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Sifting Through Conflicting Versions of India and Pakistan's Shared Past

Rural Sikhs in a long ox-cart train heading towards India. Image by Margaret Bourke-White. 1947. Image uploaded to Flickr by Shaktishree DM CC By-ND 2.0

Rural Sikhs in a long ox-cart train heading towards India. Image by Margaret Bourke-White. 1947. Image uploaded to Flickr by Shaktishree DM CC By-ND 2.0

It's been nearly seven decades since the former colony of British India was split into two countries along religious lines, touching off the largest mass migration in human history as Muslims migrated to Pakistan while Sikhs, Hindus and others migrated to India. As many as a million people lost their lives in violence immediately after the Partition of India.

In the years that followed, conflict over territory and resources has plagued the two countries’ already rocky relationship. The acrimony often spills over into the classroom, where hyped-up nationalism offers students a skewed view of their neighbor. 

Lahore-based Pakistani entrepreneur and activist Qasim Aslam along with a team of young people from India and Pakistan are taking aim at the biases shaping the youth of these two countries through The History Project. The method is simple: juxtaposing texts from history books taught in the schools of both countries in order to introduce an alternative, neutral narrative to the students.

Qasim also serves on the board of Seeds of Peace, an international NGO working on international conflict resolution. He has initiated several Indo-Pak exchange programs aimed at promoting understanding at a social level between the two.

Launched in Mumbai in April 2013, the textbook is now used in several schools in India and Pakistan. Qasim explained to journalist and blogger Beena Sarwar:

The way we are taught history aims to make 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.

Screenshot of the cover of the book

Screenshot of the cover of the book

According to the preamble of the book, the idea came about during a meeting of Pakistani and Indian teenagers in a small town in the US state of Maine. The main idea, it reads, was:

to enable access for youth in their formative years to alternative perspectives on their shared heritage and to encourage a culture of rational and critical thinking with particular focus on information that shapes the view of our respective lineage.

In an interview with news website The Diplomat, team members Qasim, Ayyaz Ahmad and Zoya Siddiquiand spoke of the evolution of the project, from finding a direction to realizing the benefit of illustrations. 

Online, people have welcomed the idea. Commenting on a profile of the project in newspaper The Hindu, user Saurabh Sethi wrote:

Phenomenal effort by both the authors and The Hindu to bring into light 
such information.You are an example of the kind of people we need today 
to strengthen Indo-Pak relationship.

On Twitter, users praised the project:

The book only covers events leading up to the Partition of India in 1947. Perhaps one day it will delve into the history that comes after. You can follow the project via its Facebook page.

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