The collection of articles in this booklet are concerned with the recent debate on the nature of the history textbooks that the state should be sponsoring. Several articles in this collection focus on the particular aspects of the recent debate. The articles in this collection themselves will suffice for the reader to understand the efforts behind communalisation of education that is underway. But I thought it would be a worthy attempt if one could briefly demarcate the various trajectories of the development of history as a discipline in India in relation to society and politics. This attempt below, would, I hope serve the purpose of an introduction to this set of articles. This introduction therefore, will not be directly concerned with the debate but, I hope will introduce and sensitize the reader and the activist to issues of practice of history – writing, teaching, studying, understanding etc.
History is appropriated in the construction of any identity. In other words, events, images and selective versions of the past are used socially and often politically to reconstruct the identities of social groups and political movements in a society. To that extent the practice of history – its production, its teaching and its study by various sections of the society involves far more politics than is often discernable. This also contributes to the processes by which a collective looks at its past and its understanding of its past shapes its plans for the future. Quite often what happens in politics is that history is used to justify current practice making it a part of the same, leaving no space for pure history.
In recent times, what comes immediately to one’s mind while discussing such issues is the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid controversy. Here one section claimed that Lord Ram was born at that particular place. Some digging and some sort of evidence was mobilized and as a result, a 16th Century monument came crashing down. What were the professional historians and archeologists doing during this debate? Some of course remained as they have always been! Some non-sympathetic professionals even tried to argue that the question of whether Ram was born in this place or that place is not all that an important issue for us for we have more important things to do and think about in our professional lives!! But it wasn’t so simple. The terms had been set by ‘politics’ and a few professionals had to enter the debate in these terms. One pulled down two pillars while the other pulled down three and finally the mosque came down. What is pertinent for us to think about while discussing politics and the study of history is that the terms of this debate were set by politics in which history, culture, myth and much else was drawn on.
This is only indicative of how history and politics are intimately related. To most people like us, this relationship between history and politics is well reflected in the way we tend to conceive of history. The moment we say history, what do we think of? We think of the past, all right. But which past? People who have had the opportunity to see textbooks will immediately be reminded of those. But still, there is something, which somewhere lurks in our mind when we say history. What is it? I think it is our freedom struggle, which we visualize when we talk of history. Why so? There are many things, which happened in the past, in many places of the world – stories of our locales, families, towns, cities that we quite often inherit from our grandparents to those narratives of the past, which have been institutionalized in the public realm for years together. But why do we only have to think of one particular past? Why freedom struggle, in this case? Can we dare say that there is politics behind this? May be not, if we think politics is something that has only to do with MLAs and MPs or something that those local dadas do in getting ‘things done’ with their ‘contacts’ at higher places or that politics concerns only with political parties. There is more to it. For example, a whole set of historical processes contribute to our thinking of India’s history as synonymous to its freedom struggle. It was primarily a political project of the young nation state to legitimize itself before its public. There is politics involved in ways that we cannot easily perceive them. Nevertheless they influence the way a whole society thinks and perceives itself. Knowingly or unknowingly we all are implicated in this process. Our worldviews, our ideas, our attitudes to society all involve politics. Politics is something that changes the nature of human interaction at many levels. If so, then why should historians or for that matter any professional researcher of any sciences be away from this essentially socio-historical processes.
Now we will have to try and understand how the writing of history has been part of politics understood thus. May be we will have to begin by looking at the people who started writing the history of India as we read in text books today. There were three kinds of people who were involved in the writing of Indian history.
The first were called the orientalists. Orientalists were those who were alienated from their own societies (Europe) and who were on the lookout for utopias elsewhere. India was one such utopia for them. They kind of found everything in the Indian past – spirituality, local republics, harmony – all such romanticized notions of a society that were not to be found in Europe that was fast undergoing changes itself, passing through the initial phases of industrialization.
There were another kind of people called the utilitarians who strongly believed that maximizing the wants of a society would strengthen it and its economy. Their position was diametrically opposite to the orientalists. They held that India was a backward country and the only way out for it was to subject itself to the ‘god-sent’ British rule. James Mill, who belonged to this school of thought, wrote the first known text of Indian history called the History of British India. He wrote it from England and he never visited India even for once. Mill did something, which still haunts the study of Indian history. He cleanly divided Indian past into three periods – the Hindu period (or the Ancient period as we call it today), the Muslim period (Medieval) and the British period (Modern)- not Christian! This was first generation history.
What were the nationalists doing in response to all these?
To the nationalists the most urgent concern was that the humiliation that they were going through at the hands of the British will have to be undone. They chose to glorify the past and hence uncritically accepted this scheme of periodisation in Indian history. But what is so wrong with this three-part scheme of periodisation? It meant two things:
- Religion was construed as a reason for historical change and
- Religion was seen as constituting a nation.
The similarities of the two nation theory is quite striking here.
Why did this happen?
Both nationalism and communalism as social phenomena were essentially post 18th century phenomena, considered to be the fallout of the modern process of economic, political and administrative unity that the Indian society passed through in this period. Considering the vast and diverse differences that had been part of the constitutive features of Indian society, what do you think would have happened if these nationalists came up and said in response to the British’s Hindu-Muslim approach that it is the Indian society that is non-homogenous and disintegrated whereas Hindu society is homogenous and an united whole. We today have seen more than enough of the implications of equating ‘Hinduism’ and the ‘Indian nation’.
But how did the nationalist historians of this kind come up with such a defense(!) in the first place?
Imperial rule had to be countered in many ways. One important component of this process had been the nationalist movement. At the ideological level, cultural nationalism was a prominent counter to imperialism, even the world over. Cultural nationalism as an answer to imperialism, despite its many problems, was embodied quite strongly in the ideological critique of colonial rule. Apart from the well known works on the lines of economic critique formulated by people like RC Dutt and Naoroji, there were many who were engaged in formulating a critique of the British way of portraying the Indian past. This was to directly feed into the nationalist movement in a constitutive manner, for it could only by defending your past that you could argue out for an independent nationhood. And that past had to be glorious – the essential tenet of cultural nationalism, the world over.
With the growth of the nationalist movement as a mass movement, the necessity to mobilize the masses on a large scale became a compulsion. The leadership had to go in for all possible ways to inspire the masses into the nationalist movement. But there was one way which a few opted for. It was the most convenient way that they could have chosen. What was it? It was the primordial religion as a means for mobilization. Tilak (his Ganesh Pooja festivals, to cite the obvious), Aurbindo (his overt spirituality and advocacy of Vedas) and Gandhi (He Ram and bhajans etc. etc.) come in as striking examples. The use of Hindu imageries in the popular realm for a political cause could not have been very productive even in their own terms. Muslims and lower caste groups could not have possibly got enthused by these means. What would that mean to the character of the national movement?
OK, these were only a few. What were the modernist nationalists doing? These were the people who believed in liberal notions of freedom, democracy and equality and who would argue out for the importance of the spread of scientific temper in the society. Didn’t they question the use of such means? For all of them, like Nehru, the propaganda against communalism in society had to be countered by lofty rhetoric of nationalism, saying communalism essentially meant anti-nationalism. They rarely entered into a debate within the nationalist movement regarding the use of religion as a means for mass mobilization.
One usual explanation given for this is to point out the shortcomings of this leadership in not being able to perceive that the possibility that communalism would not have arisen if nationalism had reached the entire spectrum of the masses – that people would have thought of the nation in the first and the last instance, if nationalism was a full-blown enterprise. This explanation is limited in the sense that it reduces the phenomenon of communalism to something akin to organizational inefficiency of the nationalist movement, let alone the underlying assumption that both nationalism and communalism would essentially oppose each other. The limitations of the idea of nationalism in countering communalism have been well understood, at least in the recent times of turbulence in our society.
However, the important point to be noted is that when leaders adopt such strategies followers, including historians followed.
One of the claims made by the British to gain legitimacy for their rule was to say that Indians never knew the meaning of democracy, let alone experiencing it. Nor could they be eligible for a free society for they could never rule themselves. Well, even without going into the intricacies of the game of proving this as untrue, we know for sure that this was a ploy employed by the British, and a ploy political at that. It was ahistorical to claim so. But how do you think Indians responded? They responded with an equally ahistorical story. And equally political too.
One of the prime myths that was invented was the myth of the Golden Age – that “we had everything syndrome”. What is important is to note that the choice of the period for the myth was the Ancient period – as distant from memory as possible. When myths were planted in a period of which nothing much is known, it becomes easier to make it appear believable. These tactics in politics are only too well known, even in our daily social life. Many myths were constructed. T
The myth that Indian civilization was spiritual contra the materialist West whose equivalents in social terms were even used to claim that Indian caste had moral foundations and hence superior while the western class found on crass materialist principles remains irrelevant to Indian society. But if we ask, what is this whole idea of Indian spirituality? Even here the British creation of Indian spirituality was conveniently adopted. The core aspects of the supposedly self-defining characteristics of the civilization are that of dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Of these, only moksha denotes something about spirituality. The rest are as much about material practices and what more about pleasure!
Another interesting feature about these myths is that they all were derived from their western equivalents. Golden age as derived from the idea of the dark ages in European history and the Aryan myth as an answer to the western racialist doctrines based on the Teutonic and the Anglo-Saxons. The Aryan myth is a classic example of myth-making that advocates the idea that Aryans had always been the native inhabitants of India.
Another story that comes to one’s mind is that of the myth of India having been a non-violent civilization. Well, if we could just stop here and reflect a bit, we would know that it had always been the Buddhists and the Jains who were the advocates of non-violence and their thought systems were found on these principles. When has Hinduism been non-violent? Its Gita, to mention the obvious was created during one of the most violent wars.
One familiar myth that we heard during recent times is that the Mughals (read Muslims!! Or even better the image of Md.Ghazni, the tyrant) were temple destroyers. But do we know that the Hindu king Harsha, of the 11th century in Kashmir had a professional committee devoted to the purpose of plundering temples?
But how is it possible for such nice people like the nationalist historians to have come up with such myths? Why would they do this? Why would such myths get incorporated into the mental imageries of generations ending up as stereotypes?
As mentioned above, myth making has been part and parcel of emerging nationalisms, the world over. Cultural nationalism as a phenomena always tends not to leap forward – but the reverse – that is, it always leaps back to the past as a natural therapy of consolation to social humiliation at the hands of a political enemy – who could be real as in the case of colonialism or they could even be imagined/constructed enemies as in the case of construing certain groups of people of the same country. It always would require a ‘glorious past’ and an ‘enemy’ supported by ‘n’ number of myths for cultural nationalism to survive and take roots among a nation’s public. Since cultural nationalism was an attractive option before the intelligentsia who took upon themselves the task of defending their motherland, it was also on their onus to invent and reconstruct the past, in their own ways. Yes, they were all political beings!
Another possible reason is that most of these historians were the employees of the British Government. Neither could they side with the ruler or with the ruled. Yet, they wanted to be nationalists. What do you do? How do you combine personal safety and nationalist sentiments?
You go back and glorify your past in a parochial manner. But how? You glorify that part of the past where you had some stories of some regional chieftains who fought the Mughals for a more complex set of reasons. Yes, the stories of the Rajputs, Sikhs and the Marathas were reconstructed. The only reason that unites all these chaps is that they all fought the Mughal empire. What more heroic stories you need? Rana Pratap and Chatrapati Shivaji – sheer names will do to give you that immediate pumped up feeling of patriotism! But have we ever asked, why only Rana Pratap, Shivaji and Guru Gobind Singh were venerated as heroes on a national scale? After all they were supposedly in the period of the dark ages – the age of the Mughal empire, the age of decline of the great Indian civilization. But why not Ashoka and Harsha who were in the Golden age of this ‘glorious civilization’? If we would ask such questions to ourselves when we feel pumped up about anything patriotic, we would realize that what separates naïve patriotism and fascism could only be as thin as an hairline!
This tendency of uncritical reconstruction of the past is also evident in the case of projecting a few as the founders of Modern India – Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Dayanand Saraswati, Tilak etc. True they could have been great men – but they were men – mortal beings as well! Why can’t we think it is possible for such men to have misunderstandings as all mortal beings do.
One could come up with as many myths as the number of claims and counter claims advanced by various groups. But the point to understand is that such kind of ‘backdoor nationalism’ – that feels nationalistic without opposing imperialism would only yield active communalists but never active nationalists. It is important therefore to remember that active communalists have never been active nationalists. Imperialism as a phenomenon has to be recognized in its various possible avatars and it has to be countered effectively by all possible means, with the people as a whole. Naïve ideologies grounded on false contradictions would only foster that kind of politics that misleads any struggle against imperialism.
But if all these are examples of irresponsible history writing, how does one write responsible history?
The obsession (possible corollary is mental inertia) with political history – that still remains as the dominant mode of historical practice in the country would always portray history as a continuos narrative of pre-selected events. The study of political history confined to story of the good and bad kings will always help create such myths, feeding into processes like communalism. Rather, political history could even study the nature of power relationships between the ruler and the ruled. The study of the logistics of such power dynamics would reveal more than what conventional political history normally conceals.
Instead, we still need comprehensive studies of economic history that would bring out the nature of class relationships for us to understand the characteristics of past societies in their terms. The study of social history on the other hand, would tell us, in our own national context, how a low class Muslim and low caste Hindu had more in common than with a high class Muslim, Let alone such factors, even within the so called homogenous Hindu society, we would know more about the differences and conflicts that prevailed within that society, The infamous conflict between the vadakala and tenkala brahmins, between the saivites and the vaishnavites, between the desharth and the konkanastha brahmins, the story of the oppression of other belief systems by the dominant Hindus etc. could all be revealed if one goes for other kinds of history that very well could be written and taught. For example, we would come to know how in the course of the tension between the carvakas and the brahmins, the latter completely erased the philosophy of lokayata followed by the carvakas from any philosophical literature.
Much also depends on the kind of sources that a historian chooses to use for her study. Sources are very important in history writing. They constitute the evidence for the claims of the historian. There are various kinds of sources – literary, archeological, oral etc. What matters then in the use of sources is to understand the nature of the social backgrounds that possibly constitutes the sources themselves. In other words, it is equally important to understand the possible bias that would define the nature of the source itself. For instance, literary sources could probably be elite sources in the study of the distant past – like the Vedas that advocate varnashradharma, principles by which dominant groups had wanted to define the nature of the polity as they conceived. The oppressive nature of such societies could only be understood only if sources themselves are subjected to critical inquiry. Of course, this critical inquiry will always be influenced by the contemporary politics in which the historian is implicated.
But what does the historian do and how?
Thus paradoxically, the historian who is professionally concerned with the past is actually orienting the future of the society. In this two way process mediated by the politics of the historian, stereotypes emerge which go onto become the foundations of modern political ideologies. The image of the past that the historian projects on to the society is precisely her contribution to the future. The potential of these images in making political myths is something that the society should recognize.
The teaching and learning of history involving generations of teachers and students would continue to subscribe and re-subscribe to stereotypes. It is the critical faculty of the learning process institutionalized in the social realm that would tell us that histories like the communalist history is actually poor quality history. If the system thrives on status quoist structures of learning, propagation of false histories would conveniently go ahead for generations and as we know, false histories and political mythologies always go together. Writing of text books are important. But as experience has shown, mere textbooks would prove to be substantive interventions, only when they are supplemented by restructuring the system of teaching. Innovative ways of doing history has to accompany the learning process. Writing up local histories as part of the learning process could be one important step. For this would help in radically altering the conventional image of history that only recognizes particular written histories as valid past social experiences. The image of history as synonymous to the history of the ‘fighting nation’ will have to be altered to bring in the multifarious experiences of the people in the nation in their various spheres of life as the central focus of historical practice from the initial levels. The study of the past of the locale in its possible relation to the nation or the world instituted in the learning process would do a lot in bringing history back to people. Persistent ideologies embodied in various actors involved in the teaching and learning of history will have to be negotiated in the process of learning where all of them in participate in the process of democratic production of knowledge.
On the other hand, there seem to be so many people involved in the academic practice of history. What happens to all the research done by them? Unfortunately, the teaching of history in schools and in majority of the universities in the country has nothing to do with the trends of academic research in history. How to institutionalize such a linkage is something that has hardly been thought about either by the universities or by the authorities on school education. What exactly happens then in academic practice of history?
Understanding the academic practice of history
One possible end to approach this might be to begin with a sociology of the academic practice of history within the institutions of research. What kind of research is done and how do they get sanctioned thereby lending that much needed institutional legitimacy? Do all these research have something to do with the teaching of history? Who writes these text books and how are they taught? Generational patterning of intellectual life in a society after all is rooted in these processes.
However, what is important to understand is that power games do operate in the academic realm as much in the political realm, that we all have in some way or the other have become so skeptical about. The choice of a research problem, for example is always conditioned by the local politics of the research institutions. Hunt for positions in powerful committees, hunt for fellowships and scholarships all involve politics of the kind, as witness in the daily political life of the country.
The recent controversy surrounding the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla is a case in point. Once the BJP came in to power, one Mr. GC Pande was appointed as the Director of this excellent institution that has had a tradition of research that has inspired a whole generation of students and scholars. Now, GC Pande who is as right as right is, came in and said, all research done in that institution is utter humbug and that the research priorities should be thoroughly reoriented. One could imagine the daily life of the scholars in the institution.
A more striking example is the recent story that a Govt. sponsored institution, which was reconstituted like most of the academic centres after this Government came into power, has apparently sanctioned ten crores to trace the mythical river Saraswati! That is how political can academic research get!!
History and politics – is there a way out?
Of course, this is not to argue that politics should have no place in history. The complex web of political ideologies of various kinds are of course, if you like it or not, are ingrained in the process of teaching and learning. What does one do? This appears more like a vicious circle? The option to me is to come up with sensible and critical political practice that would encourage research and learning. To recognize the different facets that politics could shape in to the various spheres of a society’s life requires this critical political practice, where no stereotypes would go unquestioned.
As social activists what kind of task that lie ahead of us in the light of recent developments in our social and political life is something that we all have to ponder about. Initiatives to activate critical inquiry of course is the bottom line. There is an urgent necessity to intervene with a reflexive sense of responsibility. Today, we, with the privilege to wield the benefit of hindsight, could sit and discuss the fallouts of the past leadership. But knowing this are we being fair to ourselves or to the future generation, if we just let the production of stereotypes to continue. Historical sensibility requires this sense of reflexivity in us. We have to make a beginning, somewhere.