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Photo: IndiaPicture/Alamy
Photo: IndiaPicture/Alamy

Our history books need rewriting

Textbooks on Indian history have to be purged of Marxist and colonial biases that ignore historical evidence

The debate over the need to re-write Indian history textbooks is heating up and, yet again, it is likely to spiral into an ugly political spat. Sadly this debate will distract from the many sensible reasons history books need to be changed.

Indian history is mostly written from the perspective of Delhi or at most northern India, as if the rest of the country barely existed except as mere provinces. The average Indian student, for instance, will learn almost nothing about the great Satavahana, Vijayanagar or Chola empires of southern India. Unless you live in the northeast, you may never have heard of the Ahom kings who ruled Assam for 600 years and even defeated the Mughals. This absurd imbalance needs to be corrected. Moreover, history is not just about the rise and fall of empires but also about other streams of history. For instance, Indian textbooks say almost nothing about the country’s rich maritime history beyond a passing reference to Chola naval raids on Southeast Asia. Students learn very little about thriving Indo-Roman trade or the exploits of ancient Odiya merchants who pioneered sea routes across the eastern Indian Ocean. The great influence of Indian civilization on Southeast Asia is barely mentioned, if at all.

We hear about groups who came to India as conquerors but nothing of people who came to India peacefully as traders and refugees—Parsis and Jews from the west and the waves of Southeast Asian tribes from east. Similarly, even university-level textbooks are written as if the geographical landscape of the country is static. Little is mentioned of shifting coastlines and rivers, changing wildlife, and evolving cities.

The extraordinary history of Indian science is similarly ignored or, as some would argue, deliberately downplayed. There is more than adequate evidence that ancient Indians made great advances in metallurgy, medicine, mathematics and so on. As others have also pointed out, by downplaying genuine scientific contributions, textbook writers have created a vacuum that is filled with claims of flying chariots.

Most readers will be surprised to know that many well-known events and characters of Indian history are based on very thin evidence. Emperor Ashoka is much revered for having turned into a pacifist after witnessing the human cost of his invasion of Kalinga. However, texts such as Ashokavadana clearly mention major massacres of Jains and Ajivikas that he ordered long after his supposed conversion. Far from being Ashoka the Great, the evidence suggests an unpopular king whose empire began to crumble while he was still alive. Even the regret over the Kalinga war looks suspiciously like propaganda given that none of the inscriptions in Odisha mention it.

Not only have mainstream historians built grand stories on wobbly evidence, they are also strangely impervious to the continuous flow of new evidence being thrown up by archaeology, genetics, climate sciences and so on. Thus, we are still taught about the Aryan Invasion in 1500BC despite the fact that genetic and archeological studies find no evidence for any large-scale migration from Central Asia. The date of 1500BC was always arbitrary and we have good reason to believe that climate change caused the decline of Harappan cities five centuries earlier.

This is not to suggest that everything good about Indic civilization is of indigenous origin. Over the centuries, we gained from absorbing foreign ideas and influences, especially in food, architecture, and language. Try to imagine India without the chillies and tomatoes brought by the Portuguese, cricket and railways brought by the British or the Taj Mahal built by a Turko-Mongol emperor. However, it is also true that the same foreign invaders caused the deaths of millions of people through warfare and famine. Indian students need to be told about both the good and the bad.

Readers will be amazed by the extent to which colonial era ideas are casually perpetuated. For instance, whenever I write an article mentioning ancient Indians, I have noticed that a subeditor will often put the word “Indian" in inverted commas. It is probably done unconsciously but it is a continuation of colonial-era propaganda that Indians were not a nation till the British turned up. For obvious reasons, colonial writers blatantly disregarded heaps of evidence that Indians have had a strong sense of belonging to a civilization for thousands of years. What is less obvious is why we continue to perpetuate the colonial-era idea.

Indian history textbooks need to be rewritten. Opponents will argue that the current government will use this opportunity to insert “right-wing biases" but this is no excuse for perpetuating outdated scholarship and the biases of colonial and Marxist historians. Indian historians tend to mix up the evidence with their opinions. This happens everywhere to some extent as all history is written from some perspective, but mainstream Indian historians are notorious for doing so.

Perhaps one way forward is for the next generation of textbook authors to separate the hard evidence from their interpretations. This will have two good outcomes. First, it will make the author’s opinions more transparent. Second, it will encourage students to think more critically and draw their own conclusions.

This will have the added advantage of making the subject more an exploration of the past rather than the memorizing dates.

Sanjeev Sanyal is the author of Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography (2011).

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