The political abuse of history in India and Pakistan is fostering entire generations that are conditioned to regard each other as the enemy.
India´s Evil Designs Against Pakistan.” This is not a slogan raised by the Jamaat-i-Islami but the title of a history textbook chapter for fifth class students in Pakistan. Eight-year-old children can rattle off India´s wrong-doings against Pakistan at a moment´s notice, and, in all innocence, they can also enlighten an already shocked Indian visitor about how “unclean” and “inferior” Hindus are!
Neither are India´s young far behind. For the children of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-sponsored Saraswati Shishu Mandirs in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, India´s history is a long tale of foreign invasions, especially by the “barbarians among Arabs”, and of “Hindu” resistance.
To say that legacies of history divide India and Pakistan is not merely a cliche: it is a living reality for the younger generation, thanks to partisan history being taught on both sides of the border. Ruling regimes in India and Pakistan have tried often to re-write the past of their respective countries to suit their political ideologies. In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its earlier incarnation, the Jana Sangh, have long sought to tailor history to suit their Hindu nationalism. When it was part of the janata Dal government in 1977, the Jana Sangh was able to persuade Prime Minister Morarji Desai “to correct distortions in the presentation of history”.
Across the border, General Zia-ul Haq, seeking legitimacy after overthrowing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto´s government, found a convenient crutch in Islamic ideology. It became essential for the military ruler to project Pakistan as the “bastion of Islam”, the creation of which had been a historic inevitability ever since the first Muslim invasion of the Subcontinent. This is how the “Ideology of Pakistan”, not even part of political parlance till then, came to be the raison d´etre of its existence.
For the proponents of Hindutva in India, a revisionist history is closely linked to the question of projecting a distinctive ´Hindu´ identity. With the underlying premise that India´s national identity is rooted in Hindu culture and civilisation, it becomes essential for them to manipulate history in order to justify the Hindu identity.
Fortunately, in India, school textbooks are written according to guidelines prepared by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), which is an autonomous body. An examination shows that these textbooks offer a more or less secular interpretation of history. It is only their account of the independence movement that can be faulted, such as when the Jinnah-led Muslim League is described as a communal organisation and the Muslim League´s two-nation theory is termed “unscientific and unhistorical” (Bipin Chandra, Modern India, NCERT, 1990).
Indian history books deny the concept of Muslim nationalism and argue that nationalist leaders accepted partition not because there were two nations—a Hindu nation and a Muslim one—but because the historical development of communalism, both Hindu and Muslim, over the past 70 years or so had created a situation where the alternative to partition was senseless and barbaric communal riots.
Medieval history is, on the whole, without prejudice. Except for a few exceptions such as Aurangzeb, most Muslim rulers are shown as being liberal-minded. It is argued that there was no ideological divide between the Hindu and Muslim cultures and that alliances between Muslim and Hindu kings and the rationale of their wars against each other are explained in political and socio-economic terms rather than religious.
This was precisely the pretext used by the Jana Sangh to convince Morarji Desai to undertake the task of “historical rectification” by proposing a ban on some history textbooks whose “controversial and biased maternal may lead readers to acquire a prejudiced view of Indian history”. Romila Thapar´s Medieval India was castigated for its “lack of anti-Muslim and pro-Hindu enthusiasm” and Bipin Chandra´s critical treatment of the nationalist generation was lambasted on the grounds that he held nationalists such as Tilak and Surobindo Ghosh responsible for creating disunity between Hindus and Muslims. Dr R.C. Majumdar, who championed the Hindu chauvinist view of Indian history, denounced these books for “belittling the Hindus and encouraging Muslims”.
Historians took strong exception to the communal interpretation of historical events and argued that the attacks on the textbooks had no intellectual basis. Instead, they represented direct political intervention by communal and authoritarian elements in what should have been a secular arena.
Despite such protests from academia, the Janata government withdrew R.S. Sharma´s book, Ancient India, from the Class 12 syllabus of the 1100 Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE)-affiliated schools in july 1978. It also sharply curtailed the distribution of Thapar´s Medieval India and Chandra´s Modern India. But the Jana Sangh´s attempts to proceed further in re-writing history textbooks were stalled, partly because the Janata government was thrown out of power in 1979. Also, to their credit, the NCERT and the Indian History Congress, the highly respected forum of historians, refused to endorse the government´s position on history.
More than a decade later, the precedent set by the Jana Sangh was followed with full vigour in the BJP-ruled states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. The campaign began through Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) front organisations. A memorandum was sent to state and central bodies, including the Ministry for Human Resources Development, the NCERT and the Commission for Public Instruction, Bangalore, demanding that history books highlight “India´s freedom struggle against foreign invaders for the last 2500 years”; that the eternal “Bharatiya” values be included in the syllabi at all levels of education; and that discriminatory laws and provisions that divide Indian society into majority and minority factions and which are detrimental to national integration be changed.
These views were endorsed subsequently by the Uttar Pradesh Education Minister, Rajnath Singh, who announced at the National Conference on Indian History organised by the State Council of Educational Research and Training in April 1992 that the education system in UP would be dharma sapeksh (religion based). As a result, vedic mathematics was introduced and new chapters glorifying India´s ancient cultural heritage were added in the Hindi and history textbooks.
The revised history textbooks centred around the following themes: (i) Aryans were the original inhabitants of India, and Indian civilisation and culture are basically the work of Aryans whose civilisation is superior to every other; (ii) India´s freedom struggle began about 2500 years ago during a period of “national resistance” against foreigners; (iii) Islam spread only with the use of force, Muslim rulers were religious bigots who committed atrocities against Hindus, and there has been a continuous struggle between the Hindu and Muslim cultures.
The entire period of medieval Indian history is presented as one of antagonism between Hindus and Muslims where the two communities were like “two armed camps in which the atmosphere of mutual conflict was always present” (High School ltihas, Bhag I, history textbook for secondary schools, Government of UP, 1992). As another secondary school textbook puts it “due to circumstances, it (Islam) gradually assumed the form a sainik dharma (military religion) and with the force of arms, with lightning speed, it advanced and became an international religion”. Another book refers to Muslims as a “set of invaders who came with the sword in one hand and the Quran in the other and numberless Hindus were forcibly converted to Islam on the point of sword. This struggle for freedom became a ´religious war´” (ltihas Gaa Raha Hai).
Muslim rulers are portrayed as religious bigots, Hindu-baiters , idol-smashers and converters by the sword. Akbar is the only ruler who is spared for having thought about the welfare of his Hindu subjects. But his liberal policies are explained more in terms of his ´Hinduisation´— “Akbar adopted the Hindu ways and customs. He took part in Hindu festivals. He used to worship the Sun God. He was always happy when he wore a Hindu dress” (N.R. Sharma, A Text Book of High School History, Part I & II, Agra, H.M. Publications, first edition, 1991).
With regard to modem history, these textbooks legitimise and glorify the role of Hindu communal organisations such as the RSS and of its founder, Keshwar Hedgewar. The RSS is supposed to have “won the hearts of patriots connected with different communities, religions and ideologies” and its swayamsevaks (volunteers) “removed the evils which hundreds of years of slavery had given.”
When these revisions became public, it led to a round of national debate on the abuse of history by parties in power. The Ministry of Human Resource Development appointed a National Steering Committee, which in turn deputed the NCERT to re-evaluait these textbooks. The Committee submitted its report in January 1993 concluding that these books presented an “historically inaccurate and distorted view of India´s past” giving it a “blatantly communal orientation”. The Committee recommended the books be withdrawn and that in future no unauthorised textbooks be allowed in schools run by private bodies or religious and cultural organisations, whether they are government -aided or not.
In Pakistan, there has never been a similar attempt to try to rescue the history curriculum. Zia-ul Haq´s adoption of the Islamic ideology for Pakistan saw a confluence of interests with certain orthodox religious political parties such as Jamaat-i-Islami. As a result, the way history is taught in Pakistan was drastically reoriented. Military rulers abolished history as a subject in Pakistani schools, replacing it with “Social Studies” for Classes 1 to 8, and “Pakistan Studies” for Classes 9 to 12 and for degree students. Both courses are amalgams of bits of geography, history, civics, economics, Islamic studies and international relations.
General Zia´s regime restructured the entire educational system along Islamic lines. The University Grants Commission issued a directive in 1981 to prospective textbook authors specifying the following objectives for the new “Pakistan Studies” course: to engender complete faith in Pakistan and its ideology; to foster the belief that Pakistan was obtained on the basis of Islam; to negate the propaganda of the enemies of Pakistan to the effect that Pakistan was established with the help of the British; to build Pakistan as a real “Cathedral of Islam”; and to cherish Quaid-i-Azam´s motto “unity, faith and discipline” for the consolidation of the country and to safeguard it from the enemies of Pakistan and Islam.
Fulfilling the government directive, the revised history textbooks are centred on the following themes: the Ideology of Pakistan, both as a historical force which motivated the movement for Pakistan as well as being its raison d´etre and the depiction of Jinnah as a man of orthodox views who sought the creation of a theocratic state; immutability of the Hindu-Muslim divide and generation of communal antagonism; and portrayal of India as a land of non-Muslims and an enemy of Pakistan and Islam.
History in these textbooks starts with the advent of Islam in the Subcontinent in the 7th century, obliterating its ancient ´Hindu´ past as well as the periods of the Indus valley civilisation and the Maurya and Gupta empires. The word “invasion” is avoided scrupulously when referring to all Muslim conquerors. Muslim rule is glorified as one based on the Islamic principles of shariat and is credited with reforming the ills of Hindu society.
As a social studies book published by the Sindh Textbook Board for Class 8 students has it, “Their (Islamic) teaching dispelled many superstitions of the Hindus and reformed their bad practices. Thereby Hindu religion of the olden days came to an end”. Islam is portrayed as the antithesis of Hinduism and students are told that Hindu and Muslim civilisations and cultures had nothing in common in their religion, way of life, customs or rites.
Coming to modern history, the Indian National Congress is shown as a pro-British and purely Hindu body, and the Muslim League as an anti-British organisation. Facts are distorted to show that orthodox religious political parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami, Majlis-i-Ahrar and Khaksar Party had supported the demand for Pakistan with great enthusiasm, even though it is well known that they had opposed its creation, stating that it was un-Islamic.
The depiction of the 1947 communal riots is blatantly biased in every textbook, with only Hindu and Sikh massacres of “unarmed Muslims” being mentioned. The partition is described as a story of Muslims´ persecution and genocide by the Hindus—”Hindus and Sikh, enemies of mankind, killed and dishonoured thousands nay thousands of women, children, the old and the young, with extreme cruelty and heartlessness” (Mutala´a-i-Pakistan, published by NWFP Textbook Board).
The Hindu is invariably portrayed as cunning and treacherous, obsessively seeking to settle scores with his erstwhile masters. Justice Shameem Hussain Kadri, ex-Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court, writes of the “diabolical Hindus” and “Hindu conspiracies” in his officially circulated book The Creation of Pakistan. There are countless similar examples. Words and phrases like “oppression”, “domination”, “subjugation”, “inhumane elimination”, and even “physical extermination” and “extinction”, are used to describe the policies of Hindu rulers and, subsequently, of Congress leaders towards Muslims. The Congress goal of a united India is interpreted as aiming at the extermination of Muslims from Indian society.
The hatred for Hindus historically is translated into loathing directed at India in the post-independence period. The textbooks are full of references to India´s evil designs against Pakistan and Islam, which only the Pakistani military is capable of dealing with. This was essential for a military regime seeking justification for the continuation of its rule.
The fact that six years after General Zia´s death and successive democratic governments no changes have been made to correct these distortions shows that the Jamaat´s deep inroads into restructuring Pakistan´s national education system have outlasted its alliance with General Zia´s military regime.
Benazir Bhutto had instituted a commission for revising history and geography textbooks in 1988, but these attempts were aborted mid-way in the face of severe criticism from the opposition, particularly the Jamaat-i-Islami, in the National Assembly. Nawaz Sharifs government could not possibly undertake this task given its alliance with Jamaat-i-Islami and other Islamic political parties. Ms Bhutto has now re-instituted the commission for correcting history textbooks, but this is an area of low priority for a government plagued with so many domestic political problems.
It is also clear that there has been no real debate on the issue of misleading textbooks in historical circles and the wider intelligentsia in Pakistan. This is partly because, over the years, a strong nexus has developed among research institutes (established, financed and controlled by the government), college and university teachers (who produce or write these textbooks), and official textbook boards (which have their own vested interests in not allowing any meaningful revisions).
Us vs Them
A communal interpretation of history, whether by Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists, has its source in the same wellspring. Both view history in terms of a religious struggle between Islam and Hinduism and strive to prove that the two are anti-thetical. Hostility towards an ´Islamic´ Pakistan or a ´Hindu´ India is the only logical next step.
A communal approach to history, besides imbuing children with an ´us-versus-them´ feeling at a tender age and imprinting an inimical picture of the ´other side´ in their minds, also sets the pace for students to view interstate relations between India and Pakistan through the prism of a Hindu-Muslim divide. The fact remains that four decades after partition, reciprocal hatred continues to be inculcated in India and Pakistan in a conscious and systematic manner via school textbooks. This is indeed ominous in terms of the search for peace in the Subcontinent.
Given that there is a will for erasing distortions, Pakistan faces more of an uphill task since a whole new generation brought up on the half-truths and twisted history of their textbooks has come to assume that India is a land of non-Muslims and hence, the biggest enemy of Pakistan and Islam. Meanwhile, in India, the rising political fortunes of the BJP may complicate matters further. The proponents of Hindutva have made it clear that their concerns about textbooks still remain on the political agenda.
Relations between Pakistan and India cannot improve if there is psychological conditioning of the young in each country to distrust the other. The prejudiced manipulation of textbooks has to end. In 1988, Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto had actually arrived at an understanding to re-examine textbooks as the means to break down barriers between the two countries. They had hoped to break the stereotyped prejudices which poisoned the minds of the younger generation. It is time this agreement was given a second look.