“Let’s do something about it!” There’s no waiting around for someone else to fix things for these guys, they’re taking matters in their own hands — from skiing to raise money for the leprosy-afflicted to rewriting an unbiased history of India and Pakistan; recycling tyres and pushing solar energy to solutions for the hearing impaired and making earthquake relief count. Motherland picks out a bunch of promising superheroes from across the country, determined to light up the world we live in.
In George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984, Ingsoc — the totalitarian party that rules Britain with an iron fist — has a slogan that goes “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” That pithy little refrain encapsulates a truth that politicians and those in power have always grasped instinctively — the idea that history isn’t something set in stone, but rather a narrative that you can control. Take for example, Winston Churchill, who once said “history will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” Or just take a look at our own subcontinent, where both India and Pakistan have elaborately put together official histories that function more as a mythology for the newly formed nation states than as the record of any objective truth.
History is intimately bound up in the process of nation-building, and the founding fathers of both countries put a lot of effort into ensuring that their versions of history reflected each nation’s founding myths. It doesn’t matter that these historical narratives are hotly contested in both academic and non-academic circles (you might remember the recent ongoing tussle between ‘secular’ and ‘Hindutva’ historians in India). They’re still taught to us as the gospel truth in school, with textbooks that treat the established narrative — with its cherry-picked facts, nationalist interpretations and inbuilt biases — as authoritative and definitive. Generations of school kids are taught to unthinkingly accept these black-and-white portrayals of the past, when the truth often lies somewhere in the grey. And that’s where The History Project comes in.
The idea for the initiative came about in 2005, when a group of young Indians and Pakistanis met at a conflict resolution camp organised by international NGO Seeds for Peace in Maine, USA. During their interactions over the next three weeks, the two groups often discussed, and occasionally clashed over, their contrasting versions of their shared history. It was here that co-founder Qasim Aslam got firsthand experience of how the bias in textbook history systematically damages the peacebuilding process.
“Then in 2011, my co-founder Ayaaz [Ahmad] and I were having one of those nights where you’re just disgruntled at how everything is messed up,” says Qasim. “We were sitting down and discussing this and we said ‘Hey, let’s do something about it.’”
That discussion eventually resulted in a textbook titled The History Project (www. thehistory-project.org). Put together by editors and volunteers from both India and Pakistan, it juxtaposes the two sides of the story — taken from official high school textbooks from both countries — and points out both contradictions and points of convergence.
“We put the onus on the reader to see that if history is a set of facts, then why are there two versions of the facts?” says Qasim. “This is the idea that went viral. To not offer your own analysis, but just offer both textbook versions that very clearly show how the departments and ministries responsible for curating history are systematically shaping it and how that narrative is being formed.”
“Our aim is to show these kids multiple perspectives,” says Sanaya Patel, an Indian law student who is working as an author for the initiative. “To get children to question what they’re learning and whether there’s another side to it.”
Launched in Mumbai in 2013, the textbook was presented to school students during workshops in both India and Pakistan to a great response. “The kids loved it,” says Qasim. “They loved the book, and at the end they were asking all sorts of questions about Jinnah, or the Partition, or the formation of Pakistan. One kid pulled me aside and asked if there was a God.”
Buoyed by this early success, the History Project is now looking to scale up and expand their operations. They’ve got a second textbook due early this year, which explores how history textbooks look at six important historical figures from both sides of the border — Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Iqbal Masih, and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. They’ve also been working hard on a curriculum for a short, activity-based supplementary course that they plan to take to at least a hundred schools in both countries over the next year. A group of 40 historians, academics, and teachers have put together the curriculum, aimed at teaching the kids to critically analyse history and look at how it actively shapes their identity. Future plans include exporting this model to other countries riven by conflict such as Israel-Palestine and Sri Lanka.
“Once this model has evolved over the next 12-18 months, we hope to start adding more geographies and also introduce more courses,” says Qasim. “We want to become an educational entity that teaches this essential lesson not just through history, but also through the language of drama, the arts or debate. The possibilities are endless.”