Most schools teach their students history. History is important, right? There are many people who would sniff at that notion, but learning about the past helps people understand the world better, and it should ideally also help people learn from the mistakes of their ancestors, so that the world itself improves. So we have to learn history; we have to study history textbooks. History textbooks. They sound innocuous enough, but these books are unfathomably powerful.
These books tell students the stories of the world. They shape their understanding of everything; they can change the way they view their present. They can prejudice students against something and influence their world view. They’re powerful tools that could become catalysts to revolutions.
History as a weapon
This isn’t an exaggeration, but a well known fact — one that people have exploited for aeons. Modifying history to validate one’s cause is an ancient political tactic. Hitler did it back during the time of the Nazis, as did Mussolini. Only people who believed wholeheartedly in Nazism or Fascism could become teachers, and the history that was taught to students glorified the German or Italian past, and worked to transform its readers into fierce German or Italian nationalists. They spread the despots’ propaganda and had a powerful influence on young minds.
Similarly, in India, our history has always been written to suit a particular purpose. In the days of the British Raj, British historians ensured that the history taught to impressionable students worked to engender communal feelings. Indian history was interpreted in terms of an interplay between Hindu and Muslim societies. Islamic rulers were portrayed as foreign invaders, under whom Indian society and culture declined. This contributed to a rift between Hindus and Muslims.
Later during the freedom struggle, and even post-Independence, Indian history was altered to cater to a different purpose; to unify, this time. Mahatma Gandhi and other freedom fighters romanticised our history and glamourised Indian culture to foster a spirit of nationalism. Leaders like Akbar, who were secular and open-minded, were celebrated, while intolerant leaders like Aurangzeb were condemned. History was designed to make people feel patriotic and fraternal, thus unifying and strengthening the nation.
Even today, countries everywhere tamper with their history textbooks to suit their own ends, ones less noble than those of our freedom fighters. In 2015, the Texas board of education revised their textbooks to downplay the role of slavery in Southern history. That same year, South Korea’s centre-right government tried to rewrite their history textbooks to get rid of their alleged leftwing bias.
Such biases in written history are practically omnipresent. When there are so many perspectives, it is easy for the writer’s own to creep into what should be an objective narrative. In India, this is even more likely.
The ‘nationalist’ history
Our country has been ‘India’ for hardly any time. Our history is a jumble of different cultures and perspectives entwined in one another, and we have only recently been unified. Furthermore, our history hasn’t been as well documented as the history of some European countries, and with so many contradictory opinions it is very difficult to approach our past, and almost impossible to gain a dispassionate perspective on it. And now once again in India, efforts are underway to revisit history from a new ‘nationalist’ perspective. Several states are using schools’ history textbooks as a means to achieve this objective.
It seems as though in a response to the idealised, nationalistic interpretation of history that we have been fed by our freedom fighters, our current government is now promoting a Hindu-nationalistic version of it. India is being slowly ‘saffronised’is a charge leveled by left-liberal historians. This has been shown through many instances. For example, Prime Minister Modi presented young children with copies of the Bhagavad Gita on Teacher’s Day. There have been more overt examples of our pro-Hindu policy as well. For instance, last year when there was a call for a nationwide ban on the sale and slaughter of beef, for cattle are sacred to Hindus.
But we aren’t in the 1900s. This isn’t a despotic country, the British Raj is over. This is 2018, and we are in an independent, secular India. India is home to not only Hindus, but also Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, and many, many others. Why should they be forced to follow the tenets of some other religion? In fact, why should all Hindus be mandated to follow these tenets? They aren’t compulsory, even according to the religion.
A pro-Hindu agenda is now trickling into India’s history textbooks as well. The Mughals are being painted as plunderers once again, and their chapters in history textbooks are shrinking. Even great emperors like Akbar are in danger of fading from textbooks entirely. Instead now, the Maharashtra State Education Board has expanded chapters dedicated to Chhatrapati Shivaji. In fact, the achievements and contributions of Muslim rulers are starting to be overlooked entirely. In Rajasthan, students are now being taught that it was Maharana Pratap who won the Battle of Haldighati, and not Akbar.
Clearly, history proves that the interpretation of history has never been entirely neutral. It has always tended to favour a certain perspective. But we need to ensure that we don’t lose chunks of our past because of the way we teach it. Writing history objectively is messy and difficult, but if our textbooks are too narrow minded, it could just leave us in the dark about many aspects of our past. We might have had a vastly different, improved view of the world around us had we studied an unbiased, straightforward telling of history. This clearly isn’t something easily achievable, but if we want a country full of clear thinking, unprejudiced citizens, we must try.