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When history’s lessons are systematically forgotten

Through their book History Project, Ayyaz Ahmad,Qasim Aslam and Zoya Siddiqui are trying their best to reverse the trend of history books being tweaked for political ends, writes Tanushree Bhasin

Tanushree Bhasin  18th May 2013

An illustration from History Project

he future is only an indifferent void no one cares about, but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past," wrote Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. These lines became alarmingly profound nine years ago to students in Delhi schools, including me, who discovered that their history textbooks were in the news for being too communal, with the BJP combating accusations of attempted 'saffronization' of education. Suddenly, the words within these previously authoritative textbooks became questionable and shaky. How could histories be changed or altered, we wondered, uncritical devotees of the cult of facts as we were. Though quite stressful from the exam point of view, this experience was to serve as the first moment when we discovered how fluid and powerful the subject of history could actually be.

In 2001, a group of young Indians and Pakistanis met in the US at a conflict resolution camp. Their interactions were to result in a similar run in with the subject of history and its subjective nature. "A dozen Indians and Pakistanis were brought to this camp to live together for three weeks. Over the course of that time, in addition to playing sports and indulging in other activities together, we found history to be a recurring discussion in our interaction. In some cases, the conversations resulted in flared emotions. We didn't quite reconcile our versions of history. But we did find it in yourself to respect the alternative reality," says Qasim Aslam who turned his experience of this disparity into a book titled History Project which juxtaposes the historical narratives of India and Pakistan to highlight the differences between the two, despite having shared the same past.

"Whether the histories have been deliberately tampered with or whether the popular adage that History always comes with the narrator's bias is playing its part, the bottom-line that we're relying on is the inescapable reality that there are definite differences in the narrations of a shared past being taught on either side of the border. Our aim is to highlight these differences and get the youth from both sides of the border to question the 'facts' pertaining to history and everything else that they're fed and to rationalise before they strike conclusions," adds Aslam.

n this effort, Aslam along with co-author Ayyaz Ahmad and illustrator Zoya Siddiqui decided to compile a book using as its sources, three Indian and nine Pakistani textbooks and covering the period from the 1857 Revolt to the Partition in 1947. What emerges is a rather fascinating read that essentially problematises the grand narrative of the freedom movement. For example, in the chapter on the partition of Bengal in 1905, the Indian story suggests that the partition was an 'administrative decision' taken by the British but was actually a 'concealed attack on Indian nationalism' by dividing Hindus and Muslims in the province. Congress and other nationalists, we are told launched an anti-partition movement where Hindus and Muslims composed songs, adopted swadeshi and boycott techniques and shouted slogans in protest. The Pakistani narrative on the other hand suggests an agreement with the British reasons for the partition arguing that 'there were obvious administrative problems in trying to control such a large province.' The Muslims were in fact 'delighted with the partition' as they could now be in majority in East Bengal.

Targeted at school kids, the book could actually help complicate both the history of our nation as well as the idea of history as fixed and unchangeable.

Even while it compares the two nations' respective histories, the book does so in a completely non- judgemental tone, not once offering an alternative perspective. "It was definitely a conscious decision to do so. We didn't want to stamp our opinions on the subject," says Aslam.

Given that their mission is for young people from both sides of the border to have access to the other side of the story, and for them to think for themselves and reach their own conclusions, the team recently travelled to India and visited a number of schools in Mumbai in order to gauge the children's' reaction to the book. "A couple of interesting experiences that really stood out were questions that we received after our presentations at these schools .Once the presentation about the book was done, we'd usually ask the kids to introspect and spew out their deepest pre-conceived notions about Pakistan. We received some very interesting questions. To reiterate a few: 'If Pakistan is free, why is there terrorism in Pakistan?' Even though there is an explanation to this, I was ecstatic to see the kid beginning to question the reality that we were portraying (i.e. partition was viewed as a symbol of freedom and jubilation by Muslims). Another exciting question was: 'Who created God?' I was simply over the moon. It felt like we had set the wheels in motion and the kids were beginning to question things," recounts Aslam.

Targeted at school kids, the book could actually help complicate both the history of our nation as well as the idea of history as fixed and unchangeable. "Our agenda is to reach out to kids in their formative years. Kids develop pre-conceived notions but stereotypes haven't turned as acerbic yet. I think that exposure to differences is critical for children. Whether you agree with them or not, living in a homogenous environment, shielded from alternative perspectives rarely helps you understand what you believe in. The journey to discovering your belief system begins when your literals are questioned," says Aslam.

Currently the team is considering a number of options for their next instalment of the series. "We could analyse the salient personalities that played a major role in politics between 1857 and 1947. We could also look at post-partition events and how they're viewed on both sides. We are also contemplating going global with this. Perhaps, look at the Israel-Palestine and the US-Afghanistan conflicts," he adds.

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