“Pakistan ka matlab kya?”
“La Ilaha Illallah!”
“Phir se bolo, Pakistan ka matlab kya?”
 “La Ilaha Illallah!”

It was a winter morning in 2012 and I was visiting a school in Lahore. Teachers and students had collected in the grounds for their morning assembly. After singing the national anthem, a series of questions about Pakistan, its history and geography were posed by teachers. The children were fully prepared to impress their guests, which included a delegation of Indian students and teachers as part of an exchange programme run jointly by The Citizens Archive of Pakistan and the Indian non-profit Routes2Roots. When asked about the meaning of Pakistan, they gave their best-rehearsed answer: Pakistan meant there is no god but Allah. Pakistan was a country made for Muslims, they reasoned. Just like India was for Hindus, America for Christians and so on.

Gradually, over the past 70 years, a country meant to safeguard the interests of the minority community in undivided India has come to constitute a country made for only Muslims. Any evidence contrary to this has been strategically eliminated, most notably Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s August 11, 1947, speech in which he put his vision for Pakistan forward – a country where Muslims would be free to go to their mosques and Hindus to their temples. Just like the complete audio recording of this speech mysteriously disappeared, over time Hindus and their places of worship have also been purged from mainstream society and, to some extent, from the collective imagination of Pakistanis. This happened particularly after the 1971 war in which Hindus, and those deemed as having “pro-Hindu” or “pro-India” sentiments, were specifically targeted.

Revising textbooks in Pakistan

The 1970s were an important decade for Pakistan. Nation building became an existential need as the country reeled in the loss of East Pakistan and simultaneously attempted to transition into a fragile democracy. The seventies saw the rewriting of history, not only of the 1971 war itself but also of Pakistan as a nation. Textbooks were revised, Pakistan studies – an ideological course – was made compulsory and the ideology of Pakistan became cemented as the ideology of Islam. In particular, the new generation of Pakistanis came to learn that Pakistan was not created in 1947 but rather in 712 when the Arab commander Muhammad bin Qasim conquered Sindh.

In fact, since the 1970s, the Jamaat-i-Islami, a religio-political party, has been organising the Yaum Babul Islam day to celebrate Qasim’s conquest. Eminent Pakistani writer Nadeem F Paracha points out that the seeds of these changes can be found in the early years of Pakistan itself. In 1953, the government published a book titled Five Years of Pakistan, in which archeologists established that Sindh was in fact the first Islamic province of South Asia after Qasim’s invasion. Later, Qasim would come to be acknowledged as the first citizen of Pakistan. (It is only more recently that a few positive changes have been introduced in certain textbooks, such as setting the date of Pakistan’s creation to 1947 as opposed to 712 and including Jinnah’s August 11 speech in the curriculum).

India on a dangerous path

Seven decades too late, India has chosen to embark on the same path. The recent news that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has appointed a committee of scholars to use archeological finds and DNA to establish that Hindus are direct descendants from the land’s first inhabitants bears eerie resemblance to Pakistan’s efforts to Islamise the country. The goal of Modi’s committee is apparently to rewrite history and establish that India is a country of and for Hindus. Perhaps, the students I met in 2012 were correct; Pakistan is for Muslims only, and India for Hindus. Pakistani Hindus belong across the border and Indian Muslims must do “ghar wapsi”.

Just as Pakistan has, over the years, tried to wipe out its multicultural past, Islamising history, geography and archeology, India too wishes to Hinduise its past and present. In doing so, it ignores the religious diversity in the country not only in terms of religious communities of varying faiths but also the diversity within Hinduism. By defining the nation as Hindu first, India will have to establish what it means to be Hindu. Applying rigid modern categories to a fluid religious identity is only one of the grave injustices that will be meted out in the process. Simultaneously, other religious communities are also likely to be pushed further to the margins of society. The committee’s findings are meant to be introduced in history textbooks and India’s culture minister has already promised to ensure that textbooks are aligned with the “Hindu first” ideology.

India and Pakistan’s trajectory thus far should push us to question why it is so necessary to rewrite history in the first place. What are the existential threats that both nations perceive as so grave that it necessitates the reconstruction of national history and national identity? While Pakistan has always struggled to define itself, the need intensifying after the creation of Bangladesh, which has been explained away as a “Hindu conspiracy” to break up Pakistan, India too has been trying to renegotiate its history after what is popularly perceived as the illegitimate break up of the motherland by “Muslim traitors” in 1947.

The desire to rewrite history seems to be an attempt to resolve the insecurities and complexities that mar both nations since 1947. The idea seems to be that the older one can establish itself, the greater legitimacy it has to govern, and the easier it becomes to sideline any community or history that may challenge that authority. This is not only true for India and Pakistan but Bangladesh too.

‘History a joke in Bangladesh’

One of the most striking insights I gained on my trip to Dhaka last year was from a group of youngsters at a café. They said: “We’ve never had one history. Each time the Awami League comes to power, they revise textbooks and each time BNP [Bangladesh Nationalist Party] forms the government, they revise them again. History has been sort of a joke.”

One of the major points of contention in Bangladesh is regarding the announcement of independence. While the ruling Awami League hails Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman as the founding father of the country, Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party states that her husband Ziaur Rahman announced independence and is hence a true war hero. This claim over history is important for both parties as it gives them legitimacy to rule, solidifying their power as the true guardians of Bangladesh.

Threat to identity

It is once the true guardians have been established, whether in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, that those in power have the legitimacy to oppress both the political opposition and marginal groups, particularly religious minorities. Minority communities become second-class citizens for they are not seen as true inhabitants or original enough.

In Pakistan, non-Muslims bare the brunt of this, in India Muslims are targeted, and in Bangladesh clear lines are drawn between those who are aligned with the Awami League and are hence considered secular, progressive and pro-liberation, and those who support the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and are perceived as anti-liberation and hence, pro-Pakistan. Depending on who is in power, history is crafted and re-crafted to fuel nationalistic agendas. Each time power changes hands in Bangladesh, the Opposition party and their supporters are targeted, with violence against the Opposition becoming increasingly common.

In their attempt to reconstruct national identity in the collective imagination of their people, the three nations do not realise that they threaten the very identity of their people and the richness of their diverse pasts. By isolating religious communities, historical figures and political movements, a narrow and jingoistic national identity emerges, threatening the very tolerance and inclusivity that Pakistan and Bangladesh had fought for, and that India has always stood proud of.

Anam Zakaria is the author of The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians.