How generations of Indians and Pakistanis are growing up on a staple diet of hatred and selective reading of history

Textbooks in Pakistan foster prejudice and intolerance of Hindus and Christians, claims a study by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. “Religious minorities are often portrayed as inferior or second-class citizens who have been granted limited rights and privileges by generous Pakistani Muslims, for which they should be grateful,” the report says.

The findings are based on a review of more than 100 textbooks from grades 1-10, which was followed by visits to 37 public schools and 19 madrassas where some 500 students and teachers were interviewed.

The Associated Press that reported the findings adds a little perspective of its own, noting Pakistan was created as a homeland for South Asian Muslims and was envisaged as a moderate state where minorities would have full rights: “But three wars with India; state support for militants fighting Soviet-rule in Afghanistan in the 1980s; and the appeasement of hardline clerics by weak governments seeking legitimacy have led to a steady radicalization of society.”

No one is safe.  The years of continuing lawlessness and political instability in the country have made everyone vulnerable.  The collapse of institutions and inadequacy of celebrated icons, including the Army, have dangerously disillusioned generations of Pakistanis.

Radical groups have smoothly stepped into this leadership vacuum, preying on people’s deepest insecurities and prejudices. But no amount of rabblerousing by fanatics and self-serving politicians could match the damage inflicted by toxic textbooks. Lessons and images imprinted on young, impressionable minds do not just stay with us forever, they fashion our whole personality, outlook and approach to life.

This is why there may be something in there in the US claim that textbooks are to blame for the growing intolerance of minorities in Pakistan. The day the US report came out, four Hindu doctors were killed in an attack on a clinic in Sindh, the most serious crime recorded against the community in years.

The authorities however view the incident as part of the general lawlessness prevailing in the country. Thousands have died over the past few years in attacks and mindless, indiscriminate violence targeting civilians across the country, ostensibly in response to US wars that have destabilized the whole region.  Ninety percent of such terror attacks have targeted mosques and public places.

Nonetheless, it’s impossible to ignore growing instances of attacks on minorities.  There have been many incidents where Christians were meted out ‘vigilante justice’ after being accused of blasphemy under the much abused laws inherited from the British.  The assassination of federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti earlier this year was the most high profile of crimes against the community.

Sectarian violence isn’t limited to Christians and Hindus though.  The Shia Muslims, mostly found amongst the Mohajirs, have suffered the most despite their epic sacrifices to get to the ‘promised land.’ Whatever the sociopolitical explanation for this state of affairs, it’s shameful and unacceptable in a country founded in the name of Islam.

Pakistan’s architect Muhammad Ali Jinnah had promised complete freedom and equal rights to all citizens. In his address to the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, he had declared: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State. We are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.”

Which is how it should be—and should have been. But Pakistan doesn’t enjoy a monopoly over toxic textbooks or demonization of minorities. The game has been played on both sides of the border with great dexterity and goes way back—long before the division of the subcontinent.

The British took the classic game of ‘divide and rule’ to a new level by repeatedly using it to target religious harmony. Having snatched power from the Mughals, they tried every trick in the devil’s book to malign and defame the former rulers and turn the majority Hindus against Muslims with whom they had lived in peace for over a thousand years. The Muslims were portrayed as invaders who came to India to plunder its riches, destroy every temple and convert every Hindu to Islam at sword point. The paid historians of the Raj tried to wipe off every sign of the Muslim love affair with India, sowing seeds of strife that eventually led to the division of the country before the British departed.

That selective reading of history did not stop with the end of the Raj but went on in the secular and democratic India even though the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, himself was an eminent historian and was known to be secular and liberal in outlook.  Even Maulana Azad, the first education minister and a formidable thinker, could do little to check this poison being administered to generations of Indians at a tender age.

The understanding and interpretation of history acquired a totally new meaning during the years the militant BJP was in power with the government undertaking a massive exercise to “rewrite and saffronize” the past.

As a result, children grow up on this staple of history imbibing early how Muslims ravaged India and went about razing temples and building mosques on their ruins, and to cap it all, by dividing the motherland.  Even Muslims studying this history are sure to grow up loathing themselves and their ancestors.

Is it any wonder then that the Muslims today face so much antipathy and find themselves so hopelessly marginalized and alienated from the rest of the country?  And does anyone think of the long term consequence of this perpetual demonization of the minority community?

Of course, Muslims who ruled India were not all paragons of virtue.  Be it the mighty Mughals or the infamous Mahmoud of Ghazni and Mohammed Ghouri, they were not on a proselytizing mission. They were merely greedy conquerors like scores of others who were attracted to India by its fabled riches. They just happened to be Muslims, just like some European conquerors happened to be Christian.

What Babar did to Ibrahim Khilji and what Sher Shah Suri did to Humayun is what emperors and kings routinely did to each other in those days. If Muslim rulers fought and killed Hindu kings and their subjects, they also killed fellow Muslim rulers and their subjects with equal impunity. Aurangzeb incarcerated and killed his own father and brothers. All this was for power and religion of these rulers had nothing to do with the whole circus. Even the most benign of Muslim rulers did not represent Islam or Muslims, just as most of the current lot of Muslim rulers do not.

If these men had indeed been real representatives of Islam, their subjects would have thanked them as the persecuted Jews did when Caliph Omar entered Jerusalem or as Christians did when Tariq bin Ziad arrived in Spain after burning all his ships. If the Muslims had indeed converted the indigenous population at sword’s point, India would have been a Muslim country today.

History is a double-edged sword and those who play with it eventually end up hurting themselves. Remember what the Bible says about harvesting hatred. Those who sow the wind will reap the whirlwind.