In one of her most engaging Ted Talks, writer Chimamanda Adichie once warned again the danger of a single story – you show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become in popular perception. India and Pakistan have seen this happen for 69 years. To this day, the pedagogical history textbooks in the sibling nations give children splintered chronicles – uni-dimensional accounts of historical events that are fraught with biases against the so-called other.
In 2005, Qasim Aslam and Ayyaz Ahmad, two young Pakistanis, saw this up close. They were invited to be part of a Seeds of Peace conflict resolution camp in Maine, USA – a platform that brought together children from India and Pakistan to hold dialogues. In one of the workshops, the children compared the historical timelines of their two countries.
During the discussion, conflicting viewpoints emerged and ricocheted off each other – the children from both sides of the border nurtured a different narrative of a shared history. “What we realised while talking to our Indian friends was that it was very difficult to have a peaceful conversation because both sides didn’t know what the other side had been taught,” recounted Ahmad. There were evident discrepancies in the two versions of history.
When Aslam and Ahmad returned home to Pakistan, that incongruity disconcerted them. In their mind, it lingered and remained. Six years later, in a casual conversation, the two decided to start working on a book that would juxtapose the Indian version of history with the Pakistani one, highlighting where the respective historical trajectories deviated and merged. That was the birth of The History Project.
What lay in front of Ahmad and Aslam was a mammoth task. They began by calling out for academics and scholars who would volunteer to help cull text from both Indian and Pakistani school books and assemble them like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
“We were very cognisant of the fact that we could not have every textbook,” said Ahmad, an MBA from Cambridge. “So we are not claiming to present [the] narrative of textbooks in their entirety – that was never the purpose. The purpose is to show that there are overarching narratives and that these textbooks are just samples from those narratives that give the other side a good sense of what’s being taught in India or Pakistan.”
Through The History Project, the children are encouraged to compare both renditions of history, critically analyse the texts and make their inferences. By placing the two texts side by side, the prejudice subtly taught by the educational apparatus becomes apparent.
In Pakistan, for instance, a 10th grader’s history book delineates the partition of Bengal as, “Curzon [the Governor-General of India] felt that the Muslims in East Bengal would be better off in a separate province governed by Dhaka. However, Hindus saw it as a deliberate plot… they were not ready to accept any step that would benefit Muslims.”
The same event described in an Indian textbook reads, “The Indian nationalists condemned the partitioning of the province and saw it as a deliberate attempt to divide Bengalis on religious lines. The nationalists were also upset… because it showed no regard for public opinion within Bengal.”
The History Project’s firstborn, Partitioned Histories: The Other Side of Your Story, is a book that binds the dual accounts sprawling across a timeline of 1857 to 1947. Sanaya Patel, a third-year law student in Mumbai, co-authored the book with Sidra Zia, who is the Content Director leading the team from Lahore. Working on the Indian version, Patel compiled texts from five varying schoolbooks (belonging to the curriculum designed by several school boards).
“While going through the books, we deliberately tried to pick out sections that had some kind of strong, hidden biases,” said Patel. “As children you wouldn’t notice these biases, but somewhere subconsciously they become a part of you. So when I sat down to look for these elements, it was overwhelming. Also, when I received the final copy of Partitioned Histories, I sat and marked the parts in the Pakistani version that I thought were different from what I had learned in school. It’s interesting to see that there really is a difference.”
At select institutions in Pakistan and India, The History Project holds a five-session, activity-based workshop. Designed with the help of an ex-Harvard University faculty member, the workshop aims to teach children about multiple perspectives. One of the sessions involves taking two children aside and asking them to simulate an argument. The reason for the argument is unknown to the rest of the class. After the argument has ended, the class is expected to come up with reasons for what the cause of the argument may be. “Interestingly, no one knows the real reason, but everyone will give their opinion,” said Patel. “And that’s how we are learning history in schools – as students we don’t know really what happened in the past, but we are reading someone else’s perspective. What we are trying to do through THP is to make students realise that history is not a set of facts but a perspective, and it’s important to know whose perspective you are looking at.”
Prejudices, nationalism and animosity towards the presumed other are deliberately instilled in children at a young age. Ahmad got to experience it first hand when during a workshop in Mumbai, a student stood up and condescendingly asked what he was doing there. “The girl must have been 11-12 years old. I didn’t get offended, but I felt sad because she didn’t even know me. All she knew was that I was a Pakistani.” At the culmination of another workshop in Pakistan, a student approached him and said that she understood that he was trying to teach that the other side wasn’t inherently devious, but she felt angry every time Indians were mentioned. “The kid really didn’t understand why or where that anger was coming from,” said Ahmad. “How do we fix these issues of hatred and intolerance?”
Last year, Galaxy School in Rajkot, Gujarat, was the first in India to introduce The History Project’s book into its curriculum. “Growing up, we’ve heard biases such as Muslims have a major fault (sic) in all the events that took place,” said Advait Ketan Gosai, a 14-year-old student at Galaxy School. “But when we were given both the sides of the story, we were able to analyse both motives, which we often reject when it comes to the other side. In their eyes they were right. I may not entirely agree with them, but I can understand their perspective better now.” Across the border, in Pakistan, Noor Nabi Noor Mir, a student at Lahore Grammar School agrees. “In a larger sense, The History Project has helped develop humanity within me. I think the best takeaway is that we get to learn how to understand the ‘other’.”
So far, The History Project has worked with over 700 children in both the countries. Eventually, they intend on introducing histories of more countries. “We’ve started working on other narratives – there aren’t inconsistent narratives of India-Pakistan alone. There is enough historical conflict in the world, like Israel-Palestine, for example. So we are now looking at things that could be interesting, but also relatable,” says Ahmad. “By the end of our workshops, I wouldn’t say that we hope to completely shift the children’s worldview – that would take a much longer process, but I hope they become more open to the idea of the existence of alternative narratives.”