New Age Islam
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Current Affairs ( 14 May 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Rethinking History: An Alternative and Neutral Narrative to The Indo-Pak Students



By Alefia T. Hussain

May 15, 2013

Is it time to re-write Pakistan and India’s shared history? To correct the past record?

Even a cursory look at the History Project, a compilation of excerpts from three Indian and nine Pakistani textbooks about 16 historical events that took place between 1857 and 1947, suggests so.

Students on this side of the border know of the causes that led to the partition of Bengal 1905, reasons that made the formation of the All Indian Muslim League a necessity, that Minto-Morley reforms was perhaps the first step towards the creation of Pakistan, about the Pakistan Resolution… and accession of Kashmir, and that Jinnah is their Quaid-e-Azam.

Across the border, these incidents in history incite a different kind of an interest. Take for instance the issue of Kashmir at the time of independence in 1947. The Indian textbooks say that after Hari Singh, then ruler of the state, decided to remain independent, Pakistan began to put pressure on him, and armed intruders from Pakistan attacked Kashmir in 1947. Hari Singh signed an agreement to join India, after which the Indian army went to defend Kashmir.

Pakistani textbooks say the Maharaja (Hari Singh) deliberately delayed acceding to Pakistan or India, and started a brutal campaign to oust the Muslims from his princely state. Over 200,000 people, who were supported by the tribesmen of NWFP, revolted, fled to Kashmir and were successful in liberating a large area from Indian control. “The Maharaja was forced to turn to India for help and the Indians agreed to help only if the Maharaja acceded to India,” to quote from the last chapter of the History Project on ‘Princely States’.

The book, launched on April 20, 2013, in Mumbai, places side-by-side the two versions of history taught in textbooks in India and Pakistan; it does not attempt to correct the overall narrative on both sides of the border. “The sole purpose of this project is to introduce the students to an alternative, neutral narrative on their shared history,” says Qasim Aslam, the co-founder of the project, adding, “We thought the differences would become self-evident when the two sides of the story were placed next to each other in a book form.”

Aslam and his co-founder, Ayyaz Ahmed, launched the book at four Mumbai schools last month. Next, they plan to tour schools in Pakistan to introduce the project.

Aslam beams as he hints at the response the project has generated so far: “We recorded 6000 facebook hits four days after the launch”.

The History Project is a culmination of months and months of exhaustive dialogue between Indian and Pakistani teenagers meeting as Seeds of Peace, an international camp for teenagers from countries in conflict held annually in Maine, USA, where other than discussing sports, common culture and traditions, they would stumble on the subject of common, shared past. They discovered a plethora of sentiments, sometimes hatred for each other and were able to trace the roots back to the history textbooks.

“I don’t think that there has been one person on the team of the History Project that hasn’t been astonished by the discrepancies in our different history texts,” says Alefyah Potia, a Mumbai-based team member of the project.

“Working on this project has not only changed my perspective on the apparently common history that our countries have undergone but also on stories and past events in general,” she adds, while remembering moments when she was in Lahore recently while working on this project, and “we were reduced to silence because of the vast differences, for example an extremely important event from the Indian side [Civil Disobedience Movement] is omitted from the Pakistani book”.

Working with Seeds from Pakistan since 2009, Potia thinks this project has been “an eye-opener and in many ways has got me more conscious of the way people interpret things and how easily we believe what is spoon-fed to us.”

Noorzadeh Raza, a Seed from Pakistan and an editor of the project, says, “Being a part of the project instilled in me the importance of bridging this gap [in India and Pakistan history] to construct a larger, more encompassing narrative that recognises the existence of alternative perspectives. We must understand that recognising the other side’s perspective does not in any way undermine our own — it liberates and challenges us, compelling us to delve deeper into ideas that we have long accepted as ‘fact’.”

Potia was one of the 28 volunteers who assisted the core team of Qasim Aslam, Ayyaz Ahmed and Zoya Siddiqui with the project. And Raja is one of five editors who helped the team give the book a complete shape.

Siddiqui jazzed up the book with illustrations of colourful but faceless figures. “She chose to use faceless figures to break the stereotypes of Jinnah and Gandhi,” says Ayyaz Ahmed.

The History Project has been funded by the British Council and Global Changemakers, an international youth network.

So, will the History Project develop as a permanent record of India and Pakistan’s shared history? Will it make way into textbooks? Aslam is not sure. “Not for the time being at least. We have to go a long way in changing the mindset of those at the helm on both side of the border.”

But young Potia has hope. “I think this project has a great future especially with the younger population as their minds are more open compared to adults who believe strongly in their views. I could see it when the Pakistanis working on the project were here in Mumbai and were making school presentations — how involved the students got, how stunned they were to see how the event they believed in so easily could have actually been another way altogether. They were so excited about interpreting the illustrations and talking to the Pakistanis that it was easy to picture this kind of double viewed curriculum taking place in India.”

Aamir Riaz, editor and researcher, says the History Project is worthy of praise yet without deconstructing our colonial and anti-colonial past we cannot address the core issues. “It is important to demystify resistance stories based on colonial knowledge. Ideally, history should be written from the perspective of ordinary people.”