A unique project that reworks India and Pakistan’s shared, often conflicting, history.
It’s based on a whole new history book for schools and it combines the narrative on the same historic events, as told by the different sides, printed side by side, for an understanding into each others view …
In a unique project, a group of young people place two versions of history taught in textbooks in India and Pakistan in order to introduce an alternative, neutral narrative to the students. Accounts of major events have diverged widely. The initial project was launched last year, and proved a huge success in schools in both India and Pakistan.
Now a new book by the same group, will look at prominent figures who are heroes in one country are villains in the other. Qasim Aslam co-founded The History Project with Ayyaz Ahmad.
Qasim: I was 14 when I met Indians for the first time. It was at a camp in the US; it’s called Seeds of Peace. Part of the camp is that you live with your proverbial enemies for three weeks. You’ve got Indians, Pakistanis, Israelis, Palestinians, and a bunch of other countries—kids from those countries are living together, playing sports together.
Part of our everyday routine was discussing history, as it’s been taught in textbooks. We thought it would be run of the mill stuff: we’ll go and we’ll tell them what our history says—India and Pakistan has a shared history, so it shouldn’t much of a big of a deal.
However, once we did sit down, and actually we brought our textbooks out, we realized that there are marked differences in our shared history.
BBC: What you mean is there’s marked difference in how history is viewed from either side of the border. The same events, described differently.
Qasim: True, absolutely. How we describe it is history is not a set of facts. History is a narrative. And it should be taught as a narrative. This is what we discovered in the textbooks: that both sides had constructed very, very different narratives to be taught to their students. And in turn, that effects their students’ overall ideology towards how they view their neighbors, how they view themselves.
BBC: So have you got some examples?
Qasim: To give you a few examples: in the Partition of Bengal in 1905, once the province was divided by you guys–
BBC: The British.
The British. Once the province was divided, in the Indian history textbooks, you’ll find it was the policy of divide and rule by the British. The British wanted there to be a divide between the two communities so that they are busy fighting among themselves, as opposed to actually being one nation as they are.
BBC: It was the divide and rule idea of the colonialists, wasn’t it?
Qasim: That is what the Indian history textbooks said. On the Pakistani side of things, we have Muslims rejoicing, because for the first time, in one half of the divided Bengal, Muslims all of a sudden had a majority. And the Pakistani history textbooks say that the Indians, since they didn’t want to give Muslims jobs, or equal rights, that’s why Muslims were rejoicing.
In the Indian history textbooks, they keep on that Muslims and Hindus were out in the streets, in protests against the British.
BBC: And what about some of the big personalities in South Asian history? Because they don’t come much bigger than Gandhi, do they? What’s the difference in opinion on him?
Qasim: So that’s also another very interesting facet. Our first book, which we launched last year in May, is about incidents and how they are portrayed differently. Once we were doing the presentations in schools, we did this activity where we would throw out a key word and we would have children give us their first reactions. We would throw out words like “Gandhi” and “Jinnah.”
Interestingly, and expectedly, once we threw out Gandhi in Indian schools, the reactions were all of reverence, and how he’s the “Father of the Nation,” he’s a leader, his nonviolent movement.
Once we threw out Jinnah, we had reactions such as “The Divider,” “Voldemort” for that matter.
BBC: But in Pakistani schools, of course, Jinnah would be revered as the Father of the Nation. A completely different view.
Qasim: Absolutely. On the flip side, once we mentioned Gandhi in Pakistan, there’s little to no talk of his nonviolent movement. He is ridiculed for the way he used to dress. We even got keywords like “naked.”
BBC: So, Qasim, just tell us: what does your book look like? Because how are you going to present this to students? Do you have the history of one country on one side of the page, and the same incident, but from a different view, on the other side of the page? How will it look?
Qasim: So once we recognized that this problem exists, and we set out to find a solution, we did some research on how some people have tackled this problem. And predominantly, we found two main problems with that:
One, whoever actually does it, whoever tackles this problem, is attacked for who they are, whether they are a Pakistani or they are an Indian. It’s titled as a conspiracy by the other side. So that was the first problem we addressed by having an equal number, equal representation, from both sides of the border.
Secondly, the problem is that whenever somebody tries to reconcile history … certain parts of history cannot be reconciled. For example, Partition will always be Partition, the division of the motherland, for Indians. And it will be freedom for Pakistanis. There are certain aspects of history which simply cannot be reconciled. What we do is we juxtapose narratives against the same incident right next each other.
We’re saying that people have the right to know all sides of a story, and then form their opinions. Especially children between the ages of 12 and 16, because those are the formative years.
At the end of our presentations, once we gave them the books, and once they went through some of the ideas we propagated, we had children tugging on our shirts, a) asking for a copy of our book, and b) asking all sorts of questions, like “Why are there more Muslims in India than there are in Pakistan?”