Peace demands an educated imagination

The narrow, meandering path that India-Pakistan relations have followed since the early 1970s appears to have suddenly widened this summer. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari's visit to the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti and the luncheon meeting between him and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh indicated that the two countries need not wait for politically perfect moments to focus on sensible thoughts. Then, on Baisakhi day, an integrated checkpoint at Attari was inaugurated, marking a substantial step forward in trade relations. The significance of this modern facility at the border can now be enhanced by a decision to terminate the medieval display of mutual suspicion and disdain staged every evening by the armed forces guarding the gates on the two sides of the no-man's-land. Whose morale this ceremony boosts and for what purpose are questions that will not consume much time if anyone claiming to represent the two countries — either their people or the states — ponders on them from a peace perspective. The decision to discontinue the evening charade will potentially hurt the minor financial interests of the transporters who bring the jeering public from Amritsar and Lahore to the border gates at Wagah. Closing down this ugly routine show of animosity and stiffness will express a shared resolve of two mature nations to walk towards peaceful coexistence.

No small role

Improved ethos, trade and political relations are fine and necessary but they cannot substitute the role that a slow-acting medium like education alone can perform to ensure that pleasant weather patches come more frequently and last longer. Ironically, education has played no small role in making India-Pakistan relations so poor and brittle. A few years ago I had the opportunity to study the school textbooks used in the two countries for the teaching of history. My research presented in Prejudice and Pride (Viking, 2001) and Battle for Peace (Penguin, 2007) also enabled me to find out how children — in both countries — perceive the neighbourly hatred prevailing between the two countries. My textbook analysis was confined to the portrayal of the freedom struggle and the sample included textbooks of all kinds — those used in English-medium private schools as well as the ones used in government schools in different States. The idea was to trace the frames of perceptions that schools assiduously promote.

Officially approved history books shape collective imagination about the past. It is a shared past but the treatment it receives in the two countries is remarkably different. This need not startle us, for the two nation-states are built on contrasting visions. What alarmed me, however, was the extent to which consciousness of the “other” and deep-rooted conceptions of the self shape the narratives of the past. The choice of events and heroes opens a rare window to the collective mind the two nations wish to construct. Pakistani textbooks, for instance, did not dwell on the Quit India movement; Gandhi's portrayal in Pakistani textbooks and Iqbal's in Indian textbooks were quite problematic. The most important site of contrasting interpretations of the past was, of course, Partition. Indian textbooks viewed it as a tragedy, whereas Pakistani textbooks celebrated it as a moment of birth. Both displayed a reluctance to go into the details of the human misery that Partition had caused.

In India, recent years have witnessed a radical reform in all aspects of the school curriculum, both in perspective and structure. Freshly conceptualised syllabi and textbooks marking a sharp departure from old styles and content have been introduced at all levels. These reforms are particularly deep in history and politics. Instead of presenting flat narratives, the new history textbooks attempt to introduce children to the historian's task. Children learn how problems of interpretation arise, and why certain debates persist.

In the context of South Asia, the new approach means a wide and variegated representation of the nationalist movement and its aftermath. The new textbooks give children the opportunity to engage with ideas and movements, not just personalities. Partition is represented as people experienced it on both sides of the newly created border. No such reform has taken place in Pakistan. There, the teaching of history has remained the transmission of an allegory that allows only the official ideology to be transmitted.

How strong and lasting the impact of this approach can be was illustrated by a three-part documentary on Gandhi recently telecast by BBC. Mishal Husain, the presenter of this series, is a highly respected BBC journalist of Pakistani origin. The series shows her travelling through India, meeting people and experts as she attempts to make sense of Gandhi's politics and vision. Though made with sensitive curiosity, the trilogy fails to escape the grooves of thought and ideologised memory that my research had found in all Pakistani textbooks. For example, the third episode, which traces progress towards freedom from colonial rule, completely misses the Quit India movement. Gandhi's personal eccentricities take precedence over his committed efforts to avoid Partition. Of course the bias evident in the selection of content and its treatment may not be all attributable to the subtle impact that Pakistan's collective imagination might have had on the presenter; it may well be BBC's. The point is that the tendency to treat Partition as a mould to shape any discussion concerning India has stayed intact for a long time. Nor has the approach to Partition changed much: it remains stuck in the search for a cause, as if there was just one.

SAARC was expected to break this mould, but it hasn't. Nearly two decades after its birth, SAARC lacks the energy to pursue its own ideals. Among the many wise goals articulated at various SAARC summits is the goal of textbook review and reform. One had hoped that the South Asian University would pursue this goal but such a beginning is yet to be made. It is a bit surprising that this university has not considered setting up a school of teacher education. Quality of textbooks apart, both India and Pakistan — and the rest of the region too — are facing the challenge of overcoming teacher shortages at all levels and reforming the obsolete procedures used for the training of teachers. Not just schools but colleges and universities also require teachers who can appreciate futuristic visions of a South Asia in which nations and communities relate to each other in an open, friendly environment. Teachers play a vital role in shaping the social ethos in which the young develop their values and attitudes.

Psychological agenda

Indian and Pakistani leaders know only too well how tricky it usually is for them to make soft statements that might indicate a departure from the stated positions. One hopes that they are also aware of the importance of placing India-Pakistan concerns and sensitivity in a larger, regional and global context. The idea of South Asia provides that context, but so far that awareness has remained mainly theoretical. South Asia is slowly emerging as an economic agenda, and even more slowly as a political agenda, but it has yet to start emerging as a psychological agenda. The few attempts that have been made in that direction are in the domain of culture. It is typical of such attempts to take a sentimental line which offers little more than an evening of nostalgia for the past. Singing and drama are used to evoke the memory of an undivided subcontinent, conveying the message that culturally ‘we' are still one. This approach does perhaps serve some vague purpose and offers business to a handful of artists, but it does little to create a future vision.

That task calls for a bolder, purposive imagination. A key feature of such a vision is to enable a larger collective identity of South Asia to take shape without posing a threat to national identities. Ultimately, the roots of endemic conflict that we see in our region, both at international and sub-national levels, lie in the rigid, aggressive identities to which the unreformed systems of education actively and copiously contribute. No country in the region can be said to form a solid exception to this tendency even though efforts to reform the system of education have been initiated in limited ways in all the countries. A subtly articulated, collective strategy can help at this stage. Such a strategy will gain if the boundaries of SAARC are also revisited, so as to consider including Burma in it. At a point when that country is experiencing an impressive movement towards recognition of the urge for democracy, an educational endeavour aiming at the psychological construction of an inclusive South Asia will form a positive step forward.

(The writer is Professor of Education at Delhi University and a former Director of NCERT.)

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Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 5:38:56 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/peace-demands-an-educated-imagination/article3394664.ece

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