The Choices Blog

History and Current Issues for the Classroom

Month: December 2013

Google Takes on History

On November 13, 2013, Google India released a video advertisement, Reunion, which tells the story of two fictional, elderly men—Baldev and Yusuf— who are long-lost childhood friends. Baldev lives in India, and Yusuf lives in Pakistan. Baldev’s granddaughter uses the Google search engine to track down Yusuf, and then coordinates a reunion between the two men with the help of Yusuf’s grandson.

Within twenty-four hours of its release, Reunion had well over 900,000 views. To date, the advertisement has been watched over 10.6 million times on YouTube. Why has Reunion with its simple plot, become so immensely popular?

The story is sweet, but interestingly, takes on one of the most volatile events of the twentieth century—the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent into separate states, Pakistan and India. Partition coincided with the end of British colonial rule in the region, and led to the migration, often forced, of some twelve million people and the deaths of one million. Reunion does not mention partition in word, but implies that this moment had far-reaching consequences, including ripping best friends apart. One gathers that Baldev, a Hindu, left his childhood home of Lahore for India, while Yusuf, a Muslim, witnessed Lahore become the capital city of Pakistan.  Then, over six decades later, these men—separated by time, distance, and their different nationalities—embrace one another in a heartfelt reunion facilitated in part by Google’s search engine.

Why would Google take on such a sensitive topic, one of loss, hardship, and national identity? Sandeep Menon, the director of marketing at Google India, stated, “We wanted to strike up a conversation to showcase the different uses of Google, and tell magical stories that show why our users love the product.” Reunion is no doubt a “magical” story, but the history that it touches upon runs wide and deep across the Indian subcontinent and not without controversy. Partition is no lighthearted matter, and its darker sides are left untouched in Reunion.

Ultimately, Reunion can be seen as a commentary on the continued salience of the partition of 1947.  The national boundaries of India and Pakistan were created during partition, yet these physical boundaries remain contested, as many people’s identities cannot be neatly divided between the two countries. Reunion also demonstrates that the history of partition is negotiable, not just for individuals, but for large corporations with their own set of interests as well. Google seems to be using partition to prod people into not only watching Reunion, but also into joining the over one billion people who use Google as their go-to search engine.

If you are interested in exploring the history of partition and the subcontinent’s struggle for independence from colonial rule, check out Choices’ curriculum unit, Indian Independence and the Question of Partition (released August 2013). The trailer below provides a summary of the main themes explored in the unit.

Nelson Mandela—”A Giant of History”

President Barack Obama, with UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon and South African President Jacob Zuma.

President Barack Obama with Ban Ki-moon and Jacob Zuma at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.                                              Source: GovermentZA (CC BY-ND 2.0)

On December 10, the official memorial service for Nelson Mandela was held in Johannesburg, South Africa. Tens of thousands of people from across the world—presidents, prime ministers, and everyday people—gathered for the service. As a nod to Mandela’s lifetime achievements, the memorial service coincided with the United Nations’ Human Rights Day. Coincidently, December 10 also marked the twentieth anniversary of Mandela receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Mandela received the prize, jointly with Frederik Willem de Klerk, for ending the apartheid regime and laying the foundations for a democratic South Africa.

President Obama spoke at the service, as did dignitaries from Brazil, China, Namibia, India, and Cuba; Ban Ki-moon—secretary general of the United Nations; Jacob Zuma—president of South Africa; Desmond Tutu—South African social rights activist and retired bishop; Nkosazana Dlamini Zum—African Union commission chair; and relatives of Mandela.

“It is hard to eulogize any man—to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person—their private joys and sorrows; the quiet moments and unique qualities that illuminate someone’s soul. How much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world.”

—President Obama, December 10, 2013

President Obama’s point—the difficulty of eulogizing Mandela, “a giant of history,” is true not just for the speakers at the memorial service, but for educators as well. What aspects of Mandela’s life do we focus on in the wake of his passing? His almost twenty-seven years of imprisonment? His relentless campaign against the apartheid regime? His service to South Africa as its first democratically-elected president? His undeniable legacy? These topics are countless and are all well-deserving of our attention.

However, another way to honor Mandela’s achievements and legacy is to focus on the broad themes of resistance in twentieth-century South Africa—resistance to colonialism, to apartheid, and to inequality. There are various online resources that can help educators address these topics in their classrooms. See the list below for recommendations.


Choices has  Scholars Online Videos available that accompany the curriculum unit  Freedom in Our Lifetime: South Africa’s Struggle.  Many of these videos address topics important to understanding twentieth-century South Africa.

How did apartheid keep people separate?
Newell Stulz, professor emeritus of political science at Brown University

How was apartheid different from other systems of racial division?
Newell Stulz

More Scholars Online Videos

Harvard University’s Committee on African Studies:  “South African Apartheid and the Transition to Democracy”
A PDF file that identifies key themes of the apartheid system and resistance movements for educators. Provides an extensive list of books, documentaries, and websites that address these topics.

“South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid, Building Democracy”
This site provides firsthand accounts of the struggle against apartheid, and includes video, documents, photographs, and interviews as well as historical background.

Google Cultural Institute: Africa Media Online Exhibits
The Google Cultural Institute, a platform for online exhibits, houses nine slideshows from Africa Media Online, an organization that collects and digitizes photographs from across Africa. These exhibits address apartheid signs, the Soweto riots, women activists, the 1913 Land Act, and other topics. Click on “exhibits” on the website to access the slideshows.

African National Congress Archives: Apartheid
Includes photographs, posters, and documents that reflect the African National Congress’ campaign against apartheid.

Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory
Features online exhibits on Mandela’s life and over 300 primary documents related to his work.


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