Tinkering with history
S. Madhusudhana Rao
History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon, averred French leader Napoleon Bonaparte. In our case, it is just the opposite. We can’t, and will never, agree on the past that stretches back to thousands of years.
Every event, recorded or passed down from generation to generation through word of mouth, is dogged by controversy. Major events of the past raise more questions and doubts in the absence of foolproof evidence. Subject to interpretation, the available historical data is tend to be misrepresented or distorted. If it is done too often and by too many people in the name of correcting history, its perspectives keep changing from one generation to generation. Ultimately, we, the people, and readers of history books, including students, are thrown into a state of confusion: Which version is right and which narration is wrong. That’s the trouble in tinkering with history.
No doubt, inaccuracies and misrepresentations blatantly made by interested groups or regimes to prove their superiority for future generations should be rectified to set the record straight. But, in the process, if the events acquire a totally different complexion, truth becomes a casualty.
Of late, reported moves by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) to rewrite history textbooks have raised fears of ‘saffronisation’ of Indian history. Opposition to such attempts is strong and it comes from various sections of society, academics, and, of course, political parties led by Congress. They allege the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (right-wing nationalists) at the centre and in many states wants to rewrite the country’s history, particularly that deals with modern India in a bid to sideline Congress icons and post-Independence stalwarts.
Whether Congress fears will come true or they are imaginary is a matter of conjecture. But if we go by the statements being made by saffron party leaders, BJP affiliates and its ideological mentor Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), they are bent upon setting right the “one-sided version” of Indian history as written and told by various people during different periods. Though “righting a wrong” is always questionable, BJP stresses that due importance had not been given to non-Congress nationalists and their sacrifices and contributions to the country were not given due recognition in history textbooks.
More importantly, the glorious past of Hindu civilization and its unparalleled achievements in every sphere of human life are lost in the pages of school textbooks and what students mostly study are lessons prepared on the basis of earlier accounts written by the British and other foreigners. BJP feels India’s glory in history should be restored and it should begin with rewriting textbooks. Opinion is divided and an acrimonious debate is in store.
Press reports suggest an exercise has already begun to rewrite history textbooks with NCERT conducting a workshop in New Delhi earlier this month. Participants included scholars, academics and some members of the Indian Council of Historical Research. If BJP efforts move on anticipated lines, the new history textbooks will see the light of the day in 2017.
However, there is a palpable fear among liberals and anti-BJP forces that the saffron party will force its agenda on the country’s young generation through textbooks. Opponents allege BJP ministers in the NDA government regularly attend briefing sessions held by RSS and its various affiliates. The purpose of such meetings is ostensibly to give a feedback to ministers concerned about how various government programmes are being implemented at grassroots level and coordinate RSS wings’ activities with the ministers. On the face of it, such confabulations look innocuous. But, if the meetings between government ministers and their party’s ideological affiliates become frequent, there is a clear danger of RSS pressing the elected representatives to follow its agenda.
Given its Hindu ideological moorings and leanings and RSS’s dream of establishing Akhand Bharat and bringing back its glorious days, how much influence the ‘brain-storming’ sessions will have on BJP leaders is a point to ponder. Of more concern is RSS reportedly submitting its agenda for the education sector to Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani who is said to have promised to look into proposals for changes in the education system. It is a known fact that the leaders of the RSS and organizations of such ilk have been pressing the government for review of history and sociology curricula. In fact, some of the BJP-ruled states have effected changes in school history books, raising hackles among historians and intellectuals.
The main grouse of RSS and its affiliates is the Indian education system is western-oriented; prominence is given to a few leaders, particularly post-Independence, little emphasis on traditions and moral, cultural and social values, among other things. While saffron leaders lose no opportunity to express their anguish over ‘decadence’ in education and readiness to reset the current systems, ministers like Rajnath Singh and Smriti Irani are more forthcoming.
For example, speaking at the Jaipuria Institute of Management in Lucknow a few months ago, the Union Home Minister dubbed our present education system “a victim of Macaulay’s conspiracy” and called for change. The RSS-BJP refrain is, since history is taught from school level and most of the children prefer to go to private and corporate schools where the medium of instruction is English, their minds are being corrupted by false notions such as “all is best that is west.” So, it is logical to change the education system along with history lessons that reflect this country’s glorious golden era and paint a bright future.
What is desirable is to follow a balanced approach and take an objective view in portraying history. If the future generation is taught only one side of the country’s past, conveniently camouflaging the other side, our history books read like those in Pakistan where the freedom struggle and the Independence movement are attributed to the sacrifices made by Muslim leaders like Mohammed Ali Jinnah rather than to all others. The danger in such portrayal of history is learners tend to believe that it is the truth, nothing but truth.
In any case, tinkering with history is like playing with fire. Historical facts should be viewed with an element of detachment. If some groups feel the history is distorted, they need to clarify it. If they start correcting and presenting their version of the past as the real one, it will become an unending process because whenever a government of different dispensation comes to power and review school curricula, we will end up in having dozens of historical accounts. A case in point is, when NDA came to power in 1999, it changed all NCERT textbooks which were replaced by UPA five years later! The casualty will be our own history – distorted and disjointed.
In the first place, if the events are written and presented in an unbiased manner, the need to revisit them from time to time doesn’t arise. If they are seen through coloured glasses or with myopic vision, the written accounts are bound to reflect the views of the powers that be rather than the actual events. And, as the saying goes, history has many facets, its portrayal is mostly depend upon on which face one sees and mirrors it in his writing. Prudence demands while historical blunders need to be corrected with utmost caution, rewriting history is fraught with dangerous consequences in a country that is steeped in pluralistic ethos.