April 23, 2023

Rewriting History: Sowing Discord in the Past for Petty Gains Today

Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi

MANY have argued that all history is contemporary history, and that it is always written by the victors. What is happening today is nothing new or surprising: When India was ruled by the English, it is they who dictated the narrative. When India became independent, the subsequent decades saw an ascendancy of the Congress, and as a consequence, the syllabi of history was tailored to suit their interests. And now, as those of a different viewpoint rule over India, they are doing what had been always done before them: use history as their maid to push their own version of the narrative.

But are the matters really so simple? Is it just the case of one “version” against the other? Or is it more sinister? Is it just a simple “political exercise” or an endeavour which is going to lead to quite serious consequences?

Before we go further, let us first try to understand the use (and need) of history. It is, to put it simply, and attempt to learn the past in order to understand what mistakes we committed, what miss-steps we took, so that we may avoid similar mistakes to shape a better future. Of course, we also learn about past glories, and how we can still achieve those successes in our future endeavours! Just as a scientific study of a bone, or a skeleton, inform the scientist about the kind and quality of the life the dead had led, and what caused his death, a historian studies the past societies, cultures, economies and their technologies (or lack thereof) to determine how we reached where we are, and we have to proceed further.

We have also to remember that to understand the past, we are not aided only by our imaginations, fancies or wishes: we are guided by the ‘sources’ which help us unveil the past – by sources, one means artefacts, written words, documents, chronicles, books etc which have survived from the period under study. It is they who inform us of past happenings, good or bad. Thus, discovery of new sources, evidences from the past, which were not present before us earlier, culminate in reviewing our knowledge and understanding of our past. Any interpretation of what happened, not supported by any evidential fact, is not history but a myth – a wishful thinking!

What has been happening since the last couple of years, is that history (study of past based on evidence, written or material) is slowly but gradually being converted into myth – an imagined past, which is not supported by any fact – weak or strong. We are busy tailoring history as per our wishful thinking. And this portends danger for our own future.

Soon after the present dispensation came to occupy space, myths were invoked: myths of our ancestors having the knowledge of plastic surgery, artificial insemination and aeroplanes! And then in 2020-21 steps were initiated to introduce a New Education Policy (NEP) as per which a syllabus was framed by the powers that be for the bachelor’s course for history, which claimed for India the glory of being the Aryan Homeland. All references to the theory of Aryan migration to India were set aside as ‘colonial discourse’ and rejected. Parity between the Harappan and Vedic cultures were emphasised and a narrative of Saraswati civilisation was built. Even a cursory look at the syllabus dealing with Ancient Indian history shows that the epics were positioned as historical sources. Further, an attempt was made to show that evil practices like sati, female slavery, polygamy and caste discriminations actually were absent in ancient period and were a result of the coming of the ‘foreigners’, the Muslims. All references to Dharmaśastras, where references to polygamy and sati occur, were summarily removed.

Now the same type of changes are being affected through deletions in NCERT textbooks from Class sixth to Class twelfth. To an untrained eye, the deletions may appear random, thus helping the director of NCERT, Dinesh Prasad Saklani to claim that the exercise of deletions is nothing but an attempt to “rationalise” the syllabus by taking out unnecessary or ‘duplicating’ passages to unburden the already burdened students in the phase of a pandemic. He conveniently forgot that now classes are back to normal with pandemic induced online classes needing reduction of courses behind us. In his considered view, there was neither a “political agenda” behind this exercise, nor an attempt to exorcize the Mughals, who are very much there in the text books. 

The cat is let out of box only when (a) one pays attention to the details of exclusions, and (b) when one hears the cacophonic voices of the political spokespersons, some masquerading as “historians” on various news channels and multi-media platforms. The choreography on display is actually the same as the one in which the Hindutva specialises: double speak. The issues are tried to be confused by putting forward multiple views – some informing us, quite contrary to what the NCERT official spoke. Thus to some the exercise is to “correct the imbalance” and de-emphasise aspects which had been given undue importance, and bring in elements which have so far found no space. Others point out that what was being taught was the history written by the conquerers. Now is the time to bring forth the view of the “victims”. To yet others, all Muslim rulers were “foreigners” and instead of “eulogising” their victories, a “nationalist” approach has to be undertaken. These contradicting voices include those who are part of a concerted attempt to “unearth suppressed realities” of Indian history. Actually, one vocal voice being heard these days is that of a “principal trustee” of a body known as ‘Organisation for Unearthing the Suppressed Realities of Hindustani History’, whose stated “mission” is to “make the authentic history of India” available to all people!

The real import of the changes being affected can be better understood if we try to remember what our prime minister had said on December 26, 2022 regarding “concocted narratives” which were being taught and needed to be corrected. One month earlier (November 24), the home minister of India had eloquently declared that no one could stop India from re-writing its history!

The matters become clearer if we see what has been retained and what has been deleted. If earlier, the BA syllabus under NEP had dropped all references to most of the Mughals, except Shahjahan (in the context of the construction of Taj Mahal), Dara Shukoh and Aurangzeb. The changes in NCERT textbooks do retain some discussion of Akbar, retaining his siege of Chitor and the consequent massacre of the Rajputs, but all references as to who led the battle from the side of the Mughals; all references to Akbar’s policy of tolerance of all religions; and all passages dealing with mutual co-operation between the Rajputs and the Mughal Empire stand deleted. The students learning such a syllabus from class VI to class XII will now remain oblivious to the fact that Mughal rule was actually a collaborative administration of India by the Rajputs and the Mughals. Both were extracting revenues and exploiting the common masses, Hindus and Muslims. Such students would also stand no chance to learn that Raja Todar Mal and Raja Raghunath Rai were perhaps the most efficient finance ministers which India ever had. They will also remain clueless regarding all positive technological developments – from introduction of paper (in fact India emerged as the producer of one of the best kinds of paper), or that what progress had been made in the field of civil engineering or in the developments in the field of textile technology and even the techniques employed to raise water and then carry it long distance to make fountains work. The glass-making industry, the wine distillation, the indigo production, the sericulture, and many other such developments would remain outside the purview of the young and impressionable minds. They would also never hear of such artists as Kesav, Manohar or Kanha!

What however will remain forever ingrained in their minds would be the narratives of wars, communal conflagrations, breaking of religious places of worship and an atmosphere of hostility. Perhaps we would succeed in dividing our citizens in a way in which even our colonial masters had failed.

The selective erasures will lead to imagined pasts, a “golden” ancient period, with no jāti-pratha (caste system) with its discriminations, no brahmanical atrocities or knowledge that Buddhism was banished violently from this country. The medieval would emerge as the dark age with only wars and dissentions. 

References to caste discriminations, the rigours of being born a shudra, the sati etc retained in sections of medieval textbooks would firm up the idea that all these negative aspects are the gifts of a medieval society.

Deletions of all references to peasant unrests, dalit movements etc would help us brush aside all uncomfortable truths. Thus a truly lopsided imagined past would be the order of the day.

Further, deletions of sections, passages and even sentences from textbooks of other allied subjects like sociology and political science, would also help in confirming this imagined past. Thus all references to Gujarat communal riots of 2002 are wiped clean, even as references to an equally horrific Sikh riots of 1984 are retained. The murder of Gandhiji finds place, but all references to the ideological leanings of the assassins are conveniently removed. In certain textbooks, references to Islamic culture stand deleted, as is the case with all references to events which constrict or challenge the “official” narrative being built of a nation divided on the basis of religion.

The future generations being thus tutored via such a “tailored” syllabus would never be able to understand the mutual interactions which actually went into the making of India. Tolerance would be something alien in this make-believe narrative. The people would thus be turned into ideal citizens of a fascist State. Remember, half-truths are sometimes much more dangerous than whole lies. Coupled with manufactured truths it would create a society of ignorant fools.