A sense of history

While recording and interpreting historical facts under an attitudinal or ideological inspiration always casts a shadow over the truth of history, such manipulation by the state has a far-reaching effect when the product is offered to young impressionable minds in schools and colleges

A sense of history

Representation Photo [Photo:SNS]

More than two decades ago, in a pamphlet attempting to explain why history textbooks needed to be censored and amended, the then NCERT chairman JS Rajput wrote: “NCERT has been fighting court cases against certain communities which have felt hurt by some of the contents in history books. NCERT has been approached by various groups and sections of people to ensure that there seem to be no biased and hurtful sentiments in NCERT books”. In tune with that spirit, it seems, the Council has revised its books lately including the Class 12 History textbook, by removing chapters on the Mughal empire.

Does that mean that any unpleasant incident that took place in the name of community, faith or nation should be brushed under the carpet so as not to prick anyone’s sensibility? What does a future historian make of, for example, of the RSS’ role in India’s Independence movement or its role in the destruction of the Babri Masjid? For that matter, how does a Communist historian deal with Stalinist purges or the CPI’s stance on the Emergency. Things come to a pass when historians invoking the discipline of objectivity are seen to be handling a political agenda. It may become clear that this is the reason why historians like Romila Thapar and Ifran Habib are “Communists” in the eyes of New India.

If the trend continues, it is feared that history being the memory lane of civilization and historiography being a trained discipline will be tainted as propaganda. The Congress in the postcolonial era began its history creation with Nehru’s Discovery of India as its model. In the past decades, in Class X history books it was asserted that the exact spot on which Babari Masjid stood was the birthplace of Ram. This serves as an example of havoc caused by textbooks. Also, there have been distortions found in the history of Muslim rule in India. Even more interestingly, Dalit historian DC Dinkar’s book Swatantrata Sangram Mein Achhuto ka Yogdan said that the man who ignited the 1857 revolt was not Mangal Pandey but a Dalit, Matadin Bhargi.


Also, it has been observed that when efforts are made to link history with value education there is uneasiness. The Pirpur Report attacked the education policy and blamed the Congress for Hinduisation.

There was understandable anxiety when, in 1990, the government of India commissioned a group of historians to write a proper history of India. Reports came that the then governments of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh wanted Indian history to be written as the government viewed history. A similar anxiety was felt when, in 2003, the NCERT textbooks claiming that all the courses they had embodied were aimed at “inculcating a thorough knowledge of love for the country, its rich and long cultural, scientific and spiritual tradition, and a strong sense of unity and togetherness” were endorsed by the Supreme Court verdict and introduced by the BJP-led NDA government. That history, like religion, lends itself to such use as one would like to make of it, and writing it under governmental command may very dangerously fulfill political purposes, cannot be debated. While recording and interpreting historical facts under an attitudinal or ideological inspiration always casts a shadow over the truth of history, such manipulation by the state has a far-reaching effect when the product is offered to young impressionable minds in schools and colleges. At the 62nd session of the Indian History Congress in Bhopal, top historians of India denounced the attempts to replace mainstream history with a Hindutva version. In its resolution, the IHC condemned the deletion of certain passages from the NCERT’s history textbooks.

The IHC brought out a critique of the “saffron” textbooks in 2003. In one of the books, the October-November 1917 Bolshevik revolution was termed as “a couple led by Lenin”. In fact, the state as a sponsor of any intellectual activity, history included, can have a brainwashing effect on generations of people, and close their minds to the free winds of widespread creative change. German philosopher Herder, one of the foremost writers who tried to reveal the “philosophy of history”, viewed the state as a negative agency. Writing towards the end of the eighteenth century and surveying the history of the entire mankind, he perceived the state as “a destructive force that crushes cultural flowers, amalgamates forms, extinguishes spirit”.

History written through political or ideological motivation has always appeared as a roadblock to intellectual progress. Carried to the extreme, this comes close to a totalitarian or fascist regimentation of the human mind. Hitler’s Mein Kampf was basically a history book, and the entire Nazi propaganda was addressed to a reinterpretation of European history with the Germans as victims crying out for restoration of their supreme status as the purest race and as the future rulers of mankind. India witnessed a bizarre episode when Indira Gandhi, in 1975, ordered a “time capsule” to be embedded in the earth near the Red Fort. The “capsule” was to contain a record of contemporary history, as perceived by her regime, for the benefit of generations yet unborn. A change in the regime unbedded the capsule.

Viewing history through a prism of a priori motivations appears to be a common occurrence through time. This is best illustrated by the several angles of light that fell on the history of India in the previous century. Many schools of historiography worked on the subject, particularly the post-British period of Indian history. The Imperialist school viewed British occupation as a civilizing influence and even the neo-Imperialist or the Cambridge school refused to consider colonialism as the system which governed India.

The nationalist historians perceived the freedom movement as the surge of what Surendranath Banerjee called “a nation in making” but the Marxist school visualized this movement as a thrust against a totality of an economic framework. The subaltern school likes to see the Independence movement as a bid by the elite and the middle classes. Now, if history is an objective truth, how come these different groups are able to present varying images of India’s past?

The fact of the matter is that history is as we want our present and our future to be. The reading and writing of history is not unconnected with the values and goals we pursue in our present, and the way we want our society to develop. In this sense, it resembles religion, for it lends itself to collective social use as powerfully as religion. And what can be used can also be misused, as we have learnt from our experience of the way religion is manipulated for divisive or regressive purposes. If history is the record of man’s life as it is lived, a great deal of distortion may be introduced when historians sum up life in a certain period in terms of rulers, conquerors and others in authority.

It is understandable that in earlier times history would be written in this way, but down to modern times historiography has largely rested on the sources of political powers, rather than on the wide base of social life. The notion that Hindus and Muslims in India are mutually antagonistic entities which feeds the embers of communalism today has arisen from the perception of Indian history from the eleventh to eighteenth century. The focus of history being revealed on the face of the conqueror and the ruler, the picture of Hindus and Muslims leading their daily lives as neighbours got obliterated.

It may be presumed that the way we view our past is a reflection of how we want our future to move. This depends on the progressive development of social values. History being the memory lane of civilization, the perception is similar to a human individual’s perception of his own past experiences. This analogy would apply to how society at a given stage of its development views its past history.

It all depends on whether we have faith in progress, and whether we perceive man as moving towards universalistic, unifying modes of social behaviour which guarantee human happiness.

In other words, it depends on whether we join the forces of social advancement, or we have resolved to promote the dividing and disintegrating relationships which have always generated sufferings for people. A dynamic view of history, as a saga of man’s progress, does not regard the regressive forces of the past as strong enough to be repeated in the present, or made the idiom of interpretation for present day social relationships.

An obscurantist use of history is a sign of our unwillingness to stay with the forces of social advancement.

(The writer, a former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata, is presently with Rabindra Bharati University)