Déjà View | Writing new histories

Rewriting history is the easy bit. Rediscovering it is very hard. Let us dig first with an open mind, and type later with a critical one


Photo: ThinkStock
Photo: ThinkStock

Recently we’ve seen two sets of headlines from the compulsorily contentious world of Indian historical education and research.

First there was the news that Smriti Irani, the new minister for human resources development, was keen to include several ancient Hindu texts in the school curriculum. According to further reports ministry staff have also been asked to develop a new curriculum that emphasizes a certain Hindu “golden age”. These reports appeared several weeks ago and only helped to add to the controversy surrounding Irani’s appointment.

The second set of reports is much more recent. On Thursday, The Telegraph reported that “A retired history professor who has written articles arguing that stories from the Ramayan and the Mahabharat are truthful accounts of events that took place has been named chief of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), the government agency to promote historical research.”

Professor Yellapragada Sudershan Rao told the paper that he hoped ICHR “should take up projects to rewrite ancient history to establish the ‘continuous Indian civilization’, including the period of the two epics”.

Thanks to this column, and some other personal projects in this area, many readers sent me links to both news items. Most, if not all, of them sounded one of three things—panicked, bewildered or frustrated.

“The saffronization of our schools has begun!”

“Wait, he actually thinks those things really happened?”

And finally, “When will we ever start treating our history with any respect?”

The general online response has also been along these lines, except for one category: the large group of people who are ecstatic about the Irani-Rao developments. “Finally,” they tell me, “we can break the Marxist/Nehruvian stranglehold over Indian historical research, education and writing”.

So people are either overjoyed at one more socialist chapter of Indian public life being pulled down. Or they are petrified of the looming “saffronization” of popular and professional historical discourse.

At the risk of sounding like someone eagerly fishing for a pundit’s job in the Modi government, I am going to somewhat disagree with the critics and lampooners. (But not completely. As I shall explain.)

First of all, teaching ancient texts in schools, for what it is worth, is a good idea. Both religious and secular texts are important storehouses of a civilization’s history, culture and intellectual development. Yet I cannot recall a single ancient text of any variety that I was properly exposed to during my schooling. Yes, I was well drilled on the existence of the Vedas and the works of assorted ancient scientists and Sangam literature and all that. But could I quote a single line from any of them, let alone with contextual awareness?

Nope.

All I can recall is thinking that there are a lot of boring “Sanskrit” books out there written by people with fabulous names: Aryabhatta, Susruta, Kautilya…

In reality I knew as much about the Sama Veda as I did about the Magna Carta or Beowulf. Possibly less.

What a pity. Because there have been perfectly serviceable, even enjoyable translations of these texts available for at least a century. Most of these are widely and freely available online. (Mail me if you seek links.)

Exposing our children to these will not only enlighten them, but also give them a fuller picture of ancient Indian life. And of the social and intellectual forces that pushed things along. What is more, having some exposure to the actual texts in school will make young people more resistant, later, to the garbage historical punditry that abounds on the Internet and in terrible books.

Then there is the issue of the professor who wants to study the historical veracity of the great epics. I have many thoughts—mostly unkind, perhaps even a little Marxist—about the idea of religion. But there is no denying that religion played a huge role in the formation of societies. Much of what we know about the history of civilizations comes from investigations into the history of religions. And that trend is growing. A 2009 American Historical Association survey showed that the largest proportion of historians in the US (around 8%) were working on religion, ahead of cultural studies, women’s studies and even military history. If the good professor wishes to carry out excavations all over India in pursuit of the truth, that would be wonderful. The fallout can only be positive. God only knows how many wonders remain buried under Indian soil.

What does worry me about Irani and Rao’s plans is not the broad validity of their ideas, but the political motives. And the weaknesses in the institutions meant to buffer the politics from the scholarship. If the National Democratic Alliance thinks that Indian history has been misrepresented in the past, then the worst thing it can do is misrepresent it again in the future. As tempting as this might seem.

It particularly worries me when the new head of ICHR says that his goal is to “rewrite ancient history”. Rewrite it by all means, provided you have the research to justify it. Rewriting history is the easy bit. Rediscovering it is very hard. Let us dig first with an open mind, and type later with a critical one.

Every week, Déjà View scours historical research and archives to make sense of current news and affairs.

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com. To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/dejaview

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