The textbook war between India and Pakistan - by Khaled Ahmed Back   Home  
A lot of Indians reading The Friday Times on the Internet write letters to it. In a large variety of reactions, the most prominent is the one in which the Indian writer seems to admire the TFT for criticising Islamabad for its wrong policies based on what had often been called the ‘national consensus’. Needless to say, all ‘consensus’ policies in Pakistan are anti-Indian. It is when the TFT comment goes against this ‘national consensus’ that it elicits an approving letter. The letter then reminds us of how Pakistan has gone wrong right from the start. The pat on the back received by the TFT is a dangerous one because it is often seen by the Pakistani reader as speaking the language of the enemy and giving it satisfaction. What most Indian letter-writers actually do is reaffirm the version of history they have read in their textbooks. This is proved by the fact that when a TFT article, after deviating from the ‘national consensus’, also tends to deviate from the Indian ‘national consensus’, the rebuttal from the Indian reader is sharp. The letter will not fail to ‘correct’ even a marginal questioning of the Indian version of how events have unfolded in South Asia.

Indians and Pakistanis have been the victims of the ‘nation-building’ process undertaken in the two countries after the independence was won in 1947. The two nations have been ‘built’ in conflict with each other. History has been selectively interpreted to fashion a citizen that is obedient to the state. Invariably the events emphasised in Pakistani ‘nation-building’ textbooks have been either ignored or glossed over in the Indian textbooks. The ‘distortion’ that pits the two stories against each other is equal on both sides. The only difference is that in India, where freedom of expression has never been curtailed, the distortion is subtle. In Pakistan, where ideology has made everything unsubtle, it is blatant and at times comic. One can compare (only to some extent) the textbook war between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The Soviet textbooks presented a blatantly doctored history and were exposed to ridicule in the Western world. But there was subtle misrepresentation in the projection of ‘the evil empire’ in the American textbooks too. There were two kinds of ‘consensuses’ in the United States: history is really what we have in our textbooks, and that the Soviet textbooks are all propaganda. A similar twin consensus exists in India about Pakistan.

Taming the individual citizen: An important book I have read lately is Prejudice and Pride: School histories of the freedom struggle in India and Pakistan by Krishna Kumar. He says that a human child is ‘socialised’ by his parents through a certain process of conditioning to elicit from him a bahaviour of obedience. Similarly a state too undertakes conditioning to produce obedient citizens. It uses history to create a uniform mind (national identity) and puts a carefully cultured version of it in the school textbooks. India and Pakistan have ‘defined’ each other forever in the textbooks their citizens read and not all citizens are in the business of reading history on their own and finding out where it was distorted. What results is the tendency on the part of Indians and Pakistanis to forestall knowledge by implying that they already know each other. Krishna Kumar writes: ‘Both countries live with the assumption that they know each other. The ‘other’ after all is a former aspect of the ‘self’. There is no room for the curiosity that foreignness normally awakens. Physical vicinity compounds this feeling. If India and Pakistan were geographically apart, there might have been a chance for the kind of anxiety that lack of news about a hostile relative residing far away causes. India and Pakistan are politically so far apart and culturally and geographically so close that there is no room for an epistemic space between them.’

In Pakistan and India, the space appropriated in the child’s mind for purposes of nation-building is so excessive that it impedes intellectual development – that other job that education performs. If the state is ideological it indoctrinates as a tenet of national life and almost totally monopolises the intellectual space. In this respect, the Indian child may have a better chance of developing intellectually although this chance may be curtailed in the Hindi medium. In respect of Pakistan, access to English may actually perform the task of scuttling the ship of the ideological state. In India, the author notes a steady erosion of secular institutions in the 1990s when the state education came under pressure to accommodate the ideology of religious revivalism. He increasingly came across pupils who simply refused to believe that India was a pluralist society structurally in favour of religio-cultural diversity. Some say if India were truly pluralist there would be no need for Pakistan and why can’t India call itself a home of the Hindus if Pakistan openly calls itself a home of the Muslims? The new mind in India has in a way accepted the intellectual proposition of Pakistan – a proposition that Pakistan is coping with badly at home despite the fact of its lesser diversity.

The two opposed master narratives: In India and Pakistan, the ‘master narratives’ clash because the stories are moulded by a sense of the end result. A kind of teleology impinges upon events. India looks at independence with a sense of achievement along with a terrible sense of loss and sadness. Pakistan’s master narrative contains ‘a sense of self-protection and escape’ and the teleology experienced in it is informed with a sense of achievement ‘somewhat mitigated by a sense of injustice’. Krishna Kumar examines the school textbooks in India and Pakistan and arrives at a very good grasp of what the historians on both sides are trying to do with their master narratives. The Indian side focuses on he earlier part of the lives of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Allama Iqbal, while the Pakistani side looks only at the later parts. Looking at Sir Syed as a reformer, the Indian textbook will ignore his campaign for the ‘other nation’ and the Pakistani side will look away from his religious work because rationalism is heresy in the master narrative. Both sides will ignore how he felt about the Mutiny of 1857 because both have looked at it selectively to peg their theory of ‘independence struggle’ to it. Historian Majumdar had said that there was ‘an absence of nationalism’ in the revolt of 1857, but who listens?

The biggest nugget of the two master narratives is the Partition of Bengal. The Indian version is that it was the most blatant example of how the British practised the doctrine of divide and rule. The Pakistani version says the Bengali Muslims were united in their support of the division effected by Lord Curzon and that it was the protest against it by the Hindus which united the Muslims against them. The Indian version takes no account of the Muslim reaction to Curzon’s measure and gives the impression that Hindus and Muslims were united in their opposition to the Partition. Pakistani textbook historian ignores the fact that Jinnah attended the 1906 session of the Congress and wrote the speech of its president Dadabhai Naroji that called the Partition a ‘bad blunder’. (In Sindh, Muslim separatist politics was born out of the struggle to separate Sindh from the Bombay presidency. Hindus favoured the 1847 merger, Muslims got separation under the Government of India Act 1935.) The same kind of loss of focus happens to the Indian textbook historian when he writes about the Khilafat Movement and forgets to take account of what happened to Gandhi’s Muslim followers after Gandhi called off the Movement on his own after the Chauri Chaura incident in 1922. Neither does he note the not-so-smooth tenor of relations between the two communities during the heyday of the Khilafat Movement.

Selecting events for the master narrative: The Indian textbook highlights the periods where the ‘national movement’ against the raj is felt to be solid, but skips over periods when it is riven with internal feuds. Up to the Lucknow Pact of 1916 and the 1919 Amritsar Massacre, all is well, but after the call-off of the Khilafat Movement, the account is skimpy. The period from 1922 to 1930 is missing because this is when the Hindu-Muslim relations worsened. And the Nehru Report of 1928, which backtracked from the pledge on separate electorates, is glossed over. On the other hand, the Pakistani textbook focuses sharply on the Report because it was to trigger Jinnah’s response in his Fourteen Points. What happens next, which is the Civil Disobedience movement called by Gandhi, is skipped by the Pakistani textbooks which focus instead on the Round Table Conferences in London, which the Indian textbooks ignore because the Congress by then had veered from the demand for dominion status to full independence. The Indian textbooks studiously avoid reference to the Urdu-Hindi controversy in which the two communities parted ways and chose different mediums of instruction. Surprisingly, the 1935 Government of India Act is not the most discussed item in the Indian textbooks because of its retention of separate electorates in negation of the Congress stance of being the sole exponent of the anti-raj national movement, looking at separate electorates as an incentive to the communal divisions. The 1937 elections in which the Congress swept seven provinces are ‘inaccurately’ discussed by the Indian textbooks. Krishna Kumar accepts as correct several accusations of unfairness made by the Pakistani historian against the Congress rule and notes that the Hindu revivalist movements during this time, that bothered the Muslims most, have been ignored. The year 1940 is a purple patch in Pakistani books but the Indian textbooks focus on Gandhi’s Civil Disobedience once again to blink the Lahore Resolution.

Krishna Kumar studied the English-language textbooks of Pakistan Studies and found that only J. .Hussain and Farooq Bajwa (both published by the Oxford University Press) made an attempt at balance, while others like the one authored by Ikram Rabbani & Sayyid are blatantly biased and even mendacious. Reading ‘Pakistan Studies’ essays attempted by Pakistani English and Urdu medium students, the author comes to the conclusion that the Urdu essays contained more ‘facts’ from the textbooks and expressed very little opinion of the writer’s own in conflict with the textbook version. On the other hand, the English essays were weak on facts but significantly ‘free’ in the expression of the pupil’s own opinion. From among the Indian essays, the author found two extremes, one that said that Partition was caused by the British and that its consequences had been terrible. The second was that Partition was caused by the Muslims and that the division was allowed without ensuring that Muslims went to Pakistan. Surprisingly, many Indian pupils said that before 1947 India had been ruled by Pakistan, implying a reference to the long Muslim rule. Between the two extremes there were views expressed that give comfort to the few in India and Pakistan who think that the two countries can coexist peacefully.

Nations go on fighting if their textbooks teach antagonistic versions of history. Iranian and Arab histories do in the Middle East what Indian and Pakistani histories have been doing in South Asia. Neither India nor Pakistan are willing to give up their flawed and selective ‘grand narratives’, which means that the will to fight is stronger than the will to live in peace. About Krishna Kumar’s work, historian Ayesha Jalal had to say this: ‘This is a timely and well-executed study of the deep-seated biases that inform the teaching of history in India and Pakistan. One has to strongly endorse Prof Kumar’s plea to liberate the history of India’s and Pakistan’s contested nationalisms from the deadweight of unrelenting hostility and turn it instead into a vehicle for mutual understanding and lasting peace in the subcontinent.’
Published in Pakistan Weekly TheFridayTimes