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Myth and hate as history

By B.G.Verghese

Maybe it is time to endeavour to produce a composite history of the subcontinent as a common South Asian reader.

THE BOOKS children read, especially textbooks, and the images they imbibe are the grammar of national identity, ideology and politics. Indian school textbooks tended for quite some time to portray and uphold the values and traditions of a plural, democratic society. The later emergence of fundamentalist challenges eroded these values. Gujarat and the project to rewrite textbooks in a bid to indoctrinate minds shook the nation and provided a timely reminder that wars, riots and ideas of revenge begin in the minds of men.

Fortunately, 2004 has witnessed a timely reversal and a return to the plural ideal. While this is welcome, we must beware any swing of the pendulum that enthrones rival dogmas and prejudice. Let children and grown-ups alike be exposed to all points of view rather than to a single, officially-ordained,sanitised truth.

Pakistan's experience has been even more tragic and traumatic. It has yet to come to terms with its identity and rich plurality, shared history and composite culture, all of which it needs to internalise. The "ideology of Pakistan," to which it clings, has to be something more than the ruling military-cum-religious-right credo of hate for the Indian/Hindu "other" that informs textbook policy. This truly is the "core issue" Pakistan confronts like its identical Indian Hindutva twin. Yet quite clearly there is life beyond hatred.

Sensitive and thoughtful scholars on both sides have been acutely aware of this cancer for some time. K.K. Aziz's Murder of History in Pakistan (1993) and Rubina Saigol's Enemies Within and Enemies Without: The Besieged Self in Pakistani Textbooks (2002) and Krishna Kumar's Prejudice and Pride (2001) and The Delhi Historians' Communalisation of Education in India (2001) are only some among the writings that reflect on this problem. More recently, an agonised group of 30 Pakistani academics, assembled under the auspices of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad, has published a compelling document entitled The Subtle Subversion: The State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan (2002-03) compiled by A.H. Nayyar and Ahmad Salim.

This critically examines current Social Studies, Civics, Urdu and English textbooks for Classes I to XII officially published in fulfilment of prescribed national objectives and directives. Monopoly Textbook Boards function as "ideological gatekeepers" and patronise compliant authors.

After two decades of Pakistan, the rot set in with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and intensified through Zia-ul-Haq's Islamisation era. President Pervez Musharraf has inveighed against "sectarianism, religious intolerance and violence", but the 2002 national curriculum review has apparently not improved matters. Subtle Subversion notes "inventions, omissions and distortions" to serve political and ideological ends that result in falsification of history and even contemporary events. It speaks of insensitivity to the nation's religious diversity; incitement to militancy and violence; the encouragement of prejudice, bigotry and discrimination towards fellow citizens, especially women, religious and ethnic minorities and other nations; a glorification of war and the use of force.

Two quotations say it all. "The distortion of history has increasingly warped Pakistan's view both of self and others for decades. Each generation has twisted the facts it passes to the next. This has served to create a particular worldview that is removed from reality and confounds efforts to understand and properly resolve important social, national and international problems." Secondly, "Four themes emerge most strongly as constituting the bulk of the curricula and textbooks of the three compulsory subjects (Social Studies/ Pakistan Studies, Urdu and English): That Pakistan is for Muslims alone; that Islamiat is to be forcibly taught to all students... ; that (the) Ideology of Pakistan is to be internalised as faith and hate (is) to be created against Hindus and India; and students are to be urged to take the path of jehad and shahadat (martyrdom)."

The term "Ideology of Pakistan," first enunciated in 1962, gained currency under Zia. However it has been officially fathered on Mr. Jinnah, who actually spoke of a liberal, pluralist Pakistan in his inaugural address to the nation's Constituent Assembly in Karachi on August 11, 1947. The imagined history of Pakistan, as officially taught, names Mohammad-bin-Qasim as the "first citizen of Pakistan" and father of the Pakistan movement. M.D. Zafar's Textbook of Pakistan Studies even affirms that "except for its name, the present-day Pakistan has existed as a more or less single entity for centuries." There is amnesia regarding the creation of Bangladesh and other uncomfortable facts.

India's new Minister for Human Resource Development, Arjun Singh, has initiated an NCERT textbook review. While this is overdue, a conference of State Education Ministers should also examine the content of books being taught in private schools that preach hatred or obscurantism. Maybe it is time to endeavour to produce a composite history of the sub-continent as a common South Asian reader. Could the Minister support such a non-official project through the Indian Council of Historical Research acting in concert with objective Pakistani and Bangladeshi historians?

Outside the classroom, news reports constitute the first draft of history. Alas, propagandist reportage has reinforced stereotypes, transmuting myth into "truth." In Pakistan, national myth has long replaced hard facts and ground realities in Jammu and Kashmir. Such distortions of contemporary history pose another danger. And that is another story.

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