In a public school located just outside the capital, a classroom of ninth-graders follows quietly along in their history textbooks as their teacher reads out loud about what happened shortly after the creation of Pakistan in 1947:
“Caravans that were on the way to Pakistan were attacked by Hindus and Sikhs. Not a single Muslim was left alive in trains coming to Pakistan.”
As the magnitude of the sentence registers with the students, the phrase “No Muslim was left alive!” echoes around the classroom from whispered lips. Students are clearly engaged with the subject and clearly disturbed with what history they have just learned.
The only problem? That description in the students' books is highly misleading.
Though the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 was indeed one of massive violence, Mubarak Ali, who has written several books on India-Pakistan history, says this is a one-sided account of events and an exaggerated version of the truth. In fact, it was the Pakistani side where the communal riots started, and in reaction, Indians responded, he says, adding: "But very few trains were attacked. And many more made it alive, which is not taught."
Dr. Ali says that such content should be expunged from school books, much as India has managed to do.
"Instead of teaching Pakistani youth that Hindus from India are to be blamed for everything, textbooks should critically look at this communal violence, which can actually be traced to the way both Muslims and Hindus responded to British imperialism before the independence. We should not glorify this division but rather criticize it, because Muslims and Hindus coexisted peacefully for centuries before," he says.
Across Pakistan, government-sanctioned school textbooks contain blatantly anti-religious-minority, anti-Western material. And many are worried the curriculum is fueling intolerance, especially among youths – leading to violent behavior and even sympathy for the Taliban.
“Such textbooks try to create and define Pakistani nationalism in a very narrow sense. It tries to define it in term of an Islamic identity,” says Abdul Hameed Nayyar, a well-known historian, activist, and former physicist who is part of a Lahore-based campaign to encourage teachers around the country to raise awareness about this issue by calling it “the curriculum of hatred” and encouraging teachers to stop using the textbooks.
After the teacher finishes reading, he asks another student to continue reading aloud from the next chapter, which focuses on why Pakistan came into existence: "Narrow-mindedness of the Hindus and the conspiracies of whites led to the call of this Islamic country, Pakistan.”
When asked later about his opinion of Hindus and Christians, the student reiterates what his textbook said. “I think Hindus are against Pakistan, against Islam. Hindus are like that. And even the British and the non-Muslims – they still oppose Pakistan,” he adds.
That type of reaction is a problem, say activists, who note that school history texts are used by impressionable children and should be based in fact, not opinion, as students form their own ideas about the world. “These books try to show Pakistan and Muslims are victims of all kinds of conspiracy, from lots of people from many countries, which results in making people very paranoid,” says Mr. Nayyar. “And they become infused with narrowmindedness,” which can lead to extremism, he adds.
'The subtle subversion'
Each province has its own textbook board, which reviews and approves textbooks for use in both public and private schools.
The current curriculum came into use following the end of colonial rule and bitter break with India, which was considered an enemy. Later, during the rule of Gen. Zial ul-Haq, the curriculum was further radicalized, introducing the Soviet war in Afghanistan as “a new front for jihad.” Haq’s vision was to Islamize Pakistan, inspired by Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islam.
Nayyar, who co-wrote a 2003 study called “The Subtle Subversion” that points out historical faults in textbooks and how the inaccuracies affect children, has been struggling for more than a decade to change them. The National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a minority rights organization, estimates that nearly every school in Pakistan uses the textbooks.
“During the early years of Musharraf [Pakistan’s last military dictator] rule, I was asked by the government to give in my recommendations to improve the curriculum, which were incorporated in the syllabus,” says Nayyar.
One of the changes he suggested and that was made was to redefine the word “jihad” in textbooks. Though the textbooks have it as “waging a holy war against infidels,” the literal meaning of the word means “struggle,” or “striving,” a meaning, he says, that deserves a much broader definition. He proposed that textbooks should explain that the term should refer to “fighting evils inside oneself.”
But his changes were short-lived.
Pressured by religious parties from whom he was seeking political support, Musharraf restored the original curriculum a few months later.
But the NCJP approached Nayyar recently, knowing he had led the fight to modernize Pakistan’s textbooks for years.
Now Nayyar and the NCJP have come up with an updated analysis of Pakistan’s curriculum in both public and private schools by detailing lessons from the books sentence by sentence, highlighting content that is biased against ethnic and religious minorities in Pakistan, as well as hypernationalism against India and the West.
In many chapters outlined by NCJP, modern Hindus are referred to as “gangsters” and Christians are referred to as “violent crusaders.”
According to the report, the hate content in textbooks has more than doubled since the last time they were revised. For example, some 30 Grade 5 to 10 textbooks published in Punjab, examined in 2009, were found to have 12 instances of biased material that could be considered “hate content.” In 2012, the textbooks underwent a curriculum revision. After another review, the total number of quantifiable instances of questionable or factually incorrect material went up to 33, according to Peter Jacob, the study's author.
Curriculum authorities respond
When Pakistan’s Federal Textbook Board – a government body that authorizes and reviews content published in schoolbooks – was contacted, at first they denied that there was such content.
When a Monitor correspondent confronted them with the latest report by NCJP, Riaz Ahmad, head of the government curriculum committee, promised to look into it.
“We try our best to check such content, but since our society belongs to religious people, it is tough to bring [such] changes,” Dr. Ahmad says, adding that the curriculum has to respect the society it is being taught in.
In the meantime, some schools have begun to write their own textbooks. One such private school, Indus Valley School of Learning, based in Rawalpindi, has come up with its own curriculum. It has yet to find a publisher, which makes education here expensive, but appears to be promoting understanding among the youths studying here.
Yasmeen Ashraf, the owner and principal of the school, says, “ The extremism that we have seen in Pakistan can be beaten through the school, through the education system by properly developing curriculum."