Process, content and smokescreens
HISTORY has always been a difficult subject to tackle and teach. It can be terribly tedious, especially when treated as a series of dates, names and dynasties. It can also be controversial when certain events and processes are sought to be either given extra emphasis or even excluded altogether out of sheer bias or plain ignorance.
Moreover, history can expand or contract according to shifting national frontiers as also shifting perceptions of national identity. Moreover, here is a subject that is perceived as concerning only the past. This is a false perception, for the past always overlaps the present and future. In every society and nation contemporary social, political and religious institutions have arrived at their present state through the time and tides of historical evolution and transformation. The Indian Constitution for instance, is not a mantra or a spell of magic that has emerged from someone’s intuitive experience or yogic meditation. It is a document with a continuous process of historical evolution behind it.
However, for the present it is mantras, magic and an aggressive bias that are subjecting this discipline to grievous assault. The present government wants history to be ‘Indianised and Hinduised’. This is mantra-magic and bias all rolled into a vegetarian sandwich of Indian history. High caste Hindus have taken offence to certain textbooks asserting that in ancient India beef was a part of the diet. This may or may not have been a fact, but there is scope for the matter to be introduced discursively and imaginatively. Interpolating from Indian diet today it could be stated that in the past too there were both vegetarians and non-vegetarians, and that among the various communities and peoples who lived in the sub-continent, some might not have had any taboo against beef.
There would also be scope for discussion in the text of the place of cattle in the rural economy of the times. The importance of cattle as a currency, as a source of fuel and fertilizer and milk, butter and ghee could have prompted it to be turned into a sacred icon of worship.
Historical writing and scholarship is a continuous process. As such it should not be anybody’s case that there is no scope for revision in the content and presentation of subject matter in textbooks. Broadly speaking there are two kinds of historical writing – textbooks for school and college use and research efforts that eventually become material for general or specialized interest. Given the complexity of India’s social structure a good textbook should not reflect a strong bias or leanings on the part of the author. A good text of history should not try to prove a hypothesis or claim to seek out and portray an abstract, absolute truth. Instead, it should be an aid for students and teachers to try to understand the past in a way that helps us to understand the present better.
Food is one topic of our history, costumes are another. Just as some sections of the people are touchy and sensitive about beef and cattle, there is also a bias in favour of the sari being projected as the national costume of Indian women. But is it? Just as our food habits have a history, so do our clothes. It would be quite ludicrous to present a Hindu, Marxist or Macaulayan perspective on the evolution of Indian costumes. Certainly, clothes of a sort are a matter of class, conduct and culture, but climate, environment and technology too have a significant role in determining what we wear and how we wear it.
Take one look at the dressage of the Indian soldier or general and you wonder if our’s is a British or American army. As for the sari-clad woman complete with petticoat, blouse, bra and stockings and you have the modern Indian woman as a walking-museum of incongruous over-layers of apparel. A good textbook would explain our regional and climatic diversity of dress just as it would explain the religious and cultural influences that have affected our ways of dressing. A dispassionate attitude would portray the lungi (sarong) or even skirt (lehenga) to be as national and Indian as the sari.
Our Hindu and Marxist (and neo-Marxist) zealots are also irked, for their own reasons, by two other facts of Indian life – caste and class. One way to search for the origins and growth of these death-defying phenomena is, of course, to study the past. However, as caste and class are very much alive in our society, we have in them a living laboratory where they may be observed, surveyed and studied. In this laboratory a dramatic variety of specimens may be had for observation, even experimentation.
Take the exclusive ‘public’ schools, the five star hotels, the clubs and defence officers’ messes. Or take the board rooms of corporate houses, the corridors of political and bureaucratic power; also take the matrimonial columns in the ‘free’ corporate press – and you shall have caste and class bubble and ether out from these troughs and beakers of our institutions of education, governance, commerce and industry. In this laboratory, a V.K. Malhotra, an L.K. Advani, a general this or that, a Jyoti Basu, a Praful Bidwai, a Farooq or Omar Abdullah, a Vir Sanghvi, a Birla-Ambani-Dalmia or a Yash Chopra and Shah Rukh Khan may be seen and heard to enact not a raga or symphony of India but a macabre dirge of social cacophony.
Here you would have your Marxists wearing their badge of arms of class struggle while getting drunk on corporate liquor and cigarettes; there would be generals, politicians and bureaucrats looking for brides and grooms of particular caste, class and community, and industrialists happily combining the production of toxic chemicals with praying for Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. You could even find an alliance of Hindu and Marxist zealots teaming up with liberal secularists to put their brains and capital into five star resorts for golf and tourism at sites which were once grazing grounds for our holy cattle or paddy fields for our marginal peasants.
In fact our history and society are so hot with class and caste that we are experiencing a greenhouse effect that is evaporating entire communities and cultures into thin air. No Romila Thapar, no R.S. Sharma, and of course no P. N. Oak, Rajput, or Batra have too much time or place for India’s indigenous peoples (adivasis) in their schema of historical scholarship. The ancestors of this 40-50 million segment of the Indian mosaic finds virtually no place in their textbooks.
There is not a textbook in the Indian school system that talks about their history and antiquity, their religion, culture and technology. We know that the adivasis pre-date all mainstream religious traditions. We know that they had a balanced symbiotic relationship with nature, flora and fauna. We know that they had a good practical knowledge of medicinal plants and minerals; we also know that they had their sacred forests, their community practices of mutual self-help. We know too that their women were more liberated, that they had fewer sexual taboos and that their system of education was a combination of being practical, holistic and spiritual. And yet, our historians – liberal, Marxist and fundamentalist – have between them kept the adivasis shut away with their own peculiar iron curtains and academic smokescreens.
An acrimonious debate is going on about history in contemporary India. The debate over content must go on, but the method and process of teaching history should also be brought under the scanner. For effective learning to take place what is written in textbooks should be supplemented and complemented by observations and surveys of institutions as they actually exist. The search for evidence has to be extended beyond literature and archaeology to taboos and ways of life as are still practiced today.
In the ongoing debate over the school syllabi concerned with history, there is talk about the Sangh Parivar trying to ‘Talibanise’ the school curriculum. This loose use of a particular terminology does no good to the debate. A Talibanised system of education in the Indian context would amount to aggressively propaga ting practices such as untouchability, sati, femicide, feudalism, and denial of education, job opportunities and political rights to women, besides deliberately excluding certain regions and communities from the spectrum of Indianism. Institutions of many religions play a prominent role in the country’s educational infrastructure and they too need to be questioned about aspects of their ideological overview that might be contrary to civil rights and democratic values. Such questions would need to be put not only to the Sangh Parivar, but equally to minority establishments and their respective educational institutions.
In the present political climate, after Nehru, we do need another discovery of India. Maybe Nehru’s discoveries of the Indian ethos were incomplete. But the India of Golwalkar, S.P. Mukherji and Deendayal Upadhyaya was even more convoluted. It’s a pity that in all the hot air that is being blown over the content of education, there is hardly any mention of Tagore, Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo and J. Krishnamurti. Their contributions to the process and content of education would certainly help to put Macaulay, Marx and the mandarins and mahants of the Sangh Parivar in their place. And, show us the way forward as we search how to engage with life even as we spend more time becoming couch potatoes and mousing around with computers and similar gadgets