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Illustration by Yana Peeva

India and Pakistan are Weaponizing History Textbooks to Manufacture Religious Nationalisms

Divided by borders, but united by erasing histories, India and Pakistan’s attempts at creating a national identity through the revision of history textbooks illustrate how closely ideology is intertwined with power in the nation-states.

Apr 30, 2023

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bhartiya Janata Party (RSS-BJP) nexus in India has recently been overseeing the “saffronisation” of history school textbooks in an attempt to create a homogenized Hindu identity across the country. This coincides with an endeavor to rewrite history by renaming public spaces such as the historic Mughalsarai Junction Railway Station in Uttar Pradesh after the right-wing Hindu ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, likely because the existing name referred to the Mughal dynasty. On the other hand, Pakistan has been framing and reframing history to fit an “Islamic identity” since its inception. This has been done through various means such as placing an acute emphasis on the two-nation theory and emphasizing the divide between Hindus and Muslims.
Modi’s BJP alongside a nationalist Hindu group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which helped sweep Modi into power in 2014, have been working on editing school textbooks to portray India as a historically Hindu-only land. These attempts have resulted in the Mughal Dynasty and the Delhi Sultanate — empires that governed the subcontinent for more than 500 years — being pushed to the margins of history textbooks. This rewriting of history is in line with the BJP’s narrative of framing the Mughals as “Muslim oppressors” and erasing India’s secular identity. What is particularly dangerous about this reframing is that this is not a discreet operation. Rather, the BJP is positioning it as an anti-colonialist venture of reclaiming its history and identity. In 2014, Modi claimed that India has been troubled by “1200 years of slave mentality” effectively clubbing the rule of Mughals and Delhi Sultanate with colonial oppression to supplement his party’s narrative of decolonizing history.
The desperate attempts at creating a homogenous Hindu identity challenge a more multicultural narrative that has dominated the subcontinent since British rule. The new editions of political science textbooks actively attempt to subvert and challenge the narrative of a secular India. These changes include the white-washing of the intense disdain Hindu nationalists had for Gandhi for his views on Hindu-Muslim unity. The textbooks go on to [soften the mention of Nathuram Godse] (, a Hindu nationalist who assassinated Gandhi and also remove reference to the ban RSS faced after Gandhi’s assassination. Removing bits that frame RSS as a radical militant organization that opposed Gandhi — who is lauded as an Indian freedom fighter — not only helps to sublime its image and make it more acceptable but also moves away from the narrative of a pluralistic, multicultural India that Gandhi and Nehru had propagated.
While India contends with its newfound, politically orchestrated identity crisis, Pakistan has been at it since the 1950s. The military dictator Zia ul Haq tried integrating pan-Islamic nationalism in defining Pakistani identity, while the cricketer turned populist leader Imran Khan has claimed that Pakistanis have an Islamic past that can be related to Turkish culture.. At the core of all these attempts at framing Pakistani identity is the state’s obsession with fixating on a religiously ideological grounding for the creation of Pakistan. History textbooks play a crucial role in defining and shaping this ideology. Most textbooks take the conquest of Sindh by Muhammad Bin Qasim — an Arab military commander in service of the Umayyad Caliphate — in the 8th century CE as the point of departure. His invasion is popularized largely by Islamic parties like Jamaat-i-Islami — as being the genesis of a separate Muslim nation in South Asia. Not just this, he is also celebrated as the “first Pakistani,” which reflects the historical determinism that is prevalent in the way history is taught in Pakistan. This approach, more often than not, overlooks the actual events and the global context that led to the formation of Pakistan as an independent state.
Allusions to Qasim being the “first Pakistani” can be found in various publications after 1953 and in 1998 he was officially adopted as the “first citizen of Pakistan” in Fifty Years of Pakistan, published by the Federal Bureau of Pakistan in 1998. There are also celebrations by religious parties like Jamaat-e-Islami — a party whose founder, Abul Ala Maududi, opposed the formation of Pakistan, calling Jinnah too Westernized to deliver and head a Muslim state — to commemorate Qasim’s invasion of Sindh, hailing it as the advent of Islam in South Asia. The narrative serves as an advantage for them in advocating for the implementation of more religious policies, allowing them to leverage religious sentiments for their benefit. What is interesting about this narrative is that there are scarcely any sources from that time that detail the event of Qasim’s invasion. When historians pieced together what little sources there are, they found that, unlike the popular narrative, Qasim’s expedition was merely the latest in a sixty-year-long campaign by Arab regimes to gain a foothold over the port trades and to extract riches from these port communities (in Sindh and Makran). Instead of being the first step towards the formation of Pakistan, as is popularly believed, Qasim’s invasion was just an attempt by Ummayyads to increase their wealth. After its independence, Pakistan struggled to formulate a constitution because any provisions made by the assembly would be sent back for review for not being “Islamic enough.” The country’s struggle with shaping its “national” identity has been long and grueling. The state, largely pressured by religious factions, has always tried shaping Pakistan as an “ideological nation” instead of one that came into being as a result of the decolonization process. The hyper-fixation on ideology has largely seeped into school textbooks with the first chapter of the 9th-grade Pakistan Studies textbook starting with a chapter on the ideology of Pakistan. The acute focus on Qasim’s invasion being the point of departure in studying pre-modern history also goes on to show how the way history is taught in Pakistan is largely teleological by only including elements (often inaccurate) that build on the narrative of Pakistan being an ideological nation-state for Muslims. The crisis of rewriting history textbooks to fit a certain narrative is a contentious one in both India and Pakistan. There is an innate obsession with deterministic approaches and mythicism where the historical narrative building is largely capitalized by the elites — specifically religious parties and organizations on both sides of the border. For India, Modi’s attempts are aimed at proving that Hindus are descended from India's first historical inhabitants, while Pakistan religious parties and successive governments have tried emphasizing Pakistan’s Islamic roots somehow trying to connect them to Arab lineage. Both countries have focused on trying to solidify their right to the land they inhabit through some historical lineage instead of recognizing them as nation-states that are multi-ethnic, pluralistic, and shaped by historical accidents, contingencies, and conjunctions.
Our post-colonial struggle is not that of decolonizing narratives, but rather of building narratives that fit our concocted identities; while the two countries are divided by borders, they are united by erasure.
Manahil Faisal is a contributing writer. Email them at
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