Our ‘eminent’ historians and social scientists argue that the nature of history is static and there is not enough new evidence that could warrant the rewriting or revision of history and history textbooks
There is a lot of noise being made on the new education policy and rewriting of history and social sciences textbooks. Demands for rewriting history and removing distortions are becoming stronger, and voices turning shriller and shriller. In order to understand this, let us revisit the history of this issue itself.
In the Indian context, history textbooks and history writings first became a matter of media attention when during the Vajpayee government, NCERT took up the revision of the National Curriculum Framework and the textbooks of all subjects prepared almost four decades ago. While there was no problem with the revision of textbooks in any other subject, all hell broke loose when it came to history and social sciences textbooks. The ‘eminent’ historians/social scientists who were involved in writing history/social sciences textbooks and their students and supporters began a campaign that history/social sciences books cannot be rewritten or revised. They argued that the nature of history was static and there was not enough new evidence that could warrant the rewriting or revision of history and history textbooks.
One of the most ‘eminent’ among the ‘eminent historians’ said that there should not be any revision in the history, at least in those areas where there was a general consensus among historians. When asked about specific areas, he preferred to maintain a stony silence. All one could gather was that there was agreement among some of the ‘eminent historians’ and the topics are those that can be used for the blackening of the ancient period of Indian history. Thus, the core of this argument was that whatever has been written by the ‘eminent historians’ on those areas of history is final. No modification, no addition, and no deletion could be made on their pronouncements and history written by them. Taking an alternative path to history writing or introducing new history books was being painted as nothing less than sacrilege.
That notwithstanding, let us remember that rewriting/revising history textbooks or general books is not viewed as a rare phenomenon anywhere in the world. A survey of literature on the subject the world over shows that history is being written and rewritten not only because of new evidence that comes to light but also because of several other factors. Even a cursory perusal of academic journals like History, Journal of Curriculum Studies, and History and Theory proves that there are a variety of factors that warrant the rewriting of history. In the 1990s, history textbooks in Canada were rewritten because:
schools did not teach enough Canadian history and students, therefore, did not know it;
- the history that was taught was no longer sufficiently national;
- social history had destroyed the old nation building-narrative and dwelt on negative rather than positive aspects of Canada’s past;
- child-centered teaching and other pedagogical fashions had led teachers to devalue factual knowledge.
Nature of history as a discipline
The subject of history is not an easy one, as many simple souls may like to believe. In fact, no academic discipline, beyond a certain point is easy. Even scientists working in disciplines like physics and chemistry at the level of higher research disagree and debate fiercely on the nature of a given problem, the approach, and the conclusions arrived at. But this is much more common in the social sciences, particularly in history, because of the very nature of the subject. To say that history is a science, as many Marxist historians propagate, is nothing but a fallacy. To use David Clarke’s phrase, history is an ‘indisciplined discipline’. The writing of history involves not only facts but also the political, social, economic and other kinds of ideological agendas of historians.
But problems begin when the hard facts of history are trimmed, selectively used/quoted, or presented in a coloured and distorted manner, or even swept under the carpet to suit the historian’s agenda. Such attempts and practices lead to the presentation of not only factually incorrect history but also distorted history, which finally results in the distortion of a nation’s history, its people’s past and their identity. Those involved in such defiling of history do everything to justify their version of history and strive hard to retain their powers, position and privileges by any and all means.
Most people see history in terms of separate periods like ancient, medieval and modern — each period characterised by a different political, economic and social setup. Further, it is often seen as being solely concerned with the recovery of the facts related to the past. In this way, history books are seen as merely the chronicles of the past. But this is a very superficial notion about history. In an absurd vein, AJP Taylor wrote, “Historians should not be ashamed to admit that history is at the bottom simply a form of story-telling… There is no escaping the fact that the original task of a historian is to answer the child’s question: ‘What happened next?’”
Benedetto Croce, the great Italian historian and social theorist, once wrote: “All history is contemporary history.” In other words, each generation writes and rewrites history in the light of its own time and experiences. AC Danto pointed out that “All historical descriptions are, and must be, temporary and provisional. No complete description of the past can be given till the end of the future — that is, until the sequence of events also came to an end.” It must be mentioned here that this is true not only of historical descriptions but also of historical explanations and interpretations.
However, the idea behind suggestions like “each age having to write its own history” is not to produce a root-and-branch new version of history every ten, twenty or fifty years, but to continue refining and revising what has been written before, while also opening up totally new areas. Historians must strike a balance between judging the past by their own standards and entirely stranding the past in its own frozen compartment of history. We must have a proper balance of time, of change and continuity and of similarity and difference which are central to our understanding of the nature of history and the dynamics of social development.
We, in our enthusiasm, must not lose sight of the fact that each age is a unique manifestation of the human spirit with its own culture and values. For one age to understand another, there must be recognition that the passage of time has profoundly altered both, condition of life and the mentality of men and women. History must be written and rewritten observing the long-established, though constantly developing, canons of the historical profession. History must be as reliable as it is possible to make it. For this, the guarantee lies in the careful observance of the methods and principles of professional history. Eric Hobsbawm, one of the most distinguished Marxist historians, once said, “Historians are professionally obliged not to get it wrong — or at least to make an effort not to.”
Reasons for distortions in history
It is a proven fact that one cannot enslave and rule over a people, a country, a nation that is very proud of its past and legacies. It tries to defend its past, its legacy, and consequently its independence at all costs. An objective and a desire to dominate and to rule over an individual, a society or a nation can be achieved in two ways:
- Subjugation and enslavement by force/by the sword;
- Enslavement of the mind
Enslavement by the sword is not only short-lived but also there has to be the constant use of the sword because even a little laxity provides enough room for revolt by the enslaved people craving to reclaim their freedom and identity, the ultimate desire of a conscious and vibrant mind. Thus, the rulers have to be virtually on their toes to keep their power and position unchallenged.
Enslavement of the mind is, perhaps, the deadliest weapon in the world. Those who succeed in enslaving the mind of a people, a nation can create a permanent empire consisting of a mentally enslaved population. In this context, no one has been able to better the records of the British and this can be best understood from the example of India, one of the colonies of the British. At the beginning of the 19th century, it had become clear to the British that they were going to rule India and for this, they made massive preparations. From the history and the experience gained from their long stay in India since the time of Jahangir, they had learned that for them it would be difficult, nay impossible, to rule this country from such a distant place as England, that too with such a small number of British soldiers and officers. To overcome this problem, they embarked on a massive programme that entailed the mental enslavement of the native population, i.e. Indians. To achieve this, the British devised an education policy which created “a class of persons Indians in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”.
Besides, massive efforts were made towards the falsification of Indian history and heritage and the negation of its contribution to world thought, culture, and civilisation. The reason is not too difficult to understand. History is all about the past, roots, memory, identity and society’s contribution to the world. The motive is to distort it in a way that ruled ones hate their own past, believing that there is nothing good in their past, and there is nothing to be proud of. Ruled ones start believing and emulating the rulers. For this, people need to forget everything about their past and need to be detached from their glorious achievements, about their heritage and, indeed, their entire history — where they have come from, what their ancestors were, and what were their achievements. In other words, they need to become a group, a society and a nation with no memory of the past, the very same collective memory we have talked about earlier. And let us not forget that a person, a society and a nation without a memory is like a rudderless ship, or a leaf fallen off a tree which can be made to drift in any direction the wind is blowing in or can be made to blow.
This is what the British did with India. A large number of historians, civil servants, missionaries, etc, got on the job. Just one example will suffice. Max Mueller is highly venerated for his translations of the Vedas and other Sanskrit scriptures. But very few know that he was employed by the British East India Company for the purpose of deliberately falsifying the translations, antiquity and the chronology of Sanskrit literature and negating everything that was great in Sanskrit literature. And why did he do so can best be understood through a letter Max Mueller wrote to his wife regarding his monumental work of editing 50 volumes of Sacred Books of the East: “I feel convinced, though I shall not live to see it, that this edition of mine and the translation of Veda, will hereinafter tell a great extent on the fate of India and on the growth of millions of souls in that country. It is the root of their religion and to show them what the root is, I feel sure, is the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last three thousand years.”
He had expressed similar sentiments in a letter to Chevalier Bunsen written on 25 August 1856. Here Mueller says: “India is much riper for Christianity than Rome or Greece were at the time of St. Paul. The rotten tree has for some time had artificial support… For the good of this struggle, I should like to lay down my life, or at least to lend my hand to bring about this struggle… I should like to live for ten years quietly and learn the language, try to make friends, and then see whether I was fit to take part in a work, by means of which the old mischief of Indian priest-craft could be overthrown and the way opened for the entrance of simple Christian teaching… Whatever finds root in India soon overshadows the whole Asia… Much more could be said about this; a wide world opens before one, for which it is well worthwhile to laying one’s life.” He wrote to Dr Milman, Dean of St Paul, on 26 February 1867: “I have myself the strongest belief in the growth of Christianity in India. There is no other country so ripe for Christianity as India…”
Leading Marxist historian late Prof RS Sharma has best summed up the whole approach of British/Imperial historians: “British interpretations of Indian history served to denigrate Indian character and achievements, and justify colonial rule… However, the generalisations made by historians were either false or grossly exaggerated. They could serve as good propaganda material for the perpetuation of the despotic British rule. … At the heart of all such generalisations lay the need of demonstrating that Indians were incapable of governing themselves.”
After Independence, it was expected that history writings will now be more objective and the path shown by the scholars like RC Majumdar, KP Jayaswal, RK Mookerjee, KAN Shashtri and many others will be more vigorously followed. But the government of the day and the hangers-on decided not only to continue on the British line but even went far beyond the history writing norms to further distort Indian history, especially Ancient Indian History. Marxist historians like RS Sharma, Bipan Chandra, Romila Thapar, Mohammad Habib, Irfan Habib and hosts of others did the same as British historians, rather worst, under the garb of “Marxist/Scientific” history. Its urgent need is that Indian history must be written as per the evidence and historical norms and not as per the ideological agendas.
The writer is a well-known historian. Views expressed are personal.