The ‘evil’ in our textbooks

In justifying Partition and Pakistan’s creation, must we keep things so biased and simplistic? Must we breed hatred?


Madiha Afzal August 31, 2013
The writer is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution. She tweets @MadihaAfzal

“His struggle was against the evil forces in the subcontinent.” No, this direct quote is not an excerpt from a badly written piece of fiction about wicked spirits. It comes from the official Pakistan Studies textbook for Classes 9-10 published in April 2013 by the Sindh Textbook Board (Jamshoro), which all students in the province taking their matric exams next year must study (and as we know, in Pakistan’s board examinations, study is a euphemism for memorise). The person referred to in the quote is Syed Ahmed Shaheed Barelvi and the evil forces in question are the Sikhs.

Sindh has not yet published textbooks that follow the significantly improved 2006 curriculum; this one follows the old 2003-04 curriculum. Unsurprisingly, it has significant problems. Many of the most pernicious ones lie in the first two chapters on the ideological basis and making of Pakistan. The book begins with a chapter on Pakistan’s ideology, which should really belong in a religious book. I understand that we are an Islamic republic and religion will play a significant role in explaining Pakistan. But the book begins with no room for non-Muslims. In fact, the chapter states that we must “not discriminate on the basis of race, language, caste, colour, culture and wealth or poverty”. What about religion?

Read on, and our current tolerance breakdown starts to make sense. The same chapter lauds Pakistanis on having stood “like a rock against the enemy and foiled its evil designs” in the context of the 1965 war. Note that it doesn’t mention the ‘enemy’ by name (lest we think it is a friend). Next comes the chapter on the making of Pakistan and we are told about jihad in the context of Partition. Barelvi is said to have preached “jihad because it was not possible to get freedom from evil force without armed struggle”.

Our penchant for conspiracy theories also falls into place. We are taught that Muslims were victimised before Partition. The British conspired with the Hindus and the Congress to do so. One of the reasons given for “the fall of East Pakistan” is “international conspiracies”, with players as diverse as Russia, India and America conspiring against us. Little wonder, then, that we have an unhealthy sense of national paranoia.

In justifying Partition and Pakistan’s creation, must we keep things so biased and simplistic? Must we breed hatred? I understand the need for a national narrative, but other countries have reconciled more traumatic histories. Let’s take a page from their (text)books. It is time for us all to learn from the current academic research on Partition and our history.

The Sindh textbook is grossly deficient in quality. The language use is poor. The history content is very light, with little substance on Pakistan’s modern history and foreign policy. Instead, the authors engage in banal, unintelligent repetition. The geography content is chock-full of pointless facts without sufficient illustrations and maps. For example, it asks students to memorise the location of mountain ranges without those details given in a reference map. There are structural issues as well: the chapter order seems to make no logical sense.

There are some positives. The chapter on culture towards the end does not focus primarily on religion and actually counts celebration of non-Muslim festivals as part of our culture. But lest we start feeling too positive, here is another direct quote from the textbook, using the authors’ seemingly favourite word (see if you can guess this one): “Over-ambitiousness is the cause of all evil practices.” What a wonderful message for our youth: please don’t try too hard or you will become evil.

Punjab published textbooks following the new curriculum in 2013, seven years after the approved reform. I will be going through the Punjab classes 9-10 Pakistan Studies textbooks in my next column, but my initial impressions are positive: each chapter has learning objectives and there appears to be more substance on Pakistan’s modern history and foreign policy. If those initial impressions are indeed borne out by more detailed analysis, why did we lose so many years to the old textbooks?

Published in The Express Tribune, September 1st, 2013.

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COMMENTS (63)

Observer | 7 years ago | Reply

@Manoj Joshi India:

With due respect, you need to learn some netiquette and proper composing. All capitals, all bold, no paragraph on long posts etc. are difficult on the eye and not proper writing technique.

Manoj Joshi India | 7 years ago | Reply

The history of these two South Asian republics viz Republic of India and Islamic Republic of Pakistan have been a history of dichotomies, antipathies and distrust. The gist has been that the hero of one has been the villain for the other. Thus where Aurangzeb has been spelled for his bigotry the reference to the Sikh forces as evil by Syed Ahmed Shaheed Barelvi has been the feature of historiography within India and Pakistan. This unfortunately has been the story since 1947 and a not very cordial relationship has remained and order of the day which now has started to show a certain degree of thaw. The political winter that had prevailed for almost six decades apparently seems to be on a retreat but it is perhaps too early to arrive at any conclusion. There have been political hiccups that still do occur on a periodic basis which do shake the growing edifice of trust, understanding and amity. The political tremors wherein antipathy towards the visiting sportsmen is a part does create an apprehension in the minds of the people of the two nations. The basic dichotomy of India and Pakistan has been their history which although common prior to 1947 had a dichotomy wherein the hero of one side was perceived as a villain by the other and vice versa and it is this dichotomy that the British rulers took advantage of and further promoted this political and historic virus by introducing the Communal Electorate System which was given the name of 'Communal Award' and it was this communal divide that created a further rift between the two communities the Hindus and Muslims which inevitably culminated in the partition of British India in 1947 into two dominions. However, the post independence era was a time when Cold War was at its peak and India and Pakistan opted different kinds of alliances viz Non-Aligned Group and CENTO respectively. It is rather easy to blame Pakistan at hindsight with regard to their having joined the CENTO as simple it has been to blame India for having adopted a policy of Non-Alignment and having remained a Third World. The truth or reality is that the leaderships of the two countries Pakistan as well as India took recourse to a policy that suited their national and geo-strategic interests and this was the reason why India got close to the Soviet bloc and Pakistan to the US bloc. Although now there has been a change in the entire geo-strategic situations and this has been a global development. India is now a well developed economy and Pakistan too has come a long way since 1947. Coming back to the point of Indo-Pak antipathy and distrust wherein political and diplomatic misunderstandings too have played a major role the change is possible only through public and political will. First and the foremost the need to review and modify the parameters of patriotism in the two neighbouring countries is very important. Even during a sports event the entire match is viewed with a perception of hostility and antipathy and defeat is perceived as some sort of an anti-national act of the players which is a rather unfortunate and the perceptions need to be changed. This negative patriotism of antipathy, distrust and dislike towards the neighbour must be shown the door. Secondly the need to develop a perception that the neighbour is as noble and as holy as we are hence they too need to be given a fair chance to prove their credibility. Thirdly economic relations between the two neighbours ought to be promoted and economic nationalism needs to be given the driving seat in place of a radical political patriotism. Finally old and obsolete issues should be shelved or put in the back burner as they are of no utility to either sides as these issues have only promoted distrust and antipathy and have had a detrimental impact on the economies of the two neighbouring countries. Hence these issues should be laid to rest after a sincere and comprehensive dialogue. Hatred towards the neighbour or spewing venom through vitriolic remarks or preventing bilateral sports is in no way a patriotic act but should be considered as one of the most malicious and unpatriotic acts. The people of India and Pakistan should therefore come forward and oppose any such act that is provocative and detrimental to peace in this region or has a negative effect on Indo-Pak friendship. TRUST, AMITY and UNDERSTANDING are the only pillars that can promote a more cordial bilateral relationship between the two neighbours.

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