Pakistan shows that the disfigurement of our collective history to create exclusionary imagined communities can leave a bloody imprint for generations.
If the somewhat embarrassing-to-watch India-Pakistan spat at the UNGA showed us anything, it is that the two states will go to any lengths, however petty, to present themselves to the world as the polar opposite of the other. Yet increasingly there seems to be much more in our respective societies that unites us, even if in rather depressing ways.
The dismal parallels were illustrated in a recent spate of news stories about the revision of historical material in Indian textbooks to remove references to the three-centuries-long Mughal period. A minister in Uttar Pradesh said it was done because “the Mughals were not our ancestors but looters and plunderers” and that attempts would now be made to re-centre Hindu leaders such as Maharana Pratap and Shivaji in history books.
As someone who has studied, taught and researched in the Pakistani education system, such attempts at erasing history along religious lines in the name of “reforming” the educational curriculum sound all too familiar. Similar changes wrought by one unelected dictator – the odious Zia-ul-Haq – to shore up his legitimacy in the name of Islam over three decades ago continue to haunt Pakistan.
Privileging the dominant religious identity in Pakistani history did not begin with Zia; Pakistan has long been uncomfortable with its non-Muslim past. The very idea of the country, it has been argued, was rooted in the tortuous relocation of a society’s primary locus of identity to a point external to its territory and divorced from its indigenous religio-cultural traditions. The project of shaping a new national identity distinct from that of the neighbour was initiated soon after independence.
Yet, the sense of shared history and culture remained nonetheless. Children were still taught pre-Islamic South Asian history, including Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms like the Mauryas, Guptas and Kushans, while one could even find words of criticism for the excesses of medieval Muslim rulers. Gandhi was revered in early Pakistani historical narratives for his message of non-violence and protection of India’s Muslim minorities.
The 1971 war and the loss of East Pakistan led to the beginnings of more majoritarian state narratives. Under Zia that exorcism of a non-Muslim Indian identity from the Pakistani historical imagination truly took shape. As he pushed through far-reaching changes in multiple Pakistani institutions to solidify his illegitimate rule, he also sought to re-orient the education system around the fictional concept of the ‘Ideology of Pakistan’, a term first coined by the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1962 as an attempt to reimagine the historical rationale for Pakistan as a theocracy rather than Jinnah’s vision of a relatively secular society.
All Pakistani history hence became exclusively Islamic history. Military commanders from far-away lands were glorified, and indigenous examples of syncretism and the pre-Islamic past minimised or wiped away.
Hindus in particular became an object of textual vilification as the perpetually malicious and conniving ‘other’, forever conspiring against the subcontinent’s Muslims, with all traces of historical co-existence wiped from memory. So profound was the curricular insistence on defining national identity in antagonistic opposition to the ‘scheming Hindu’ that the excesses of colonialism too became relegated to a position of diminished importance, almost as if we had gained independence in 1947 not from the British, but from Hindu India. To date, little is taught in Pakistani schools about colonial structures and processes of exploitation or the social and religious divides they engineered, lest students figure out how contingent and artificial the communal lines which formed the basis for Partition were.
The consequences of Zia’s erasure and rewriting of history went far beyond the academic sphere; an entire generation’s political and religious subjectivity was transformed. Ideas about collective identity in a diverse society became reduced to an unthinking, reflexive affinity with an antagonistic, militaristic and puritanical idea of Islam. This ahistorical, exclusionary subjectivity became the ideological terrain in which jihadist groups fostered by the deep state found a fertile space to root themselves.
As Pakistan reels from the violence unleashed by them, many have tried to counter the ideological rot through half-baked efforts at counter-reform and the attempted recuperation of indigenous historical identities. Unfortunately, deeply-held dogmas absorbed over generations are not unlearned overnight.
Many Indians might understandably say “that could never happen here”. India is a far more religiously and ethnically diverse polity, with more deeply-rooted traditions of democracy and secular co-existence (even if punctuated by periodic majoritarian violence). Yet similar arguments have been made for the world’s oldest democracy and still, a dangerously volatile demagogue sits in the White House today.
Already in India, the rapid electoral march of the Sangh Parivar and the grisly communal violence that has accompanied its victories have demonstrated how quickly old political certainties can collapse.
From the outside, it seems alarmingly clear there has been a discernible shift in the Indian collective consciousness; the foundations of the secular-socialist republic appear clearly under threat from the organised march of a much more belligerent, majoritarian and authoritarian idea of India’s future.
The revision of history textbooks may appear trivial amid our current global predicaments. But in the long run, the disfigurement of our collective history to create exclusionary imagined communities can leave a far greater and bloodier imprint for generations.
The writer is a teacher, Left wing political worker and columnist at Daily Times in Islamabad. Twitter @ammarrashidt