In defence of history
TO comprehend the present and move towards the future requires an understanding of the past: an understanding that is sensitive, analytical and open to critical enquiry. This was attempted by many Indian historians writing in the last 50 years. Their studies were not only fine examples of historical enquiry but were also pointers to new ways of extending historical methods. They widened and sharpened the intellectual foundations of the discipline of history and enriched the understanding of the Indian nation. These are the studies that have now come under attack, either directly or indirectly, by the agencies of the central government who are busy making a mockery of history. It is because of this assault on history that some of us have to speak in defence of the discipline of history.
Indian history in the 1960s and ’70s moved from being largely a body of information on dynasties and a recital of glorious deeds to a broad based study of social forms. In this there was a focus on religious movements, on patterns of the economy and on cultural articulations. The multiple cultures of India were explored in terms of how they contributed to the making of Indian civilisation. Therefore, many aspects of this multiplicity and its varying cultures – from that of forest dwellers, jhum cultivators, pastoralists, peasants, artisans, to that of merchants, aristocracies and specialists of ritual and belief – all found a place in the mosaic that was gradually being constructed. Identities were not singular but plural and the most meaningful studies were of situations where identities overlapped.
Ten years ago Indian history was moving towards what some scholars have described as almost a historical renaissance. The writing of Indian historians, ranging over many opinions and interpretations, were read and studied in the world of historical scholarship, not only in India but wherever there was an interest in comparative history. Historical interpretations at this time and in many parts of the world used methods of historical analyses that were derived from a range of theories that attempted to explain and interpret the past.
These included Marxism of various kinds, schools of interdisciplinary research such as the French Annales School, varieties of structuralism and others. Lively debates on the Marxist interpretation of history, for example, led to the rejection of the Asiatic Mode of Production as proposed by Marx, and instead focused on other aspects of Marxist history. There was no uniform reading among Marxists, leading to many stimulating discussions on social and economic history. The ideas of historians other than Marxists, such as Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel and Henri Pirenne, were included in these discussions. The intention was not to apply theories without questioning them, but to use comparative history to ask searching questions. If those who are currently busy attacking every serious historical interpretation took the trouble to read historiography – the history of historical writing – they might begin to understand what history is all about.
Some of the more obvious examples of these debates relate to varying themes of historical interest. The changing history of caste in Indian society was being studied in detail to ascertain social change and explain social disparities. It was also being viewed in a comparative sense with other systems of social organisation such as those dominated by masters and slaves as in the Greco-Roman world, or feudal lords and serfs of the medieval world or the more easily recognisable class oriented societies of recent centuries. Historians were asking the same questions that the Buddha had asked when told about Greek society: why do some societies have caste and others have a two-fold division of master and slave. These were questions that were not concerned primarily with making value judgements about caste but with trying to comprehend it as a system of organising society.
The debate on whether or not there was feudalism in India has caught the attention not only of Indian historians but also of many medieval historians in other countries. The categories of feudalism are no longer restricted to a single definition of a feudal mode of production, for many permutations and combinations are recognised and these give new forms to the concept of feudalism.
The historical investigation of the range of ideas that went into shaping Indian nationalism became a testing ground for assessing forms of nationalism in societies other than the Indian. The ideology of nationalism was enquired into and the enquiries ranged from its role in intellectual history to its impact on lesser-known local and popular movements.
New themes came under the purview of historical investigation. Gender history focused on women, not merely as additional players but as primary players and their role in the genesis of some social forms began to be studied. Systems of knowledge came to be examined in terms of their influence on society and their function rather than restricting their history to merely repeating the obvious that these were great advances in knowledge. The formation and definition of a range of Indian cultures came to include the formulations of culture from communities other than elite groups and this widened the base of social history. It also influenced the extensive study of new religious movements, their beliefs and rituals and their audiences. An interest in the history of the environment suggested fresh hypotheses about the rise and decline of urban centres or the impact of hydraulic changes or deforestation on settlements of various kinds.
This intellectual efflorescence was suddenly sought to be terminated. A blight began ten years ago, culminating in the last two years in an enforced attempt to clamp down on the process of exploring ideas. This has reached the point where the attempt is to denigrate the independent intellectual and to undermine a historical understanding of our society and its past. It has taken a variety of forms. Sometimes it has taken the form of political actions, later it resorted to intervening in and closing institutions connected to academic research, and most recently it has taken to censoring books and textbooks. Each action is orchestrated to a single aim.
The political action that initiated this blight was the tearing down of the Babri Masjid in 1992. This was an attempt to insist that a single culture and a single identity – a Hindu identity, defined not by Hindus in general but by those indulging in the destruction of the Masjid – defines Indian culture. It was a violent, aggressive act of destruction claiming to glorify Hinduism but was a far cry from representing civilised Hindu values. Implicit in this act of destruction was the theory that it drew its legitimacy from history, that it was avenging the destruction of the temple at Somanatha by Mahmud of Ghazni, and thereby setting right a wrong of history.
This fallacious idea that the past can be changed through destroying the surviving heritage from the past was of course a blatant attack on history: for the axiom of history is that the past cannot be changed, but that if we intelligently understand the past, then the present and the future can be changed. The destruction of the heritage of a society, as also happened in the case of the Taliban destroying the images of the Buddha at Bamiyan, is the subordination of past history to present politics. The claim that the past can be annulled is actually a crass attempt to redefine people, their culture and their history. The effort was and is to create a nation moulded not by all-inclusive national aspirations as of the earlier anti-colonial kind, but instead by a narrow nationalism identified with a particular version of a single religion. This makes it easier to impose an ideology of the sort that facilitates political mobilisation and access to power. History is being made a handmaiden to this process.
Once the process comes into being it encourages an appeal to what is projected as a collective memory. Collective memories are not innate and are constructed. As we all know from parallel political movements that have used history in this fashion, such as in Europe in the 1930s, the notion of a collective memory encourages simplistic explanations, single agendas even for explanations of happenings in the past, and preferably a replacing of historical fact with mythology. Collective memory can be a-historical or even anti-historical and is therefore a convenient tool for spreading fallacies.
The Hindutva approach to history ignores all other histories and schools of interpretation. They are all dismissed as Marxist or equivalent. They are then replaced with a reconstruction of the past, based on dubious evidence and arguments, and which differs from the accepted mainstream history. Hindutva history derives its legitimacy from 19th century colonial history. The periodisation of Indian history maintained by James Mill divides Indian history into the Hindu, Muslim and British periods. Mill’s argument and that of many other colonial historians was that the Hindus and Muslims formed two distinct communities and that they were perpetually in conflict.
This has been taken over by the Hindutva ideology in which the enmity of Hindu and Muslim is foundational. It is argued that Hindu civilisation suffered because of Muslim rulers who oppressed the Hindus. This view is propagated despite the fact that some of the most creative forms of Hinduism such as bhakti – the religion of devotional worship, and now the most widely practiced form of Hinduism – evolved in South India but became prevalent in North India during the period of Muslim rule. That Mill has been challenged by Indian historians writing in the last 50 years makes not the slightest difference to the Hindutva insistence on supporting the two nation theory.
A major contention is that Hindus were forcibly converted to Islam. This view is based on the claims of the court chroniclers of various sultanates. Some may well have been conversions under pressure. Others such as well-placed families, as for instance of some Rajputs, more frequently converted for reasons of social and political expediency. But the majority of conversions were by caste – jati – and these would have been voluntary and in the expectation that Islam held out a better deal of social equality than Hinduism.
There was of course no guarantee that the expectation would be met and less so where a caste hierarchy was not terminated with conversion. But what is of interest is that where a caste converted, it generally retained its rules of marriage, custom and some rituals and continued to have professional relationships with Hindu castes. When weavers in some North Indian towns converted to Islam, they continued their earlier relationship with Hindu textile merchants. Prior to their conversion they were anyway regarded as low caste and the traders maintained a social distance, and this distance remained.
The issue of conversion that was once a matter of historical debate is now being used politically to threaten Muslims and Christians. Historians have shown repeatedly that conversions did not create a monolithic, uniform community. Those that called themselves Islamic had immense variations not only between the Arabs and the Turks or between the Sunni and Shia’h, but also between Khojas, Bohras, Navayats and Mappilas. These variations enriched the culture of each community and endowed them with varying identities of language, region and custom, identities that frequently intersected with those of other groups in the area. In trying to understand the history of communities, whether Hindu, Muslim or any other, there are many distinctive forms that give multiple identities to such groups. These have evolved from a long process of social negotiation, some of it contentious and some of it convivial. These identities cannot be negated as in the Hindutva interpretations that sweep them all into a single communal entity.
Another aspect of the relations between Hindus and Muslims in the ideology of Hindutva focuses on the Muslim destruction of temples in the past. This is not denied by historians but attempts are made to try and place such actions in historical perspective. This was not the only activity of Muslim rulers and temple destruction has to be juxtaposed with other undertakings that were not destructive. This is also related to the question of what we chose to recall from the past and reiterate, and what we chose to forget. Destroying a temple was a demonstration of power on the part of invaders, irrespective of whether they were Muslim or Hindu. We chose to forget that there were Hindu kings who destroyed temples, either wilfuly as did Harshadeva of Kashmir to acquire the wealth of the temples, or as part of a campaign as in the case of the victorious Paramara raja destroying temples built by the defeated Chaulukya.
My purpose in drawing attention to this is not to add up the scores, but to argue that temple destruction was not merely an act of religious hostility. Temples were certainly places of ritual space and had a religious identity. But royal temples were also statements of power and were surrogate political institutions representing royalty. They were depositories of wealth and centres of finance, they maintained social demarcations through allowing some castes to enter the temple but excluding others, and they were the cultural nucleus of at least the elite groups of a region. Temple destruction and its aftermath, therefore calls for historical explanations of a wide-ranging kind. It cannot be made the justification for destroying or threatening to destroy, mosques and churches in the present day.
In order to assert the superiority and antiquity of the Hindu community as the indigenous and earliest inhabitants of India, the theory of Aryan identity is being revived but in a curious way. Max Mueller had argued in the 19th century that the Aryans were the foundation of Indian civilisation and that they came from Central Asia. The first part of Max Mueller’s argument has been adopted by Hindutva ideologues and the second part has been stood on its head. The Aryans are said to be the foundation of Indian civilisation but at the same time they are said to be indigenous. They are now being equated with the authors of the Indus civilisation, even though the Indus civilisation was pre-Aryan. It was a mercantile culture focusing on many cities and artisanal production and trade, whereas the Vedic corpus depicts a cattle-keeping society unfamiliar with urban culture. The Vedic corpus is rich in its depiction of an agro-pastoral culture, but this is in no way the same as the urban sophistication of the Indus cities.
The British Theosophist, Col. Olcott, associated with Mde. Blavatsky, was the first to argue in the 19th century, as do the Hindutva ideologues now, that the Aryans of India were not only indigenous but were the fountainhead of world civilisation, and that all the achievements of human society had their origins in India and travelled out from India. Vedic Sanskrit was the mother language of all languages and this reverses the argument of Sanskrit being descended from Indo-European. The thesis of indigenous Aryans also dismisses the argument of Jyotiba Phule and the Dalits that the Aryans were alien upper castes who oppressed the lower castes of Indian society. Caste Hindus according to the Hindutva theory have a lineal descent from the Aryans. This descent is also sought to be established by arguing that the authors of the Rigveda were the builders of the Harappan cities. Further that only the Hindus can legitimately call themselves indigenous for Muslims and Christians are foreigners.
The intention of Hindutva history is to support the vision of its founding fathers – Savarkar and Golwalkar – and to project the beginnings of Indian history as authored by indigenous Aryans. This contradicts the archaeological and the linguistic evidence of the Indo-Aryan speakers – but then who cares for evidence when a political message becomes the function of history. This theory ignores all the other societies, some of which were speaking Dravidian and Munda, of which there are traces in Vedic Sanskrit. It ignores the widely accepted argument among historians today that the concept of Aryan is not an exclusive, racial identity, but the social evolution of a group incorporating linguistic, cultural and ritual features, brought in by migrants from across the Indo-Iranian borderlands.
Desperate attempts are being made to prove that the Vedic people and the Harappans were identical. The linguistic evidence is ignored, particularly the presence of Dravidian and Munda, and only Sanskrit receives attention. The reading of archaeological evidence is forced to the point of supporting the equation of Harappan with Vedic, even if Harappan onagers have to be identified as the horses of the Vedic ashvamedha. Contrary to the evidence so far excavated, there is an insistence that the origins of the Indus civilisation be located on the banks of what some identify as the Sarasvati river. This would allow it to be called the Sarasvati civilisation, further evoking a Vedic source.
A history having been invented, the next question is how it is to be implemented? It is being implemented at two levels. One is the level of projecting this kind of history through research institutions and the other is through the school curriculum. It has taken on the dimensions of a campaign with the full involvement of the agencies of the Human Resource Development Ministry.
Research centres have now been staffed with those who have an ideological commitment to Hindutva history. The Council and supervisory positions in the Indian Council for Historical Research in Delhi and their research projects are also oriented to the same kind of history. Among the new members they tried to appoint an engineer in the guise of a historian to replace an established historian of early India who was critical of their changes. The public outcry against this appointment where doubts were raised about his academic credentials and his bigoted writing against Christians and Muslims, led to his being dropped. Such an appointment gives no credibility to the Council.
Whereas earlier the ICHR used to finance a variety of historical organisations, attempts are now being made to exclude those that support secular history which is dismissed by the ICHR as being left-wing history. The IIAS in Shimla now has research projects that focus on ancient Hindu civilisation and more particularly Vedic culture, other aspects of history receiving far less attention.
These interventions by the ministry have been politicised by statements to the effect that earlier these institutions were under the control of left-wing academics so now it is the turn of the right-wing academics. If the debate is formulated in terms of leftist and rightist historians then each time the party in power changes, the curriculum and the syllabus will also have to change. History is not a shuttlecock that can be thrown back and forth in accordance with the views of governments. It also means that since procedures are not being observed, not only the curriculum but also the research programmes will change. And this is precisely what has happened.
Excuse after excuse is made to prevent the publication of certain volumes of documents already in the press, as part of the project entitled, ‘Towards Freedom’. It was first said that they had not been properly edited, then that there were no indexes, and now they have to be cleared by yet another committee although they have already been cleared. A source quoted from the ICHR states that the real reason was to prevent the publication of documents which make it apparent that the Hindu Mahasabha was collaborating with the British.
Procedures of functioning as they have been laid down and followed earlier, should continue to be followed. There is also a need for respecting the professional training in a discipline and ensuring that professionally trained people are appointed to the agencies that determine education. Is it just a coincidence that in educational institutions including the NCERT, recent appointments are said to be of RSS party cadres?
The other action relating to institutions is of course even more high-handed. It takes the form of arbitrarily shutting down institutions of research as and when the government wishes to do so. An example of this is the sudden closing of the Kerala Council of Historical Research six months after it was founded. This is particularly unacceptable given the fact that there has been a growing interest in regional history and the historians working on Kerala have been active in developing research activities. [This decision was reversed through a judgment of the court.] Recently the BJP in Madhya Pradesh has attacked the scientific programmes of Eklavya, an educational NGO that produces school level books on the sciences and social sciences, and it is to be closed. For all its claims to endorsing secularism, the Congress Party in practice, seems to be sympathetic to the Sangh Parivar. If these closures become a pattern it will be disastrous for research and for a secular investment in Indian society.
Shutting down an institution is a sign of extreme insecurity on the part of those who do so. By way of contrast, even though the ICHR is now manned by those who are sympathetic to Hindutva history, the rest of us as historians are not demanding the closing of the Council but are trying to point out that it should include historians reflecting a wider range of views. Given that there are attempts to substitute mainstream history with propaganda, it is all the more necessary to have independent bodies to counteract the hegemony of the propaganda.
To argue that Marxist historians when placed in charge of institutions bring about a hijacking of history to left-wing ideology, is a view resulting from an unfamiliarity with Indian historical research of the last 50 years. The most wide-ranging debate on pre-modern Indian history has been the debate on whether or not there had been feudalism in India. D.D. Kosambi’s understanding of feudalism deviated from the model of the strictly Marxist feudal mode of production. Many of us were inspired by Kosambi’s work, yet the histories we have written don’t necessarily follow only his line of thought.
The major critiques of the feudal mode were initiated by Marxist historians and were later added to by non-Marxists. What resulted from this debate has been the exploration of many areas of Indian history in terms of the nature of the state, polity, economy and religion that have given us immense insights into our past. Some of the universities and research institutions in Bengal funded by the Left Front government have worked on Marxist analyses of history, but have also published equally thought provoking critiques.
The confrontation among historians today is not between leftist and rightist historians, nor over establishing a Marxist view of history, as is crudely stated by some, but over the right to debate interpretations of history. There cannot be a single, definitive, official history. Such a definition of history is restricted to those for whom being a historian is merely an end to getting a government job. If some of us feel that Hindutva history is less history and more mythology we should have the right to say so, without being called ‘intellectual terrorists’ and being threatened with arrest and being put down. In the final analysis, history is an intellectual enterprise and does have an intellectual dimension in its understanding of the past, however much Hindutva ideology may try and prevent that.
Basic to changing the Hindutva interpretation of history is the attempt to give a single definition to Indian culture the roots of which are said to lie in Vedic foundations. This annuls the notion of a multicultural society. It destroys the sensitive and variant relations that have existed throughout Indian history between dominant cultures and regional cultures. This sensitivity is particularly important today in forging cultural identities that are subcontinental but at the same time incorporate the articulations of the region. These are the demands of a federal or near federal polity.
Let me illustrate this. If the new school curriculum is to consist of what has been recommended by the ministry, children are now going to be taught Vedic Maths, Sanskrit, the glories of Vedic culture, Yoga and consciousness and a mish-mash of subjects under the rubric of Social Studies. This may be well motivated – although I doubt that – but it is inadequate for any exploration of knowledge or of coping with the complexities of our times and our aspirations. Where would a young person go looking for good jobs if all that he or she knows anything about is Vedic culture. Vedic culture is fine in its own place, but it is not a substitute for modern knowledge of various kinds.
These changes have not been subjected to the normal rules of the ministry, hitherto observed by other governments. So the Central Advisory Board of Education, which is required to meet to discuss and pass any modifications of the curriculum, has not been called, and has therefore not passed the new curriculum framework. Thus the changes take on the character of being illegitimate if the rules of the ministry are still tenable. Nevertheless the ministry and its agencies are going ahead and paying no attention to procedures. Perhaps this is their definition of an effective government. The Supreme Court passed a stay order since the changes have not been approved by the CABE [since vacated].
Let’s look at this curriculum in the context of literacy and education. The highest literacy percentages today are in Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Mizoram – all sustaining very different societies. To what extent should the difference be taken into consideration when drawing up a syllabus? Growing up in Kerala or in Himachal Pradesh have different requirements and some of these have to be conceded.
Kerala has a culture of wet rice cultivation with lineally organised homesteads, of horticulture in the production of pepper and spices, fisheries and maritime trade. Himachal has none of these. Its villages are nucleated, pastoralism is common and the crops and their cultivation are different. Himachal has religious sects largely drawing on Puranic Hinduism and to a smaller extent populations of Sikhs, Buddhists and Muslims. Kerala has a variant on these and has large populations of Muslims and Christians going back to early times. The language of Kerala, Malayalam, is entirely different from the Punjabi, Dogri and Tibetan of Himachal. Some basic educational demands therefore will also be different and such differences have to be woven into the curriculum.
But what they do have in common are the aspirations that result from education. Schooling and curriculum would need to have some relationship with the local context and ethos and some regional concerns. The question would be how best these can be introduced without denying the importance of national concerns. Educational curriculum has to be such that regional concerns are recognised as an intrinsic part of those that are of national interest. This would ultimately be more viable than forcing everyone to conform to a top-down pattern.
If we agree that we are a society of many cultures then the presence of the many should be registered. This can only be done through centres of research with a regional orientation. This does not mean only the histories of the current dominant communities or castes in a region but a discussion of the interface of the cultures of a region. The danger today is that in an effort to restrict history to that of the upper caste Hindu – as seems to be the game plan of the central government – the richness of the many other cultures will be eliminated. This makes it necessary to have state councils of historical research where the regional variation can be articulated and at the same time can interface with the national. It also makes it necessary for the curriculum in the states to be worked out in association with the State Councils of Education, Research and Training.
In replacing history with Social Studies we thought that perhaps some of these ideas reflecting the presence of varying cultures would find a place in the syllabus. But the syllabus has no sensitivity to the varying requirements of different parts of the country. The new Social Studies syllabus is a package consisting of some history, economics, civics and geography. For all its modern-sounding jargon, the history syllabus derives from a 19th century, colonially oriented outline of history. It is a body of information rather than a method of critical enquiry about the past. It is substantially a listing of dynastic history and moves away from the kind of history that has in the last 50 years advanced our understanding of the past.
There is no evidence that any academic discussion on history or on the pedagogy of writing textbooks, preceded the drawing up of the syllabus or the writing of the new textbooks. And it is all being done clandestinely in a cloak and dagger fashion. There is a refusal to reveal the names of the authors of the new textbooks nor of any historians that may have been consulted – perhaps no historians were consulted. This is a contrast to the complete transparency that was observed when the previous NCERT textbooks were being drafted and a number of known historians were involved in discussing their content and there were consultations with teachers teaching history in schools. The minister has stated that the heads of various religious organisations would vet the history textbooks, although we are not told who they are. This predicts the kind of narratives we can expect in the textbooks and again challenges the discipline of history.
There is a constant repetition of the aim being to equip students to face challenges with confidence but no mention of familiarising students with systems of knowledge and enquiry. The syllabus remains a heavily North Indian centred one with bits added on indiscriminately from a few other areas. The original syllabus had 15 units on ancient India and three on medieval India. This met with considerable criticism, so virtually overnight the three were increased to 22. Those of us who have worked on syllabuses are amazed that such massive changes can be introduced so quickly, and one wonders whether the exercise is being taken at all seriously.
The Director of the NCERT referred to this massive change as a ‘slight modification’. There are now weekly changes being announced and it still remains unclear as to what exactly the final syllabus will be. Yet we are told that the new books will be ready to be prescribed in the coming school session starting in April. This kind of activity suggests a playing around with school education, and this may damage the education of an entire generation of Indian children.
The content of the new syllabus for school History is predictable. The orientation is to focus on the history and values of upper caste Hindus. A few comments on the portions dealing with ancient history will illustrate this. A connection is made between the Harappan civilisation and the Vedic corpus and doubtless in the textbook it will be stated that the authors of the Harappan civilisation and of the Vedas were identical. Vedic culture is taken back to the third millennium BC, a good 1500 years earlier than the generally accepted date. South India in the Shangam age and the prehistory of North-East India are bundled together in the same unit and one is mystified as to what the connection might be.
Another unit is concerned with the germination of Upanishadic thought and would date to 600 BC. The claim that this was the contribution of India to world philosophy at that time is pure invention. The chronology jumps back and forth through the syllabus and will obviously confuse the student. The Gupta dynasty is described as attempting to unite India, even though it made little impact on the history of the peninsula. The period after Harsha in the 7th century AD is said to be a period of small kingdoms. This is particularly laughable when one thinks of the size of kingdoms at this time and this notion of course echoes the views of British administrator historians of a hundred years ago, such as Vincent Smith.
Some months back a great hue and cry was raised to prepare the ground for replacing the existing NCERT textbooks with new ones. The NCERT, the CBSE and the Ministry of HRD, behaved in a fashion that can only be described as unbefitting to government organisations. It was claimed that a number of statements made in the various existing NCERT textbooks had offended the sentiments of various religious groups. Therefore orders were issued that these passages were to be deleted from the books and further, that their subject matter was not even to be discussed in class with students.
Thus for example, references to the eating of beef by Vedic Aryans or expressing doubt about the historicity of Rama were offensive to the Hindus; a reference to an English source stating that Guru Tegh Bahadur indulged in plunder was offensive to the Sikhs; not dating Mahavira to remote antiquity was offensive to the Jainas; and that the Jats carried out raids in the countryside of Haryana and Rajasthan was offensive to the Jats.
Most interesting was the order to delete reference to the caste system and the statement that the varna scheme was the creation of the brahmans. There is now a ban on discussing the origins and history of caste in schools using the NCERT books. This sounds preposterous, but there it is. There is no intention of discussing the eating of beef in Vedic times or why it is important to provide this information in a book on ancient history. The government decrees what the history is to be, and so it shall be.
This deletion of passages from the books and the ban on discussion raises a number of issues of various kinds pertaining to the rights of individuals and the ethics of government institutions. It is clearly stated in a distinct clause of the contract signed between the authors of the textbooks and the NCERT that no changes can be made without the permission of the author. The contract therefore has been violated by the NCERT. At a wider level this is also an infringement of copyright. But the government could not care less about having dishonoured a contract and therefore behaved in an unethical fashion.
As for the CBSE decision that these subjects are not to be discussed in class, this undermines the very foundation of an educational system. The purpose of education is to enable a child to explore knowledge and this means giving priority to critical enquiry. Knowledge does not consist of a body of information to be memorised and passed on. That is the concept of education in the sishu mandirs and madrassas and such like. A modern education demands questioning, skepticism and an ability to think independently and to link information.
What then should we think of as the process of ensuring a transition of knowledge that is independent and draws on critical enquiry. It would seem that no dialogue is possible with government agencies. We have therefore to think of alternate strategies.
At one level one would have to work towards establishing councils of historical research in the various states so that regional histories can be treated in a seriously professional manner and not be reduced to being dependent on the patronage of those in power. Historical records are no longer limited to files in state archives. Over the last century the sources of history have been extended to include a vast range of material that tells us about our past. The range, apart from official documents, includes archaeology, linguistics, inscriptions, coins, monuments, documents of professional groups and of private families, and the oral tradition.
This range means that statements about the past have to draw from a multiplicity of records and if they contradict each other this may be the source of a new illumination about authorship and audience. All these records have to be preserved – not just the state archives and gazetteers. This can only be done by state councils, properly organised and financed and carrying out research into and preserving historical material. And it should be the function of these councils to act in dialogue with those responsible for drawing up the history syllabus and curriculum for schools.
At another level it would be required of independent historians to be more involved in the teaching of history in schools – at least in terms of drawing up an alternate and viable syllabus to that of the NCERT, based on both professional expertise and pedagogy. This would not be an innovation as there are groups that have been doing just this and in some cases their textbooks have been used very effectively in state schools as well as private schools. The example of the Eklavya group comes to mind. Their work will have to be revived and continued despite the assault on them.
Civil society will now have to take the initiative in planning educational centres. The availability of more than a single textbook would provide a challenge to those that are anxious to restrict the writing of textbooks to a single source and thereby control knowledge. If such textbooks, different from those produced by NCERT are reliable, friendly to young readers and cheaply available, such an alternative system might be an excellent outcome of the present crisis. Given the high return on textbook publishing, there might even be a competition among publishers to acquire rights to publishing such books.
In some ways the most serious challenge is the closing down of discussion since it is an attempt to close the mind. This is not a matter that concerns history alone, as it is equally important to all human sciences – be it the humanities, the social sciences or other sciences. This is a frontal attack on knowledge and as professionals engaged in the furtherance of knowledge, it seems to me that we have no choice but to oppose it. The world has moved on since the colonialism of the 19th century and we have come to value independent thinking. There are enough historians in this country that will continue to write independently. There will be enough historical concerns growing out of the multiple cultural aspects of our society, to ensure that the Indian mind is never closed.
* Lecture delivered at Thiruvananthapuram on 2 March 2002.