It took over 70 years but Pakistan has finally incorporated the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

The merger bins the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulations, designed by the British colonial rulers on the preposterous assumption that the Pakhtun tribals inhabiting these lands were inherently violent people who needed a strong authoritarian state to tame and civilise them. A particularly egregious provision allowed for punishing an entire tribe for the crimes of an individual.

The merger is being hailed as a positive step across the political spectrum, save for a few groups. For many, it corrects a historical injustice. It could also serve to open a discussion on the impact of colonial rule on South Asia and, perhaps, pave the way for setting right other such “historical injustices”.

Though the nature of British colonialism and its impact on South Asia’s sociocultural life has started to be discussed in recent years, in no small part due to the efforts of Shashi Tharoor, it is still a largely unexplored subject in public discourse. In Pakistan, for one, most children leave school without any substantial discussions on how the colonial rule operated, especially in spheres outside politics and economy. What they learn as history is packaged in Pakistan Studies, a compulsory subject focused entirely on justifying the country’s creation in the backdrop of an old civilisational conflict between Hindus and Muslims that culminated in Partition, the end of history.

Speaking to schoolchildren, I have found that many of them believe Pakistan gained freedom in 1947 not from the British, but Hindus in India. Mohammad Ali Jinnah is remembered less for his anti-colonial struggle and more as a Muslim nationalist.

A starting point in addressing misconceptions about our history could be deconstructing the widely accepted terms of “Hindu” and “Muslim”. There is now much scholarly work on South Asian history to show that “Hindus” and “Muslims” did not exist as identity groups until the British came. Thus, to see Mahmud of Ghazni or Ahmad Shah Abdali as Muslim invaders of “Hindu India” amounts to imposing modern identities on historical events. Similarly, the Mughal Empire’s conflict with the Sikh Gurus was not a religious battle between Muslims and Sikhs as many imagine it to be.

In today’s India and Pakistan, these imagined identities are propagated by Hindu and Muslim nationalists, perhaps ignorant of the fact that the idea was germinated by the colonial rulers. Like contemporary Hindu and Muslim nationalists, the British used education as a powerful tool of propaganda, designed to impress upon the natives the superiority of the coloniser’s civilization. In this scheme, education did not primarily mean acquiring objective knowledge to enlighten the mind, but a subjective interpretation of the world imposed upon a people by the powerful. It supplanted an indigenous education system that had evolved over centuries in the subcontinent and was rooted in the experiences and expressions of its people. In 1882, the British orientalist GW Leitner wrote about the indigenous education system in Punjab and how it was rapidly disappearing under the onslaught of the colonial system. Colonial education, Leitner reported, was producing a breed of students divorced from the collective cultural experiences of their ancestors. Urdu was imposed as the medium of instruction even though it was foreign to Punjab, creating a linguistic – and inevitably a cultural – rift between those who were thus educated and those who were not.

Supporters of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl party protest against the merger in Peshawar. Photo credit: AFP

Decolonising education

This distinction persists in the Pakistani society, where any expression of indigenous culture, language, attire and religious tradition is looked down upon. It came as no surprise when a top school listed Punjabi as an example of “foul language” in a circular in 2016.

Having divorced the newly educated from their cultural identities, the colonial state was left with a blank slate to draw its notions of “Hindu”, “Sikh” or “Muslim” culture and religion. Indian history was divided into “religious eras” without addressing the complexity of the relationships that had developed among different communities over centuries. The fossilized symbols of these complex relationships are scattered across South Asia – a Muslim shrine visited by Hindus, a Hindu deity revered by Muslim devotees.

In colonial historiography, the “Hindu” era was violently ended by “Muslim invaders”. It was now the responsibility of the colonial state to rejuvenate “Hindu culture”, protect Hindus from Muslims, Dalits from Brahmins, history from the present. It is in this context that the British “brought back” the apocryphal gates of the Somnath Temple after their disastrous Afghan adventure in 1842. Similarly, in 1857, Sikhs were encouraged to join the British army to “avenge the killings” of their Gurus by the Mughals, who were now “leading the rebellion” against the British.

Many nations have started the process of decolonising their education, but Indian and Pakistani education systems remain rife with prejudices introduced by the colonial rulers to serve their agenda. That is because there is little political will to dismantle colonial structures that serve as foundations of Hindu and Muslim nationalisms in South Asia. After all, decolonising our education will undercut the collective identities that the nationalists feed on.

So, for now, Hindus and Muslims, Indians and Pakistanis will continue to imagine each other through the tainted lenses sold to them by the colonial rulers, even as they sincerely believe they have decolonised themselves.

Haroon Khalid is the author of Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.