Debate | Taking sides

A history project is shining light on the past and questioning textbook truths in Indian and Pakistani classrooms


A class in session at RN Podar School, Mumbai. Photo: Nayan Shah/Mint
A class in session at RN Podar School, Mumbai. Photo: Nayan Shah/Mint

History is mythology, a flaming graphic-novel narrative of good versus evil, along with tales of love and loss. Defeat, if at all, is heroic and temporary, as a historic revenge is supposedly imminent. With India and Pakistan, history is also religion.

Using a line from rock ‘n’ roll, history, thus, is partly truth and partly fiction, a walking contradiction.

But few of us, growing up, question the versions handed out by teachers, textbooks and parents; choosing to unthinkingly accept the often black and white portrayals of events long past. Bela Negi, 41, however, was made aware of the shades of grey early.

“The history textbooks we referred to in school were quite polarized in their outlook when it came to the freedom struggle,” recalls the Mumbai-based film-maker. “There were the heroes and the villain, with (Muhammad Ali) Jinnah and the British falling into the latter category. I was fortunate that my parents were not ardently pro-Congress and made me aware that both Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi were not without faults and made mistakes. So I started questioning the textbook version much earlier than some of my classmates did.”

It’s a bias Negi finds prevalent even today in her son’s history curriculum. “My son has just started studying history and I find that the veneration of certain people continues.”

Bela Negi wants her sons to have a varied perspective. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Sagarika Jain, 15, a class X student from St Mary’s School, Pune, agrees. “In our textbooks, Nehru is shown as an ideal figure, while Jinnah actively sought to divide India,” says Jain. “He is seen as responsible for diluting the spirit of cooperation and unity within the independence movement. When I read that, I had very strong feelings against him.”

Sentiments echoed by a 17-year old student of the Karachi-based Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology, Iqra Moazaam, 17, except in her case, she says, the tilt was towards the other side. “Textbooks in Pakistan are one-sided,” says Moazaam, a first-year university student. “They portray—and this is the case even now with some college texts—that Jinnah pushed for a separate homeland because Muslims could not freely practise their religion and customs in India. It does affect your perceptions negatively.”

A shared history, yet differing interpretations; bringing them on the same page is The History Project, an initiative started by two young Pakistanis, Qasim Aslam and Ayyaz Ahmed, who are attempting to show how these versions influence perceptions among children from both sides of the border. Aslam, a Lahore-based entrepreneur, and Ahmed, who works with a publishing house in the same city, hit upon the idea in 2005 during a Seeds of Peace camp, held every year for teens from countries of conflict

The project’s first history textbook, brought out earlier this year, was put together by editors and volunteers from India and Pakistan. Compiled using books from the high school curriculum in the two countries, it is aimed at children aged 12-14.

The textbook, which has so far been presented only in workshops in schools in India and Pakistan, has received an overwhelming response. “We got a limited number of copies printed as we were unsure of the demand,” says Aslam. “But it was overwhelming. We gave out all the hard copies free of cost to schools and children.” A soft copy can be downloaded freely from www.thehistory-project.org .

“During our Mumbai workshops, people were amazed to read two opposing accounts of the Bengal partition,” says Mumbai-based Lavanya Julaniya, who is part of the core team. “Pakistani textbooks say Muslims in Bangladesh were happy as this gave them a majority, which meant opportunities for progress. Indian textbooks say Muslims and Hindus protested on the streets together, tying each other rakhis to announce their brotherhood.”

“My favourite part is really the end of the workshop,” says Ahmed in an email. “You can almost feel a sudden shift in the way children view the content. In the beginning, we often get replies in absolutes, a yes or no. By the end, they are curious to understand the other side. That is all that we are trying to do, highlight the other side.”

This exploration of the other side, by going beyond the textbooks, is something many teachers are attempting as well in their classrooms. “History can always be reinterpreted in different ways,” says Usha Jagannathan, who teaches history at Mumbai’s RN Podar School to class X students. “When we talk about it, we say different communities have different versions.”

It’s critical to get this message across to children early, believes Rakesha Chaturvedi, who teaches history to classes XI-XII at the NSS Hill Spring International School, Mumbai, “because of communal pressures and in some cases familial experiences. Children, especially in the subcontinent, form impressions about certain matters early. If they are exposed to different perspectives they will be more considerate towards the other side”.

Shamshad Funiturewallah, a class X history teacher at the same school, adds: “We tell them that we all carry the baggage of events that have shaped the world and that knowing this is essential to have a balanced approach. We have to train children from both sides of the border to look at various perspectives and form a judgement.”

“I have been exposed to history in a way that I am not passing judgement,” says Meher Chhatwal, 14, a class X student of JB Petit High School for Girls, one of the four schools in Mumbai where the textbook was presented in April. “Our teacher teaches the syllabus her way. When we talk about Jinnah, for instance, she shows us how the information varies across different sources.”

“The younger generation might not care as much for history, but they are still influenced by it,” believes Ahmed. “These biases surround us all the time, in the form of literature, stories, even children’s books. Once they take root, they influence us in whatever we do.”

Negi agrees. “There is a tendency towards polarization and we need to address that. When you look back at history, you find it was written again and again in terms of a need. Shivaji was chosen by Bal Gangadhar Tilak because there was a need to motivate people by using a local hero and to create a larger nationalistic sentiment. You needed to create a certain mood at a certain time. We need to relook, reassess.”

“Realistically, Jinnah will always be our hero and Nehru yours,” says Karachi-based journalist and Moazaam’s mother, Farahanaz Zahidi, 43. “We may not be able to reach 100% objectivity, but there are two sides to a story and it is time for the narrative to be revisited for the sake of our children. We need to find some other means to fuel nationalism.”

“I think she is lucky,” says Chhatwal’s mother, Savitri Chowdhury, 46, referring to the exposure her daughter is getting to these different perspectives in school. “Because while growing up, we had no idea there was another interpretation. It was only in college that one realized the different points of view. It’s terrible that we share a common history but learn it in such diametrically opposite ways.”

Realpolitik will always triumph over reality. But surely, a more rounded understanding of our past will make the Indo-Pakistan engagement better, and maybe even a safer place.

Shai Venkatraman is a journalist, teacher and blogger.

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