The ‘Evil’ in Our Textbooks

Madiha Afzal

“His struggle was against the evil forces in the subcontinent.” No, this direct quote is not an excerpt from a badly written piece of fiction about wicked spirits. It comes from the official Pakistan Studies textbook for Classes 9-10 published in April 2013 by the Sindh Textbook Board (Jamshoro), which all students in the province taking their matric exams next year must study (and as we know, in Pakistan’s board examinations, study is a euphemism for memorise). The person referred to in the quote is Syed Ahmed Shaheed Barelvi and the evil forces in question are the Sikhs.

Sindh has not yet published textbooks that follow the significantly improved 2006 curriculum; this one follows the old 2003-04 curriculum. Unsurprisingly, it has significant problems. Many of the most pernicious ones lie in the first two chapters on the ideological basis and making of Pakistan. The book begins with a chapter on Pakistan’s ideology, which should really belong in a religious book. I understand that we are an Islamic republic and religion will play a significant role in explaining Pakistan. But the book begins with no room for non-Muslims. In fact, the chapter states that we must “not discriminate on the basis of race, language, caste, colour, culture and wealth or poverty”. What about religion?

Read on, and our current tolerance breakdown starts to make sense. The same chapter lauds Pakistanis on having stood “like a rock against the enemy and foiled its evil designs” in the context of the 1965 war. Note that it doesn’t mention the ‘enemy’ by name (lest we think it is a friend). Next comes the chapter on the making of Pakistan and we are told about jihad in the context of Partition. Barelvi is said to have preached “jihad because it was not possible to get freedom from evil force without armed struggle”.

Our penchant for conspiracy theories also falls into place. We are taught that Muslims were victimised before Partition. The British conspired with the Hindus and the Congress to do so. One of the reasons given for “the fall of East Pakistan” is “international conspiracies”, with players as diverse as Russia, India and America conspiring against us. Little wonder, then, that we have an unhealthy sense of national paranoia.

In justifying Partition and Pakistan’s creation, must we keep things so biased and simplistic? Must we breed hatred? I understand the need for a national narrative, but other countries have reconciled more traumatic histories. Let’s take a page from their (text)books. It is time for us all to learn from the current academic research on Partition and our history.

The Sindh textbook is grossly deficient in quality. The language use is poor. The history content is very light, with little substance on Pakistan’s modern history and foreign policy. Instead, the authors engage in banal, unintelligent repetition. The geography content is chock-full of pointless facts without sufficient illustrations and maps. For example, it asks students to memorise the location of mountain ranges without those details given in a reference map. There are structural issues as well: the chapter order seems to make no logical sense.

There are some positives. The chapter on culture towards the end does not focus primarily on religion and actually counts celebration of non-Muslim festivals as part of our culture. But lest we start feeling too positive, here is another direct quote from the textbook, using the authors’ seemingly favourite word (see if you can guess this one): “Over-ambitiousness is the cause of all evil practices.” What a wonderful message for our youth: please don’t try too hard or you will become evil.

Punjab published textbooks following the new curriculum in 2013, seven years after the approved reform. I will be going through the Punjab classes 9-10 Pakistan Studies textbooks in my next column, but my initial impressions are positive: each chapter has learning objectives and there appears to be more substance on Pakistan’s modern history and foreign policy. If those initial impressions are indeed borne out by more detailed analysis, why did we lose so many years to the old textbooks?