Geopolitics

India And Pakistan, A Virtual Return To History Of Shared Troubles

Using social media platforms, professors from Pakistan and India developed a course that looks at the two countries' histories without nationalistic biases.

Lowering of the flags at the border between Pakistan and India
Nehmat Kaur

LAHORE — "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, Pakistan.

Same but different: That's how we've come to understand the cultural similarities that tie us to our neighbor. 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.

We love their musicians, they love our movies.

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 recognize that our textbooks taught us a version of national pride rooted in Hindu ideology? These were exactly the kinds of discussions 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 civilization 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.

It wasn't all smooth-sailing though.

One Pakistani student reviewed Padmaavat, a controversial dramatization of an epic poem depicting the invasion by a Muslim king of a Hindu kingdom, writing in a baffled tone about the villainization of the Muslim king. Another noted the deep irony of the disclaimer at the beginning of the movie (something to say the movie doesn't glorify ritualistic self-immolation) and then the elaborately shot conclusion which tells viewers that Padmavati"s decision to commit suicide in anticipation of defeat 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 the 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.

Members of the class pose for a picture in Delhi during their end-of-semester meetup — Photo: Facebook

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 freshman female law student from OP Jindal asked me this silly question: "Do you guys have any shopping malls 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 practice 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, he wrote that it wasn't the freshman's fault, "but it was alarming to me because she comes from a privileged academic background. If she was kept ignorant about the neighboring state what about the millions of other people who have got no medium for the actual representation of Pakistan?"

It is by virtue of the technology that we came closer to each other.

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-fueled 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 wrote, "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 says 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.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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