The writer is a journalist in Delhi. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times International Weekly, The Friday Times, Rediff, Hindustan Times, among other publications. He is a member of the South Asian team blog Kafila.org and tweets @DilliDurAst
Pakistani students have to read a course called Pakistan Studies; there is no such thing as “India Studies” in India. The burden of teaching Indian students about Indian identity thus falls on history, geography and civics textbooks.
I had to wait till college to satiate my curiosity about Partition because the history textbooks in school told me so little about it, such as that Jinnah was the villain of the event and so on. I was thus surprised that India’s new history textbooks for Class 12 (last year in school) that were made in 2005, spend 29 pages on Partition.
So, what is the new narrative? The chapter begins not with politics but three short oral testimonies written by an unnamed Indian historian doing research in Lahore in 1992.
In the first one, our man asks the librarian of the Punjab University library why he is so helpful to him. The librarian explains that the Indian was from Jammu, where an old Hindu woman had saved his father’s life during Partition violence. The librarian said he was repaying that debt. In the second story, a former staffer of the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi tells the Indian about asking a Sikh man in Delhi for directions. Then, the man introduced himself as Iqbal Ahmed from Lahore. At this, Sardarji exclaims, “Stop! Stop!” Mr Ahmed thought he’d be stabbed, but got a hug instead. It’s been years since I met a Punjabi Musalman, Sardarji explained.
The romance of these two stories is brought in check by the third one, in which the Indian researcher meets a Pakistani who goes cold and stops being cordial upon discovering he was talking to an Indian. Do your work and go back soon, he says, “You can never be ours. Your people wiped out my entire village in 1947.”
I’m startled to see that a government textbook has progressed so much that it begins talking about Partition with oral narratives, that too from 1992 and not 1947. In one go, it has told 17-year-olds the importance of oral history, introduced them to the idea of Partition as a continuing event and showed them how their own family narratives about Partition have a mirror image across the border. The chapter’s last four pages discuss oral history and its limitations in understanding the past.
Now, the chapter moves to a discussion on whether Partition can be compared with the Holocaust, and its impact on Hindu-Muslim and India-Pakistan relations. This is followed by questions, exploring the reasons behind Partition. This begins with a mild rebuttal of the two-nation theory and talks about Britain’s divide-and-rule policy, hardening of communal identities, prominently mentions the role played by the Arya Samaj and the Hindu Mahasabha, goes through the history of electoral politics between the Muslim League and the Congress, tells about the Lucknow Pact, the Pakistan Resolution, the growth of the RSS and so on. Most importantly, it avoids certitude and mentions what “some scholars” say and what “others argue”. This is not how I was taught history in school. It gives due space to describing how Jinnah saw something or how some event was taken by the Muslim League. The not-so-curious gap is the actual Partition negotiations, about which Pakistani nationalists and Indian right-wingers agree that the Congress’s obstinacy is to be blamed for Partition. It instead presents Partition as a fait accompli to the violence of the Muslim League’s Direct Action Day on August 16, 1946. It quotes Gandhi as “a voice in the wilderness” in opposing Partition. I wonder if students that young will question that if Gandhi’s was a lone voice against Partition, what were Nehru and Patel doing? Did they acquiesce to Partition and why?
It spends more space talking about what women went through during Partition; showing again how Gandhi’s was a lone effort in trying to stop the bloodbath, discusses how Partition was felt by north Indian Muslims as compared with those in Punjab and Bengal, and urges students to read Saadat Hasan Manto. Even if another government changes this text around one of these days, a whole generation of Indians will have learnt about Partition in the most progressive way possible in an Indian government textbook. You can read the chapter online.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2013.