‘Govts Control Populations by Inculcating Hate, Fear’: Ayesha Jalal on Rewriting History

With the recent attempts of altering history in the Indian curriculum to suit the political narrative of those in power, several debates have emerged regarding long-term implications.

To understand the motivation behind this retelling of history, we interviewed Ayesha Jalal, an eminent South Asian historian who serves as the Mary Richardson Professor at Tufts University, Massachusetts.

In the interview, Jalal discusses the whys and hows of such misrepresentation of history by the governments of India and Pakistan, especially in the context of the shared history of these two nations. She also elaborates on the impact of such convenient retelling of historical events on the relations between the two countries.

Jalal elucidates that the whole purpose of such historical fallacies “is to keep the people of the two countries at daggers drawn”. She believes that the deliberately hostile official narratives help justify the “ridiculous” policies of the two countries towards each other.

She cites the example of the Partition to highlight the lack of empathy in textbooks in India and Pakistan. She says, “All we have taken from the Partition is hatred.” She furthers adds that by propagating such hatred, we only make sure that such cycles come to pass again.

Excerpts from the interview:

Did you personally encounter politically motivated historical events while you were in school?

In any newly-independent country, or in fact in any country, there is a certain bias in the official version of events. At the time when I was in school and in the late 1970s and 1980s, major changes were made in the textbooks to give it more of a religious orientation under the Zia-ul-Haq regime.

Prior to that, the coverage of historical events was much more inclusive. That changed and has remained a matter of controversy in Pakistan. And I believe, in India too, there is a particular version of history which excludes those who are not deemed to be part of the official narrative. So, I think there has been a tendency to exclude people rather than provide a more expansive history that is the subcontinent’s history. That tendency is there in both countries.

While we have all these books, do you feel that the teachers who teach the subject have a greater impact on the way we perceive history?

Absolutely. My philosophy of education is not about what you should think but how you should think. The duty of a teacher is to prepare you how to think, to be able to estimate what is propaganda and what is closer to the historical truth. The idea is to not make you regurgitate facts that have been given to you. Unfortunately, that’s what happens in India and Pakistan and there is a discouragement of critical thinking and you are encouraged to do rote learning, which is very counterproductive for education.

So, for a student who is pursuing high school education, do you feel he/she has any way to go past what is being told or taught to him/her?

It is very difficult because not only are you being taught something by textbooks but it is also being repeated by the media daily because that is the official narrative. The only way you can avoid that is with parental guidance or even peer guidance when you read more broadly. But unfortunately, our youths are more concerned about social media and looking at cell phones than reading. So, that compensation doesn’t come about. As a result, you have people of India and Pakistan being brought up to basically regurgitate whatever the official narrative is without an iota of critical thought.

Do you think this kind of historical amnesia leads to flawed identities in both countries?

The way you interpret your present has to do with how you have digested the past. History is a constant dialogue between the past and the present. If history is so flawed, flattened out or exclusive, then clearly, your view of the present will be very tainted and so will your future. Your ability to navigate the future will be much more compromised.

Has having convoluted histories in both their [India and Pakistan] textbooks added to hostile relations between both countries?

Absolutely, it has. And that’s what it is intended to do. The whole purpose is to keep the people of the two countries at daggers drawn. The official narratives are deliberately hostile to justify the existence of these two countries and the ridiculous policies towards each other. I might even extend myself to say that in the case of Pakistan, they have been more interested in teaching ideology than history but I don’t think India has been very far from that.

Do you feel that such misrepresentations of Pakistanis in India’s textbooks and Indians in Pakistan’s textbooks are a recent phenomenon or have they gradually seeped into the narratives of the two countries?

It has been there, but it is certainly more extreme now than it was earlier. If you examine the 1950-60s, you’d find there to be more moderation and inclusiveness than it has been the case since the 1980s. During the freedom struggle and when the countries were not divided, heroes that are made out of the whole period and their portrayals are different in the respective textbooks.

Do you feel that the freedom struggle, a shared experience for both the countries, should have been presented in a better way?

Absolutely. I think that I have contributed to that with Sugata Bose in our book for undergraduates, Modern South Asia, which I believe is much more balanced and inclusive. I was asked to speak on Jinnah and the Partition of India at a university in Pakistan and I tried to give a point of view based on my thesis. One of the professors said, “It is all very well and very interesting but what are you going to tell these students who are now going to take their exam? Because if they write what you are saying, they will fail.” I said, “Yes, you can write whatever you have to in the exam to pass it but at least you aren’t confused any longer.”

Even if you are more well-versed and well-rounded, the person will mark you down if you show too much intelligence. So, the whole system is wrong. I mean, it’s not just about what’s in the textbook but also about how you are taught them. You are taught them by rote, given lectures to write down diligently and then regurgitate.

Popular media tends to stereotype a certain group of people. Do you think our history books and our national curriculum is also doing that stereotyping, not presenting people as individual identities?

Basically, national narratives are more concerned about discursive categories such as Hindu, Muslims, Sikhs. It doesn’t talk about real people. So people are fighting over discursive categories. It’s not a personalised battle. It’s not a personalised conflict; it’s the idea that has been inculcated that you need to fight someone who is either Hindu or Muslim depending on which side of the divide you are in. That’s what it is, that’s what national narratives do and that’s what propaganda is. India and Pakistan are not unique in that sense but they do have a unique history where they had mutual history, they were together in this and then they split. So there’s a real problem. All countries do that, to a large extent, history is manipulated. But it has been more politicised in South Asia. With every regime change, we are seeing that the books are altered to suit whosoever is in power. That’s not the way to teach history or anything for that matter.

Do you feel textbooks here and there are mostly about Hindus and Muslims?

Absolutely right, textbooks in Pakistan tend to exclude the Hindu period and I think textbooks in India tend to exclude the Muslim contributions to India’s history. So, I think that is problematic. I was told by my student yesterday in my class that she went to school in Mumbai. She said, “The history you are teaching us is not the history we were taught in school.” To which I replied, “What’s wrong?” She answered, “We never learned about the Muslim period.”

Why do you feel that the government and the people feel the need to feed these convoluted accounts of history?

I think, to control the population. By inculcating hatred and fear, the governments can better control their population.

In your experience, what are the instances or events that you feel are the most played with or destroyed in the context of these two countries?

I think it’s the Partition; just the recounting of Partition, how it happened and why it happened. They still haven’t come around to accepting the reasons that led to India’s Partition. I think, if one were to accept that, on both sides, then maybe reason would be more circumspect on how we proceed. But all you have taken away from the Partition is hatred, due to the violence. While it is understandable, it is simply not adequate to go ahead with that kind of memory. Even if you get the account for the fact that there was violence on both sides, there has never been anything remotely resembling a truth commission.

The first I’ve heard of a memorial to Partition was the one that has recently come up in Amritsar. It took decades for that to happen. All these people who lost their lives unnecessarily… Have we ever as people, together or even separately, tried to understand why this happened and make sure that it never happens again? No. All we do, with this hatred, is to make sure that this will happen again.

Do you feel this convoluted version of history robs people of looking at history with retrospect and critical thinking?

Absolutely, it is designed for that. I’m criticising the way it is taught, it’s not just the content but also the method of teaching. You are not encouraged to ask questions, you are just told to accept. How is it different from China? How is it different in communist China, which is an authoritarian state? India is supposed to be democracy. Or we thought it was, until recently. If this is the kind of education you are giving in a democratic context then it doesn’t say very well.

The Partition led to much bloodshed. Do you feel both the countries should have had a more sympathetic representation of the event rather than what we have today?

The idea is to keep people of both the countries in mutual suspicion. And suspicion is the main factor. For that, the curriculum is designed accordingly. It’s a useless exercise. It’s not even history what you are taught.

Lastly, do you feel the concept of ‘othering’ people and not seeing them as individuals is the core concept of making these curriculums?

That’s the whole problem with the nation-state agenda. As you know from Benedict Anderson’s famous phrase, ‘Imagined Community’, and invariably imagined as sovereign and exclusive. So, yes, the problem is with othering people, but there’s a way to live with difference without othering people, I’m not saying that you pretend that nobody is different, I think it’s important to accept differences, but unfortunately we live in an age where difference and dissent are intolerable.

Samreen Razzaqui, Shalinee Kumari, Unnati Khubyani and Utkarsh Roshan are students of M.A. Convergent Journalism at AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.

Featured image credit: Flickr