Pakistan: Historiography in the headlines

In all countries there are controversies about the writing of history.

This excerpt is taken from the author’s forthcoming book titled, The Politics of Historiography in India.

The newspaper article described below is written mostly by liberal Pakistanis, when each was asked to write an essay by the Herald newspaper which is associated with the Dawn newspaper, which was reputedly started in 1947 by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.Thus, this makes it one of the more established journalistic organizations in Pakistan. The scholars and educators and Muslim intellectuals who contributed to this newspaper article were asked to write about ‘the most blatant lie taught through Pakistan history textbooks.’

The lengthy article appeared in the Dawn edition dated 14 August 2014.

In all countries there are controversies about the writing of history. Often these debates make it to the mainstream media. The vicissitudes and tensions in the writing of history are evident in many nations. For example, in the U.S. social studies curriculum, there is a pervasive dismissive treatment doled out to labor unions in textbooks designed for high school students. Labor’s contribution to the growth of the American middle class is often ignored or even represented with a subtly negative slant in many U.S. history textbooks developed by large corporations, written to establish the political moorings of future citizens. Textbooks are products of ongoing compromises between competing politicized perspectives.

Tensions negotiated between societal pressures and institutional powers dictate which information and what interpretations get into textbooks and become the standard historical fare. And just as importantly, determine what is left out and represented as inconsequential, or even villainized in the dominant historical narrative. This process of rewriting history occurs in all countries and is often very controversial and hotly contested. At other times, in other nations, changes in historiographical approaches simply slip through without controversy.

Litigious responses to changes in textbooks are quite common.

ziaIn Pakistan, the textbooks that have been in use for over two decades are highly anti-American, anti-Hindu, and promote a narrow form of Wahabbized nationalism. Several years before the September 11, 2001 wake-up call in Islamabad, which failed to wake the up the bureaucrats, there were liberal-minded Pakistani scholars working to tone down the Islamization that had been instituted during General Zia-ul Haq’s eleven years of martial law administration.

There are numerous Pakistani scholars outside the governmental educational system who have been publishing and collaborating with their colleagues to bring the long overdue and vital sea change into the Pakistani social studies curriculum, which has for decades been straight-jacketed by the narrow constructs of the Ideology of Pakistan, that guides the discourse down the road to jihad and international alienation.    Unfortunately, the voices of more moderate Pakistani historians are often muted by the cries of the fundamentalists. In 2003 and 2004, professor A.H. Nayyar examined the social studies textbooks in a ground-breaking study that stimulated international conferences, but unfortunately, those efforts translated into few significant changes in the textbooks themselves.[1]

In three countries of the Subcontinent, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as in most nations, the popular media gives ample space to the on-going politicized changes in textbook narratives. Citizens are amazed and sometimes amused by the juggling of historical tales as found in textbooks. Always told by their teachers, ‘History is history!’ In some countries, students and their parents take ironic note of the rotating discourse, which nullifies the notion of objective historiography, the extolled basis of the discipline that is at best haphazardly adhered to in the writing of textbooks. In other countries curriculum changes that are more gradual are eventually noted in the press.  Whether top-down or bottom-up, the politicization of historiography, is newsworthy internationally.

There is a core cadre of brilliant intellectuals in Pakistan who, for decades, have been lobbying and studying and working to change the dreadfully xenophobic jihadi narrative in Pakistani Studies textbooks. From a conference in 2004 organized by A. H. Nayyar and Pervez Hoodbhoy: ‘Governance in Times of Extreme’, sponsored by the SDPI (Sustainable Policy Institute),[2] Islamabad, Pakistan on December 8, 2004, to a guest column in the Herald newspaper ten years later, in August 2014, ‘What is the most blatant lie taught through Pakistan textbooks?’ scholars such as A. H. Nayyar, Hamida Khuhro, and Rubina Saigol work to free the Pakistani social studies textbooks from institutionalized Wahabized narratives embedded in the secondary curriculum since the days of the military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq.

On Pakistan’s 68th Independence Day, August 15, 2014, the Herald newspaper stated that it had ‘invited writers and commentators, well versed in history, to share their answers to what they believe is the most blatant lie taught through Pakistan history textbooks.’[3] Introducing the contributed essays, the newspaper explained its mission, ‘Nationalism and patriotism in Pakistan are contested subjects. What makes us Pakistanis…?’

The articles in the Herald reasoned that the most blatant lie in Pakistani textbooks and popular media is that Pakistani culture is completely distinct and separate from ‘decadent Indian civilization’. In fact, according to the textbooks, Pakistani history began with Mohammed bin Qasim in the year 711.  All ancient civilizations before that date are elided and ignored, considered to have little impact on the Islamic citizens of Pakistan.

kasimHamida Khuhro, ‘historian and former education minister for Sindh‘ writes that

‘The most blatant lie in textbook accounts of Pakistan’s history is by virtue of omission, which is in effect the denial of our multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious past. It is a common complaint that Pakistan’s history is taught as if it began with the conquest of Sindh by the Umayyad army, led by the young General, Muhammad bin Qasim in 711 AD.

Hamida Khuhro’s article continued,

Most textbooks in Sindh at least do mention Moenjodaro and the Indus Valley civilization, but it is not discussed in a meaningful way and there is no discussion about its extent and culture. Important periods and events during subsequent centuries are also skimmed over, like the Aryan civilization which introduced its powerful social system and epic poetry (Mahabharata in which Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa play important roles), the Brahmin religion, a thousand years of Buddhism with its universities and the Gandharan civilization which was spread throughout present day Pakistan.

In The Herald’s independence day article, Khuhro wrote,

No students of Pakistani schools can tell us that Pakistan was once part of the empires of Cyrus the Great and Darius of the Achaemenid Dynasty and later of the Sassanian Empire with the legendary rule of Naushirwan, ‘the Just’. Similarly, hardly anyone would be aware that Asoka whose capital was in Pataliputra in the east of the subcontinent also counted Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab as part of his domain.

She concludes,

The result of these omissions is disastrous on the minds of the youth in Pakistan. Instead of seeing themselves as heirs of many civilizations, they acquire a narrow, one-dimensional view of the world. This is contradicted by what they subsequently see in this global world of information technology and shared knowledge. That this is also in direct contravention of Islamic teachings does not occur to the perpetrators of a lopsided curriculum in our schools. The first assertion in the Holy Quran is Iqra bi Ism I Rabik [and no restrictions are put on the acquisition of knowledge]. Instead, we have bans on books, digital platforms such as YouTube and even newspapers in this Islamic Republic of Pakistan.[4]

On August 15, 2014, The Herald wrote succinctly that,

The picture general history textbooks paint does not portray the various facets of our identity. Instead it offers quite a convoluted description of who we are. The distortion of historical facts has in turn played a quintessential role in manipulating our sense of self.

The Herald asked all the historians to identify ‘the most blatant lie taught through Pakistan history textbooks.’ Anushay Malik, who ‘holds a PhD in history from University of London’ and is currently an assistant professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences explained that the biggest lie in Pakistani textbooks was that there is a ‘fundamental divide between Hindus and Muslims’.  Malik stated that,

The most blatant lie in Pakistan Studies textbooks is the idea that Pakistan was formed solely because of a fundamental conflict between Hindus and Muslims. This idea bases itself on the notion of a civilizational divide between monolithic Hindu and Muslim identities, which simply did not exist.

In fact,’ Malik explains, ‘the division of the historical narrative into a ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ period, aside from the ironic fact that this was actually instituted by the British, glosses over the reality that Islamic empires also fought each other for power. After all, Babar had to defeat Ibrahim Lodi, and thus, the Delhi Sultanate, for the Mughal period to begin.’

Therefore,’ Malik writes, ‘power and empire building often trumped religious identity’, whereas textbooks claim that the arrival of Islam ‘can be traced linearly right to the formation of Pakistan.’ He explained that textbooks give simplistic ‘snapshot descriptions of the contempt with which the two religious communities treated one another.’

In another article in The Herald, Ismat Riaz, an educational consultant and author of the textbook, Understanding History’ wrote that ‘Eulogising leaders’ in textbooks went against Ibn Khaldun’s warning about mistakes that historians make. One mistake is ‘the common desire to gain favor of those of high ranks, by praising them, by spreading their fame.’ Riaz explains further that, ‘maligning the ‘enemy’ is done quite overtly and mindlessly in official history school texts.’ He adds, ‘Pakistan became the victim of fossilized textbook boards ratifying the work of unethical and unscholarly authors for public school consumption.’

As mentioned, this ideological ‘victimization’ regarding Islamization, began wholeheartedly in the 1980’s during the reign of the military dictator, Zia ul-Haq, who was supported in his domestic efforts with millions of dollars from Ronald Reagan intended to help defeat the Russians in Afghanistan.

In a segment of this newspaper article titled, ‘The Other View,’ TheHerald wrote with irony, ‘To say a large part of Pakistan’s history is shared with India would be stating the obvious.’ Yet, the paper continues, ‘it is this period of both our histories … that is tampered with the most and has been used as a political tool by either side.’ The primary distinction between the narrative of the other between Indian and Pakistani textbooks is that in Pakistani textbooks, Hinduism is portrayed as a superstitious, primitive, and hegemonic discriminatory tradition that is, nonetheless, a threat on Pakistan’s eastern border. The one percentage of the Pakistani population that is Hindu is not considered in this equation.

However, in Indian textbooks, the descriptions of Islam are written more objectively and dispassionately, so as not to insult the 14% of Indian citizens who are Muslim. Destruction of Hindu temples, curtailment of women’s rights, conversion by the sword, and other less than savory hallmarks of the Islamic interface in the Indian Subcontinent, are not mentioned in Indian textbooks. Whereas Pakistani textbooks laud the iconoclastic impact on India’s infrastructure brought by the waves of Islamic invaders that entered India beginning in 1001 CE. The treatment of the other in Pakistani and Indian educational discourses are opposite in approach.

hasanThe Herald also invited Mushirul Hasan, a ‘renowned Indian historian’ who teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, ‘to give his take on the lies taught through textbooks on both sides of the border.’ Hasan wrote, a bit pedantically-

History is only of use for its lessons, and it is the duty of the historian to see that they are properly taught. Very few in the subcontinent heed this advice. Both in India and Pakistan the intellectual climate has thrown the historical profession into disarray.

Hasan complained that in India and Pakistan, a growing number of ‘polemicists’ are ‘abandoning the quest for an objective approach.’ He pointed out that the new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s nominee for the Chairman of the Indian Council for Historical Research, is, like the Prime Minister, a member of the RSS. Mushirul Hasan added that ‘liberal and secular historians are worried about the future of their discipline.’ And, that ‘diversity of approaches has been the hallmark of Indian historiography’ and ‘liberal-left historians did not repudiate the idea of Pakistan.’

This underscores the standard Indian academic approach to Islam. However, even in Indian textbooks influenced by ‘saffron’ the authors are still careful not to condemn Islam per se as the textbooks in Pakistan uniformly condemn and almost dismiss Hinduism as a cult or corrupting social order. In textbooks written for Indian school students, even those used in Hindu-centric schools, Islam is not defiled and condemned as a corrupt tradition per se. Individual Islamic invaders are criticized for violence, but Islam itself is necessarily not blamed.[5]In Pakistani textbooks, for both upper class and government schools, Hinduism is uniformly described in negative terms.

Hasan lamented, with a hint of sarcasm, that in October 1999, the ‘BJP-led government …. began its subversion of academia through its time-tested method of infiltration and rewriting of textbooks and ‘fine-tuning’ of curricula.’ He went on to criticize the recently democratically elected government in his neighboring homeland, writing with fear tactics, that ‘Saffronization of education will breed fanaticism, heighten caste and communitarian consciousness, and stifle the natural inclination of a student to cultivate a balanced and cautious judgment.’ Lamenting, that in such a communal atmosphere, ‘it may be difficult … to establish historical truths or to defend the cult of objective historical inquiry.’ His critique carried a bit of hysteria, because Modi era books, as of August 2014, have not been planned, much less published.

Hasan goes on to critique the mainstream Pakistani narrative regarding the creation of the country, writing that beginning with ‘I H Qureshi and Aziz Ahmad, scholars … have tenaciously adhered to the belief that the creation of the Muslim nation was the culmination of a ‘natural’ process.’ He continues, that Pakistani historians ‘have pressed into service the ‘two-nation’ theory to define nationality in purely Islamic terms.’

He concludes that-

In the process,[Pakistani historians] have turned a blind eye to the syncretic and composite trajectory of Indian society, which began with Mohammad Iqbal’s memorable lines Ae Aab-e-Rood-e-Ganga! Woh Din Hain Yaad TujhKo? Utra Tere Kinare Jab Karwan Humara [Oh, waters of the river Ganges! Do you remember those days? Those days when our caravan halted on your bank?].

Hasan takes the opportunity of writing in a Pakistani newspaper to criticize Indian textbooks, but unfortunately, his analysis is not based on the NCERT textbooks used in schools in India, but rather is a sensational approach designed for the Pakistani audience who does not know what is actually in those schoolbooks in India.

Hasan discussed his personal sensationalized version of India’s textbooks, writing that unfortunately, ‘syncretic and composite qualities are hardly reflected in [NCERT] textbooks.’ Hasan, says that in Indian textbooks, there is no emphasis on ‘the virtue of living with diversity and sharing social and cultural inheritances.’ However,his sensationalist statements are factually completely untrue. Due to the multi-ethnic demographics of India, NCERT textbooks are very careful to include examples of Urdu poets and especially discussions of liberal, less fundamentalist Muslims such as Dara Shikoh and Akbar.

Hasan wrote that in Indian textbooks, ‘We don’t introduce our students to the vibrant legacy of Kabir, Guru Nanak, Akbar, and Dara Shikoh.’ However, even a cursory look at textbooks in India will reveal that for decades the NCERT curriculum always included discussions of Kabir and many of the Sikh and Sufi saints. All textbooks in India have always included a couple of chapters devoted to the ecumenical ruler, Akbar. Rarely, in public school textbooks in India, is there, as Hasan claimed, a focus on ‘the destruction of temples and forcible conversions.’ Even when the BJP era textbooks were published in 2001, the textbook on medieval India, written by Meenakshi Jain[6], included more about Islamic poets than did the previous NCERT textbook by Satish Chandra, a Marxist, whom Hasan claimed, wrote better more objective textbooks than their Hindu-centric ‘saffronized’ counterparts.

Hasan writes that ‘Increasingly, young students are introduced to the Islamist or the Hindutva world views that have caused incalculable damage to State and civil society.’ This is true in Pakistan, since the days of Zia ul-Haq when the textbooks were co-opted by the fundamentalists. In India, conversely, even when BJP appointees staffed the educational institutions in the late nineties, the Hindutva tone was diluted. Importantly, the BJP era textbooks were only in use for one or two years and were immediately replaced when BJP lost power in 2004. Their impact was not very profound of profuse. Regardless, in those textbooks designed by NCERT during the BJP era, Islam does not suffer the same indignities as does Hinduism in state sponsored textbooks in Pakistan. Needless to say, in that audience, no one called Hasan to task for his blatant misrepresentations regarding the supposed anti-Islamic rhetoric in Indian textbooks.

jalalHasan concludes with a long quote from the Human Rights advocate, Ayesha Jalal, ‘old orthodoxies recede before the flood of fresh historical evidence and earlier certitudes are overturned by newly detected contradictions’. Jalal states, according to Hasan that now is the time to heal ‘the multiple fractures which turned the promised dawn of freedom into a painful moment of separation.’

Hasan ends his analysis with the pan-India ‘words of the poet Ali Sardar Jafri’:

Tum aao gulshan-e-Lahore se chaman bardosh, Hum Aayein subh-e-Benaras ki roshni le kar, Himalaya ke hawaaon ki taazigi le kar, aur uss ke baad yeh pooche inke kaun dushaman hai? [You come forward with flowers from the Garden of Lahore, We bring to you the light and radiance of the morning of Benaras, The freshness of the winds of Himalayas, And then we ask who the enemy is?].

The next section of this interesting Independence Day article, titled ‘Wars with India’ is written by A. H. Nayyar, ‘a physicist and retired professor’ who, as mentioned, ten years earlier, published a report titled The Subtle Subversion: The State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan. Nayyar wrote articulately,

The most blatant lies in Pakistani history textbooks are about the events that are still in our living memory. Among the many examples, the three given below are about the wars of 1965 and 1971, and the partition carnage of 1947. The reason for the falsehood lies in our distorted view of nationalism. Rather than let children learn from our historical mistakes, we show them a false picture. Thus we are doomed to repeat the mistakes generation after generation.

Nayyar goes on to describe the narrative as found in Pakistani textbooks,

The following excerpt regarding the 1965 war is taken from fifth grade reading material published by the NWFP Textbook Board, Peshawar in 2002 — ‘The Pakistan Army conquered several areas of India, and when India was at the verge of being defeated she ran to the United Nations to beg for a cease-fire. Magnanimously, thereafter, Pakistan returned all the conquered territories to India.’

He continues, pointing out the Pakistani nationalist teleology and the requisite anti-Hindu analysis that is used to explain the breakup of Pakistan. A textbook published in 1993 by the Punjab Textbook Board explains the ‘causes for the separation of East Pakistan … for secondary classes’. Nayyar includes a long quote from the textbook, ‘

There were a large number of Hindus in East Pakistan. They had never truly accepted Pakistan. A large number of them were teachers in schools and colleges. They continued creating a negative impression among students. No importance was attached to explaining the ideology of Pakistan to the younger generation. The Hindus sent a substantial part of their earnings to Bharat, thus adversely affecting the economy of the province. Some political leaders encouraged provincialism for selfish gains. They went around depicting the central Government and (the then) West Pakistan as enemy and exploiter. Political aims were thus achieved at the cost of national unity.’

1971Nayyar quotes the Pakistani textbook’s one-sided discourse,

While the Muslims provided all sorts of help to those non-Muslims desiring to leave Pakistan [during partition], people of India committed atrocities against Muslims trying to migrate to Pakistan. They would attack the buses, trucks and trains carrying the Muslim refugees and murder and loot them.[7]

Nayyar remarks that plenty ‘more examples of totally contorted and misleading, yet ingenious and amusing, narrations of the history of Pakistan can be extracted from a single text, A Textbook of Pakistan Studies by M D Zafar’. Nayyar includes long quotes from Zafar’s textbook-

Pakistan came to be established for the first time when the Arabs led by Muhammad bin Qasim occupied Sindh and Multan. Pakistan under the Arabs comprised the Lower Indus Valley. During the 11th century the Ghaznavid Empire comprised what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. During the 12th century the Ghaznavids lost Afghanistan and their rule came to be confined to Pakistan.

Nayyar highlights the ludicrous Pakistani claim that, it was India that broke away from Pakistan, which had ruled over the Subcontinent ‘for almost a thousand years’.

By the 13th century Pakistan had spread to include the whole of Northern India and Bengal. Under the Khiljis Pakistan moved further South to include a greater part of Central India and the Deccan. During the 16th century, ‘Hindustan’ disappeared and was completely absorbed in ‘Pakistan’.

The Zafar textbook, in wide usage in Pakistan, states that, ‘In the Pakistan territories where a Sikh state had come to be established, the Muslims were denied the freedom of religion.’ Zafar continues,

Thus by the middle of the 19th century both Pakistan and Hindustan ceased to exist; instead British India came into being. Although Pakistan was created in August 1947, yet except for its name, the present-day Pakistan has existed, as a more or less single entity for centuries.

Rubina Saigol who ‘has authored several books on education and society and co-edited books on feminism and gender’ wrote that the biggest lie in Pakistani textbooks is that ‘Pakistan was made for Muslims’. She analyzed the context of Pakistani textbooks-

The most blatant lie that covers page after page of history textbooks is that Pakistan was created for the promotion and propagation of religion. In fact when the Muslim League was established in Dhaka in 1906 one of the foremost principles was the creation of loyalty to the British rulers and to promote greater understanding between Muslims and the British government.

Saigol continues-

The idea of religion barely entered the discourse of the Muslim League until the elections of 1937, when the League lost elections and the Congress won decisively. It was at that time that religious nationalism was invoked vigorously to create a feeling of unity among the Muslims of Uttar Pardesh (UP), Bengal and Punjab in order to provide the League an ideational basis of support.

Saigol emphasized that,

Pakistan was mainly created for the protection and promotion of the class interests of the landed aristocracy, which formed the League. The meeting at which the League was formed was attended mainly by the landed elite which feared that if the British left India and representative government was established, the traditional power of the loyal Muslim aristocracy would erode, especially since the class composition of the Congress reflected the educated urban and rural middle classes seeking upward mobility and a share in political power. 

She concludes,

The urban educated middle classes of UP which joined the League later and enunciated the Hindu-Muslim difference argument in 1940, eschewed Muslim nationalism soon after independence because it had outlived its political use. The nature of the state outlined by the educated urban class in 1947 was based on a pluralistic vision of a state based on religious and citizenship equality.

This type of critical analysis is unique in mainstream Pakistan scholarship. The Herald newspaper approached the concept of the ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ from an unusually objective perspective not often embraced by the media in Pakistan. In fact, ironically in Pakistan it is legally a capital offense to criticize the Ideology of Pakistan.

Quotes from Pakistani textbooks found in this newspaper article were also highlighted in my study, The Islamization of Pakistani Social Studies Textbooks, published by RUPA in 2003. That book evolved from my doctoral dissertation research that sought to understand how the three largest nations of the Indian Subcontinent view themselves, how they view each other, and how these images vary over time.

My research, conducted in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, in the late nineties and the turn of the millennia looked at how nations and communities in the Subcontinent use a common historical legacy to forge what are often diametrically opposed nationalized identities. Although history textbooks and interviews from field research formed the core of the data, my study also placed the discourse about historiography in the public realm and took media analyses, academic disputes, and Internet discussions into account. Fifteen years later those same controversies remain controversial, and new disputes have arisen. Since the election of Narendra Modi in 2014, the virulent contestatory anti-Saffron media melee, from the usual suspects,has begun again.[8]


[1] A. H. Nayyar and Ahmed Salim. “The Subtle Subversion: The State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan,” Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad: 2003.

[2]See:, where I presented a paper, “Teaching Cognitive Dissonance in Pakistani Studies Textbooks”.

[3] “What is the most blatant lie taught through Pakistan textbooks?” Herald Exclusive


[5]ShireenDalvi can be arrested for blasphemy. In Indian textbooks controversial issues such as the Calcutta case is not mentioned

[6] A following chapter compares Meenakshi Jain’s NCERT book with the book by Satish Chandra.

[7]This excerpt was taken from an “intermediate classes textbook — Civics of Pakistan, 2000.”

[8] I often think that the mainstream media in India is to the BJP what FOX News is to the democrats.