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Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič

A talk by Swaleha Alam Shahzada, Citizens Archive of Pakistan


Updated: Nov 19, 2020

Presented at the International Conference on Teaching History, Calcutta, 30 July- 1 August 2015.

The Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP), formed in 2007, is a non-profit organization based in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, and its primary work is the collection of oral histories. CAP is the first organization in Pakistan to have launched an oral history program in 2008 and it continues to be the only one. One of CAP’s main objectives is to collect hitherto unheard oral histories and, digitize photographs. During the course of our work, we realised that the textbooks did not adequately represent history, and so the institution began to consider curriculum and textbook reform.

Many speakers at the conference have already acknowledged how textbooks have changed over a period of time, specifically in terms of the three significant historical time periods. To add to the discussion: in Pakistan, we have seen textbooks change. But, more importantly, we have seen textbooks shrink. One important example is 1971. When I was in school, standard Pakistan history books explained the events of 1971 in detail; today the creation of Bangladesh is ‘mentioned’ in just a few paragraphs. Thus, the concerns today are not just of ‘politicizing’ the history textbook but also of ‘economizing’ the history textbook. Somebody once said, “He who owns the photograph, owns the story.” Similarly, we could all agree that the one who publishes the history book owns the history. The politicizing of history is an undeniable fact.


In Pakistan, we have an even bigger problem: institutional politicizing, specifically of government schools and colleges. These educational institutions also happen to be polling stations and thus teaching appointments are often political. Some big questions are: Are those appointed really teachers? Are they qualified to teach? Are they creative enough to not rely on the textbooks? Do they even realize what’s missing from these? In Pakistan, we have five textbook boards and the anti-India sentiment changes from eastern Pakistan to the western border, depending on which province you are in and who is teaching the textbook of the province.


It is in this environment that CAP started developing educational material for history. Narratives from the Oral History Project about Partition and the early years of Pakistan, along with metadata from old photographs, led to the creation of curricula, teaching supplements and lesson plans for teachers. Our goal was not just to develop material for students but also for teachers. I really do believe that if you don’t feed the teachers, they will eat up the students!


History is not just what is in the book—history is also how it is taught and what values are inculcated in the students. Critical thinking skills must be encouraged, so that students learn to ask and are encouraged towards research. CAP developed its resources with these very aims at the same time as it focused on the techniques of teaching history that inculcate peaceful and tolerant values. Where the narrative becomes secondary and the focus, rather, is on encouraging students to ask, on giving them a broader worldview and, in many cases, on putting them in the position of the narrator, so that they learn to empathize. Questioning seems to be a big problem in Pakistan. To begin work in a government school or college, permissions are required from the local authorities. Since CAP has been developing resource material that focuses on ‘how to’ rather than ‘what is’, it has been easier to get permissions compared to textbooks. However, we were thrown out of a government school on one occasion because the principal complained that, “Since you’ve been working here, the students ask too many questions. We can’t handle it!” That was the day we realized, “Mission accomplished. We’ve done it!’


While documenting oral histories in conflict and post-conflict narratives, and in my experience while interviewing the Partition generation, the terms ‘us’ and ‘them’ are very common. When we interview the second generation, those who are recounting stories they have heard and not experienced, they use the terms: ‘them’, ‘they’, ‘us’ and the ‘other’ less often. On the other hand, stories narrated by victims, stories which are first-hand accounts demonstrate a deeper divide of ‘the other’, and display deeper antagonism and trauma. Thus, the greater the trauma, the greater is the use of ‘the other’. But as memories fade, and as Dr Christophe spoke earlier about memory and re-collection, when our history becomes economized, and textbooks become less and less inclusive, the sentiment of the next generations reduce. Perhaps the next generation of Pakistanis may have no sentiment towards the events that led to the creation of Bangladesh. The role of the army, the war crimes, the ideological battles at the individual level—all of this will take a backseat, will be taken for granted. Desensitization increases as newer generations appear.


When the Oral History Project was first launched in 2008, with fourteen interns because full-time employees were not affordable, there was nobody in Pakistan collecting oral histories. So the biggest challenge was we had no models to learn from or to ask for technical assistance. Thus we had to train ourselves. There was little or no knowledge of oral histories at the time. People did not understand how oral histories could be used nor of their importance. Once we educated ourselves, our next challenge was the dissemination of the information to the community in the absence of a permanent space. CAP has always envisioned the creation of a digital living-history museum. But what good is an archive of photography and stories when it is not being shared? And how can oral histories be used for something other than just an exhibition? Is a photograph just a photograph? Can we see beyond the photograph? What lies behind a picture that can tell you a bigger story? There is a greater application of this as a research tool—it serves an academic purpose. It can be used for art and it to preserve culture.

We started listening to the stories and learning from them, those finer details that do not exist in academic books or in history books. We started using them to create lesson plans for teachers. In 2009, we launched the Outreach Tours and started teaching history in government schools and colleges in Karachi and later in Lahore.


Interactive lesson plans were created. Self-training continued and permissions were acquired from schools to take one history lesson per week. We are not going to change the existing system, but take the existing curriculum and create an alternative discourse within it. Supplement the existing curriculum, so that the existing pattern and the exam cycles are not disrupted. We approached government schools only because that is where the need is. Private schools have better teachers. We trained our own teachers to work in tandem with the existing system and its teachers. The government did not object because the Outreach Tours was seen as just a supplement.


This project also trains government-school teachers for we want that both the student and the teacher to benefit. These schools do not have access to technology, such as audio-visual equipment, so we created activities out of resources that are indigenous and available to the schools. If they do not have audio and video, we use role-playing and interactive games. If they do not have tennis balls, we make a ball out of paper and use that.

Using oral history with the existing curriculum

One oral history interview can last anywhere from thirty minutes to four or five hours. It is sometimes done in so much detail with the same interviewee. It all depends on what the story is and what they’re going to tell. Sometimes the interviewer has to keep going back to the same narrator. The first interview presented was of Abeda Abedi. The interviewees themselves donated some of the accompanying photographs while some belong to Margaret Bourke-White and David Douglas Duncan—the two most popular photographers at the time of Partition. Margaret Bourke-White has passed away, but David Douglas Duncan still survives. There are also photographs from the private archivist Lutfullah Khan.


There is a lot to learn from oral histories and photographs, such as the ones that were shared during the presentation. For instance, the narrator spoke about the Ambala Refugee Camp. Now, if someone wanted information on refugee camps, they would have to go into government records which may prove to be a cumbersome task. But photographs and narratives easily fill the gaps of information. For example, the presentation shows the Walton Airport (which has now been renamed), how the army rescues took place, and how schools and colleges in Rawalpindi were not operational at the time of Partition. This material gives an insight on life and how it restarted after Partition. The narrator also mentioned that her father wanted the girls to go out and do something meaningful, thus the photograph of the Pakistan National Women’s Guard shows the narrator’s contribution towards a new nation. The stories of the Pakistan National Women’s Guard have not been highlighted before; they are not in any history book and their work has not been documented at length either.


Other oral histories provide all sorts of information, especially about the early years of Pakistan. For instance, how travel took place, the rioting and looting, and the assistance that the immigrants were getting from the Sikhs, the Hindus, sometimes from people they knew, sometimes from people they didn’t know. Another example is of mass graves—not much has been documented about mass graves in history books as yet.


The next part of the presentation focuses on the existing curriculum. However, some clarity must be provided as there have been many questions from the participants over the last two days. In Pakistan, each province publishes its own curriculum under a general framework provided by the federal government. In addition, the centre publishes the federal board textbooks. Since provinces have autonomy over their textbooks and curriculum, they add, subtract and ‘economize’ as they feel necessary. This they can do as long as they remain within the federal framework, which is often a ‘list’ of ‘must be included topics’. There is also the Aga Khan University Examination Board which mainly concentrates on the northern areas of Pakistan and has done a lot of great work in education.


Pakistan also has the Cambridge International Examination (CIE) with its own curriculum. Private schools in Pakistan are differentiated as low-income, middle-income and high income. It’s usually the middle-income and high-income schools that use the CIE curriculum which starts in Grade 9. Which means the schools can use any books they prefer till Grade 8 after which they would have to switch to the CIE textbooks. However, in the specific case of Pakistan Studies, CIE curriculum and textbooks are only established after federal government approval.


Resuming the presentation: the social studies book for Grade 8 by the Sindh Textbook Board describes the founder, the Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the establishment of Pakistan and his death in two paragraphs while the audience heard a sectional part of a 3-hour-long oral-history interview which describes the founder’s death and funeral only. So, if the founder of the nation gets two paragraphs, one can imagine what happens to the rest of history.

Similarly, in Grades 9 and 10, the textbooks cover the settlement of refugees after Partition. Interestingly, an exact 6.5 million ‘Muslim’ refugees are mentioned in these books while government records state 250,000 to an estimated 10 million refugees.


The next page shows ‘The Fall of East Pakistan’, as it is called in Pakistani textbooks, with obviously limited information. Researchers should pay special attention to the subheadings and subtopics and how quickly the narrative ends. The main areas covered are ‘Role of Hindu Teachers’, ‘International Conspiracies’ and ‘Sheikh Mujib’s Majority in the Elections of 1970’, with no mention of the political parties at the time and an obvious bias. The writer or publisher has clearly left out any mention of the political party, which had considerable influence on the establishment, in West Pakistan. The highlighted section of the textbook states the reason for the surrender: 'Due to the lack of support of the local population and the poor arrangements of supply of men and material, Pakistani soldiers surrendered before the Indian Army.' Interestingly, there is no mention of the actions of the Pakistan Army or what actually happened; war crimes and atrocities have been left out entirely.


Similarly the content within the subheadings of ‘Military Action in East Pakistan’ and ‘India’s Attack’ is brief enough to render any academic research conducted using this content invalid and unreliable.


To supplement existing curricula, CAP has developed a series of lesson plans. For example, there is an extensive lesson plan on ‘Riots and Migration’, which is divided into four parts. It gives students a brief introduction about the riots that took place during Partition and then goes on to show video clips, incorporating oral histories. The lesson plan aims to accomplish more than just ‘telling’ the student about the event. Instead, it directs students through questions to link their thought processes to events of the past and the current. For example, if a question is, 'Who can tell me what a riot is?' the follow up question would be, 'Can anyone tell me about recent riots that have happened in your city?'


This particular lesson plan also has a very interesting letter-writing activity: a class of students is divided into two groups. One group imagines being the Hindu community and the other the Muslim. They have to pretend that they are in a refugee camp and write a letter to their family members who are on the other side of the border, explaining what is happening in the camp. It evokes certain thought process and makes students realize what life could have been like.


Therefore, by linking past events to the present, the curriculum is able to clarify and explain the past but also teach and incorporate many other important multiple aspects, such as culture and tolerance. It helps in diffusing the bias that currently exists; not just against India but also against our own minorities and ethnic groups. Be it Hindus, Christians, Baha’is, Gujarati-speaking people, Pathans, Sindhis, Punjabis and Baluchis, there are many religious, sectarian and communal differences that exist which need to be addressed in a peaceful manner.


Our history books don’t just economise on India or Bangladesh, they seem to cut down anywhere and everywhere. For instance, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s first address to the First Constituent Assembly is also missing. In Pakistan, history seems to go missing not just from textbooks but also from state-run institutions. A few years ago after a terrible attack on the Christian community in Lahore, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s 11th August 1947 address to the First Constituent Assembly went missing. State television and radio claim that they do not have the tape. There was a 1.5-minute footage on YouTube, which too has gone missing. The current footage just has the start of the speech, except the most important paragraph that will be read out to you, as published in the Jinnah Papers by the Cabinet Division of the Government of Pakistan:

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. As you know, history shows that in England conditions, some time ago, were much worse than those prevailing in India today. The Roman Catholics and the Protestants persecuted each other. Even now there are some States in existence where there are discriminations made and bars imposed against a particular class. Thank God, we are not starting in those days. We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle: that we are all citizens, and equal citizens, of one State […]

Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal, and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus, and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.


When history is edited, politicised and economised for the present, academicians and teachers have to rely on other means to fill the gaps. Oral history is one such tool; it helps to bring some of these events back to life and can aid in the creation of supplementary curriculums for the benefit of the community and the citizens at large. Oral histories are just another way of looking at us.


Swaleha graduated in Finance from the Greenwich University and worked in the financial sector after which she pursued a career in education. She taught economics, business and accounting for more than 15 years. Swaleha then went on to head a private school in Karachi before becoming CAP’s Executive Director in June 2012.


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