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A textbook case: Do school books glorify war and martyrdom?

Updated 15 Nov, 2016 10:24pm

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori — “It is sweet and right to die for your country.” The centuries-old Latin line popularised in modern times by Wilfred Owen – in a poem written near the end of the First World War – as “The old Lie” told “with such high zest” to “children ardent for some desperate glory”. A century later, this ‘old lie’ continues to be seen as useful and necessary to the modern nation state, especially in times of war and conflict. Although the armed forces are romanticised to a certain degree in most countries, through celebration of veterans, construction of monuments to heroes and rousing displays of martial strength through military parades, an excessive valourisation of the military in peaceful times, especially in school textbooks, can be interpreted as war-mongering.

In Pakistan, where the military has been involved in four wars, not to mention several internal conflicts, school textbooks have been criticised for attempting to militarise students by glorifying war and martyrdom. Several reports on the state of education have pinpointed government textbooks for Pakistan Studies and Social Studies, used in most schools, as being a particular cause for concern. The Subtle Subversion – one of the most recent, prominent reports in this regard, co-edited by scholar and archivist Ahmed Salim and physicist and nuclear activist A H Nayyar in 2003 – became the subject of fierce debate in the media as a result of its assertions that the public school curricula glorified war, incited militancy and violence, and contained hate material which promoted prejudice and discrimination against non-Muslims. The report affirmed what other scholars had long been arguing — Pakistan’s history textbooks promote a partial and biased view of history and are full of blind spots and factual inaccuracies, especially where the country’s relationship, and its wars, with arch-enemy India are concerned.

This was not always so. Despite the violence and acrimony amidst which Partition took place in 1947, Pakistani history textbooks bore little sign of hatred towards India for the first couple of decades. Books from the 1950s and 1960s are generally described as more “inclusive”, “secular”, “tolerant” and “open”. According to Salim: “During the 1950s, books from the pre-Partition era continued to be used … Under Ayub Khan, History was no longer offered as a subject, and Pakistan Studies and Social Studies were introduced. However, there is hardly any mention of India versus Pakistan in these books.” It was in 1965 when things really began to change.

In an article written in 1967, Urdu scholar C M Naim analysed the effects of the 1965 India-Pakistan war on the shared language and literature of Urdu in the two countries. He concluded that certain trends set in motion after the particular use to which Urdu was put on both sides for official propaganda, as well as for the production of war poetry, may result in “producing two separate literary-cultural identities that will complement the existing separate national-political identities”. That this relative transformation in the literary sphere paralleled, or mirrored, a more general transformation in national consciousness is reflected in statements celebrating the effects of the war in a current Class IX Pakistan Studies textbook from Punjab: “This war instilled a spirit of unity and solidarity among Pakistani people. The entire nation disregarded their internal differences and stood firmly to fight the enemy … Pakistani artists, through their art, encouraged their soldiers. In short, the entire nation faced the enemy courageously and stood victorious in the war.”

While a change in mindset may have occurred after the 1965 war – which went on to become the primary symbol of military glorification through detailed discussion of its battles – scholars concur that the major transformation in textbook content actually occurred during the 1970s after the military suffered an unambiguous and ignominious defeat in East Pakistan. Researcher Rubina Saigol, who has worked extensively on education, nationalism and militarisation in Pakistan, writes in her 1995 book Knowledge and Identity: “When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took over the government in 1971, the Pakistan army was demoralised due to having surrendered to India in East Pakistan … The public image of the army was very low and people’s faith in the army’s capacity to defend the country had been shaken. The Bhutto era curriculum is filled with war heroes, military values and the glorification of the army and its valiant exploits in the 1948 and 1965 wars with India.”

While discussing a textbook from 1975, Saigol writes how it depicts the Pakistani army as being more than a match for the much larger Indian force. The Pakistan Army is depicted in the book as being “one of the best armies in the world” on account of its soldiers being tough, courageous and filled with the spirit of jihad. Its soldiers are also shown as being most humane in their treatment of women, children and prisoners of war, in accordance with international principles, unlike the Indians/Hindus. “All of this seems to be an attempt to redeem the damaged reputation of the Pakistani army because around that time, the atrocities it had committed in East Pakistan in 1971 were becoming known worldwide. This ‘highly principled’ army had reportedly raped 200,000 Bengali women and killed thousands of Bengali civilians,” explains Saigol.

Salim and Nayyar also state that Bhutto introduced a full two-year course titled Fundamentals of War and Defence of Pakistan for Classes XI and XII respectively: in the first, “themes like objects and causes, conduct, nature, modern weapons, operations … ethics, the means … of war and modern warfare were thoroughly discussed”. The second “dealt with Pakistan’s defence problems, economy and defenc e, foreign policy, military heritage, defence forces, role of armed forces during peace and qualities of military leadership etc”. It was also during Bhutto’s government that compulsory basic military training for college students was introduced.

Ziaul Haq’s era is seen by scholars as one where these trends only intensified, in tandem with the increasing exploitation of Islam and Islamic slogans of jihad and martyrdom. Linguist and academic Tariq Rahman writes in his 2005 book Denizens of Alien Worlds, that during Zia’s time, “Islam was used to support the state’s own militaristic policies in a way that it appeared to the readers of these textbooks that Pakistan, the Pakistan movement, Pakistan’s wars with India and the Kashmir issue were all connected not only with Pakistani nationalism but with Islam itself.”

Clearly, Zia’s and Bhutto’s rule was a time when attempts to produce a good Muslim civilian soldier reached their zenith. This was done through creating a culture of perpetual fear and the sense of a nation under threat. Saigol gives the example of a 1987 textbook for Class V which – within one short, single paragraph – uses the word ‘enemy’ four times and employs the notion of destroying this enemy five times. Since the army was performing the important function of protecting citizens from the ‘enemy’, it became the citizen’s duty to support the army. The roots of this mindset, which proved so useful during the Afghan jihad, and later against an oft-shifting enemy, were once again laid during the 1970s. Saigol quotes a 1975 textbook: “…every Pakistani has to be a soldier. If someone cannot join the army, he can be otherwise helpful to the defenders of the country. If he is unable to carry a gun, he can at least become a member of the Hilal-e-Ahmar … If a National Guards Corps is being organized, he is the first to carry a gun. If Air Defence is being organized, he is the first to join.”

Scholars do not see the tone of textbooks and education policies as having changed much in the democratic interlude following Zia. After 9/11, however, Pakistani textbooks became a subject of heightened controversy as local experts and international donor organisations increased pressure on the government to remove ‘hate material’, as well as content glorifying war, particularly ‘jihad’, from textbooks. A number of educational reforms have followed in the last seven years but experts say their implementation and impact have been limited so far.

Even though less space is now seen to be devoted to issues of war and external enemies, perhaps as a result of recent reforms, there is another, more subtle, way in which a positive image of the military is being reinforced through textbooks — that is, through mentioning, or failing to mention, the military’s role in politics. An interesting aspect of Pakistan Studies textbooks is that history largely disappears after the demise of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Anything from later years is covered under the rubric of constitutional development, specifically “steps towards an Islamic Republic” in the 1956, 1962 and 1973 constitutions. There is no overt discussion about the direct or indirect role of the armed forces in politics since the 1950s. However, an image of the army emerges against the foil of chaotic and corrupt civilian rule.

A current Sindh textbook for Classes XI-XII discusses the “intrigue and disunity” and “intense internal strife and selfishness” that the Muslim League had fallen prey to after Jinnah’s death, using words like “political mischief”, “disruption”, “disintegration”, “fissiparous tendencies” all within the space of a few lines. “The country had to pay a heavy price for all the evil doings of the selfish politicians and leaders,” it concludes.

A number of current textbooks for Class IX from Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa go so far as to devote a special section to “important causes” for the 1958 martial law, listing factors such as political conflict, poor economic conditions, lack of political leadership, smuggling and nepotism, role of bureaucracy, uncertainty, provincial prejudices, political instability and delay in elections. The circumstances under which Ayub Khan “abrogated the Constitution and imposed Martial Law” are treated as inevitable and even justifiable. This effectively sets the stage for students to understand all later impositions of martial law as also inevitable and justifiable because what is the likelihood that generic factors such as uncertainty, prejudices and smuggling will ever completely fade from the national horizon.

If writers would just present the barest of facts about each civilian or military ruler while leaving the interpretation of events to teachers and students, the content of textbooks might be boring but, at least, accurate and objective. The unarguable part of it is, though, that textbook writers are not just outlining facts, but passing value judgements — and that too in a highly selective manner.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s current textbook for classes XI-XII contains an entire chapter titled National Integration and Prosperity, in which politics and politicians are identified again and again as obstacles towards the attainment of this goal and are then exhorted to rise above their petty differences to become more national, rather than regional, and to refrain from selfishness and corruption. By contrast, any criticism of the military’s political role is implicit rather than explicit. The writers limit their remarks to bland statements like democratic institutions in Pakistan did not “receive the opportunity” to function with continuity. The same book describes the abrogation of the 1958 Constitution as simply “unfortunate”, a typical example of the attitude of gentle regret that most textbook writers display towards this highly significant event.

As compared to earlier textbooks, many of the latest ones appear far less detached in their description of political events, and sometimes this trend does not work in the military’s favour. While earlier books are, as Saigol says, “virtually silent about 1971”, striking exceptions are to be found among current textbooks, several of which treat the ‘Fall of East Pakistan’ in some detail, leading to interesting results. While India and East Pakistani Hindus have traditionally been held responsible for engineering the split between Pakistan’s two wings in 1971, many current textbooks also acknowledge the role of the Pakistani army. While textbooks from Punjab, a traditional stronghold of the army, are predictably more conservative in this regard, the Class X textbook for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, seen as another military stronghold, contains an explicit subheading about army “interference” in East Pakistan.

The current Sindh textbook for classes IX-X is the most outspoken in its condemnation of the army’s actions. “After the general election of December 1970, the law and order situation in East Pakistan had gone from bad to worse. Instead of finding a political solution to the situation the then Military regime decided to suppress the Awami League … This fanned the flame. The army began military action against the separatist movement of the Awami League. This created hatred among Bengalis which also led to armed struggle.” Though this still falls far short of admitting the full scale of atrocities committed by the Pakistani army as reported by the Hamoodur Rahman Commission, it is nevertheless a relatively less biased depiction of events in the East Pakistan debacle.

The writers of the book also do not try to glorify army actions in the subsequent war. “Due to the lack of support of the local populace and the poor arrangements of supply of men and material, Pakistani soldiers surrendered before the Indian army on December 16, 1971 … On December 16, 1971 East Pakistan became an independent and free state of Bangladesh.”

The headline of the Dawn newspaper on December 17, 1971, declaring the end of the war
The headline of the Dawn newspaper on December 17, 1971, declaring the end of the war

In light of these examples of more open discussion in textbooks, can we expect to see a fuller appreciation of the military’s role in Pakistan’s politics in the newer textbooks currently being developed? Salim is far from optimistic, and asks, “Will the Punjab government allow it to be printed that Nawaz Sharif was planted by the army?” In the more general context of educational reform, Dr Syed Jaffar Ahmed, director of the University of Karachi’s Pakistan Study Centre, took a similarly dismal view at a recent seminar on the major challenges confronting Pakistan’s educational system. “You don’t know how much the government is investing in keeping you uninformed, so that you shouldn’t become informed … because then there would be demonstrations.”

While all this may be true at the policy level, it seems that information – and knowledge – is not always so tightly controlled at the level of practice. The Balochistan Textbook Board’s current Pakistan Studies textbook for Classes IX to X, for instance, is openly critical of the army while championing democracy and the rights of provinces. While praising the 1973 Constitution as the first to be “prepared unanimously by a duly elected Assembly”, the book takes a dim view of the 1962 Constitution: “This Constitution was in no way democratic but reflected the ideas of a Military Chief.”

Intriguingly, this book also contains no mention at all of the wars of 1965 and 1971. Instead, the writers attempt to offer a semblance of political analysis. The movement against Ayub Khan is explained thus: “As the system of government was not rooted in the masses therefore they nursed anti-government feelings … Excepting Punjab, the remaining three provinces were against the integration of West Pakistan [as One Unit].”

While political discussion in most textbooks tends to halt after the promulgation of the 1973 Constitution, this book devotes some attention to the second martial law. It discusses how the country “stood on the brink of a civil war” when results of the 1977 election came under dispute. Keeping in view the typical pattern of textbooks, the writers could have treated Zia’s martial law as being justified as a means to restore order at this juncture. Instead, they appear vexed that “the army got an opportunity to interfere”.

What is more, while textbooks typically prefer to stay quiet, or, at least, speak in rather matter of fact terms, about Zia’s repeated failure to hold elections, this book describes the general’s promises in a rather startling manner: “… many announcements were made from time to time to hold elections at the earliest, but these were all moonshine and the Martial Law Government prolonged itself.”

It can be argued that the writers or reviewers did not sufficiently understand the import of the word ‘moonshine’ (bakwaas being the closest Urdu equivalent) and that is why the book was passed by the National Textbook Board Review Committee. But how do we explain the generally more critical terms in which the actions of the military or of martial law administrators are described in many similar textbooks being presently used in schools? While Pakistan Studies textbooks published by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Textbook Board can be seen to follow a similar, if diluted, line to those published by the Punjab Textbook Board in most matters, writers for Sindh and Balochistan’s textbook boards are often seen to adopt a far less, let us say, fervent approach.

The Herald interviewed Qaimuddin Bilal and Ausaf Latif, respective subject specialists at the Sindh Textbook Board and the Balochistan Textbook Board, who supervise the preparation of Pakistan Studies textbooks for their respective boards. When asked about approaches adopted towards particular events by the boards’ writers, the two officials claimed to see no difference between the content presented in their books and those of other boards. They said that textbook writers in Sindh and Balochistan followed the same curriculum outlines laid down by the federal government, as writers for other provinces were required to follow. But when specific differences were pointed out, Latif acknowledged that there could possibly be a difference of emphasis. What some writers may cover in a few lines, others may devote much more space to, she said, while acknowledging that here and there the writer’s own voice might “slip through”.

Going by these statements, it does not appear that any criticism – or lack of glorification – of the army in these textbooks is part of some wider policy on the part of the provinces or the federal government to present a specific image of the institution. The content could simply have been approved because reviewers at the National Textbook Review Committee lack either the understanding or the expertise to evaluate whether textbook writers have met (or exceeded) the requirements of the curriculum, as indicated by Dr Khalid Mahmood, technical adviser to the Canada-Pakistan Basic Education Project, in a 2010 article about science and mathematics textbooks.

The recent devolution of the subject of education to the provinces, as a result of the 18th Amendment, adds another angle to the picture: textbooks will now be reviewed at the provincial level, instead of going to the centre. Many people fear this may weaken ‘national ideology’. Former federal education minister Zubaida Jalal, for instance, has been quoted as saying: “The plan to hand the education ministry to the provinces is a threat to the federation.” How this will pan out as far as the military’s portrayal in textbooks is concerned may depend on whether a decade or two can pass without the military’s returning to rule Pakistan. Since we, as a nation, are clearly more comfortable teaching history, as the saying goes, so long as it remains firmly about the past.