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Examining Narratives on South Asian Past in Textbooks of Bangladesh - Shreya Ghosh


Updated: Nov 23, 2020

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

'Are textbooks like autobiographies of nations?'

Since we are talking about textbooks and nationalist imaginations and nationalist ideology, I thought about beginning with one of the most obvious historical facts about South Asia—that nation states are a very new occurrence. Historically speaking, both as an idea and as well as historical material reality, nation states are a new phenomenon. In world history, the notion is barely three centuries old; and in South Asia, not even a century.

Historians and geographers have always marvelled at the material historical reality of nation states as well as at how nation states appear, especially in South Asia as something that was always already there. And this is exactly where the role of nationalist ideologies comes into play, because the task of nationalist ideologies is to create single cohesive nationalist imaginations to put forward the historicity of the idea of the nation.

National history therefore, and we see that in the case of South Asia, talks about nation, as the culmination of a quest often demonstrated to be centuries old for a chosen group of people realising their collective existence in the form of the nation. And once formed, it remains as an unchanging entity passed on from one generation to the other. And central to this entire historical narrative of the nationalist ideology is the task of creating a community of believers for the nation state to sustain, produce and reproduce itself. And this is where textbooks come in, especially in the case of South Asia, to perform this very vital ideological function.

Having said that, the other thing is that history is the link between the past and the present. It is the form of representing the past. Modern history is not merely about excavating documents and facts from the past and presenting them. Modern history is about creating associations and meanings through these facts and documents pertaining to the past. Hayden White once said that one needs to question why earlier forms of representing the past, for example, annals or chronicles, are not considered histories in the way modern historiographies have produced themselves. They are not really considered standardized history because they were random chronicles. They did not have a beginning, middle and an end. Modern histories need to have a certain end. And if history is supposed to have an end, then it means that it is a process of selection, of what are archives and the associations. Which is why modern history is considered a process of narrativization, something akin to storytelling.

This brings me to the context of Bangladesh and India to see how nationalist ideology has played this role of creating associations and then presenting them as histories that we read in school textbooks. What I will do is look at school textbooks of Bangladesh and try and compare them with narratives of similar or of the same historical past in Indian textbooks. I will also try to take you through the internal history of textbooks in Bangladesh—how the structure and the content of the textbooks has evolved in 1971 and more recently.

In Bangladesh, there have been roughly four generations of history textbooks since 1971. I am confining myself to the study of secondary-level textbooks, that is, for classes 8, 9 and 10. They have a more complicated higher-secondary system of textbooks. The first lot of textbooks that was produced by the nationalist board in Bangladesh was in 1973, after the formation of Bangladesh in 1971. This was followed by a major revision in textbooks in 1984, then 1996, which were read until 2009-10. More recently, in 2013, a new set of history textbooks has been produced.

The 1905 Bengal Partition is a classic example of how textbooks across South Asia have differed in representing a historic fact common to all three countries. In the textbook published in 1973, it says that Lord Curzon, for the sake of administrative convenience, economic upliftment and overall advancement of the Muslims in the east of Bengal, in 1905, divided Bengal into two. The Hindu community and the Congress launched a massive agitation against this decision, Muslim support for the partition of Bengal and strong protest by the Hindus against the same brought to the surface Hindu–Muslim differences in the most glaring manner.

The textbook in 1984 sort of continues in this tone: the Hindus registered severe protest towards the Bengal partition. What is interesting is that, beyond a point, in textbooks in Bangladesh, the category of Hindus and the Congress party is used interchangeably, especially in the case of 1905. In this way, the Hindu community made the anti-Bengal partition antithetical to Muslim interests.

Strong and dynamic Muslims in East Bengal under Nawab Salimullah’s leadership continued their agitation to defend their new province. But the Hindus, in order to maintain their vested interests, turned their agitation into a terrorist movement. Ultimately, the British Government succumbed to the Hindu nationalist and terror-driven agitation.

For most of us who have read Indian textbooks, we know that the 1905 Bengal partition and the Swadeshi movement around that time is considered a moment of great unity among Hindus. There is never any mention of the fact that Muslims of the east Bengal side welcomed this and that Lord Curzon had any ambitions at all of economic advancement in the eastern part of Bengal. There might be historical validity to that fact. Historians have shown how the zamindari system in Bengal operated from a centre in Kolkata and there was oppression on the peasants in the eastern part of Bengal. This historical fact is never recounted in any of the Indian textbooks. What we read about the 1905 partition is through the singular lens of the divide-and-rule policy of British India government.

The textbooks in India describe that time along the lines of India being united. What is interesting is the account that the British were able to wean away some of the upper-class Muslims and encouraged them to start a separatist movement. The lead was taken by Aga Khan, religious head of a sect and Salimullah.

Through this time, especially in NCERT textbooks, it was constantly being said that the Muslim League was a formation of upper-class Muslims. If you read Bangladeshi textbooks, they say that the Congress was a product of upper-class Hindus. This tells us how we have been representing each other’s political parties. I must add a caveat here, that these are 1980 textbooks of the NCERT; there are very good textbooks now.

The phrase ‘divide and rule’ was not present in Bangladeshi textbooks in the 1980s. It was first found in textbooks that were published in 1996. These were used until very recently—till 2011. But something changed in the 1996 generation of textbooks in Bangladesh in terms of structure. The earlier two textbooks bifurcated the history of the subcontinent in the 19th and the 20th centuries. This bifurcation happened along 1947—of course. Before 1947, history was about consolidating a Muslim identity, therefore history appeared as a battleground between Hindus, a betrayed community of Muslims. And Muslims rising to their political consciousness because of the betrayal and the aggression of the dominant Hindus, represented by the Congress. After 1947, the history is about the identity of the Bengali Muslim.

This structure of representing history was done away with in the 1996 textbooks. In the 1996 textbooks, the purpose of creating a particular Bengali Muslim identity was central to both pre- 1947 and post-1947 history. The Bengali Muslim community seemed to be represented as the core community of Bangladesh. Which means that it did not represent the histories of several other communities, such as the tribals in Northern Bangladesh, the Bihari Muslims—a very marginalised community. The more recent textbooks of 2013 have responded to this critique in a very interesting way, to the fact that histories written earlier were not secular enough, and that more inclusive and secular histories needed to be written. They have therefore added a chapter on tribals of Bangladesh.


Shreya Ghosh is presently a doctoral candidate at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. She has previously worked as Research Fellow with Global India Foundation, a Kolkata- based research organization, where she worked on school textbooks of Bangladesh and nationalist historiography in South Asia. She has a Masters degree in International Relations from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and an MPhil from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Parts of her research paper entitled ‘Identity Construction through Textual Representations: A Study of Narratives in Bangladesh School Textbooks’ has been presented at the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research.

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