In Review

Textbook troubles

Updated 15 Nov, 2016 10:27pm

When eminent Pakistani historian K K Aziz wrote The Murder of History: A Critique of History Textbooks Used in Pakistan (1993) – an analysis of errors and falsifications contained within a sample of 66 Pakistani history textbooks – he was surprised that all that he had so painstakingly pointed out affected almost no change.

In that sense, the recent initiative taken by a small group of young people to put together a book that presents history as contained in Pakistani and Indian textbooks, in an attempt “to enable access for youth in their formative years to alternative perspectives on their shared heritage…”, is an admirable feat. The History Project provides evidence of the fact that there appears to be a greater desire now to change the way the history of Pakistan and India has been written and taught.

The History Project relies on textbooks to produce an ostensibly more balanced version of history than is generally found in official texts. It does not offer a revised version of its own but instead uses the information contained in textbooks to give two perspectives on the major events that led up to Partition. The first perspective offers the version found in Indian textbooks and is presented under the heading “Indo”, and the second, included under the heading “Pak”, draws on Pakistani textbooks. The structure of the book and the source material used show the intention of the authors to put together a balanced view of history. Certain problems, however, have arisen in The History Project as a result of this same choice of source material and structure.

Firstly, the reliance on textbooks as the main source for rewriting history is problematic as it misses some of the important and more recent historiographical shifts in the study of Subcontinental (or South Asian, as it is now called) history. For example, the section which covers the War of Independence is admittedly thorough but ends with the assertion that 1857 had the long-term effect of providing “an inspiration to fight for independence from the British rule”.

This narrative, gleaned from textbooks, misses the fact that this interpretation of history was itself an invented one. In 1909, when Vinayak D Savarkar first published his account of what he called The Indian War of Independence, it was intended to subvert British historiography that, until then, had referred to the 1857 uprising as the ‘Indian mutiny’. More contemporary accounts, however, have highlighted that the nationalist trope was falsely superimposed upon the events of 1857.

Historian K.K. Aziz
Historian K.K. Aziz

In fact, Aziz, citing literature from as early as 1858, has stated that there were several reasons, not least of which was the limited geographical spread of the revolt, which could be used to conclusively argue that the character of 1857 war was not nationalistic. Therefore, one of the problems with using textbook material as the sole source for The History Project is that it misses historiographical nuances that could have produced a version of history which broadened students’ understanding of the subject beyond simply the provision of two different perspectives.

The second problem overlaps with the first, in that it is related to the way in which the book is divided into “Indo” and “Pak” sections without a third section that would offers insight – or some critical reflection – into why these perspectives are different. The structure, as it is, provides a very engaging read for those who are already familiar with the subject matter as it lists the myths that are propagated on both sides of the border. Its presentation, however, is problematic because it throws up these myths as fact and, therefore, will still be a questionable main text to give to high school students.

One of the aims of The History Project, as stated in its concept note, is to “highlight the reality of an alternative perspective with equally convincing foundations,” but that alternative perspective is missing from the book. Instead, in an attempt to build bridges between the opposing views of history held by the rival countries, this uncritical presentation ends up reproducing two versions of history, both based on flawed foundations.

One of the most obvious manifestations of this is how, throughout the book, the category of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ is used to signify monolithic identities that bisected undivided India. For instance, in the section on the movement against the partition of Bengal, the Indo section produces a narrative of Hindu-Muslim unity where followers of both faiths protested together “and marched barefoot to the Ganges”. This version is juxtaposed with the Pak section that states that the “Muslims … were delighted” but the Hindus disliked this partition of Bengal and so started “a violent agitation” against it. Similarly, when describing the Khilafat Movement, the book uses ‘Congress’ and ‘Hindu’ interchangeably. The problem here is not just in the narrative itself but in dealing with Hindus and Muslims as two groups who can be cleanly divided, and who are seen as existing unchanged throughout the period being studied.

To present South Asian history in this manner is to deny the large amount of scholarship that has highlighted the fractured, temporally contingent and regionally specific multiple identities that have existed under the umbrella category of a communal identity such as ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’. To name just a few, Ayesha Jalal’s Self and Sovereignty: Individual and Community in South Asian Islam Since 1850 has highlighted the variegated experiences and expressions of Muslim identity at the same time that her other work, The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan, discussed how the political identity of Muslims was different depending on whether they were a minority or a majority constituent of a province. A similar point has been made by Francis Robinson, who wrote on the experiences of Muslims in what was then the United Provinces, to show that it was there, where Muslims were a minority and not in Punjab and Bengal – where Muslims were in a majority – that Muslim separatism was expressed earlier and more vocally.

The admirable goals of The History Project, therefore, end up being undermined in the uncritical presentation of textbooks’ perspectives. As argued in Marie Lall’s article Educate to Hate – a comparative account of Indian and Pakistani textbooks – the construction of Pakistani and Indian identities as monolithic and inherently antagonistic was one of the specific aims of the educational policy under General Ziaul Haq in Pakistan (1977–1988) and the Bharatiya Janata Party government in India (1998–2004). Similarly, Sanjay Joshi’s comparative account, Contesting histories and nationalist geographies: a comparison of school textbooks in India and Pakistan, traced how ideas of difference can be rooted in a conception of the nation as primordial and static.

The logical conclusion to this line of thought is that there are certain aspects that are ‘natural’ to a nation, while others are inauthentic, thus denying dynamism and flexibility in the definition of the nation that allows diverse groups to claim belonging within it. Pakistani textbooks highlight ‘natural’ links with the Islamic world while Indian texts, according to Joshi, emphasise the authentic India as the one that is within its natural boundaries claiming ‘foreign’ (and thereby unnatural) status for things that can be traced as originating outside India. For history to be critical, for it to begin to build bridges through empathy and a shared, more inclusive, understanding of the human condition, it is essential that this idea of the ‘natural’ be challenged. The idea that everything we study in history has been open to change and has, indeed, changed is one that shakes the very basis on which communal and national identities rest.

There have been several criticisms, in the South Asian context, of the negative effects of history that builds biased narratives and fixed identities. Scholar Syed Manzar Abbas Zaidi goes so far as to say that the curricula in Pakistan are specifically used as a dividing force that plays right into the extremist project. This may be taking matters a step beyond their logical conclusion, though. The more convincing arguments have been made by A H Nayyar and Ahmad Salim in the book The Subtle Subversion, which contains work that assesses curricula and textbooks in Pakistan; Ayesha Jalal’s paper Conjuring Pakistan: History as Official Imagining; and Rubina Saigol’s Enemies Within and Enemies Without: the Besieged Self in Pakistani Textbooks.

All of these pieces of writing discuss how major events in Pakistan’s history such as Partition, the 1971 war with India and interprovincial conflicts have produced further distortions in the official version of history which propagates a closed and limited identification of the Pakistani self in opposition to the Indian – and later Bangladeshi – other. Similarly, Michael Gottlob’s writing on textbooks in India pointed out that the history that is taught changes with the group who is teaching it. Gottlob writes that official history may have moved toward more secular definitions and, most recently, has focused more on child-centric pedagogy than the specificity of the content but, simultaneously, in the textbooks used in schools operated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, there can still be seen a fundamentalist version of history which rejects possibilities of change and expediency in its narrative.

None of this is intended to assert that The History Project has produced these assumptions or these deeply divisive categories. As the literature presented here clearly reveals, these problems predate The History Project. The issue at hand is that all the literature mentioned above criticises the textbook version of history that The History Project accepts uncritically as its main source. As it is, The History Project is a book that certainly has its heart in the right place and presents a good and accessible synopsis of two types of textbooks, both of which are in desperate need of review. The problem is that The History Project does not move toward building such a review.

In an article written for The Hindu, Indian historian Sumit Sarkar wrote that the problem with history in India is not the secularity or lack thereof in the syllabus, but the absence of pedagogical approaches that focus less on learning by rote and more on interactive teaching and making history accessible for young people. Filing this gap is definitely one of the aims of The History Project as evidenced in its simple language and delightful illustrations that pepper its pages. Reflecting on what the ultimate aim of teaching history should be Sarkar observed that history should impart “a sense that everything changes, nothing is eternal, sacred, or ‘natural’ since the social world is made by human beings and therefore open to transformation”. In the final analysis, it is this last aspect that The History Project needed to incorporate in order to be a more effective presentation of a balanced perspective.