For all our collective apathy towards history, the constant spotlight on the subject in Pakistan and India is mind-boggling. I say “collective apathy” because compared to the more commercially viable education degrees such as engineering, business, medicine and computer science, history as a formal discipline is rarely the top choice for students.

In the Pakistani context at least, the popular perspective is that those who study history do so to improve their chances in the civil services examination. While history books remain one of the most popular genres sold at bookstores, their limited sales in both countries has been much discussed over the years. The State too contributes to this apathy by allowing numerous historical monuments to gradually fade away due to the lack of interest or funds. Acts of vandalism by tourists in the form of names or numbers inscribed on protected monuments can also be seen everywhere.

However, despite this indifference towards our history, the subject is invoked in political discussions so very often. Many a time the same students who pass over history in university for more commercial courses end up forming rigid dogmas about each country’s historical past, which end up shaping the political discourse in both countries.

Partition in Pakistan

In Pakistan, Partition remains one of those subjects which everyone has an opinion about but not many understand. I remember once listening to Ayesha Jalal, a prominent historian and an expert on Partition of British-India, at the Lahore Literary Festival, when one of the audience members rejected her thesis on Partition outright as it challenged the conventional understanding of the creation of Pakistan. Similar comments can be found on social media in response to Jalal’s articles or interviews. Often these comments are personalised attacks as opposed to being counter-arguments.

With these fixed yet imaginary notions of Partition colouring the perspective of people in Pakistan, the country’s Hindu past is also imagined. In order to somehow justify the event, the country’s Hindu history was slowly filtered and whatever survived was maintained to fit into a particular framework. Thus Muslim rulers, particularly those who destroyed temples or defeated Hindu kings, became glorified heroes and the precursors of the Pakistan movement. These heroes include Muhammad Bin Qasim, Mahmud Ghazni, Muhammad of Ghor, Babur, Aurangzeb, Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali. A simplistic narrative of their history, stripped of the social, political, and cultural ethos of the time, is broadcast. It made perfect sense therefore for Pakistan to name its missiles after these heroes.

If some historical figures were celebrated for one reason, others were criticised, even demonised. For instance, Raja Dahir, believed to be the last Hindu ruler of Sindh, was defeated by the iconic Muhammad Bin Qasim. In Pakistan today, Dahir symbolises a tyrant and politicians occasionally invoke him to refer to their opponents.

A lens of antagonism

For students, bureaucrats, politicians, journalists, and others who grew up with this overarching framework of history, the Hindu heritage in their midst – in their cities, villages, towns and mohallas – came to be seen through a lens of perennial conflict and antagonism. In a country that was now their own, which they had fought for and forcefully extracted from a Hindu India, how could they continue to live in localities called Krishan Nagar or Ram Bagh? Thus Krishan Nagar in Lahore, a suburban residential locality founded in the 1930s, became Islampura after Partition, while Ram Bagh in Karachi, a historical ground that once used to host the Ramlila and other Hindu religious celebrations, became Aram Bagh. These are just two of the prominent examples of renaming out of a myriad others, reflecting the changing political circumstances in the country.

In this framework of history who was the hero and who the villain remained contested, what was not challenged were the generalisations and the assumptions of this structure. To Hindu nationalists in India, the heroes of the Muslim nationalist perspectives became villains for the same reason they were celebrated in Pakistan.

In India, for instance, Mahmud Ghazni, became the reviled Muslim king who destroyed the Hindu temple of Somnath in present-day Gujarat, while Babur is seen as the ruler who laid the foundation of the oppressive Mughal Empire over the ruins of a highly refined Hindu civilisation. Both of these perspectives have internalised the categorisation of history into forced classifications of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh periods, bequeathed to them by a colonial state whose very survival was contingent upon the creation and the formalisation of these distinctions.

In this context, the recent renaming of Allahabad to Prayagraj, by the Uttar Pradesh government led by Adityanath, comes as no surprise. It reflects the ideology of Hindu nationalists. To them, the name change reflects a correction of historical injustices that the Hindu population was subjected to by Muslim rulers. The re-naming of Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road in 2015 to APJ Abdul Kalam Road was part of the same thought process.

Not a new phenomenon

Many people see this as a new phenomenon unleashed by the Hindu nationalist government ruling India. But there have been traces of this right from the start. A few years after India gained independence, the Somnath temple was reconstructed by the efforts of the Congress leader Vallabhbhai Patel. Due to its central position in this antagonistic framework between the two nationalist groups, the temple acquired a particular significance. Its reconstruction soon after 1947 was therefore an important political statement, representing what was viewed as the “revival” of the Hindu civilisation that had been “oppressed” by the long rule of Muslims.

No other historical ruler is at the heart of this contested history as Mahmud Ghazni and Aurangzeb. Both of them hold special positions in these nationalist interpretations. While one side views them as devoted Muslims bent upon spreading the true message of Islam in a pagan India, the other imagines them to be reviled characters who brutally oppressed the majority of the population due to their fanaticism.

Both of these narratives are highly problematic as are the inherent assumptions of this problematic framework that are a legacy of colonial rule. For as long as this framework continues to exist, these historical battles will continue to be fought not in our classrooms but in the streets, lanes and cities of India and Pakistan – as they are named and renamed over and over again, while history classrooms remain empty and history books gather dust.