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The purpose of history

The purpose of history

Author: Chandan Mitra
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: February 22, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/158015/The-purpose-of-history.html

Sikandar ne Porus
Se kee thhi ladai
Jo kee thhi ladai
To main kya karoon?

I wonder how many in GenNow would recall this humourous number that used to be a Vividh Bharati regular in my student days. The song became popular because schoolchildren dreaded history since the only apparent way to score in the paper was to commit names and dates to memory.

I never learnt much about Alexander's epic battle with Pururaj, the valiant Indian king till I read Dwijendra Lal Roy's racy novel and later saw Sikandar-e-Azam, the film that showed Porus going into battle on elephant back singing Jahan daal-daal par sone ki chidiya karti hain basera/ Woh Bharat desh hai mera. The way history was taught to us was, indeed, excruciatingly dry.

Nevertheless, I do not think, even in hindsight, that our textbooks were biased or aimed at brainwashing us into looking at India's past in a blinkered way. Probably, they were just silly, about as silly as the disinterested teachers who dictated notes to us from these. I remember every chapter had a summary of salient points.

The chapter on the evolution of the Varna system, for instance, contained a summary headlined 'Merits and demerits of the caste system', listing "purity of blood" among its positive attributes. Fortunately, by the time we moved to Class IX, we got an extraordinary history teacher in late Sudhir Kumar Bose who inculcated a sense of curiosity in the subject, freely recommending out-of-syllabus books for reading. For many of us in the humanities stream of the 1971 ISC batch from La Martinere, Kolkata, (columnist Swapan Dasgupta being an eminent example), interest in history was sustained, propelling the eventual acquisition of doctorates in the subject.

I recall these personal anecdotes only to underline my anguish at the attempt to rewrite history textbooks and the tragic politicisation of the subject at the hands of Marxist apparatchiks masquerading as scholars. In view of the flagrant abuse history is being subjected to, I believe the time has come for every thinking person to ask some fundamental questions about the way it should be taught.

The basic question is about the very purpose of teaching history. As some of my colleagues often point out, the only time most Indians learn any history is in school, pragmatically assuming that 99.9 persons do not choose history as their subject in college. In other words, their view of India's past is conditioned by what they read in their formative years from say, six to 16. Even during this stage, history is usually not the preferred subject and only one among the array of disciplines they need to learn. That is why the teaching of history in our schools must not only be authentic, but also adhere to a purpose.

That purpose cannot be to run down the country's civilisation, selectively black out facts, delete whatever is deemed "politically incorrect" and indoctrinate youngsters into believing that everything good that happened to India was the contribution of foreign invaders (pre-British) and all the bad was caused by indigenous forces or white imperialists. (Sorry, at a time when a Left-sponsored Congress leader of Caucasian origin was being extolled as goddess, I should be careful of using the now-sensitive term "white" negatively, lest I be accused of being racist and fascist).

The astonishing part of the proposed rewriting of history by the Marxists was that interpretations changed quite merrily with their contemporary political proclivities. In our time, the Congress was Enemy No 1; it was a bourgeois-landlord party that collaborated with the imperialists to deny the people their true political rights. This culminated, according to the Leftists, in a false freedom in 1947.

Promptly, therefore, the "toiling masses" of India rose in revolt and an armed insurrection began in Telangana. Gandhiji, we were told, was funded by the "comprador bourgeoisie" - collaborators with British industrialists - who made profits by sucking the blood of the Indian working class. That is why Gandhiji happily betrayed people's struggles, be they the farmers of Bardoli or Pratapgarh, or workers of Mumbai's textile mills.

With the rise of the BJP and the growing challenge of "communalism", the focus shifted to the need to defend "secularism". Howlers were, thus, perpetrated in history textbooks so that impressionable students believed that all Muslim rulers were adorable things viciously denigrated by trishul-wielding "RSS historians". I believe the section on Nadir Shah's sack of (largely Muslim) Delhi had been whitewashed in the SCERT textbook prescribed for Delhi Government schools.

Meanwhile, Shivaji was dismissed in a couple of paras, Sikh history was overlooked and both were clubbed as inevitable revolts by people in outlying regions caused by a weakened, post-Mughal Centre. An NCERT textbook altered by the NDA Government actually contained derogatory references to Guru Tegh Bahadur which described him as a bandit indulging in "rapine"!

The mindset of Marxist historiography is besotted with demolishing popular faiths and beliefs. In their arrogance, these historians assumed that people knew nothing; that all they believed from legends and tales was erroneous; and they must be rescued from blind faith and superstition. This zeal is comparable to that of the white missionaries who came to India and Africa convinced they had to deliver the ignorant inhabitants from the Dark Ages. Take Romila Thapar's book on the Somnath temple that I reviewed in February 2004 for India Today. The entire exercise, albeit scholarly, was undertaken to exonerate Mahmud of Ghazni of his criminal offence in ransacking the splendid shrine. She takes pains to point out conflicting contemporary accounts to suggest nothing so traumatic happened.

She quoted foreign sources to say that Mahmud could have believed the temple contained the idol of the Arabic pagan goddess Manat whose worship Prophet Mohammad had initially permitted but later retracted claiming he was under Satan's influence while approving this. Apparently, the reference to Manat is contained in the so-called Satanic Verses later deleted from the Quran. She said it's also possible that Mahmud thought the name Somnath was derived from the Arabic su-manat, and thus connected to the pagan goddess.

I have no doubt that under the new dispensation, this is the kind of history that shall be prescribed in schools. Short of exhorting children to offer prayers to Mahmud of Ghazni, Mohammad Ghauri, Nadir Shah and Aurangzeb, our new textbooks will do everything to run down all indigenous achievements. Maharana Pratap, for example, finds just a one-line reference in the SCERT book and Aryabhata none!

The unstated purpose behind this savage attack on Indian history is not mere jobbery; it is a deliberate attempt to berate India, its civilisation, religion and culture. It is aimed at emaciating the people morally and psychologically so that instead of taking pride in the country we become ashamed of its past. Once that is accomplished, we shall no doubt be expected to quietly acquiesce in many "nation-building" projects such as reconstruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya!

- This article is being reproduced from the archives. Dr Mitra's regular column will be back next week

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