Photoshopping history

October 12, 2014


Much has been written and lamented about how over the decades the state and various governments of Pakistan mutilated history books taught at schools and colleges.

What should have been a purely academic exercise of teaching young minds the history of the land’s politics, culture and faith as seen and recorded from various angles, was gradually turned into a myopic project that constructed various myths and biases to concoct a largely non-organic ideological brew.

Whenever newspaper op-eds and editorials whinge how we as a state and society refuse to learn from history and continue to make the same mistakes, I always retort that this is because the history we are taught in our educational institutions is not a teacher but a deceiver.

Why we don’t learn lessons from our glorious history is because it has been adulterated with myths and biases.

How can we learn from history? We were never taught how to. We are taught just one version of history in which we pat ourselves on the back for being the extension of a glorious people out to create an even more glorious future. Why this does not seem to be happening is because our glorious ways are supposedly being adulterated, sabotaged and conspired against by a host of ‘enemies’.

So what is there to be learned from the many mistakes that we have made — mistakes that have continued to retard the political, social and economic evolution of Pakistan? In our history books they are not mistakes at all, but rather gallant manoeuvres to ‘safeguard the ideological, geographical and religious borders of Pakistan’. This should suggest that we actually need to keep repeating them, no matter what the cost.

To get a better, detailed and more articulate account of this awkward predicament, I’d suggest young Pakistanis searching for answers beyond their history books to read authors like Dr. Mubarak Ali (History on Trial, In Search of History), Rubina Saigol (The Besieged Self in Pakistani Text Books), A.H. Nayyar (The Subtle Subversion) and K.K. Aziz (Murder of History, The Pakistani Historian).

The project of building a monolithic ideology for Pakistan that would bypass the country’s multi-ethnic and multi-cultural make-up began soon after the country’s creation (in August 1947 or more so, after the early death of its founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah in 1948).

No mass conversions to Islam took place under Qasim’s brief command in Sindh because the Arabs’ main thrust in the region was overwhelmingly undertaken due to the economic prospects that Sindh promised to the mighty Umayyad Caliphate operating from Syria.

But work in this regard really began in earnest during the Ayub Khan dictatorship (1958-69). However, according to Dr. Mubarak Ali the project to infuse a mythical nationalistic singularity in the minds of a multi-ethnic polity was given a lot more push right after East Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh in 1971.

Ali suggests that throughout the populist Z.A. Bhutto/PPP regime (1971-77), government-funded seminars were held to thrash out an ideological singularity. And it was during this period that cherry-picked moments from the land’s history and even many half-truths in this context began to be weaved into school text books.

During the Bhutto regime, the project remained to be a work-in-progress that would nevertheless reach completion during the reactionary dictatorship of Gen Zia (1977-88). By then the raison d’etre of the creation of Pakistan was no more explained as something to do with democratic Muslim nationalism, but as an evolutionary episode enacted to culminate as a militaristic and hidebound epicentre of faith that was to drive and manoeuvre the nation’s politics, society and state.

I was part of that generation of school-going children who became one of the first mice that were experimented upon during the project’s more forceful turn in the 1970s.

In 1974 when I entered the 3rd grade in school we were taught history from a book that (I think) was authored in the early 1960s.

The book, History of Pakistan, began with the five thousand years old Indus Valley Civilisation and galloped all the way to the creation of Pakistan in 1947.

But students in the third grade were taught history till the reign of Hindu-turned-Buddhist king, Asoka (269 BCE).

I remember the students’ favourite was the chapter on Gautama Buddha, the ancient Indian sage and the founder of Buddhism.

His story to us became even more fascinating when we were encouraged by our history teacher to go and watch the film Buddha that was running at Karachi’s Palace cinema.

The film was made in Hong Kong and was in Chinese (with dialogues dubbed into English); but imagine a child’s delight in being told that his homework included watching amovie.

Well, the idea was to teach the students the 5,000 year-old history of South Asia (especially in the context of Pakistan), in various stages and across ten grades.

For example, we were supposed to cover the history of the region from Asoka to the 8th Century Arab invasion of Sindh in the fifth grade and then move on to cover other eras and periods in the next five grades.

But in 1975 when I entered the fourth grade, our history books did not begin with what came after Asoka. Suddenly hundreds of years of history were simply expunged from the pages of school text books and they now began with the 8th century invasion of Sindh by Arab commander, Muhammad Bin Qasim.

The government’s post-1971 experiment to formulate a national ideology by severing Pakistan’s roots with South Asia had begun to kick in.

Within a year, we jumped from 269 BCE to the 8th century AD because here is where the Muslims came into the picture (in the region).

Qasim’s invasion and brief hold was limited only to the Sindh area and a part of south Punjab.

No mass conversions to Islam took place under Qasim’s brief command in Sindh because the Arabs’ main thrust in the region was overwhelmingly undertaken due to the economic prospects that Sindh promised to the mighty Umayyad Caliphate operating from Syria.

Obviously, this was not mentioned in our fifth grade history text book. Instead, the book suggested that Qasim’s invasion of Sindh was a gallant act of retribution against the area’s conniving Hindu king who had encouraged the pirates of the Arabian Sea to plunder Arab ships carrying Muslim pilgrims to perform Hajj.

Almost all Muslim sources have stuck to the above narrative, even though sometimes the ships were said to be carrying wives and orphans of fallen Muslim warriors and sometimes carrying Arab trading cargo.

Also, what our text books also failed to mention was the fact that Qasim’s invasion was not the first attempt made by the Arabs to find inroads into South Asia. Arab armies had tried to invade the region at least sixteen times before Qasim’s success!

But this would have made the story of Qasim’s invasion a lot less gallant, and we would not have forgotten how infatuated we were with the story of Buddha only a year ago and now wondered whether a movie was on the way on Qasim’s exploits and his subsequent brave entry in our academic and nascent ideological lives.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 12th, 2014