Reimagining Indo-Pak History in a Borderless Place

Using Skype, Facebook and WhatsApp, two professors from India and Pakistan managed to co-teach a course that seeks to reimagine our contested history as a collective one.

“We are all a part of the same rhetoric, the same story, which has been told to us very differently,” says Duaa Rehman, a freshman from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). She’s one of over 20 students, from both India and Pakistan, who recently concluded a course on South Asian history which was co-taught by an Indian professor, Pallavi Raghavan from the OP Jindal Law School in Sonepat and Ali Usman Qasmi, from LUMS in Lahore.

Same same but different – that’s how we’ve come to understand the cultural similarities that tie us to our neighbour. We love their musicians, they love our movies (even when we don’t return that love), we love their suits and their male celebrities; we all love cricket. We love talking about how similar we are, we equally love avoiding the conversation about how we came to be different.

There are always two versions of history, says Rehman, “One from the history books and the experts, and the other from the stories of our grandparents.” While the history textbooks tell us the story of why it was necessary to create two nations, our grandparents tell us contradictory tales, alternating between nostalgic childhood memories in what was India/Pakistan and the brutal violence that was Partition. The truth, or something resembling it, as always, lies somewhere in the middle.

An interest in bridging this gap is what led Raghavan and Qasmi to come up with, ‘Beyond India and Pakistan: Changing the Foundations of South Asian History.’ In a short video describing the course, Raghavan says that the class aimed to examine a “series of episodes that remain of interest in both countries but which are understood very differently on both sides.”

How, for example, are Hindu social reformers who were also involved in anti-colonial activism, viewed in Pakistani textbooks? Do Indian students recognise that our textbooks taught us a version of national pride rooted in Hindu ideology? These were exactly the kinds of discussions these students stumbled onto each week as they discussed Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Gandhi and the other staples of our collective past, yet separate history.

Every Friday afternoon, students ‘met’ on Skype, physically separated by hundreds of miles and a tense political border, to discuss readings on everything from the Indus Valley civilisation to Sayyad Ahmad Khan. Divided into groups of 2-3 for projects, they ‘worked together’ on Skype, WhatsApp and e-mail. And when discussions spilled over allotted class timings, they continued to chat on Facebook.

Together, they managed to excavate neglected narratives through projects and papers that interrogated how Indians view Pakistan, applied postcolonial theory to South Asia as a region and questioned Pakistan’s narrative of what happened in 1971.

But the Partition has inspired several decades of stories, and on Facebook, these students built a running, living archive of Partition-related movies and news items, posting reviews, discussing and joking around in the comments sections.

One Pakistani student reviewed Padmavat, writing in a baffled tone about the villanisation of Khilji. Another noted the deep irony of the disclaimer at the beginning of the movie (something to say the movie doesn’t glorify sati) and then the elaborately shot conclusion which tells viewers that Padmavati’s decision to commit johar is a ‘noble’ one.

All hell seemed to break loose when such criticisms were aired in the Indian media around the movie’s release, yet here, in this virtual social-and-academic space, respectability and a willingness to engage ruled supreme. The same spirit carried some of these LUMS students to Delhi last weekend, where they finally got to meet their classmates and tour the places they’d spent three months discussing so thoroughly.

It wasn’t all smooth-sailing though. In the process of facing up to their nations’ blindspots regarding the ‘other’, some students ended up confronting their own as well. Akram recalled a surprising conversation during his visit to Delhi. He wrote in an email, “a freshmen female law student from OP Jindal asked me this silly question. ‘Do you guys have any shopping mall in Pakistan?’ I was literally shocked and then she went on asking ‘Is there any clothing brand there?’”

Akram got over his surprise and took the opportunity to tell the hapless freshman about Pakistan’s thriving garment export industry, and then when she asked if female lawyers were required to wear the burqa to practise law, an even more baffled Akram told her ‘no’ and gave her the example of Asma Jahangir and several other women politicians and sportswomen to correct her perception of Pakistan.

Reflecting on it now, he wrote that it wasn’t the freshman’s fault, “but it was alarming to me because she comes from privileged academic background.” If she was kept ignorant about the neighbouring state what about the millions of other people who have got no medium for the actual representation of Pakistan?”

Beyond the narrow confines of our history textbooks, outside the stereotypes of our movies and TV shows, far away from the hot takes of Twitter, the performativity of Instagram and the outrage-fuelled comment wars of Facebook and ignorant WhatsApp forwards, these students and professors managed to create an optimistic corner for themselves on the internet.

Emails, Skype, YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp – internet technologies were the unsung hero of this entire venture.

Akram agreed, “It is by virtue of the technology that we came closer to each other and came about our (hidden) similarities and joined historical movements.”

Rehman said that apart from being excited about her academic interest in history, her family’s main question about this cross-border course was ‘how’– “They had difficulty understanding the idea of a cross-border classroom, with professors on either side,” she wrote.

For Raghavan, Qasmi and their students, what started off with a short promo video for the course on YouTube has now yielded not only a trove of papers and think pieces, but also a lively community on Facebook, not to mention a constant flow of WhatsApp messages and emails.

Actual borders may hold us back ideologically and physically, and rigid textbooks may propel us towards a very specific (read: nationalistic) outrage, but in moving the classroom into a virtual, borderless space, Raghavan and Qasmi managed to create the right conditions to discuss a borderless history.