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The Multiple Lives of History in India

The Multiple Lives of History in India



 

On June 1, noted actor Akshay Kumar told the news agency ANI that our history textbooks spare only two or three lines about great Indian kings. They purportedly offer more details about 'invaders' but little about 'our cultures or kings.' He was awestruck, he said, hearing numerous events about the life of Prithviraj Chowhan. If so many details were available, how come he had not read them in his history textbooks? He recalled asking Chandraprakash Dwivedi, the writer, and director of the film Samrat Prithviraj, if these stories were real or imagined. Kumar is heard mentioning the name of the text Prithviraj Raso, as though it somehow certifies that those stories were indisputably true.

 

In the same interview, Dwivedi said he based the story on Prithviraj Raso and a few folklores. He was self-confessedly not worried about the nitty gritty of historical facts. His project was to stimulate a cultural revival. 'India' had been reduced to slavery since 1192, he said, and the repair of Somnath temple in 1948 formed the symbolic inauguration of a process of recovery. Dwivedi was contributing to what he believed was an ongoing process of national cultural revival. Historical details were manifestly not his priority. Ironically, a remark by the hero of a film with professedly little direct investment in history has provoked public conversations about the content of school-level history textbooks in India. Home Minister Amit Shah echoed similar sentiments on June 10 while inaugurating a book on Rana Pratap. He believed historians had paid disproportionate attention to the Mughal empire, ignoring several equally grand empires such as Satavahanas and Ahoms.  

 

Kumar, whose words millions take at face value, evidently spoke with the conviction that his film would serve as a de facto history textbook. The wealthiest and the most influential in every society believe they are potential or real masters of all professions. It is a common practice among successful professionals in India to run down historians or think everyone can write history books. Writer Chetan Bhagat posted a Twitter message some years ago, wondering what historians do, as though they don't do anything worthwhile. Even as Dwivedi or Kumar equate literary compositions or folklore with history, their opinion draws widespread attention, often resonating with their followers, who form the majority population in any society. Literary material or folklores offer material for history, but not as indisputable facts. To be sure, practicing historians themselves write in a technical style that demands years of prior familiarity with the subject. They cannot help; their professional standing rises and falls in direct proportion to the number of papers they publish in peer-reviewed trade journals. 


The problem has to be located in this impossibility of dialogue. On the one hand, the vocal majority tend to receive every opinion from the rich and the famous at face value, as though the speaker's popularity is enough to validate it. Credibility is conveniently seen to follow fame or familiarity, not professional training or expertise. For example, advertising agencies hire film actors with little or nothing to do with formal education as brand ambassadors for tuition classes. 

 

On the other hand, professional training imposes rectitude on practicing historians. They are taught to refrain from making unqualified general statements, writing, or speaking, in a stirring manner. Professional historians with research experience rarely write school textbooks, barring a few honourable exceptions. Most school textbooks are written in the vernacular, usually by teaching professionals. They receive little attention from practicing historians or those who deliver casual judgements on the content of history textbooks. 

 

Akshay Kumar's query must be addressed precisely because his presumed credibility is a telling example of the marginalization of professional historians from public debates about identities and pasts. It is useful here to refer to what historian Dipesh Chakrabarty calls the public life of history. He shows that the discipline of history has two lives. One is inside the university, where history is taught, trained, and practiced as an academic discipline. University-trained professionals authorize and regulate its rigorous protocols. The other involves the relation of this academic discipline with institutions and practices beyond the university when the public debate the past. In India, professional historians with disciplinary authority claim an adjudicatory role in public debates about pasts and identities. Yet, they increasingly become marginal to those debates. 

 

History in India has not two but multiple lives. Sumit Sarkar long ago drew attention to several levels of historical consciousness in India: the metropolitan universities and research centres, provincial universities and colleges, school teachers, students, and many enthusiasts without formal training but with distinct ideas about history and remembrances of things past. Ideas about history are produced and circulated at all of these levels. Earlier, practitioners of history at different levels interacted only occasionally, subscribing to a clear top-down order of authority. Internet and social media have since forced these layers of historical knowledge and practice to confront one another regularly, magnifying these contestations to a potentially global scale within seconds. 

 

Leading professional historians write in English for easy inter-regional and international communication. However, most Indian universities or colleges teach in Hindi or vernacular. Most teachers rely on poor textbooks and the media for their regular supply of history. Since independence, heroic stories about a set of national heroes became a standard method of securing loyalty for the ruling groups in the postcolonial nation-state. These tales of glory would often ignore contextual complexities. The media convinced the people that history was valuable because it stimulated pride in one's country. Memorization of 'objective' or isolated facts was another form in which history would be consumed. The combined emphasis on patriotism and memorization discouraged attempts at critically analyzing competing narratives. History gradually turned into hagiography. As students, both Dwivedi and Kumar went through this process of studying history. If they believe that retrospective literary sources like Prithviraj Raso furnish incontrovertible facts or that the people should be served fairytales about knights in shining armour, it is not exactly a surprise. 

 

'Modern' attitudes to history began to develop in India under colonial rule in the nineteenth century. Western historiographical models, imposed through English education and British Indian scholarship, dismissed all precolonial writing about the past as ahistorical. Generally speaking, the dominant motive in precolonial literature about the past was to teach obedience and morality through examples or to train the readers in positive values or righteousness. It was less concerned with exploring the uniqueness of particular historical moments. For the first time, the British introduced the idea of abstract time, measurable in non-qualitative units, within which events happen. Another major innovation was the idea of periodization: Indian history divided into three broad periods--Hindu, Muslim and British-- following similar trends in the west.

 

History was made the primary tool to prove that Indians were backward and immobile while the west was advanced and dynamic, justifying foreign rule and underlining the inferiority of Indians. History assumed a new centrality in public life, as a ground where ideas about collective selves were debated. Two more developments reinforced the lead of history in public life. First, the arrival of print suddenly escalated its readership. Then, its inclusion in formal education structures, now a necessary qualification for gainful employment and a middle-class life, turned knowledge of history into a valuable acquisition for respectability. 

 

The tripartite periodization of Indian history continues even as terms like Hindu, Muslim and British were later replaced by ancient, medieval, and modern. Its most devastating effect is the widespread assumption that domination by bounded religious communities primarily defined these periods. Several Indian historians and biographers in the nineteenth century, who were beneficiaries of the colonial rule, accepted the British narrative of liberation from Muslim tyranny but criticized the denigration of Hindu achievements. By the twentieth century, when nationalists began to write histories, original research often focused on ancient Indian tradition and culture as sites of Indian autonomy.

 

These early Indian adventures preceded history research inside the university. Inside the university, the most respectable early Indian historians, such as Sir Jadunath Sarkar, primarily focused on political and administrative history since the reigning model of western historiography emphasized an objective and verifiable fact-based approach. Therefore, a state-centric political history ruled the formal academia, largely ignoring socio-cultural concerns. It meant that Indian historians inside the university now wrote dynastic histories of ancient India uncritically hailing various 'Hindu' empires. 

 

Outside the university, in historical novels, or the public life of history, Muslim rulers continued to be portrayed as invaders and plunderers. However, the class division between university-trained and amateur historians was less rigorous. Autodidacts with means who built up impressive collections of manuscripts, books, or art and cultural objects enjoyed a degree of academic respectability. Sir Jadunath himself had no academic degree in history. Many distinguished professionals also wrote textbooks. So there was probably much less of a gap between the research content and textbooks. 

 

Since independence, however, the standard of history teaching and research at metropolitan universities has grown by leaps and bounds. But little attention was paid to histories taught to most college or university students. Consequently, a dated historiography was reproduced and circulated, in diluted and crude forms, at the so-called low or popular levels. Partha Chatterjee has shown that since it was denied an authorized place in the academy, it had to seek its validation from forces in the popular domain. Even as professional history marks laudable advances, popular history's unreformed presence continues to haunt it. The ways of writing history, or their products, which the university-based practitioners of the discipline meant to supersede, continued to be lived and performed in the political present of the popular domain. Various popular political movements called for the service of history in defence of their claims. Maintaining the boundaries between the university and the public lives of history was no longer possible. The internet and social media in more recent times have made it near impossible. Digital archives have brought an unprecedented quantity of material within reach of anyone with access to the internet. 

 

The problem can no longer be managed by top-flight historians writing textbooks. A new culture of history where researchers, teachers, activists, and the local population can interact and practice history has to be developed. The hierarchy among practitioners of history has to be negotiated in novel ways.

 

Few sustained attempts, except perhaps the Eklavya textbooks and the NCERT books - are carried out to circulate the methods, findings, and values of advanced research in Indian history beyond metropolitan universities and colleges. Indian historians have rarely paid attention to field-level public history or experiments like the History Workshop. School teachers are seldom invited to research seminars or to publish in journals. If these are not immediately possible, historians may like to work with informal discussion groups, including a variety of participants, or appear more often in the popular media. Another strategy may be to incorporate within the mainstream of history an appropriate analytic of the popular within the ambit of academic history. Such initiatives are occasionally taken up, though they often fail to last, and their reach and influence are usually limited. A handful of activists here and there soldier on nonetheless, ploughing a lonely furrow. Some state governments have recently commissioned history textbooks similar to the NCERT model.

 

Incidentally, Kumar, Dwivedi,or Shah did not name any particular textbook they read. It is even less surprising that neither mentioned the 2016 book by historian Cynthia Talbot on the history of various legends of Prithviraj Chowhan. It would take less than a few seconds of online search to find references to the book. While historians ought to engage more with a popular audience, those like Kumar who seek to educate the masses must make a little more effort. If I had the means of Akshay Kumar, I would immediately commission a history of school history textbooks in India since the nineteenth century.



- Anirban Bandopadhyay

 

Anirban Bandyopadhyay teaches history at Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, Bhubaneswar. He has a PhD from JNU, New Delhi on histories of identity politics in modern India.

 

 

 

 

 

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