Toxic textbooks and social engineering in Pakistan

(Originally published at Naya Daur, whose website was blocked by PTA in Pakistan a day after this was published).

“In every country, the textbook is the primary implement of education at the school and pre-university stages of instruction. In Pakistan, it is the only instrument of imparting education on all levels, because the teacher and the lecturer don’t teach or lecture but repeat what it contains and the student is encouraged or simply ordered to memorize its contents. Further, for the young student the textbook is the most important book in his little world: he is forced to buy it, he carries it to the classroom every day, he has to open before him when the teacher is teaching, he is asked to learn portions of it by rote, and he is graded by the quantity of its contents that he can regurgitate.”

This was how Pakistani historian K.K. Aziz started his groundbreaking work The Murder of History: A critique of history textbooks used in Pakistan. The book was published 25 years ago (in 1993) and the only change in the role of textbooks since then is that provinces were granted the right to formulate their own textbooks under the 18th amendment to the Constitution. Another significant change in the last two decades has been the mushrooming of private schools that use textbooks different from the official ones.

History doesn’t start with Muhammad bin Qasim

While textbooks for natural science subjects — like Physics, Chemistry and Biology — or those pertaining to language studies are less likely to form a child’s worldview, textbooks for history and “social studies” (a mixture of history, civics and geography) are supposed to be the first step toward a social conscience.

In the textbooks that my father’s generation studied, history textbooks did not start with the year 712 A.D., when Muhammad bin Qasim invaded Sindh. They contained history of the Indian Subcontinent before that particular event. They were also devoid of chapters devoted to the ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ and other such vague ideas.

But the distortion of history in Pakistan started as soon as the country came into being. On the 17th of August, 1947, a mere three days after Independence, an article written by Mr. Abdullah Qureshi was published in national newspapers, titled “Textbooks of History and Need for Reform”.

The atrocity that was Abdullah Qureshi

In that article, Mr. Qureshi argued, “The person who knows the Islamic history accurately, would prove to the best citizen of Pakistan. He will not commit any act against the state of Pakistan. His heart would be filled with love for Islam and Muslims and he would not even think about treason. In my view, it is imperative that history of Muslims should be popularized as it will lead to strengthening Pakistan. Every citizen should be made aware of Glorious Islamic Traditions. Every Citizen should be reminded that straying from National Interest would lead to destruction of the Nation.”

He further wrote, “The history that is taught to our children in schools is not factual. It is based on propaganda spread by the British and it serves to justify British Imperialism. It is based on personal biases of British Historians. As a result, worthless events have been presented as glorious occasions. It promotes a false Hindu-Muslim parity, while the fact is that before arrival of Muslims, Hindus did not have any authentic history or collection of traditions. Due to need of the hour, British historians concocted false narratives to appease the Hindus.”

The British periodized Indian history

Now it is interesting to note that Mr. Qureshi rails against the biases of British historians, and yet, falls back on a form of Indian historiography invented by them. After all, as Dr. Mubarak Ali wrote in an article:

“The periodization of the Indian history as the Hindu, the Muslim, and the British was not done by any Hindu historian but by a British historian, James Mill, the author of the “History of British India”. He intentionally divided the history on religious basis, but did not call the British period a Christian period in order to keep a secular outlook, and to maintain a balance between these two opposite religious communities. This periodization is challenged and severely criticized by a Hindu Historian [sic], Romila Thapar. In India, historians no more use these terminologies whereas in Pakistan historians persist to use them”

Following the debacle of 1971, textbooks were modified to rationalize the separation of East Pakistan as a ‘Hindu Conspiracy’

Nevertheless, the project of historical revisionism proposed by Abdullah Qureshi was, indeed, put into motion in Pakistan.

Distortion of History to rationalize the Fall of Dhaka

K.K. Aziz analyzed history textbooks written during the period 1960–1990 and he found factual errors in most of these books. Distortion of history had started soon after Independence but the particular ideological tilt that we are today most familiar with started in the 1970s. Following the debacle of 1971, textbooks were modified to rationalize the separation of East Pakistan as a ‘Hindu Conspiracy’. This obfuscation was intended to whitewash the atrocities committed upon Bengalis starting from 1947.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto came to power amidst political confusion with an Islamic socialist programme, promising to build a new Pakistan and to address the economic and political issues facing the country at the time. The result was an over-emphasis on a separate “Pakistani identity” and a new description of “the enemy” so as to unify the nation. The strategic use of Islam in education policy started during the era of General Ayub Khan and continued during the Bhutto period.

Manufacturing a false pride?

Gen Zia ul-Haq — PC:

The worst of the rot truly set in during General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime during the period 1977–88. Dr. Parvez Hoodbhoy and A.H. Nayyar mention in their book “Rewriting the History of Pakistan” in Islam, Politics and the State: The Pakistan Experience (published in 1985):

“In 1981, General Zia-ul-Haq declared compulsory the teaching of Pakistan studies to all degree students, including those at engineering and medical colleges. Shortly thereafter, the University Grants Commission issued a directive to prospective textbook authors specifying that the objective of the new course is to ‘induce pride for the nation’s past, enthusiasm for the present and unshakeable faith in the stability and longevity of Pakistan’. To eliminate possible ambiguities of approach, authors were given the following directives:

To demonstrate that the basis of Pakistan is not to be founded in racial, linguistic, or geographical factors, but, rather, in the shared experience of a common religion. To get students to know and appreciate the Ideology of Pakistan, and to popularize it with slogans. To guide students towards the ultimate goal of Pakistan — the creation of a completely Islamised State.

Islamization of Science books

As a result of this ideological onslaught, even the books of science were “Islamised”. Specific chapters have been dedicated in books of Physics, Chemistry and Biology, introducing young students to Muslim Scientists. Most of these “Muslim Scientists” were a product of the Mu’tazilla tradition in the medieval period, a fact that is not included in any of the introductions.

Any effort to reform the current textbooks should ideally cleanse all the waste material that the books have accrued in the last 65 years.

The ideological propaganda that has plagued the textbooks has also contributed to a confused state of mind among the next generation of Pakistan. It is not a co-incidence that according to a survey of educated youth by Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, “A sizeable percentage of the survey population believed that religion should be the only source of law in Pakistan.”

How distortion of History begets fundamentalism

The British Council released a report in November 2009 titled “Pakistan: The Next Generation” focusing on issues surrounding the youth in Pakistan. The report also noted, worryingly, that “Disillusion with democracy is pronounced. Only around 10% respondents have a great deal of confidence in national or local government, the courts, or the police. Only 39% voted in the last election.” Another report by the British Council in 2013 mentioned that “38% respondents expressed a desire for implementation of Shariah as opposed to parliamentary democracy with 29% respondents opting for continuation of Democratic system.”

Confusion has led to identity crisis

Any effort to reform the current textbooks should ideally cleanse all the waste material that the books have accrued in the last 65 years. It is expected to be a Herculean task and it requires a great deal of willingness from the provincial governments.

The insertion of exclusionary modes of thinking and petty ideological narratives in textbooks has resulted in the emergence of a confused, disillusioned and restless educated class of Pakistanis. Textbooks have become a contested space for ideological skirmishes in the last few decades. The educated youth of Pakistan faces a dilemma when confronting realities on the ground — because they have been taught a very different narrative. This national confusion has led to a widespread identity crisis.

Meanwhile, in an Islamiyat textbook for undergraduate students in Punjab, the introduction to the book states, “Pakistan is an ideological state. It has been founded on the pattern established in Madinah.”

  • According to a Pakistan Studies textbook used in Punjab, something known as “Nazriya Pakistan” (Ideology of Pakistan) is based on Islam, which itself is claimed to be a complete code of life.
  • In an Islamiyat textbook for undergraduate students in Punjab, the introduction to the book states, “Pakistan is an ideological state. It has been founded on the pattern established in Madinah.”
  • A sociology textbook for the Intermediate level in Punjab paints the Baloch people, citizens of Pakistan, as ‘looters’.

These are but a few examples of the pernicious ideological conditioning that these textbooks perform.

ANP’s improvements to curriculum in KP rolled back by PTI

In the aftermath of the 18th amendment, provincial governments were provided an opportunity to make amends. In the case of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the Awami National Party (ANP) government during 2008–2013 made some positive changes in the curriculum — driving the focus away from religious militarism towards an ideal of coexistence and peace. But, following the rise to power of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government in that province, most of those gains were reversed under the influence of religious parties allied to the PTI.

The upper one is a picture of a KP textbook from ANP era, terming Jinnah a ‘secular liberal barrister’ who ‘also seemed to advocate the separation of the church and the state’. Below is the current version of the same book where the ‘secular liberal’ has been replaced by ‘competent’ while ‘separation of the church and the state’ has been replaced by ‘ideology of Pakistan’. — Picture courtesy: Omer Qureshi

In Punjab, according to Dr. Hoodbhoy, textbooks have been “improved considerably”, moving beyond some of the worst dogma. One hopes that this experiment is implemented nationwide and Pakistan’s next generation is taught according to the finest international standards of education — where there is little room for deliberately conditioning young students into authoritarian, theocratic and racist mindsets.

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AbdulMajeed Abid

I am a medical doctor by profession, specializing in Pathology. I have been writing about Pakistan's political history and Islamism since 2011. I was the Assistant Editor for Pakistani blogzine, Pak Tea House for a couple of years. I have written for various Pakistani publications (both Urdu and English) since. My writings can be accessed at 1. 2. 3. 4.

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6 years ago

“After all, as Dr. Mubarak Ali wrote in an article:
“The periodization of the Indian history as the Hindu, the Muslim, and the British was not done by any Hindu historian but by a British historian, James Mill, the author of the “History of British India”. He intentionally divided the history on religious basis, but did not call the British period a Christian period in order to keep a secular outlook, and to maintain a balance between these two opposite religious communities.”

I have found criticisms of the British tri-periodization of Indian history to be unsatisfactory. I grant that such a periodization does paint the British themselves in a positive light with pretenses of re-kindling a “Hindu civilization” despoiled by medieval Muslims. Setting aside the intentions (is there evidence for this intent?), isn’t this also the most logical way to look at Indian history, with perhaps a 4th period starting in the mid-20th century?

Before the impact of Islam on India, whatever existed was not homogeneous or uni-directional, but once Islamic empires started dominating the northern plains, the heterogenous native traditions were not only all labeled hindu by the conquerors, but also were seen by the natives as a group removed from this new civilization of Islam. One could cross over to the new team or stay in the old big-tent team, but at the level of the larger game it is a reality that there were two distinct teams, justifying a new period of history.

The British conquest is also the entry of a new civilization, cosmology and approach. Their approach is clearly more different that the approaches of Turks or Afghans were from each other. Whether it should have been called the Christian period, I would again disagree. The British made a conscious effort to tailor Indian laws for local traditions, not impose their common law by force. They were more interested in keeping the peace while the colonial economy hummed along than in winning the land for Christendom. The cosmology of the British empire also derived more from the European enlightenment & imperial contacts than from Christianity (European enlightenment also resides within the Christian tradition, but still there is a difference). Perhaps European period might be better than British period. The enlightenment-colonial empire was also qualitatively different from the Islamic empires in-
1. A genuine interest in and re-discovery of the ancient past of India that Indians were too incompetent to preserve textually,
2. Tolerance of rejuvenation of science and mathematics in India after a long decline post the Gupta period, progressively moving Southwards away from the Islamic conquest (see Kerala School of Mathematics),
3. A hyper-efficient extractive colonial administration that used Indians as cannon fodder to serve the empire worldwide, unlike the Islamic empires of the past where proceeds of extraction were largerly kept local, and where Indians fought for imperial causes that bear on India itself.

Do any of the critics of tri-periodicization of Indian history have a clearer, more logical framework to offer?

6 years ago
Reply to  Rahul

A couple of thoughts come to mind about the tri-periodization. (The whole task of one schema for all of India is problematic until around 500AD i’d say) The Muslim period begins around 1200AD at the absolute earliest, with the beginning of the mamluk dynasty, but one could push that date by another hundred years before institutions were in place. 1750AD would be a safe bookend for the end of the period, though there is much to debate in that. My point would be that the periods are lopsided in allocation. If we were to begin the Hindu period around 600BC to 1200AD, that is 1800 years, to 550 for the Muslim period, and at most 150 years for the british colonial.
Another way of doing it would be ,
1)Mahajanapadas (proto-history), then the
2) proto-classical period of the Nandas/Mauryas/Satavahanas/First Sangam, 3)classical period of Guptas/Vakatakas/early Pallavas
4) Middle Ages Chola/Chalukya/Pala/Gurjara-Pratihara
5) extinction of old dynasties, rise of new lineages , Vijayanagar (Sangam), Turkic (Mamluk, Khalji, Tughluq), Bahamani, Rajputs
6)Mughal-Maratha period. Decline of Deccan Shahis and Vijayanagar
7) European period, mercantilism.

The seven periods at best could be collapsed into four. Combining 1&2 are easy, not ideal, but 3&4 can be as well.

6 years ago
Reply to  girmit

Lopsided allocation is not a sufficient argument against an otherwise salient periodization. Periodization, I believe, is particular to one’s present time and should provide the most general and overarching framework for a particular history. In China, the usual periodization is pre-dynasitc (Yellow eperor to Qin), dynastic (Qin to Qing) and modern. This is useful because dynastic succession under the Confucian cosmology was the innovation (forgetting the Mongol interlude) marking the second period that has lasted today, and the modern Chinese state resulting in the third period from a reaction to the abrupt contact with “ocean-people” of very different values is again the reality of the strong unitary Chinese state today. Internal division and re-constitution is the story of the Han’s history, with the state taking whatever shape is necessary at that time. In Europe, ancient-medieval-modern periodization may be hazy (did medieval period start with Constantine adopting Christianity or with the fall or Western Rome or even later?) but it does impose ideological progress as the thrust of western history- logic, monotheism, scienthific method, rights of man.

Neither the European nor the Chinese case rests on an even allocation of historical time between periods. One might challenge these overall frameworks, but then one has to provide a more succinct and resonant counter-framework. Coming back to India, I would argue that transition to Islamic period starts with the earliest Northwestern intrusions by a people subscribing to Abrahamic monotheism- Ghaznavid rule in the Punjab in the early 1000s. Alberuni’s “India” points to the “two teams” situation I referred to before already emerging at this point. This transition was gradual with a far-off place like Travancore remaining outside it until Tipu’s campaign in late 18th century. These two teams and two identities (religions) were so influential that they are the primary identity for most Indians, however divided by caste or language they might be, even today. The states that exist in the region today are built primarily on religious identities. “India” might claim otherwise, but as Perry Anderson memorably wrote- <a href = ";the hand of AFSPA has fallen where the reach of Hinduism stops. Regarding the British (or European) period, another salient difference in the third period is the emergence of conquerors from across the Southern seas rather than the hitherto common land approach of Northwesterners, which even after their withdrawal still puts India today in a historically anomalous situation where it is secure against a Northwestern invasion.

If one is uncomfortable with the labels Hindu, Muslim, British, they can be replaced with more palatable names- my point is regarding tri-periodization and its importance to understanding Indian history today. Your 7-periodization scheme is interesting, but what overall framework does it provide that sheds light on India today? If periodization is not meant to provide such a framework, how would you view its utility to historical study during a given time?

6 years ago
Reply to  Rahul

Good comment. Your point regarding periodization is very valid. But the labels “Hindu” “Muslim” and “British” are problematic. I have suggested “Ancient” (however we define the time frame), “Medieval (perhaps from the Delhi Sultanate until the end of the Mughal Dynasty), “Colonial” (1857-1947) and “Modern” (1947 onwards). What are your thoughts on this?

The comparison with China is interesting. I must admit I am not familiar with Chinese history. I have mostly studied our own subcontinent (India, South Asia, whatever the preferred term) and European history. Going to school in the US, we were of course made to do American history as well. There are large parts of the globe I know little to nothing about–Latin America and Africa especially. Last summer, I read this novel “Shogun”, which taught me a lot about Japan that I would otherwise not have learned. The same author, James Clavell, has also written novels about European trading companies in Hong Kong.

6 years ago
Reply to  Kabir

Kabir, many Hindu Gods are worshiped in old Japanese temples, including Saraswati and Ganesha. Japanese, Chinese and South East Asians are more interested in ancient Arya culture than Indians are. Go figure.

Umar was the first muslim ruler to conquer and rule large numbers of Sanathana Dharmis. Remember that Sanathana Dharmis (what might now be called Hindus and Buddhists) were a large part of the population of the Persian empire. Umar sent armies to Baluchistan, North Pakistan, Sindh and via ship to Gujarat. Although many of them late returned under Ali–who had a very different world view than Umar. Large numbers of Persians fled to India during the reign of Umar as well (although many of these might have been Hindu/Buddhists to begin with).

After Ali’s death terrible atrocities were committed by Ali’s successors. Maybe this is why many Indian, Azerbaijani, Afghan and Iranian muslims venerate Ali. Since this was the most rebellious act they could get away with.

6 years ago
Reply to  Kabir

Now you’re going to tell me that the Shinto religion is a type of Hinduism. I’m not sure how the Japanese would take that 🙂

Anyway, I’m not really interested. According to the periodization I have suggested above, I am interested in Medieval India (Delhi Sultanate and of course my favorite Dynasty), Colonial India (I’m very interested in the encounter between the British rulers and the native ruled especially how this is portrayed in fiction such as “A Passage to India) and Modern India (Partition, relations with Pakistan etc). Your ancient glorious heritage prior to the “Muslim” arrival is not my primary area of intellectual or historical interest. With the caveat that I am interested in the Natya Shashtra for what it says about the performing arts and of course I am a devotee of Saraswati Ma (as a musician how could I not be?). I used to have an idol of Saraswati Ma and of the Dancing Shiva in my house. I never worshiped them or anything–I am “Muslim” after all. But I liked having them around. One thing that I do find very admirable about Ancient Indian culture is that music (sangeet as we call it) was given such a high place and treated as a gift from the gods. I told my students in one of my lectures that in the Ramayana legend (these are Pakistani kids after all, I had to say “legend”), both the hero and the villain are supposed to be knowledgeable about music. Ravana might have been a demon king with 10 heads but he knew his sangeet. There is something to be said for that.

I actually think some of my students think I’m really Hindu at heart. I was worried that someone would go and complain to admin. Even my mother, who rarely gives advice like this, told me to tone down the Hinduphilia in class if I wanted to keep my job….

6 years ago
Reply to  Kabir

Kabir, Japanese are much more interested in their historic connection with South Asia than visa versa. They are the opposite of offended. Too bad Indians aren’t as interested in Japanese as visa versa. Don’t understand why. Could it be fair skin worship? Where does that come from?

But the worst is the way Asians see and treat people of African Ancestry. It is so, so sad. Why is it so bad? Latin Americans also treat people of African ancestry very badly.

Abrahamics partly do this because of their interpretation of ancient Jewish texts, the Bible and Koran (including but not limited to Noah’s curse of Ham). But why do non Abrahamic Asians mistreat people of African ancestry so badly? Some friends of African ancestry have asked this question. I don’t have a good answer.

6 years ago
Reply to  Rahul

I put too much emphasis on even allocation perhaps. How and in what period a people locate their ideal selves influences the point of reference for these things. I’d suppose the English see the 19th century as the grand culmination of historical processes, so the allocation of focus projected back in time is like an open funnel steeply tapering(this may be a bad way of describing it). The periodization I suggested for India is perhaps more in line with the Greek, which places more emphasis on the ancient period. The transition from the archaic/oral/epic age to the classical, corresponding to the idea of an axial age in both civilizations. Alexander the great and Chandragupta Maurya also being important to periodization later as they ushered in a kind of cosmopolitan empire that had deep impacts on the structure of polities they subsumed and eventually retreated from. The indian classical is shifted forward quite a bit after the greek, starting around the beginning of the common era, not because there was a lack of cultural production before but because the formalism that emerged in art and literature that is characteristic of the period. Thereafter, the indian and european early medieval are characterized by new land revenue systems, the rise of mature regional polities, certain trends in the institutialization of religion, emergence of powerful guilds in India, temple/cathedral construction and other things. The period between 600AD to 1100AD is so important for modern indians because it is also the beginning of the literary cultures of many languages like kannada, telugu, marathi, and the fecund period of tamil and the apabhramshas. I do feel that the social, literary, philosophical, and material dimensions of these periods are highly distinct and partitioning the chronology must organize around those distinctions.
Regarding the Ghaznavids and an earlier dating for the Muslim period. For a timeline of the Indus region that would make sense to me, but the compromises of a pan-indic timeline are such that I don’t see how it would be significant enough to the remainder of the India. By 1000AD, the high periods of the Pala, Rashtrakoota, and Kakatiyas are underway or yet to emerge, but yes the Ghaznavids likely caused the decline of the Gurjara-Pratiharas, although medieval hindu/jain institutions would dominate the gangetic region for at least 200 more years.
My problem with the term “hindu” period is that its a bit vague and implies a kind of unchanging continuity within it, as if the kind of social/spiritual ruptures did not occur between the previous epochs. I think thats important for contemporary students to know, society over the course of millenia was not in stasis in any way. I’d like the “muslim” period to put more emphasis on culture over religion, like turanian ideas of kingship, the integration of indian and west asian trade, technology transfer between these regions, and more detailed treatment of language and literature. The spread of turkic rule and persian language was not unique to India, but much of the world to the west. Its a great opportunity for students to see Indian history as part of world history

6 years ago

To guide students towards the ultimate goal of Pakistan — the creation of a completely Islamised State.

Dang! That is what I call being visionary.

Visions of the land of pure in the shadow of the sabz-hilali parcham give me the goosebumps, man…

6 years ago

Btw what is wrong with Hindu, Muslim and British periods of history? Those were the dominant cultures surely in those times.

6 years ago

Serious historians have long ago noted that characterizations such as the “Hindu” period, “Muslim” period and “British” period are not only overly simplistic but were part of the colonial agenda of divide and rule ( I believe Romila Thapar has argued something along these lines). The British were implying that just as there was a period where “The Hindus” (an essentialized identity) had ruled India, and then “The Muslims” (which Muslims?) , now it was time for “The British” to rule. This was a way of legitimizing their rule. I agree if we are naming periods based on religion, the “British” period should be called the “Christian” period–if only for internal consistency.

In the Academy, it is no longer acceptable to talk about “Muslim” rule. Rather, one speaks specifically of the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughal Period (this has a clear beginning with Babur’s conquest of India and a clear end with Bahadur Shah Zafar being deposed in 1857) and the Colonial period (1857-1947). Alternatively, one could say “Ancient India”, “Medieval India” and “Modern India” without the use of religiously loaded terms.

Though this whole characterization has been debunked, it persists in various ways. The syllabus for the course i am teaching this semester (almost done now) was not designed by me and my predecessor had divided up the weeks along these lines: “The Hindu Influence on Hindustani Music” (The Vedas, Natayashastra), “The Muslim Influence” (Delhi Sultanate, Mughals, Qawwali) and then “The British Colonial Influence”. The last of these actually makes sense, but I had to keep fighting this idea all semester and keep reiterating that there is nothing inherently “Hindu” or “Muslim” about music. Hindustani music is a syncretic product of what we could call Indo-Muslim culture. Yes, bhajans as a genre are associated with Hinduism and Qawaali is clearly Muslim devotional music. But what about Khayal? What is the religion of Khayal? Also this term “Pakistani” music was being used. I had to make it clear on day one that it only makes sense to talk of “Pakistani” music post-1947. Otherwise, it is technically known as Hindustani (as opposed to Carnatic) or North Indian Classical music.

So this British tactic of divide and rule is still around 70 years after Partition, despite the fact that the best scholarship has long moved on.

Xerxes the Magian
6 years ago
Reply to  Kabir

Excellent comment

Brown Pundits