much in the church,” he says. Among the places he had previously taught include India where he spent nine years. As a result Gosling speaks fairly good Hindi. “Therefore, I could converse in spoken Urdu reasonably well,” he says.
As the principal, Gosling pushed up academic standards at Edwardes College. He saw that women were able to participate and their numbers increased, both of students and staff.
Once Gosling took some of his students on a trip to a prison. “They tend to have lived very sheltered lives,” he says. “It is good for them to meet face to face some people whose lives have been much more difficult and maybe shouldn’t be in prison at all. I think it encouraged the young prisoners that these students came and expressed some kind of solidarity with them. I think it helped to lift their morale.”
In prison he met Sufi Mohammad, “the elder statesman of Pakistan’s Taliban”. He was in the hospital wing and Gosling was visiting somebody else. “If you are ever put in prison, I suggest you stay in the hospital wing, the most comfortable part of the prison. He is an old man. I think he must be in his mid to late 90s now. There he was, lying on the bed with his two sons looking after him, and they interpreted for me. They were very happy that I was meeting with their father. And what he said to me was about education. I mean, it is not that ‘you are a foreigner, what are you doing?’ He was perfectly civil and happy to talk about the college. But to the Americans, he is probably the most dangerous man on Earth. I didn’t find him like that at all.”
Later, on that same visit he went to the boys section of the prison with the students. “Those boys in the prison were very enthusiastic about the fact that I had met Sufi Mohammad. To them, he was something of a hero.” These were Taliban prisoners? “No, just ordinary boys. Some were Taliban. Some — three or four — were unsuccessful suicide bombers.”
One of the students was an Afghan who identified the Afghan prisoners and took them into a separate group. “He was sat on the floor with maybe 10 or 15 Afghan boys and talked to them privately ... not all of them spoke Pashto. He would make a list of their names and later, meet the Afghan consul who lived down the road from the college. The student handed over the list to him and the consul would then try and contact their families in Afghanistan. The consul wasn’t allowed into the prison without permission from Islamabad. It could take six months for the permission to be granted for one visit. But we could go into the prison, you see.”
The prison authority, however, appreciated the college students’ visit. “The deputy superintendent of the prison sent me two very warm e-mails expressing appreciation for this programme.”
Gosling completed his term as principal at Edwardes College in 2010. “I had a contract for three years initially. That was extended for four years. I didn’t ask to stay beyond those four years. But I had to deal with a large embezzlement in college funds in the final year. That brought me into conflict with some powerful people locally, including the local church, the bishop. I was able to establish that they were involved in the embezzlement, which that led to a lot of friction, arguments and rows just as I was leaving.”
Gosling, who is close to retirement, supervises a few PhD students part-time at Cambridge University and gives occasional seminars. Since returning to Cambridge he has held a number of talks to bring out some of the complexities of the whole situation. “The reactions in this country and in the West generally are very naive and simplistic.”
He gives the example of one of his students whose brother was a trained paramedic. “He tried to get a job in the hospital in Wana, Waziristan, but couldn’t. He tried to get a job as a paramedic in the military, but they kept him waiting. But the Taliban offered him a job.”
It was quite a well-paid position. “For two years he worked for the Taliban. He didn’t entirely like the job. One part of it was that if they decided to behead somebody his job was to anaesthetise them beforehand. He wasn’t very happy with this aspect.”
Eventually he left the Taliban. “Then there was a job available in the hospital in Wana. From the American point of view he is a militant — ‘bomb the hospital and kill 50 of its members. That is our enemy you see, Taliban killer.’ But it is not like that. You can’t make these simplistic judgments in black and white and kill people indiscriminately.”
Gosling has talked to people from Waziristan. “I believe they were very angry about the whole thing,” he says. “I mean for one thing, they were trespassing on Pakistan territory. And they caused a lot of unnecessary deaths, according to relatives and family members of some of our students.”
Edwardes College is not far from Army Public School that was attacked by the Taliban in December 2014. Gosling recalls admitting students from the school into his college. “They were very good academically. And also the fees in the Army Public School were very reasonable. Some of these non-governmental schools charge very high fees. And you have this kind of elite stream of education, which is not what we really want to encourage. But often they got the best standards.”
The Army Public School massacre was partially how the book got its title. “I wanted a title with the word education in it,” he says. “The publishers of this book said education doesn’t sell books. But I had almost won my argument for the word education when this terrible incident happened. Then I had to admit that ‘Frontier of Fear’ was the more appropriate title.”
It took Gosling three or four years to write the book. “I had some difficulty writing it because I was quite disturbed about some of the things that had happened. Also when I returned, I had been too much in the sun and I had to have surgery on my nose. I lost at least a year dealing with that.” Gosling follows developments in Pakistan with concern. In 2013 there was a bombing at All Saints Church in Peshawar in which more than 80 people died, including four of Gosling’s students.
He keeps in touch with old students, many of whom would welcome a visit from their former principal. “It is not easy to get around in Pakistan unless you have transport at your disposal,” he says. “When I was principal at Edwardes College, I had a principal’s car and a driver, a Pashto-speaking driver who could get me out of tight spots. Without that I think it would be a bit difficult going back.”
He talks about getting e-mails from his students at the college. “Some of them come here,” he says. To Cambridge? “Well they come to Britain. Then they come and see me. They come here to study or to pursue degrees,” he says. “There is one who is in the book rather dramatically in the beginning. He is coming here soon.” Gosling shows me the picture of the student. “He has got a job at Aberdeen University. He is married and he is going to stay here,” he says.
There are thousands of books on Pakistan, Afghanistan and the “War on Terror”. What sets Gosling’s book apart? “I think you will find that those books have very little to say about education. I have said a lot about it. The whole book is based on education,” he says. He also emphasises that he is not in anybody’s pocket. “I think if you would analyse some of the books you would find that money supporting them was coming from all sorts of sources and vested interests and particular points of view.”
Gosling believes the situation in Pakistan is far from black and white. A year after Gosling had received the death threat at Edwardes College, he went to a university convocation where he met the principal of the “rival” Islamia College in Peshawar. “We were good friends and everything,” he says. “I sat next to the principal and he told me he’d received three death threats. Now here was a distinguished Muslim principal of the big Muslim college and he had received more death threats than I had. So maybe I do not have as much to worry about. At least they are not attacking me because I am a foreigner. It seems they are threatening all the principals, not just picking me out.”
Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.