Bringing India, Pakistan on same page of history

Bringing India, Pakistan on same page of history

May 20, 2018

Suhail Ahmad

Among other things, the hostility between India and Pakistan is manifested in contradictory representations of an otherwise common history. The textbooks taught in the two countries run contrasting commentaries on important historic events, including partition, and the role of key political figures. The recent controversy over the portrait of Pakistan founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the Aligarh Muslim University campus is a reminder of how the history can be decontextualised and politicised by vested interests. Since the tendency of the mainstream media is to report only what divides the two countries, such controversial episodes get amplified in the public memory while there is little media coverage about the common ground shared by the opposing sides.

To say that India and Pakistan share a large part of history would be stating the obvious. However, it’s also a fact that this shared history has been tampered with and used as a political tool by vested interests on either side of the divide. Some years back, ‘The Quint’ compared the history textbooks taught in schools in India and Pakistan and revealed how key events like Partition, the wars of 1965 and 1971, had contrasting interpretations in the two nations. Similarly, in a special feature Pakistan’s ‘Dawn’ newspaper reflected on the distortion of historical facts in the country’s textbooks. The feature titled ‘What is the most blatant lie taught through Pakistan textbooks?’ pointed to fallacies in these books.

In this backdrop, it came as a pleasant surprise to learn about a unique educational initiative in which academicians of India and Pakistan have come together to prepare an undergraduate course titled ‘Foundations of South Asian History’. The course started in 2017 by the Haryana-based O.P. Jindal Global University (OPJGU) and the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) covers important historical landmarks and personalities in modern Indian and Pakistani history. The best part of the course is that it looks beyond official interpretations of history on both sides of the border.

As ‘The Hindu’ reported, while the controversy over Jinnah’s portrait was still raging on, 11 Pakistani students visited Jindal University in Sonipat to attend the last class of this unique course framed by Dr. Pallavi Raghavan of OPJGU and Dr. Ali Usman Qasemi of LUMS.

According to Dr. Qasemi, the course gives an opportunity to Indian and Pakistani students to study a shared but highly contested past. “The idea is that students from Lahore and Delhi would discuss South Asian historical processes that impact our present day state, society and politics,” he told ‘The Hindu’.

His Indian counterpart Ms. Raghavan is equally buoyed by the fact that the course aimed at removing the “narrower perspective of official history” delivered by academic structures on both sides of the India-Pakistan border. As she puts it succinctly, “School textbooks blinker the student’s sense of the past and the course was aimed at building a common understanding of South Asian history.”

In India, ‘Qaid-e-Azam’ Jinnah and the first Prime Minister of Pakistan Liaquat Ali Khan are considered as polarising figures responsible for the partition and the accompanying bloodshed. The course had to address this myopic understanding of figures like Jinnah among the Indian students and the similar lack of understanding about Rabindranath Tagore and B.R. Ambedkar among their Pakistani counterparts.

Similarly, the course had to dispel the misunderstanding about various historical phases which are usually interpreted in contradictory ways in India and Pakistan. For instance, the chapter on the Indus Valley Civilisation had to deal with the controversial theory of ‘Aryan invasion’ and the chapter on Mughal history had to deal with the controversial perspective of the Mughal empire. The course dealt with 27 such contested topics with the goal of imparting factual information and ensuring deeper understanding of history.

Though the course had only eight students from the Indian batch and 16 students from the Pakistani batch, it heralds a welcome change, particularly when similar attempts have not succeeded earlier. For instance, a course on history in the Delhi-based South Asian University (SAU) has not been implemented for lack of consensus among the member countries of SAARC on important historic events and narratives in the region.

In a fitting culmination of the course, conducted mainly through Skype classes, the students from Pakistan joined their Indian counterparts at OPJGU on May 11 for a physical class room experience. This unique academic endeavour was only possible because the two educational institutes had complete autonomy in preparing the course. With the growing political interference in the academics in India, it is quite unlikely for this initiative to be replicated in other institutions.

In the prevailing political atmosphere, it is unlikely that India and Pakistan will ever look at history from the same perspective, but that is perhaps one of the most crucial steps towards any possible reconciliation between the two estranged neighbours.