Textbook Nationalism

By Saad Hafiz


Prior to and since independence, both India and Pakistan have challenged and manipulated their joint histories for both political and social reasons. Evidently different nationalist ideologies also shape the message in textbooks that India and Pakistan seek to convey to their future citizens. Stark contrasts emerge in the portrayal of political leaders, as well as the causes, consequences and even dates of events. Historical events are politicised to substantiate present events with textbooks used as the tool to bolster a political agenda. Textbooks on either side have a tendency not to talk in detail about the tragedy and violence during partition.

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Indian textbooks highlight the ideology of the anti-colonial struggle led by the Indian National Congress. Indian nationalism for the most part seeks to represent itself as championing a secular, plural and inclusive vision of India and its history. The creation of Pakistan, in this vision, was a tragedy, foisted upon an essentially united people by the machinations of the British and the greed of the leaders of the Muslim League.


Not surprisingly, Indian textbooks place the responsibility for partition on Mr Jinnah. They celebrate the “Civil Disobedience Movement” as the coming together of disparate social groups to boycott British goods and join Mahatma Gandhi in the Salt March in 1930. The Indian textbooks say armed intruders from Pakistan attacked Kashmir in 1947. Maharaja Hari Singh, then ruler of the state, signed an agreement to join India, after which the Indian army went to defend Kashmir. Indian textbooks view the 1905 partition of Bengal as a British scheme to divide Hindus and Muslims and curb a “rising tide of Indian nationalism”. They suggest that Congress and other nationalists launched an anti-partition movement in which both Hindus and Muslims marched, chanted slogans and composed songs to show their unity.

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Needless to say, Pakistani textbooks represent this story somewhat differently. Pakistani nationalism sees 1947 as the realisation of an always existing separate Muslim nation, struggling for self-realisation against the British who often connived with a wily, Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress. Generally speaking, regrettably, the exclusionary nationalist narrative that has been propagated by the Pakistani state since 1947 is one that has aligned itself with a particularly parochial and patriarchal version of Islam, inculcated a deep and abiding hatred for India, downplayed the salience and importance of ethnic differences and suppressed the articulation of identities that do not conform to these basic tenets.

Pakistani textbooks tend to blame Mr Gandhi and the Indian National Congress for partition. They omit references to the Civil Disobedience Movement. Pakistani textbooks state that Maharaja Hari Singh started a violent campaign against Kashmiri Muslims. When they revolted, with Pakistan’s support, he was forced to ask for India’s help. The Indian government agreed on the condition that Kashmir would sign an agreement to join India. The Pakistani textbooks accept the British justification for the partition of Bengal, saying there were “obvious administrative problems in trying to control such a large province”. However, they say only Hindus launched a “violent agitation” against the partition, while Muslims were happy because they became a majority in East Bengal.

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The anti-Hindu orientation of Pakistani textbooks has been noted by a variety of commentators and these texts have rightly been excoriated for their stereotypical depiction of the cunning and treacherous Hindu: “We are not Hindus. We are not Indians. We will not be ruled by the Hindus. We do not practice the evil caste system. We do not mistreat our minorities. We do not attack our neighbours.” Through the decades, Pakistani writers have used this discourse of negation consistently describing their nation in contrast to Hindu India’s other. There have been far too few examples of reflexivity and inward looking analysis.

Textbooks all over the world are inclined to be one-sided as each country tends to praise its own good deeds. However, it is important to teach children to have an open mind. Acceptance that the world is complex, not divided into good and evil, friend and foe, but multi-layered and dynamic, is what characterises a suitable critical education. As an internationalist who believes that nationalism and patriotism pose a threat to world peace, I think it appropriate to end with a poem on nationalism titled, ‘The Sunset of the Century’, by Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. In a mood of outrage and disenchantment, tempered with intermittent hope, Tagore wrote:


“The last sun of the century sets amidst the blood red clouds of the west and the whirlwind of hatred.

The naked passion of the self-love of nations, in its drunken delirium of greed, is dancing to the clash of steel and howling verses of vengeance.

The hungry self of the nation shall burst in a violence of fury from its shameless feeding.

For it has made the world its food.  And licking it, crunching it and swallowing it in big morsels,

It swells and swells
Till in the midst of its unholy feast descends the sudden shaft of heaven piercing its heart of grossness.”


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