Rewriting of history

BJP attempt to rewrite textbooks a disservice to history

Print edition : January 28, 2022

Home Minister Amit Shah speaking at a seminar titled “Guptvanshak Veer: Skandagupta Vikramaditya” at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, on October 17, 2019. Hailing Skandagupta as a great king, he said that history had not given him his due and called for more efforts to ensure the writing of history from a nationalistic perspective. Photo: PTI

At a protest by Congress party workers against the BJP government’s attempts to saffronise and distort history, in Mumbai on August 12, 2017. Photo: RAJESH GUPTA

C.S. Srinivasachari, who was president of the fifth session of the Indian History Congress held in 1941. Photo: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

A parliamentary panel report on ‘reforms’ in school history textbooks attacks established scholarship and suggests controversial inclusions, in line with the regime’s dubious agenda to rewrite history.

There are occasions that demand that we pause and reflect on who and what gets left out in history and what kind of a historical consciousness must be inculcated in a modern, progressive society. Such reflection is especially required in the Indian context, where class, caste, tribal, religious and gender identities continue to influence social relationships; where a privileged few hegemonise the vast majority of the people; where history, tradition and past practice are invoked to suppress Dalits, tribal people, and women; and where a majoritarian Hindu identity has been yoked to a chest-thumping jingoism.

But history cannot be yoked to communitarian demands or even needs, and what constitutes history certainly cannot be decided by non-specialists. Because, like other disciplines, there are certain methodological tools and analytical frameworks that provide direction for the historian. Therefore, any school, college or university curriculum for history must take cognisance of the disciplinary contours and the broad, general understanding that has emerged among the fraternity of historians.

It is in this context that the recommendations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education in its ‘Draft Report on Reforms in Content and Design of School Textbooks’ require serious attention. Spread over 46 pages, the document contains depositions by the Department of School Education and Literacy, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT); State-level organisations such as the Maharashtra State Bureau of Textbook Production & Curriculum Research, Pune, and the State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT), Maharashtra; seven private organisations; and four subject experts. The report also includes comments from the Indian History Congress (IHC) with regard to the proposed reforms, which were submitted by email to the Committee.

Also read: Distorting history

The purported aim of the recommendations is to reform and redesign all textbooks prepared by governmental agencies for schoolchildren to “instill constitutional values and promote national integrity and unity”. The Committee has mooted changes in textbook design, such as “enhanced use of pictures, graphics, QR codes, and other audio-visual materials”, and the use of pedagogical innovations such as “games, plays, dramas, workshops, and visits to places of historical importance and museums”.

Attempt to rewrite history

It is very interesting, however, to note that the only textbook subject where there is a content-based discussion in the report is history. This is clearly not by accident, and hence, it is important for historians to engage with it seriously.

A few issues relating to ‘national history’, local and regional history, ‘unsung heroes’ and women figures in history have been repeatedly flagged in the draft report. The first red flag that rises before historians’ eyes is the use of the term ‘national history’: the nation is a modern concept and cannot be projected onto the past in a simplistic manner. It is pertinent to note that in the fifth session of the IHC held in 1941, its general president C.S. Srinivasachari cautioned “the teacher, the researcher, the general scholar, and above all, the writer of textbooks…. (to) carefully guard themselves. History is not propaganda, nor is it rude and vulgar publicity.”

His evocation of a ‘true history’ that was comprehensive, beyond conventional and narrow confines, and cognisant of subnational, national and even international contexts, is strikingly contemporary. It is quite a sad state of affairs that 80 years later, we need to remind ourselves of this sage advice about guarding history writing.

Also read: Communalising history textbooks

To understand world history by emplacing India’s role in it, or recommending the inclusion of India’s connection with South-East Asia as it fits the country’s ‘Look East’ policy seems rather arbitrary and reductive, as a general history education at the school (or any other) level cannot be determined by current policy initiatives. India’s links with East and West Asia as well as other parts of the world certainly need to be studied to understand connections, exchanges and migrations; indeed, the rise of mercantilism and colonial expansionism in modern times cannot be fathomed without such an understanding. In a presidential address to the IHC in 1939, R.C. Majumdar, anticipated C.S. Srinivasachari’s plea to embrace the study of world history, arguing that a proper understanding of Indian history depended on it.

It is ironical that at a time when the world is shrinking owing to new media, we should be restricting the ways in which world history is taught at the school level.

India’s history is rich and diverse, and local or regional histories can certainly offer important insights into specific events or periods. Moving away from what Majumdar and others have denounced as a ‘provincial outlook’, namely a static or narrow contemporary understanding of the regional, historians have argued for a nuanced awareness of the evolution of regions because of the dynamic political, linguistic and cultural processes at work. It is incumbent upon us to transmit that complexity of regional formation and identity in school textbooks. To seek to present only regional contribution to “national history, honour and one-ness”, as proposed by the draft report, is unwarranted and unworthy of the historian, or indeed of history.

Women and ‘unsung heroes’

The recommendation to include women’s historical contributions so that they serve as role models is certainly important, given that most historical sources, especially of pre-modern times, were authored by men and were largely meant for the edification of men. Historians in India have not been oblivious to this: numerous research works, such as A.S. Altekar’s classic Position of Women in Hindu Civilization, have studied texts such as the Vedas, the Jatakas and the Upanishads and inscriptions and art to highlight the presence of women.

Also read: Politics of history

Subsequent generations of scholars have pointed to the limitations of enumerating ‘women worthies’, for they were few and far between in the first place, without an understanding of the context in which they lived. Further, a deeper understanding of the manner in which women were placed within social institutions of marriage, family, household and kinship, and the unravelling of gender biases and stereotypes has informed us of the historical basis of patriarchy and the gender biases and stereotypes that have existed in different forms since ancient times. School textbooks that are currently in use refer to the ‘brahmavadini’ (female ascetic) Gargi Vachaknavi in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Gautami Balashri of the Satavahana period, the Tamil Vaishnava saint Andal, the Kakatiya ruler Rudrammadevi, the freedom fighter Rani Channamma, and so on. But they also encourage students to critically view the structural limitations for women in general in society.

The draft report’s recommendation to include ‘unsung heroes’ in history textbooks is quite strange. Instead of following C.S. Srinivasachari, who recommended that the ideal historian “should not display any tendency to weave destiny round his heroes, instead of allowing the story of their destiny to unfold itself in a natural manner”, we seem to be moving away from a rather well-established convention. More importantly, the aspersions against some individuals who have found a prominent place in the existing textbooks need to be clarified. Does the dispensation propose to leave out Mangal Pandey, Rani Lakshmibai, Pandita Ramabai, Birsa Munda, Dadabhai Naoroji, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Subhas Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, Alluri Sitarama Raju, etc.?

Historical scholarship in the 20th century Indian context has charted a dignified independent historiographical route, notwithstanding colonial pressures and neoimperialist overtures. Textbooks for schoolchildren written in the 1970s and 1980s, and the more recent textbooks from 2006 onwards, have been sensitive to issues such as regional diversities or the historical role of women and various historical figures. While there are differences in the approach and presentation, the effort has been to present information and interpretations in consonance with the generally held academic views. The insinuations in the draft report about the lacunae in the existing school history textbooks do not seem to be based on facts. There is certainly a synthesising of information, or selection of local and regional histories or historical figures, male and female, but these are neither arbitrary nor do they emanate from non-historical considerations. It is equally important to note the pedagogical implications of increasing the information bulk of textbooks.

Also read: Amit Shah’s ‘history’

There is a constant need to question, revisit and revise our understanding of the past through rigorous examination of historical and archaeological sources. Equally important for us is to be cautious about the use of present-day ideas to construct and bolster history and historical consciousness. Ideas of ‘national history’, or conflating the ancient and medieval periods of Indian history as indigenous/Hindu and foreign/Muslim respectively, are some examples of this.

Historical scholarship on India’s past has reached a high level of sophistication through the efforts and self-conscious deliberations of stalwarts over the past century, and it is in this context that regressive tendencies that seek to undermine the historian’s craft need to be contested.

School textbooks need to reflect historical scholarship that is methodologically rigorous and based on primary research, while also keeping in mind pedagogical considerations. The use of factoids to debunk the existing history school textbooks to facilitate new ‘reformed’ textbooks does not augur well for the discipline. History and history writing is much more serious than the present dispensation is making it out to be. National pride cannot be asserted by dictating what constitutes history, and history certainly cannot be reduced to a cut-and-paste enterprise.

Dr R. Mahalakshmi is Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Secretary, Indian History Congress.

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