Fighting myths online

Noted historians and scholars use webinars to dispel myths about history

Print edition : December 18, 2020

PROFessor Romila Thapar with Prof. Harbans Mukhia at the Jawaharlal Nehru University Campus in New Delhi on March 6, 2016. The historians have now stepped out of the confines of academia to address live audiences on online platforms. Photo: THE HINDU archives

Professor Irfan Habib and Prof. Shireen Moosvi. Academics have even started leaving out academic jargons to make themselves intelligible to both discerning and less discerning audiences. Photo: S.K. MOHAN

Prof Shireen Moosvi. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Rajmohan Gandhi, biographer and research professor. Photo: v. raju

A small initiative by Delhi University students to take authentic history to the common man through online platforms gathers a momentum of its own with noted historians addressing webinars to correct the falsification of history.

In the initial stages of the pandemic, some Internet savvy historians, possessing the power of articulation, used videoconferencing platforms to discuss issues of medieval and ancient Indian history. The response was good, even from the social media crowd. Much of what they discussed was authentic, but they hardly quoted from the primary sources. Many of them were not career historians. They were provided a platform by students of history from the universities in Delhi and Kolkata. 

It was at this juncture that Prof Ali Nadeem Rezavi, the noted historian of Aligarh Muslim University, stepped in with the idea of projecting the truth and dispelling falsehoods. The need for this was felt asa lot of myth has been floating around in the name of history on social media. Soon, he found himself in the illustrious company of professors Romila Thapar, Harbans Mukhia, Shireen Moosvi and Irfan Habib. Otherwise used to speaking to a distilled audience of an academic seminar, each one of them stepped out of the confines of academia to address a live audience and answer the queries of participants. From being considered somewhat elitist, they became scholars of the masses, as youngsters not only warmed up to their lectures, but happily cross-checked their assertions at the question-answer sessions.
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A project of history students Eeshan Sharma and Nishant Singh of Delhi University’s Dayal Singh College, through the Karwaan—The Heritage Exploration Initiative project in early April, set off the interest in authentic history. Nishant Singh said: “Eshan Sharma and I tried to start a heritage walk for the history department of our college last year in September. We could not meet with success. In April, we started this online lecture series on history. The first lecture was by a young lecturer, R. Shaily. Then we got other academics to join us; many of them are associate professors from Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University. One day even Prof. Romila Thapar took our questions. Seeing the response of people, we have started uploading our lectures on YouTube, too. Hopefully, this way, people can interact with the luminaries of history.”

Quite a bunch of luminaries have given talks for the Karwaan initiative. Romila Thapar spoke on “Conversations on India's Ancient Past, Rajmohan Gandhi on “Some Forgotten Realities of the Partition Story”, and Mukhia on “Revisiting the Feudalism Debate”.

ASHA and Ganga-Jamuni

What started as a small initiative to take history out of the classroom and into the lives of the common man soon gathered a momentum of its own, with even historians from abroad addressing webinars hosted by various groups to help dispel the several myths and misconceptions floating around in the name of history on social media. Groups such as Ganga Jamuni and Aligarh Society of History and Archaeology (ASHA) became active online. By early October, students of history were treated to talks by Richard Eaton, Catherine Asher, John Stratton Hawley and Nadeem Omar Tarar, and within no time they had enough facts and figures to counter proponents of myths. Subjects ranging from Tarar’s discussion on a Takshila heritage site and Hawley’s talk on Braj Bhumi and Mughal Bhakti to those on Ghaznavis sources and Alberuni were dealt with.
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In mid October, Ganga Jamuni presented “Forgotten Heritage of Haryana” with Rameen Khan, which attracted more than a thousand viewers. The talks presented by ASHA and Ganga Jamuni were not dull or drab as online talks are often wont to be. Most of the talks got at least 70 persons as active audience with the number going up to 30,000 in some cases. It is not surprising that their weekly talk calendar has a full schedule until May.

Rezavi, who is active in organising talks on the ASHA platform, says: “In the early days of the pandemic when one saw non-professionals gaining popularity, it appeared that history was being hijacked by people who knew little about it. None of us objected because the people active on lecturing in social media, even if not qualified, were all secular. They were not divisive. They were trying to put forward what they knew. But what worried us was history being hijacked by people who did not know history, or its primary sources. Slowly, historians themselves started picking up.” He has ensured that the opportunity provided by the lockdown measures in view of the COVID-19 pandemic is converted into an opportunity to propagate the reality of our shared past. In October, ASHA started online lectures with the first talk delivered on Takshila by the Pakistani scholar Nadeem Omar Tarar.

It is an effort well appreciated by fellow historians. Mukhia, who has taught the subject for six decades, says: “I see it at two levels. History as a profession has always maintained its discipline. One interacts with students. Several undergraduate students have set up sites where they broadcast lectures by eminent historians. The history students and teachers have been true to the norms of history. On the other hand, the history propagated in the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] shakhas and WhatsApp university has nothing to do with history, but they need that kind of so-called history because it is aligned with the politics they are propagating. The discipline of history has by now gone beyond these categories and manufacturing of facts. No academic takes them seriously. On the other hand, this is the history taught in shakhas and propagated in social media, and gets accepted because this is what people want to hear. History is a political project. We studied it as a discipline, now it is different.”.
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History reaching drawing rooms

He appreciates historians’ decision of going online to deliver talks although not certain about their audience. “The portals of webinars are interesting. A lecturer sits at home or somewhere in New York or Johannesburg and delivers a talk which is heard in Kolkata or Delhi. The audience is very, very receptive. That is one part. Then there is another aspect. About a month ago, Prof. Romila Thapar gave a lecture. Initially, she was very reluctant to speak to, so to say, a laptop. The Karwaan students managed to persuade her. In the end, she was heard by about 30,000 people,” says Mukhia. The American scholar Richard Eaton’s ASHA lecture in November was heard by more than 3,500 people. The reach of the lectures is widespread. People are connecting with scholars. Not just young lecturers and assistant professors or their students, but even those with a passing acquaintance with history are logging in. “History is reaching people’s drawing rooms,” Rezavi said, adding, “At times, there are so many questions that it is difficult to handle all of them. Admittedly, we get more response to foreign scholars’ talks. That is a colonial hangover.”

The online attendance for a history lecture is many times over and above the average attendance in a hall. Often, only 50 to 100 people would attend a history lecture. Now almost all distinguished historians are venturing into cyberspace, into the public domain, overcoming their inhibitions of interacting with those who may not have the rigour that the discipline demands. They are responding to history increasingly becoming a political project, and trying to rectify the falsehoods spread on social media. “Historians are correcting the falsification of history through these talks. It is a question of here and now. In the age of the pandemic, there may not be a tomorrow,” Mukhia observed. He said: “For instance, when somebody talks of the Taj as a Shiv temple, or the Jama Masjid as a Vishnu temple, you dismiss it with contempt. But then there are people who propagate it, even they know it not to be true but they accept it because they want it that way. It all started with P.N. Oak who was a librarian in some college in Pune. He was no historian. What we are witnessing today has its roots back in the freedom struggle.”
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History and the freedom struggle

Incidentally, when historians write about the freedom struggle, they do so at two levels: one, Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai; two, how Hindus and Muslims are enemies. Empirically, the Congress represented the nationalist view and the Muslim League represented the communal view. The schism continues even today. It is this division that is being countered through the multi-faceted talks online with historians looking at the freedom struggle beyond Mahatma Gandhi and the personality-centric perspective.

Rezavi said: “We talk of shared heritage to counter the myth that the right wing is propagating. We talk of the shared heritage of India. We have a series on the sources for medieval Indian history, be it Amir Khusrau or Alberuni. We discuss them every Friday. It is an attempt to encourage the study of the past based on primary sources. Also, it can be taken as an attempt to take history beyond the higher echelons of the discipline.”

This attempt to take history to more people beyond the classroom is proved by its progress and the response to Romila Thapar’s talks. Initially, when she talked about fellow historian Satish Chandra, she had an exemplary draft ready. She read from it. But slowly she moved away from the pre-set academic ways and was happy to take questions during live talks. She answered them patiently, cheerfully. It not only helped break the ice between the seasoned academic and her listeners, it also ensured that her viewpoint travelled far. Academics have even started leaving out academic jargons to make themselves intelligible to both discerning and less discerning audiences.
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There were pitfalls, though. If some academics were initially not open to the idea of speaking before their laptop camera, others like Irfan Habib did not carry smartphones. Some of them did not use a laptop. So, the webinar organiser had to make the necessary arrangements for the webcast. Not to mention the danger of coronavirus infection. A lecture by Irfan Habib had to be cancelled because there was a COVID-related death in his neighbourhood. Then there is the question of the talks of being attended only by like-minded folks. Mukhia said: “The people who come to listen to us in webinars are often of the same view. I am heard by those who already agree with my viewpoint. It is like an echo chamber. They are already convinced. That is a shortcoming of webinars. We have to step beyond our own. We are a band of historians who have taught hundreds of students in colleges and universities for years. But theirs [the RSS] is a massive organisation spreading falsehoods every morning. We cannot really compete with them, But one does what one can do. And through these webinars we have taken a step in the right direction. It may be a small step, but it is significant in its own way.”

The fight against falsehoods is well and truly on.

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