Rewriting History: Why we keep going back in time?

If I were to compare some notes with my elders and do the same with my younger ones, chances are that we may differ in many of our versions of historical events. The reasons are very simple: firstly, we don’t seem to get over our past and secondly, we can’t seem to decide which ending we like best for certain events.

It is a known fact that most rulers of the Middle Ages had their own past and present written in front of them, so as to make sure that in later times, the world would see them the way they wanted to. The Mughals, in particular, either wrote their own biographies, like Baburnama and Tuzk i Jahangiri, or would engage competent historians, using mostly their competence in language skills and less in giving first hand accounts and get their life recorded as they themselves saw it, like in the case of Akbarnama. It is only through some juicy gossip notes recorded by foreign travellers that we have some insight in the private lives of the emperors, although the authenticity of these notes is itself not very reliable, owing to misrepresentation through lack of understanding or simply mischief, for the purpose of gaining popularity back home. Although we could still learn quite a few tricks from our ancestors in the area of administration or cultural practices, we seem to like their habit of choosing their own history the most.

In his preface to Muqaddimah, Ibn e Khaldun, a 14th century Arab historian, warns of seven mistakes he thought his contemporaries often made. One of these was ‘a common desire to gain favour of those of high ranks, by praising them, by spreading their fame.’ Ismat Riaz, an educational consultant and author comments in a popular magazine that ‘this particular mistake, or lie rather, has plagued history writing for school texts in Pakistan since the 1950s and has been used as a political tool to project successive rulers – whether civil or military – in a eulogistic format.’

When Pakistan Studies was introduced as a compulsory subject in our curriculum, times changed – literally. Farhanaz Ispahani, former Media Advisor to the President of Pakistan, commented in her research paper titled ‘Pakistan’s Descent into Religious Intolerance’ that when Social Studies (later Pakistan Studies) and Islamic Studies was made compulsory from grade six onwards in the Ayub regime, ‘the syllabus emphasised Islam’s martial tradition, spoke of a longstanding conflict between Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent and drilled into student’s minds the idea  that Pakistan was created to be an Islamic state.’General Zia’s regime went a step further when it ordered a revision in curriculum for all subjects to ensure that ‘the ideology for which this nation had achieved Pakistan may permeate the lives of people…. The basic aim of this policy was to create a new generation wedded to Islam and what the state described as the ideology of Pakistan.’

‘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, multiethnic and multi religious past’, laments Hamida Khuhro a historian and former education minister of Sindh in unison with Ismat Riaz in the same publication. ‘It is a common complaint that Pakistan’s history is taught as if it began with the conquest of Sindh by the Umayyad Dynasty, led by the young General, Muhammad Bin Qasim in 711 AD…..No student 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 under the legendary rule of Naushirwan “the Just”, she says.

Now history is repeating itself in our neighbourhood. While the Mughals may have recorded their own versions of life to be read later, the present rulers in India feel it’s time facts change a little more. They have decided that there is no reason to praise the Mughals, they were good for nothing, infact ‘looted’ India, robbing it not only of its wealth,  but its religions and culture. Uttar Pradesh deputy Chief Minister Dinesh Sharma recently remarked that the Mughals were ‘not our ancestors’, they were actually ‘plunderers’. Using surnames of. Mirza or Beg, an estimated population of over 600,000 claim descent from the Mughals in only Sharma’s state. Many more of their relatives live across India. Ignoring such figures, it is strange that Dinesh Sharma insists that after almost four centuries of living in the country, the Mughal lineage has vanished and they are no more one of the Indian ancestors! Responding to a question by saying ‘This is not our history,’ he added during a ceremony in Lucknow that UP will introduce new syllabus in schools which could be based on modern history.

Reports claim that India seems to be making a conscious effort to scrap history of Mughals from the textbooks. And in their dedicated effort, the Indians even seem to erase from memory the Taj Mahal – one of the modern wonders of the world, one of the great Mughal landmarks in India and a source of great income for the country through tourism – by erasing it from the list of monuments in the state tourism brochure. But one wonders, how could India erase from its epic cinematic history blockbusters like Mughal e Azam and its evergreen melodies like ‘pyar kia to darna kia’ – a commoner’s protest about one Mughal to another!

While rewriting history seems a popular cause mostly in the subcontinent, in the broader sense of meddling with established curriculum content, the trend is infectious, one must say and others are catching up fast. Our brethren in Turkey are satisfied with their historical records. They have no hesitation in telling the world the mistakes their Ottoman rulers made and infact show lack of emotion, save some contempt when disclosing the decline of the once magnificent empire. They take more pride in the rebuilding of the nation under Mustafa Kamal Ataturk – a triumphant chapter in their history. It is the matters of science they are dissatisfied with. The new academic year in Turkish schools has begun, with lectures on Jihad going to be in, and those on the Darwinian theory on Evolution to be out. Subjects such as mutation, modification and adaptation are explained in biology textbooks without explaining evolution itself. The controversial decision to exclude the theory was taken ‘because it is above the students’ level and not directly relevant,’ elaborates Ismet Yilmaz, Turkey’s education minister. The move has fuelled fears that the nation is subverting its secular foundations and is an attempt to avoid raising ‘generations who ask questions.’

By some means of default, this latter trait of asking questions remains unchanged, atleast in the South Asians. We may not have asked questions about what we were taught, for me and most of the readers of this article have now grown up studying our ‘revised’ curriculum and our busy relaying the same to the next generation, still there are other matters we demand answers for. In the wake of a Christian boy’s lynching in Vehari inside an educational institution and allegedly in the knowledge of his teachers, MNA Khaliq George demanded that school curriculum be changed to reflect interfaith harmony. The incident was particularly disturbing for those defending human rights, since the lynching took place over a matter of drinking water from the glass used by Muslim students. This did raise a lot of questions: With us having entered the 21st century which is already plagued with climatic changes, will our mindsets remain plagued with obsolete concepts belonging to as far as the 12th and 13th century? How much has the fiddling of education contributed to lack of human rights awareness and how much is this situation an outcome of our moral upbringing? How much have we gained by diminishing the role of non Muslim rulers from our heritage and glorifying the role of Muslim emperors? If we were to start giving due acknowledgement to all, will that also help in reversing our mindsets? How can we convince ourselves, that by protecting our interests and consciously promoting them and not encompassing the wisdom of others, we have lesser to gain and much more to lose?

Marcus Garvey, a famous civil rights activist once said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” This is how we are at the moment – aimless and mindless, drifting away in time and nurturing our trees of origin already uprooted by storms of bigotry, hatred and narrow mindedness. To cultivate our gardens, we need to sow seeds of unbiased knowledge, nourish them with the warmth of love and soak them in an environment of harmony. We need to stop winding our clocks back in time: the future is ahead, not behind.