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Teaching History without Political Borders - Afsan Chowdhury


Updated: Jun 10, 2021

I focus on social inclusion and exclusion processes, and the formation, interaction and mixing of multiple identities—from ethnic to economic—as the fuel of history. The state has two parts: government and society. My interest is more about society and people. But most conventional history books focus mostly on the deeds of a small minority or the ruling class. Their history becomes everyone’s history and we end up studying a past where ordinary people barely seem to exist.


This situation is somewhat inevitable. Conventional history studies are conducted primarily on the basis of written sources—religious texts, manuscripts, land-grant records, and religious myths, among others, that have been generated over time by the literate class. But literacy was also largely limited to the upper classes of the past. Thus we end up teaching the history of a narrow band of people, or the rulers.


History can be a like a cup of a heady brew, an intoxicant, to make us feel ‘glorious’ about our past—real or imagined. And we need such ‘pasts’ for many reasons, particularly political ones. Thus teaching history can become an exercise in glorifying our past and not in studying it critically. An ancient king’s history of invasion, a politician’s manipulations for power becomes everyone’s narrative.


So whose history do we teach anyway?

Pre-Political or Extra-Political History

The foundational period of our history, our pre-political history, is often excluded from history proper and not even referred to as history; rather, it is moved to one side and labelled ‘pre-history’. This history doesn’t sit on royal remembrances based upon land grants and taxation records. Ordinary people never write their history. Latest scientific advancements are, however, helping historians learn about the past in a more decisive way than even a decade ago when they were dependent only on textual narratives.


During this foundational historic period in our region, life was dominated by relatively free-flowing migration. There were many ethnic groups who entered our region through the five major migration routes. Of these, four are from the Southeast Asian side, stretching to Myanmar, Thailand and beyond and one to ancient Varendra / from Magadhan India to Central Asia and beyond.


It is in this formative phase that the long-term role of the environment—the geography, climate, agriculture, soils and rivers, and deltaic formations, natural disasters, social-faith practices independent of structured theology—can be detected which laid the foundation for later histories.


This period produced habitats, not kingdoms, and the many kinds of people who came before kings—speaking as many as 50 languages—for they are the ones who created society before being reduced to footnotes to the history of royals.

Teaching ‘Incomplete’ Histories

Establishment history survives by repeating what has been taught before, and royal histories are replaced by their modern versions, the history of governments and politics.


The 1971 war of independence is our most important political historical event, but we focus mostly on official institutional narratives and not on interactions between society and the war. A very different kind of war is, however, caught in a narrow beam, partly because research on the experience of ordinary people is limited.


Since identities are also political tools, history becomes a complex space where contesting members of the ruling class fight over the right to define: What is history? It is not an academic space but a political one, a legal one and sometimes a violent one. But this conflict also shows how deeply significant history teaching is.


History produces evidence to assist the ruling classes and justify governance decisions. There are regional, national and local interpretations of history, and they all carry political barcodes. The challenge of teaching history today is to reduce political influences and methodological limitations.


To balance the situation a little, we encourage students to analyse the past as a ‘phenomenon’—and not as a ‘description’—using critical /analytical tools whenever possible. These analytical models are borrowed from other disciplines, including development planning, in order to designate cause-and-effect relationship frameworks.


So while we study the past, as described in texts and books, we also try to understand—using structured causal analysis frameworks—why the texts are saying what they say. So it is not only a study of history. Rather, it is a ‘critique’ of both history and the methodology thus far used in its teaching.

Livelihood Search and History

We use simple Process Flow Charts to develop these links. For example, we categorize narratives into key components, such as livelihood search, protection, expansion, etc., as compulsions of both sides, whether communities or rulers. By abstracting the causes behind such decisions, we arrive at better insights into the historical forces at play instead of relying on subjective texts only.


We find that livelihood in all its manifestations is a major driver of history. Behind all acts are livelihood choices or compulsions, and this applies equally to both invader and invaded. So we use existing narrative information to analyse the choices made by both sides. Why does one invade? Why does language change and how? How sustainable are faith practices and what influences them? What are the needs to produce royal eulogies? What is the community spirit?


If there is livelihood, there will be challenges and threats to it. We produce community identities to manage such threats. There is a need to have a strategy to develop threat-management mechanisms. To sharpen such mechanisms, one may develop political institutions.


Thus government and politics are produced by the need to produce more to access resources of oneself or others, compulsions and threats and ambitions internal to the decision-maker. Invasions are thus also linked to livelihood-takeover strategies of one military group over another.


So when we teach political events of the recent past, including divided histories and united histories, we analyse them as livelihood-control or livelihood-expansion projects. Unity and division are integral concepts of the centre–periphery control model. But periphery rejects centre as controller of livelihoods, for it sees itself as the centre. This is what leads to conflicts. Thus we try to reduce subjectivity in our teaching of history through supplementary critical analysis.


By using similar techniques, we try to reduce exclusive dependence on ruling-class narratives, and to teach it as a comprehensive phenomenon incorporating as many social factors as possible.


Afsan Chowdhury is currently Senior Advisor (Advocacy and Communication) and Adjunct Faculty at the BRAC University in Dhaka, Bangladesh. His current research projects include A History of Villages during Conflict, The Case of the 1971 War and Social and Communal Discrimination Analysis in Selected Sylhet Areas. A former Oak Fellow for International Human Rights, Prof Chowdhury has been a consultant with the United Nations. His publications include Bangladesh 1971:History of Bangladesh Independence War (4 volumes) and People Movements, Human Rights and Bangladesh: Kansat and Phulbari (Research Project University of Penang).

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