The shortest friendship I ever had lasted for around an hour. Waseem was from Pakistan and I met him on a train in Scotland. We got along quite well. Our brief conversation delved into each other’s past, and soon, into our shared past. But it all came to a rather unpleasant end because of one person who occupied a significant space in both our histories: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. We fought over him; I sided with Gandhi, whereas Waseem was completely against him.
It took me five years to understand what had gone wrong. I chance upon three young graduates in New Delhi working on a project that aims to bridge the gap between the shared histories of the two nations. “It was not the jingoistic biases that led to the caustic end of your friendship, but the history textbooks that both of you had assimilated long back in school,” says Barkat ul Nisa, one of the editors of The History Project, as it is called.
Barkat asks me to consider these two descriptions:
“Gandhi was basically an extremist Hindu politician with a highly pro- Hindu approach to politics. He adopted a stubborn and childish attitude on all matters. When the minority issue was presented in the Second Round Table Conference, Gandhi refused to accept any rights of minorities and demanded that the minority committee be disbanded. He insisted that there was only one India that was for the Hindus.”
“Mahatma Gandhi, during the Second Round Table Conference held in London, devoted most of his time to the communal question and the representation of minorities — the Muslims, Sikhs, Indian Christians and Anglo-Indians — in legislatures, both at the Centre and in the provinces. Gandhiji was disgusted to find that most leaders seemed concerned only about seats in legislatures for their respective communities.”
Both these excerpts describe the same figure, event and context, but their narratives are poles apart. One makes Gandhi a stubborn villain; the other makes him a messiah, a mahatma. One is quoted from a senior secondary history textbook that is taught in the schools of Pakistan; the other, from an Indian history textbook. Because of this bias in the recounting of a common history, students across the borders grow up with completely opposing views of a shared past. This is where The History Project steps in.
“We believe that young people have the right to question and the right to know the other side of the story, especially when it is their past that is being interpreted,” says Anil George, an engineer by qualification. Ever since he started working on the project, Anil’s idea of history has changed significantly. “We were taught that history comprises permanent facts, with no room to contest the claims. ‘This is how it happened, period.’ I’d never wondered that since history is written by normal people like you and I, it could be subjective,” he says.
The History Project’s illustrated books aim at making these biases obvious, leaving it to the better judgment of the reader to realise the subjectivity of history. The team of editors and volunteers from both countries gets together, keeping their individual perspectives at bay, and collate conflicting historical accounts that are being taught to students. Through their school history textbooks, they juxtapose these stories side-by-side, support them with illustrations and introduce them to students through interactive presentations, highlighting embedded prejudices and stereotypes, and giving the books to students of both countries. Founded by three young Pakistanis, Qasim Aslam, Ayyaz Ahmad and Zoya Siddiqui in 2011, the Project launched its first history textbook in April 2013. The second book’s project was taken up by the Indian trio of Anil, Barkat and Lavanya, based in New Delhi, all three hailing from different parts of India, namely Kochi, Srinagar and Delhi.
The first book draws contrasts between the portrayal of events that led to the freedom struggle and the eventual Partition of India and Pakistan in the textbooks of the two countries. There are stark differences in versions of history portrayed in events that concerned both the countries such as the partition of Bengal, or Kashmir’s annexation. It caught a lot of attention of teachers and students alike in both countries. “As the founders became busy, the three of us in India decided to take the project further and work on The History Project’s Book 2, which compares the description of six main figures — Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lokmanya Tilak, MA Jinnah, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Md Iqbal — from both countries,” says Lavanya Julaniya, who has been spearheading the Project in India since early 2013.
When asked why Tilak and not Vallabbhai Patel, the trio answers that it had almost finalised on Patel but when they sat down to research, they couldn’t find sufficient coverage of Patel in either of the textbooks. Thereafter, they decided to choose the three personalities keeping in mind the chronological sequence in which they influenced the freedom movement. Tilak and his famous demand for swaraj set the base for Gandhi’s arrival in a manner similar to how Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s two-nation theory paved the way for Jinnah to come and take their freedom movement ahead. Nehru’s literary and political prowess was equally matched by that of Iqbal.
The trio has been meticulously collating material, sifting through cbse and icse books of India and Cambridge publications and Punjab Board textbooks of Pakistan that are taught to most students of classes 7, 8, 9 and 10. They specifically chose those history books taught during secondary school years rather than at senior secondary level, since most students internalise their country’s version of history at a relatively nascent age. If, through The History Project, a student learns to question anything that’s taught to them, the team considers its mission to be successful.
History in these textbooks is written to arouse patriotic fervour, often laden with nationalistic sugar-coating, skipping, or worse, distorting relevant details. For example, in the Indian history books, Jinnah is initially portrayed as a supporter of Hindu-Muslim unity, but when he abruptly changed track and perpetuated the two-nation theory, the cause for his drastic shift in ideology skips a mention. In the Pakistani textbook, this hole in the narrative is justified by placing the blame on the Hindu hegemony of Congress that threatened the Muslim minority, making them feel unwelcome in their own country.
The project promises to nurture a habit of examining things in a more empathetic light. It has already forged a strong bond between the team-members of both nations. The sheer power of the project’s idea has attracted internationally renowned partners such as Aman ki Asha and The Choices Program.
On the verge of completing their second book, the team is planning to move beyond self-publishing and is on the lookout for trade publishers, to make their work cut across borders. With compelling accounts of personalities that shaped the past of the two nations, it might not be too difficult.
Then, perhaps the next time an Indian discusses Gandhi or Jinnah with a Pakistani, their arguments would be informed and their friendship might just last longer than an hour.
(Harsh Snehanshu is an author and currently, a Young India Fellow)