Peace with the past


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THE most obvious thing about the past is that it is past. No remarkable wisdom is required to notice this, yet it is difficult – especially in modern, literate societies – to overcome the temptation to live in the past. The construction and institutionalization of a national memory of the past necessarily implies imparting to the past a chronic half-life. Modern systems of mass education serve as a prime instrument of this process, and it depends on the quality of a system of education what kind of half-life the past will have – leaky or self-contained? A leaky half-life suggests the availability of the past as a resource for evoking passions and nostalgia. In the metaphor of radioactive waste I am using, ‘self-contained’ knowledge of the past would mean that it is accompanied by the awareness that the past is past.

My recently published study (Prejudice and Pride, Penguin Books) of school textbooks used for the teaching of history in contemporary India and Pakistan shows that both countries transmit the knowledge of the past in a highly ‘leaky’ manner. This finding can hardly surprise anyone, given the backward and inefficient systems of education both India and Pakistan have, and also in view of the low priority they attach to the school-level teaching of social sciences in general, and history in particular.

In both systems of education, the teaching of history is perceived primarily as a means of citizenship-training for nation-building. Although this perception is not unique to India and Pakistan, the extent to which it influences the pedagogy of social sciences, especially history, is quite remarkable, in the sense that the nation-building role of history leaves no room whatsoever for pedagogic objectives, such as inculcating curiosity about the past and imparting intellectual skills to make sense of it. The pedagogic poverty of Indian and Pakistani textbooks becomes all the more influential, given the dominant role and recall- oriented character of the examination system and its linkages with the prescribed textbook.

My clubbing of India and Pakistan in the preceding paragraph must have hurt many readers, and I can fully empathize with them. As educated Indians, we have all been socialized to perceive the creation of Pakistan as an act of betrayal and narrowmindedness; and now, more than half a century after that act was accomplished, we are led to believe that Pakistan is a failed state. While comparing ourselves to Pakistan, we take pride in having survived so far as a democracy, and especially as a secular democracy. These assumed points of our superiority are grounded in the contours of our knowledge of history, particularly our knowledge of Partition and the decade preceding it.



School textbooks offer us a valuable means of analysing this common knowledge, bits and pieces of which are dispersed by the Indian and the Pakistani systems of education within their respective territories. My study of a sample of these textbooks reveals that they socialize children into the ideological perspectives of two master narratives. The clashing structures of the two master narratives explains why India and Pakistan perceive themselves as irreconcilable national projects, though they have been around as separate nation states for more than fifty years now.

The Indian master narrative is structured around the idea that secular nationalism and communalism were historically alien to each other, and that the former is politically and morally superior. In the binary that Indian textbooks use to narrate the story of independence, secular nationalism symbolizes an accommodative, rationally organized vision of social transformation, while communalism symbolizes regressive social forces seeking sustenance from primordial sources of inspiration, including religion.

The Pakistani master narrative denies that India’s independence struggle was secular. At the heart of this narrative lies the two-nation theory which claims that the urge to create Pakistan arose out of certain irreconcilable differences between Hindus and Muslims. The Indian narrative, of course, denies the validity of this theory, and by doing so, it disapproves of Pakistan, imbuing its existence – as the signifier of a regressive, divisive tendency – with suspicion.



The structural features of the two master narratives I have outlined above impose severe pedagogic restrictions on them. These restrictions pertain to what the narratives can include as relevant historical facts or happenings and also, to how the course of the happenings selected for mention or emphasis should be placed. These are among the features or symptoms which enable us to analyse the two master narratives in a comparative manner.

For instance, the secular/communal binary which the Indian school histories use to tell the story of freedom does not allow them to acknowledge that there were organizational and social overlaps between the two ideologies. That Hindu communalism had a substantial presence in the Congress, and that it exercised great influence on the political and cultural ethos of the thirties remain unmentionable for many Indian textbook writers, and those who mention them do not attach any crucial significance to these facts. Apparently, any emphasis on Hindu communalism, especially on its role within the Congress, would spoil the neatness of the secular/communal binary which gives the Indian master narrative a basic structure and also a moral overtone.

A simplistic separation of the secular from the communal outlook also affects the school historian’s ability to use biography – an important aspect of the learning of history during childhood – in a purposive and credible manner. All eminent leaders of the freedom struggle end up becoming examples of a homogeneous bag of values. History textbooks fail to show why, for example, Tilak, Gokhale, Lajpat Rai, Bose, Nehru and Gandhi must be regarded as distinct personalities and political figures. An undifferentiating label of greatness that these and others carry defeats any larger intellectual purpose that the inclusion of history in the school syllabus might serve. The much avowed inspirational role of history becomes a mere shell when any analytical details that might help children perceive great personalities as leaders engaged in a political struggle, are withdrawn.



History turns into a brochure, and the personalities involved in it become cardboard figures juggled around in the theatre of significant events. This applies to Gandhi and Jinnah in both Indian and Pakistani textbooks, especially towards the closing scenes of their respective narratives. Some lives are sliced into two halves, one acceptable to the Indian textbook writers, and the other to their Pakistani counterparts – the fate of Syed Ahmad Khan and Iqbal.

Basically, both countries treat the history of the freedom struggle as a moral tale. The Indian version highlights the triumph of secular nationalism, and the Pakistani version shows how a cultural vision was realised despite gigantic political obstacles. Neither version has the capacity to accommodate complexities and ambiguities. The Indian version virtually forgets about Muslim politics after the hopes born during the short Congress-League collaboration over Khilafat had died. Here onwards, the narrative must avoid the news of all but pro-Congress Muslims; that is why the Nehru Report, the meagre participation of Muslims in civil disobedience, the discord over basic education during the late 1930s, and the Lahore Resolution are glossed over.

The Pakistani textbooks give the Nehru Report a key place in the story they present; even the most compressed accounts find room for Jinnah’s fourteen points. The controversy surrounding Gandhi’s proposal for basic education also gets elaborate attention. But then, the brush with which both these matters are portrayed is too thick to do justice to the ideological struggle that existed within the Congress. Ignoring Hindu revivalist influence on the Congress enables the Pakistani school historian to target the Congress more purposefully – in terms of the larger orbit of meaning which Pakistan’s young citizens are supposed to inhabit psychologically – by calling it a Hindu organization committed to establishing Hindu Raj in India.



Of course one can appreciate why the Indian narrative pays little attention to the course of post-1920s Muslim politics. The obvious reason is that the sub-plot of Muslim politics now onwards belongs to the story of Pakistan’s freedom, not India’s. However, our appreciation of this simple nationalistic logic should not blind us to the pedagogic and, equally significantly, the political cost of the school historian’s decision.

The pedagogic cost is that the 1940s must come as a surprise. Without the background of the social and political alienation of the Muslim landed elite and the intelligentsia of the northern plains, the student can hardly make sense of the sudden emergence of the Muslim League as a powerful actor in the early 1940s. Not surprisingly, the Indian narrative is extremely reluctant to go into the details of any event following Quit India. Textbooks jump from one mention to the next, rushing towards Partition which, from the point of view of the young student, begs for an explanation more substantial than what the British-Muslim conspiracy theory can provide.



The subjectivity of millions, as shaped by the socialization inherent in the fable of freedom, sustains the South Asian geopolitical order. By depriving children of any rational means to comprehend the overlap between secular and communal nationalisms, the Indian narrative of the national movement socializes the young to perceive Pakistan as an illegitimate achievement. The rival persuasion, to which the Pakistani narrative is dedicated – both as a matter of educational policy and the structure of the story – is to see India as a Hindu nation. The denial of India’s claim to being a secular state is central to the ‘Pakistan Ideology’ that school textbooks are supposed to uphold and disseminate. It requires either complete avoidance or, in the case of steadier accounts, serious downplaying of any events and personalities marking the spirit of secular nationalism which opposed Partition on moral grounds though it could not stop it from becoming a political reality.

Between 1857 and 1947, we can find episodes where the two narratives converge and others where they diverge. In Partition, we find symptoms of both kinds. The two narratives come remarkably close in the cursory manner in which they deal with the violence associated with Partition. The horror and suffering that millions of ordinary men and women faced receive no more than a few lines of cold recording in most Indian and Pakistani textbooks. However, the treatment of Partition as a political event is completely different in the two narratives. For the Indian textbook writers, it was a terrible tragedy that marred the glory of independence. For the Pakistani textbook writers, it was a stunning achievement, marking an escape for the Muslims from the impending Hindu Raj.

By giving Partition the status of a great political – and not just human – tragedy, the Indian narrative fuses the secular and the communal perspectives which had so far stayed altogether separate from each other. Partition evokes an irreparable sense of national loss and victimhood in both progressive and conservative varieties of school historiography. The division of India becomes a memory that Indians must forever regret.



In turn, the Muslims who share the blame for this act with the British in divided India’s national record must continue to serve as a stereotype of betrayers. No wonder, the word ‘Pakistan’ is used as the name of a tendency in cinema and literature; and in every recurrence of communal violence, the memory of the creation of Pakistan is inevitably invoked. It is also not surprising that when a visitor from Pakistan talks about peace, substantial parts of the audience slip into the fantasy of a future when the two nations will be reunited. The visitor is mystified to think why his learned Indian listeners don’t realise that reuniting with India will mean death for Pakistan and its struggle to establish a separate national identity.

The Pakistani portrayal of Partition as a political event also suffers from a sense of irony. The uncertainty and anguish that Jinnah went through at the time of Partition cannot be represented, for it would diminish the superhuman image school textbooks give him. Textbook writers also find it hard to reconcile the idea that Pakistan was a vision preordained by destiny, with the role of manoeuvre in its actual birth. The Pakistani master narrative alludes to the two-nation theory soon after its coverage of the 1857 revolt, citing Syed Ahmad Khan as its earliest proponent. By the time the narrative reaches the early 1940s, it has already used the theory a few times to convey a sense of inevitability about the eventual creation of Pakistan.



So strongly and repeatedly does the narrative, in most textbook versions, refer to Pakistan as a goal recognized from the beginning of the freedom struggle, that the only curiosity it can satisfy in the final episode is about how the goal was ultimately attained. Yet, when it comes, the final episode conveys the message that Pakistan was the outcome of Hindu intransigence expressed in the unaccommodative attitude of the Congress.

For Indian children, not just the narrative of the freedom struggle, but history itself comes to an end with Partition and independence. As a constituent of social studies, and later on as a subject in its own right, history runs out of content in 1947, except for some of the events associated with independence, such as Gandhi’s assassination, making of the Constitution and the beginning of Five-year plans. What has happened in the last 55 years may filter through the measly civics syllabus, popular cinema and television; history as formally constituted knowledge of the past does not cover it.

Partition remains the last major event to have ‘occurred’ in India’s long history, and as such it can be expected to maintain in the child’s mind an evocative freshness – both as an item signifying the end of the freedom struggle and as a factor of children’s socialization into a political legacy. Pakistan is a part of that legacy, and it is a highly significant political fact of contemporary South Asia that the last news Indian children get of Pakistan in the course of their institutionalized education is about its birth. For any more recent news they must depend on sources like Border and Ghaddar.

For Pakistani textbooks, Partition marks neither an ending nor a discontinuity, and the narrative smoothly moves on. In the post-independence history of Pakistan, India figures quite often – in the stories of wars, in the context of Kashmir, or simply as a Hindu neighbour. Not just the teaching of history, the entire curriculum is embedded in a masculine, war-oriented and anti-Hindu ideal of the nation state. Textbooks interchange the word ‘Bharat’ with ‘India’ in a seemingly unpatterned manner, but if one looks carefully, the former gets preference in contexts which are explicitly hostile.



If J. Krishnamurti’s view that modern education constitutes a major threat to world peace needed any proof, India and Pakistan provide it in their daily teaching of history to the young. So long as they continue to resist the maturity that comes from feeling at peace with the past, they will keep on wasting incalculable psychic and physical resources in the name of security. This is no familiar plea by a peace-loving dove for cutting down the defence budget, for there is no room for such a plea in a democracy grounded in public illiteracy and poor quality education. For now, a plea for designing education, especially history, differently should suffice. This includes taking both education and history seriously.