Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Using history to build a strong nation

It weakens India when rationally unexamined ideas, which under the weight of all current evidence are false, are asserted as the truth publicly

In the past few months, statements about Indian history have been made, which have generated much controversy. Here is the gist of some of these statements, all of which invoke specific episodes from some of our ancient texts, to demonstrate that India was technologically and scientifically, a very advanced civilization a very long time ago.

The birth of Drona, Karna and Kauravas has been used as examples for knowledge of genetic sciences and of the technique of developing “test tube" babies. The resurrection of Ganesha has been used an example of plastic surgery. The Pushpak Vimana from Ramayana has been cited as an example of technology for air travel. Some of us have heard such statements in the past also.

As the backdrop for the arguments in this column we will use two principles. First, we will believe that whatever people are saying is with good intentions and with personal integrity.

Second, we will adopt a basic principle from (good) philosophy that any idea must be judged in its best form.

We can now think of two groups of people, amongst those who have been interested or involved in any way with this issue, even if only to the extent of reading newspaper headlines.

One group believes that these statements are expression of historical facts and truths.

The other group believes that these statements are false, and mythology is being invoked as history.

There is possibly a third group, that of people who have not made up their mind. In my assessment, the number of such people is so small that we will ignore this group, and even if the numbers are not as small, the arguments here will not change.

The basic matter that divides these two groups, that whether these statements are true or false, is not a symmetric matter. The two groups do not have an equal burden of proof.

In the context of the (current) widely shared understanding of human history these statements are false. That widely is really very wide indeed, including historians of all sorts: rightist, leftist, nationalist, subaltern and all other types. This is not only in India, but across the world. It also includes almost all scholars from every other discipline, and most people who could be called informed or educated. This is why the burden of proof is with the first group. They cannot just make an assertion, and claim it is true. They will have to gather evidence to support these statements, and present them (and the methodology) widely for rational examination i.e. subject it to the test of reason.

This can be perhaps best done by historians and other scholars in the first group. Till this has been done adequately, people from the first group need to be acutely aware of how their belief in the truth of these statements will be viewed. The more they reaffirm their beliefs publicly, the more likely they are to lose credibility, in most quarters. Let’s focus on those who are making these statements seriously and with thought. It’s quite likely that they would be aware of this asymmetric burden of proof. So then why are these statements being made?

Let’s leave aside that sub-group which is so self-absorbed that it considers these statements as self-evident truth, without room for doubt.

Why are some serious and thoughtful people, making these statements, braving loss of credibility?

There is a complex of reasons, but perhaps the strongest is their deeply felt need to generate a sense of pride in India and Indians. This is one strand of their even deeper desire to see India strong, and to systematically work towards it; building a strong India is the real goal, and the source of their energy. This project of building a strong India, has also led to efforts by some, to integrate the core ideas of these statements into school education; since they know well that school education is one of the most important processes in shaping a nation. To remind ourselves, I have assumed good intentions and personal integrity on everyone’s part as also the notion of judging ideas in their best form (which will apply to this matter of “strong India" as well).

Amongst many things that are necessary but not sufficient, to build a strong India is a culture of reason, of questioning driven by doubt and of openness. Since the modern world is built on a foundation of reason and rationality, this is not a matter of choice; and India becoming strong is in the context of that world.

So when rationally unexamined ideas, which under the weight of all current evidence are false, are asserted as truth publicly, it weakens India. When such ideas, find their way in to school education, they corrode the most basic process of building a strong nation, by undermining reason and rationality.

For all of us invested in to the idea of strong India, it will be useful to remember that often pride comes before the fall and reason is the foundation of strength.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

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