How does a math student turned tech entrepreneur get involved in putting together a history book for children in India and Pakistan – a book that juxtaposes and highlights two conflicting narratives with a view to creating greater understanding?
The seeds were planted, if you’ll pardon the pun, some 13 years ago when a bunch of 14-16 year old students from India and Pakistan met at the annual Seeds of Peace camp in Maine, USA. Launched in 1993 by journalist John Wallace, the programme brings together teenagers from countries hostile to each other – UK, Ireland; Israel, Palestine; India, Pakistan, Afghanistan to name some.
“We were really excited to be going to America, to this beautiful camp – and then we learn that guess what, a bunch of Indians is going to be there too, and that we’d be sharing a living space with them. We got there before them – and none of us slept that night, waiting for them to arrive”, recalls Qasim Aslam, one of the young initiators of The History Project.
The camp activities are structured so that children from the opposite sides have to be on the same team, competing for the same goals and facing joint challenges against other teams. They also participate in dialogues and discussions that push them to question long-held beliefs and ideas.
“We spent a day talking about history. Voices were raised, tears shed, walkouts staged.. And over the course of three weeks, we realised there is no way to reconcile the two narratives and establish one truth that both sides would accept. Once we understood that, it became easier to listen to each other”, he says. “We left the camp with best friends on the other side.”
The friendships endured and the ongoing dialogue led to The History Project, launched in Mumbai in April 2013 with an engagingly illustrated (by Zoya Siddiqui) book that reproduces text verbatim from history books on either side. The book has since been launched in Pakistan as well and is being taught in several schools in both countries.
“The way we are taught history aims to turn us into conformists. The History Project aims to inculcate a culture of questioning, counter how history is taught as a set of facts, not a narrative – which is what it is. A fact can’t have two versions,” says Qasim.
It’s not just history books. “Even children who haven’t started studying history have all these cliched ideas about the other side. We go into classrooms in India and throw out key words like ‘Partition’, ‘Jinnah’, ‘Gandhi’ – and their responses are very different than the responses we get from the same age group in Pakistan. They know none of the facts but all of the stereotypes – from jokes, hearing their parents talk, the media. It’s all around. It shapes ideology at a very young age. We need to reverse engineer this conditioning, and we need to start now.”
Incidentally, Qasim attended St Anthony’s School in Lahore, where the principal was the late great Cecil Chaudhry – a retired Squadron Leader with the Pakistan Air Force, decorated for his heroism in the 1965 war with India – who himself was active with Seeds of Peace.
Qasim recently made presentations at various educational institutes in the US. I attended at his session at Brown University that the history professor Vazira Yaqoobali Zamindar (author of the brilliant book ‘The Long Partition’) introduced.
Also present at the well-attended event was former Indian ambassador Nirupama Rao, a fellow at Brown’s Watson Institute this year, Andy Blackadar who runs Brown’s non-profit Choices Program, several students and community members.
Launched in the 1980s, Choices tries to “explore the past to shape the future” as Andy put it. It focuses on curriculum development, taking up current and historical international issues, and works with high school teachers to improve course materials with a special emphasis educating students in their participatory role as citizens.
The goal is “to democratise information and develop an engaged and thoughtful American public, and change the prevalent insular view of the world”, says Andy.
He hopes it has made a dent, but recognises that it’s a long haul, and an ongoing process. Those involved in The History Project, which is now connecting with Choices, will undoubtedly find this to be true for their effort too. That’s fine. There may not be any immediate results, but the process must continue.