In the middle of the nineteenth century, while colonial rule in India was in full swing, the British Empire considered reforming the imperial education system. Thomas Macaulay, president of the Committee of Public Instruction in British India, was strongly in favor. Once an English system of education was introduced, he assured, there would be “a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect…no Hindu who has received an English education ever remains sincerely attached to his religion..”
Macaulay, distasteful as he was, was on to something. Though education can mean many things, from imparting a set of facts to representing a conduit to a better life, it means a great deal more for political leaders: a way of ensuring love and respect for the state. Indeed, for almost two hundred years, the global expansion of public education has been intimately tied to governments’ concerns with legitimacy. Teaching young people the “right” things about their country, society, and government, the logic goes, helps them become loyal and useful citizens. As one classic study puts it, the “greatest function of the modern school,” is “to teach not so much useful skills as a new patriotism” and teachers’ primary duty is to make students “love and understand the fatherland.” To wit, the Chinese Communist Party’s “Patriotic Education” Plan from the 1990s said that “patriotic consciousness should be developed” among the youth, who “should be guided into establishing correct ideals, beliefs, and values,” and who must “love the nation, their hometown, the collective and their position,” a love inculcated by schools from “kindergarten to university.”
Inculcating Love for the Nation
“How does public education help create such love, respect, and admiration for the nation and the state? First, schools (attempt to) inculcate a sense of civic duty. Second, and more importantly, states tell specific histories about themselves.”How does public education help create such love, respect, and admiration for the nation and the state? First, schools (attempt to) inculcate a sense of civic duty. Second, and more importantly, states tell specific histories about themselves. These histories may emphasize positive contributions more than negative ones, or misrepresent historical fact, or marginalize their victims’ voices, and so on, in an attempt to create a particular national identity. For example, almost as soon as Alsace-Lorraine was won by the Germans in their war of independence in 1871, the education of the region’s children was reformed to present a German past “that confirmed the region’s existence and its place in the German Empire.”
It is for these reasons that the opportunity to control what children read and learn in schools about their country and history is so appealing to political leaders. Once they attain such power, say by controlling a country’s Ministry of Education, they can influence the ideas, beliefs, and values held by wide swathes of the population. As Deng Xiaoping confessed in the aftermath of the pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen, “I have told foreign guests that during the last 10 years our biggest mistake was made in the field of education, primarily in ideological and political education – not just of students but of the people in general. We did not tell them enough about the need for hard struggle, about what China was like in the old days and what kind of country it was to become. That was a serious error on our part.”
Time and Dates in South Asian History Education
One important aspect about states’ histories of themselves is their temporal organization of narratives. For groups as much as individuals, narratives about the past help organize and situate the present. How narrators organize time in their narratives in turn organizes the periodization of history for citizens. For obvious reasons, different groups might “edit” their narratives differently insofar as their organization of time is concerned. As one scholar notes, “all subdivisions of time inescapably reflect the values of the classifiers.”
Consider the treatment of “benchmark dates.” These dates “shape how history is understood, funneling attention towards particular events and processes, while downplaying others.” In the discipline of International Relations, for instance, typical benchmark dates are considered to be 1500, 1648, 1919, 1945, and 1989.
In South Asia, one major benchmark date is 1947, when India’s independence from the British raj was accompanied by a cartographic splitting of the subcontinent, with the landmass giving way to two states: India and (East and West) Pakistan. The way this date is remembered in textbooks can tell us a great deal about the construction of national identities and nationalisms in South Asia.
To help understand the processes of “nation-building” in India and Pakistan, I examined, respectively, Our Pasts – III, an 8th grade history textbook prescribed by the Indian central government and Pakistan Studies: Class 9th and Pakistan Studies: 10, each prescribed by the Government of Punjab for all government schools.
1947 in Indian and Pakistani Textbooks
“The independence of India and the exit of the British from the subcontinent is, in the Indian textbook, a victory tinged with regret. On the one hand, it celebrates Indian nationalists winning power from the crown.”The independence of India and the exit of the British from the subcontinent is, in the Indian textbook, a victory tinged with regret. On the one hand, it celebrates Indian nationalists winning power from the crown. On the other, the terms of that decolonization, specifically including the creation of Pakistan and the splitting of the subcontinent into two states on the basis of Muslim nationalism, are cast in more somber tones. This tension is encapsulated by the summary sentence on the chapter on Indian nationalism and its eventual success:
Many hundred thousand people were killed and numerous women had to face untold brutalities during the Partition. Millions of people were forced to flee their homes. Torn asunder from their homelands, they were reduced to being refugees in alien lands. Partition also meant that India changed, many of its cities changed, and a new country – Pakistan – was born. So, the joy of our country’s independence from British rule came mixed with the pain and violence of Partition.
These twin themes – freedom, but at the cost of division – are emphasized throughout the chapter. With respect to the former, the textbook focuses on the waning of British power in India, particularly in the face of organized resistance and charts the birth of Indian nationalism from the middle of the nineteenth century. This resistance variously took the form of the Khilafat movement, the Non-Cooperation movement, the Salt March, and finally the Quit India movement during World War II. The independence of India, in this view, is presented almost as inevitable, the result of a persistent and morally righteous Indian nationalism that took aim at the institutions, symbols, and manifestations of British power.
The last quarter of the chapter in Our Pasts – III, while discussing the stepping stones of the independence movement, also raise the issue of Muslim nationalism generally and the All India Muslim League specifically, which is portrayed as solely interested in parochial Muslim interests. In contrast, Gandhi and the Indian National Congress are portrayed as guardians of all Indians, regardless of religious affiliation. For instance, referring to the early associations of Indian nationalism mentioned above, including Congress, the textbook states that “[T]ough many of these associations functioned in specific parts of the country, their goals were stated as the goals of all the people of India, not those of any one region, community or class.” Referring to the protest movement against the Rowlatt Act in 1919, the textbook informs its readers that “during the Rowlatt Satyagraha the participants tried to ensure that Hindus and Muslims were united in the fight against British rule. This was also the call of Mahatma Gandhi who always saw India as a land of all the people who lived in the country – Hindus, Muslims and those of other religions. He was keen that Hindus and Muslims support each other in any just cause.”
“The last quarter of the chapter in Our Pasts – III, while discussing the stepping stones of the independence movement, also raise the issue of Muslim nationalism generally and the All India Muslim League specifically, which is portrayed as solely interested in parochial Muslim interests. In contrast, Gandhi and the Indian National Congress are portrayed as guardians of all Indians, regardless of religious affiliation.”
Pakistani textbooks treat 1947 differently. In contrast to the relatively conflicted view of 1947 in Indian textbooks, the dominant theme undergirding discussions of that year in Pakistani textbooks is liberation. One Class 10 textbook from Punjab notes simply that “On 1st October 1947, while addressing the officers of the Government of Pakistan, he [Jinnah] said that their mission was the establishment of a state where they could live like free people in their own socio-cultural set up necessary for the promotion of social justice and Islamic Ideology.” Another passage matter-of-factly states that “Pakistan emerged as an independent state on the map of the world on 14 August, 1947. The basic purpose of getting Pakistan was to provide the people an environment wherein they could lead their lives according to the basic principles of Islam. On the basis of two Nation Theory people of subcontinent launched a freedom movement and got Pakistan.”
Indeed, the “Two Nation Theory” – the ideology that held that Muslims and Hindus in India constituted two distinct nations and underpinned Pakistan’s creation – receives considerable attention in Pakistani textbooks. While the march to independence is presented in only a single chapter among twelve in the Indian textbook, Pakistani books devote a much greater proportion of its pages to the era. Fifty-two pages (24.3 percent of the printed historical material), over two chapters titled “Ideological basis for Pakistan” and “Making of Pakistan,” are devoted to explaining Pakistan’s founding ideology and the politicking that led to its creation, probably a function of the ideological insecurity Pakistani nation-builders have collectively felt for decades. Such an emphasis seems logical given Pakistan was a new state birthed in 1947, while India was the successor state to the territory controlled by the British raj. That is, India’s existence can be more intuitively grasped than Pakistan’s, necessitating ideological justification for the latter.
Alongside differences in the treatment (or lack thereof) of the Two Nation Theory, the political run-up to independence enjoys greater depth – if not precision – in the Pakistani textbook. Of particular note in this rendition is the antipathetic tone taken against Gandhi and the Indian National Congress more generally, portrayed as conspiratorial Hindus bent upon control and exploitation of the Indian Muslim population. The birth of Pakistan is thus portrayed as a minor miracle insofar as it had to defeat not just a colonial empire, but a powerful majoritarian party headed by wily and clever leaders such as Gandhi and Nehru. Both the tone and content of the textbook suggest Jinnah won victory against all odds based on little more than belief in the strength of the two-nation theory and his own political skill.
Overall, 1947 is more unalloyed in Pakistani than Indian textbooks. For Pakistan, the date represents the triumph of an outnumbered and outgunned minority, powered solely by the inherent virtues of the Two-Nation Theory. The date is portrayed as the culmination of an ineluctable political process that began with the arrival of the first Muslims to the subcontinent in pre-medieval times. The Muslims of South Asia, a beleaguered and downtrodden minority, are the heroes of the story while Hindus and, to a lesser extent, the British the villains. By contrast, the Indian textbook has a more complicated and professional rendition of 1947. Aside from Gandhi, there are no obvious “good guys” or “bad guys” in the history. More importantly, the loss of one-third of British India to the creation of a new country, Pakistan, is presented as a cost of independence, rather than liberation itself as in the Pakistani book.
“The specific narratives presented within textbooks are an outgrowth of domestic political constellations. In Pakistan, for instance, the evident ideological exigency of leaving unquestioned the role of Islam as a putatively unifying force for different ethnic and linguistic groups stems from the dominance of the Jamaat-e-Islami Party within the education bureaucracy. JI’s infrastructural network, which includes publishing houses, magazines, and digests, not to mention its status as a purely ideological party, renders it the most significant of domestic actors when it comes to education politics in Pakistan.”
Conclusion and Implications
The specific narratives presented within textbooks are an outgrowth of domestic political constellations. In Pakistan, for instance, the evident ideological exigency of leaving unquestioned the role of Islam as a putatively unifying force for different ethnic and linguistic groups stems from the dominance of the Jamaat-e-Islami Party within the education bureaucracy. JI’s infrastructural network, which includes publishing houses, magazines, and digests, not to mention its status as a purely ideological party, renders it the most significant of domestic actors when it comes to education politics in Pakistan.
In India, meanwhile, control of education at the national level swings from Congress-led governments to Hindu nationalist governments of the BJP. Until roughly the early 1990s, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and Indian textbooks were aligned to a secular nationalist position. Since the 1990s, and the attendant ascension of the Hindu right, these themes have been challenged repeatedly for being in the thrall of “secular, Westernized, Marxist” views of history rather than one that champions Hindu nationalism and its symbols and attachments. Institutions such as NCERT came under withering criticism by the Hindu right, which sought to infiltrate it, with some success. In turn, textbooks veering closer to a Hindu nationalist view of history were published and put in use in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
However, upon the victory of the UPA alliance in the 2004 elections, led by Congress, textbooks and the education bureaucracy were once again revised, with various passages taken out and curricula revised. With the BJP the dominant party once more, textbooks are undergoing yet another shift; according to one news report, “BJP-ruled states are facing increasing criticism for allegedly re-writing history of India to give it a right-wing perspective: portray Mughals ruler as mass murderers and show Hindu rulers as the victors in major battles.”
Textbook politics, then, continues apace in South Asia. Interestingly, unlike other national matters such as defense or budgets, education does not attract the attention of all major players and parties. Consequently, only those actors with the strongest vested interest in the politics of history education, such as the JI or Hindu nationalists, are willing to expend political capital on the issue. The implications of this imbalance are at once somber and striking, for it means that the most nationalistic elements of the body politic control what young people read and learn.