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Profile: Questioning history itself

Updated Oct 23, 2016 11:01am

“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.” — Socrates

Visualise going to school one morning and not finding your regular teacher in the classroom. Instead you are introduced to a new person who tells you it is going to be an unusual day today.

“Would any two of you like to come forward to quarrel?”

You look at your classmates quizzically. Ordinarily you would be banished from class if you indulged even in a mild altercation.


Qasim Aslam, co-founder of The History Project is radically changing the way we teach history


But then who would pass up this godsent opportunity? Several hands shoot up. Two lucky mates are chosen who eagerly go for it. You hope they have a fist-fight, throw things at each other but your thoughts are interrupted.

“Why are they squabbling?” the trainer asks.

“Maybe it’s about lunch.”

“Or something to do with a mobile phone.”

“It definitely has to do with a girl,” a smart-aleck pipes in, eliciting laughter in the class.

Everyone thinks out aloud volunteering diverse reasons.

“If you guys can’t agree on what you just saw then how do you expect a historian to write about the only truth from a time he wasn’t even alive?” asks the non-conventional trainer. Stillness descends in the classroom as schoolkids ponder over the thought.

“This is one of the activities we do in our five-week course in which we teach students how to question history, how to let go of the notions of a rigid right and a rigid wrong,” says Qasim Aslam, the 29-year-old co-founder of The History Project (THP).

We were supposed to meet at 2pm but he WhatsApps me the Google map of our meeting place — not a resident of Karachi, he wants to ensure he has the venue correctly “mapped out” — at 12:30pm confirming the address. He has wrapped up a meeting with the management of a school and requests if I can come earlier “otherwise I’m armed with technology, so wouldn’t mind sitting there and working.”

This particular cafe I have chosen is often quiet since it is not a favourite haunt anymore with newer ones elbowing it out, but not today. When I reach half an hour earlier than the initial fixed time the place inside is nearly packed with a boisterous group of girlfriends and several young and middle-aged men having lunch. Changing the venue is not an option as restaurants and cafés nearby are likely to be more raucous.

Ah, if only Google could develop a restaurant app to find quiet eateries.

Of medium-height and attired like a corporate executive — light blue shirt, khaki pants, dark brown leather laptop bag — Qasim greets me warmly but sounds weary. This is understandable as he has been in Karachi for the past few days and his schedule has been packed with back-to-back meetings.


“You can make anybody ‘us’ and you can make anybody ‘other’ because of these frameworks,” Qasim adds while squeezing the small mineral water bottle adding to the din in the café.


We seat ourselves at a small low table at a distance from the noisy bunch. But then a few minutes into our conversation the staff behind the counter amps up the milkshake machine. Unfazed by the barrage of noise, Qasim is eager to discuss THP.

“We also touch upon the Partition of Bengal in 1905, he says, giving me another example of TPH’s work. “In Pakistani textbooks it is portrayed positively, benefiting the Muslim population, whereas in Indian textbooks it is described as a deliberate split of Hindu-Muslim communities who had united to remove the British Empire from its homeland. He often speaks in an English-Urdu amalgam. Tou jab ek part kaata tou Hindus minority main ho gaye tou [when one part was cut off Hindus became a minority so] naturally Indian textbooks talk about their part. Pakistani textbooks talk about hamarawala [our] part jis main Muslims majority main ho gaye thay [where Muslims came to be in majority].”

An important tool through which THP teaches participants to question historical narratives is through the book Partitioned Histories: The Other Side Of Your Story, which Qasim takes out from his laptop bag handing it to me to flip through. Launched early this year, the illustrated hardcover is unique in its concept for it places Indian and Pakistani textbook narratives side by side. The content is drawn from textbooks currently in use in schools in Pakistan’s Punjab and in Maharashtra in India. Divided into 16 chapters, it spans the history of the independence struggle leading up to Partition from 1857 to 1947.

Zaheer Kidvai is an adviser at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore, and vouches for the book and THP. “I first met them at the World of Tomorrow Festival organised by the School of Leadership,” he recalls. “I read their book, finishing it in two and a half hours, and got in touch with them about introducing their course to Beaconhouse. Look, Professors A.H. Nayyar and Pervez Hoodbhoy have been talking about these things for a long time but to have Indian and Pakistani viewpoint side by side has never been done before. The philosophy behind the project is very good — the essence of which is to question everything. Children are not allowed to do so at home and the mullah says it is a sin.”

However to get to this stage the journey began sometime in 2011 when Ayyaz Ahmad, the other founder of THP, and Qasim were cribbing about society in general and rising intolerance. A graduate of Lahore University of Management Sciences, Qasim was working full time in the corporate sector (that explains the corporate attire) and Ayyaz had just returned to Pakistan after completing his MBA degree from Cambridge University and was involved in his family’s publishing business.

Both first got to know each other when they met in 2004 at a summer camp in Maine in the US, run by Seeds of Peace. The camp brings youngsters from India and Pakistan as well as Israel and Palestine to work together, suggesting solutions to resolve conflicts in their region.

“One of the areas we [wanted to] look into was history textbooks, how they breed a certain framework at a very young age which manifests in different ways in our society,” says Qasim. “You can make anybody ‘us’ and you can make anybody ‘other’ because of these frameworks,” he adds while squeezing the small mineral water bottle adding to the din in the café.

One of the initial challenges the Lahore- and Mumbai-based project faced was who would author and supervise the book. “So three years ago we sent out calls asking people to join us. The response was great. We got a bunch of Indian and Pakistani expats from different parts of the world volunteering to help us out.”

That group of expats is a hefty lot: Taymiya R. Zaman, associate professor of history at the University of San Francisco, Al Jazeera journalist and Harvard-educated Nur Ibrahim, who authored chapters from the Pakistan perspective, lawyer Sanaya Patel who has written chapters in Partitioned Histories from the Indian perspective; and heritage conservationist Prathima Muniyappa, among many others.

All this sounds heartening, even idealistic. After all which rational person wouldn’t desire a better understanding of their neighbour, leading to empathy, peace and normalisation of relations. But given decades of animus and the recent heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, it surely must not have been easy for them to convince parents and schools to allow their children to participate in the course, I wonder. “Parents are concerned about the Indian content,” Qasim acknowleges. “For schools the biggest concern is someone might pick out something from the book and say ‘now schools have started to teach Indian history’.”

The solution they offer is to replace it with case studies of apartheid or the China-Japan fracas or any other conflict. At the end of the day, Qasim and Ayyaz (to whom I speak on the phone later) emphasise that they want students to critically think and challenge narratives in order to behave empathetically towards each other, leading to tolerance in society, which in their opinion is rapidly being depleted. “It is important to understand where one’s emotions and beliefs are coming from,” says 27-year-old Ayyaz. “If someone has a completely different point of view it is important to be able to tolerate it.”

This is done through activities in which students are shown how to analyse information and question things through the five Ws: ‘who, what, where, when and why,’ prompting better questions.

What about the sustainability of the project? Will it fizzle out as some well-intentioned projects have in the past, I ask Ayyaz. “We were also concerned about this aspect,” he says. That is why THP is a for-profit organisation and is a source of livelihood for people who are working for it. Students who enroll in the programme have to pay for it. Besides, we have one simple rule. The market itself will validate the product. If it fulfills a need in the market THP will be sustainable.”

As the conversation draws to a close, I ask Qasim one final question. What is the next line of action? “We have started with five cities in Pakistan and India targeting 1,000 schools within a span of two years. Afterwards we want to launch it in 20 cities and in other countries.”

It is quite evident they have worked it all out and I think, rather I wish, if only India and Pakistan, and all other conflict-riddled zones, could work out their differences so earnestly and methodically. With this sanguine view I walk out of the café, which has become quieter, while Qasim waits for a cab to take him to his next destination.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 23rd, 2016