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Updated: Nov 28, 2020



This talk was presented in August 2018 as part of the fourth annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of Culture, Calcutta.


Let me begin by saying that I am really pleased to be back here—I was at one of these conferences a couple of years ago and it was a very gratifying experience. I have a particular affinity for the history teachers of Calcutta schools because when I was at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences here several years ago, we ran a weekend workshop for history teachers for two years. I begin by saying this because that was when I was a bit more optimistic. What I am going to present today is a much more pessimistic view with the intention of producing some discussion. And my work has been made very easy because my turn comes at the end of a day of very rich presentations—Professor Romila Thapar’s in particular, because she said that there are so many different perspectives on the past that need to be acknowledged. Though she did also admit that it was not going to be an easy thing to incorporate all those perspectives into a single textbook. However, I fear she may not approve of the conclusion I have drawn from that observation.

I am, therefore, going to be a little irreverent to begin with. I am taking a few quotations from a really lovely send-up of a school textbook written in 1930 and which continues to be a bestseller. Needless to say, it is mostly about British history, but I have chosen the one paragraph that talks about the British connection with India:


It was in the 18th century that the Indian history started. Indian history is a great number of wars in which the English fought victoriously against the Waratah Confederacy and various kinds of potentates called Sahibs,Wallahs, Jahs, Rajahs, Hurrahjahs, Mahurrajahs, Jhams and Jhelhies.

This would not pass in today’s India. In case you thought that they were being imperialist and racist, here’s the next part. Look what it says about the Industrial Revolution:

During the wars, many very remarkable discoveries and inventions were made. Most memorable among these was the discovery (made by all the rich men of England at once) that women and children could work for twenty-five hours a day in factories without many of them dying or becoming excessively deformed.This was known as the Industrial Revolution and completely changed the faces of the North of England.

And, if you’ll indulge me, one more little comment on Woodrow Wilson’s peace to end all wars, ‘the peace to end peace’:

And they say, though there were several battles in the war, none were so terrible or costly as the Peace which was signed afterwards in the ever-memorable Chamber of Horrors at Versailles. One of the points that President Wilson insisted on was—that the world should be made safe for democracy, that is, anyone except pillion riders, pedestrians, foreigners, natives, capitalists, communists, Jews, riffs, RAFs, gunmen, policemen, peasants, pheasants, Chinese, etc.

Why am I starting with this? I am starting with this because I am striking a very pessimistic note. There was a time—when I was in school—when you could follow D. N. Kundra’s history textbook in school and safely say that Ashoka or Pulakesi or Krishnadevaraya or Serfoji II or a myriad of other good kings planted trees, built roads and established chatrams, and you were assured of a few marks in the exam. I will, never in my lifetime, be able to even attempt to write a send-up of Indian history in this way. Apart from the fact that I don’t have these extremely well developed skills at raising a laugh, we will never have this version of 1066 and all that, even though we have enough in our past to sustain an all-night stand-up comedy. Imagine the fun we could have with Muhammad bin Tughlaq! But I can also imagine the mob gathering outside my department if I dare to raise a laugh or two about the Tamil Nadu government deciding in June 2018 that the state textbooks will stick to Before Christ (BC) and Anno Domini (AD) rather than Before the Christian Era in order to prevent the historical mistake of offending their minorities. This was a decision taken soon after the textbooks had been printed, in which CE and BCE had been used.

So, that was the fun part.

I am going to strike a very different note from the heavy, weighty kind of presentations we have had so far. What is in our textbooks, I am going to argue, is therefore not an agreed-upon account of the past. One is reminded here of a very evocative paragraph in Pierre Nora’s article ‘Between Memory and History’ in which he refers to the book Le Tour de la France par deux enfants, written in 1877 by G. Bruno (a pseudonym used by a woman named Augustine Fouillée) and instrumental in training the memories of millions of French boys and girls. Eventually in the article, Pierre Nora says, ‘Thanks to it, the Minister of Public Instruction could draw his pocket watch at 8:05 A.M. and declare, “All of our children are crossing the Alps.”’—because you knew they were studying history in school, they were reading the same book, and you could predict that they were taking this tour at exactly 8:05 that morning. So a single language and a unified territory made the French history textbook a sovereign text all the way up to the eve of the First World War—almost five decades. It is still in publication, and still a bestseller. But in a place like India, a veritable Republic of Babel, has it not always been an account of the past according to one or another type of government in power?

The textbook has become—I was going to say an ‘embattled object’, but I will change that and say—an ‘endangered object’. The love of the past in India today is the stuff of battles in courtrooms, streets and movie theatres rather than seminars, classrooms and journals. Historical knowledge is something that everybody passionately and deeply engages with, especially in India—I would say that this is a particularly sub-continental affliction. So the professional historian is himself/herself something of a bit of an endangered species too because the historical method seems to have no place in this ‘love of the past’. So I can end my talk right here by saying that maybe we should all only teach English history, Russian history or Chinese history because it is no longer safe to try and attempt to teach Indian history—but I won’t say that!

Instead, I would like to say something on which I do not expect agreement—a single, teachable past in India is no longer possible. I will differ, therefore, from our former president Pranab Mukherjee who recently, in little over twenty-seven minutes, wove the myth of a single, teachable, usable past in his address to the Sangh Shiksha Varg of the RSS on 7 June 2018.You have all watched that speech, I don’t need to remind you of its content. It’s 5000 years of unity, universities of Nalanda and Takshashila were shining for 800 years starting from 6th century BC despite all the conquests we have had and so on. He did end on the note of our constitutional patriotism, but by that time the damage had been done—because he was basically glorifying sameness when he waxed eloquent about ancient India before dismissing the entire medieval period by saying, ‘Muslim invaders then came and ruled India for 600 years’.

First, let me make my argument about why I believe that the Indian history textbook is no longer a possibility. I am basing it on a number of challenges we are facing today, challenges from within the discipline as many people are coming to an understanding that they need to know their own past. Different regions, different histories, different castes, the South, the North-East, the tribals, the Dalits, the women are asking questions like ‘Why not?’, ‘Where were we?’, ‘What if?’ I am going to give you a few examples from the Kannada University at Hampi: a member of the group infamously labelled the ‘criminal tribes’ wishes to study the origins of this appellation—where that term came from, how they got classified as a ‘criminal tribe’ etc. Or an Iruliga student (Iruligas are snake-catchers) writing a history of his community in and around Ramanagara. These are very local histories, these are very local questions emerging from what they are asking themselves but they are questions that our history books do not appear to be adequately answering. A student from an agricultural background researching the history of early modern agrarian relations in Chitradurga, a person studying the roots of under-development in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, and another studying the history of the Bal Basappa performing cult and its message of equality are some more examples. So, you can see that there is a wide range of things, local histories being examined, investigated and written about because the his- tories of India are found wanting.The conventional histories do not explain to many of these people who she was and why she got where she was. So that was a task for which she had to develop or fashion new methodologies. I am not going into the methodology question right now but, rather, will identify the challenges from outside the profession.

I would like to point to the wide range of communities that wish to claim individual historical figures as figures belonging to their community and, therefore, above the critical historical method. In short, nothing critical can be said about the lives of these figures. So the historical figure—these are actual historical figures in many cases—have become one whom conventional historians’ histories have misrepresented, and therefore cannot be spoken of except by a devoted member of the community concerned. Sangolli Rayanna, for instance, can only be depicted by the Kurubas; Kittur Chennamma can only be depicted by the Lingayats and so on. I don’t know if this is a particular predicament in Karnataka alone, but perhaps you will recognize some common features for other regions of India as well.

I had contributed to the NCERT books of 2006. In particular, I had contributed a chapter on clothing which had a five-paragraph reference to the famous history of the Breast Cloth disturbances in Travancore, southern Tamil Nadu, in the nineteenth century. This section came in for a huge amount of political flak in 2012, six years after the book was published. I have written about that experience because it taught me what professional historians can no longer do. It taught me the limits of our capacity to intervene in questions that are so highly and deeply politicized. So, that is the second kind of challenge that I see to the historical profession and, therefore, to the history books.

The third challenge we are witnessing at this moment is from above—the state and its obligations. Of course we are very familiar with the central government and its pre- occupations, especially in the past four years. But each state government has its own preoccupations. The preoccupations of the recently ended Congress government, for example. Surprisingly, it included a chapter in the Karnataka school-level textbook on the value of folklore as a historical source. Now, the inclusion of an entire chapter on the value of folklore as a historical source is not a bad thing, but it just stuck out there like a sore thumb! It hadn’t been thought through in terms of its connection with the other kinds of discussions of sources. There was no such discussion—it was just the ambition of that particular textbook committee. I am giving you a completely different kind of example from the ones we are more familiar with, to point out how whimsical the addition of chapters and themes and so on in history books has been, often driven by certain kinds of compulsions of the state. There is a pathological obsession today with history, from which we discern the characteristic of the Hindu Right. But it draws upon a very long preoccupation with history over the last 150 years or so. Let us not by any means be deluded into thinking that this invocation of hurt sentiments (of which I gave an example a moment ago—the instance in Tamil Nadu) is not something new—it has been happening at least since the beginning of the emergence of the textbook in the nineteenth century in India, with the British particularly warm towards entertaining various kinds of claims of hurt sentiments in the course of textbook production. It has more or less become the norm, as it were.

Finally, we have a new kind of challenge—the technological challenge to the history textbook. The textbook is no longer the only source for understanding history. Rather, that most people are consulting ‘WhatsApp university’ for answers to many of their questions. There is a multitude of Internet sources flooded with dubious assertions, alarming claims, calls to battle on real and imagined historical heroes and heroines and wrongs and rights. So WhatsApp university is, of course, the most important place of information gathering.

Now, if the textbook is not doing that task of conveying one ‘agreed-on’ account of the past, then what else can the textbook do? We are living through what I think is perhaps the most dangerous time which is insisting on the single, usable, teachable past. So we are perhaps also at the best point to intervene and say that there is a power to telling multiple stories.

Regarding the list of examples that I promised you— these are historical heroes who are very seriously claimed by specific communities. You cannot speak about Kanakadasa without being approved by the Kuruba Sangha; whether Sangolli Rayanna is a Bedara Nayaka or a Kuruba is still being debated. So there is a virtual monopoly on the historical knowledge related to these figures. Kempegowda and even Kuvempu—noted Kannada writer of the twentieth century, winner of the Jnanpith Award—are claimed by the Vokkaligas. Koti and Chennaya, the Tuluva twin heroes from the sixteenth century, are claimed by the Billavas. I could give you innumerable examples of such ‘owning’, but I am just trying to demonstrate to you that there is this kind of claim which is being made to certain historical figures. They are acting as gatekeepers of knowledge about these historical figures which makes it virtually impossible to say anything about them, particularly in the textbooks. Should they be added? Should they be left out? Should only that be said which has been approved by the community?

I want to cite here an author you are all probably familiar with—Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie who has talked about ‘the danger of a single story’. I am only quoting one little excerpt from her talk: ‘Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.’ This morning we had a discussion, and I think it was a very important one, about the necessity for narrative. It is perhaps how we are losing our battle as professional historians—because of our insistence on the protocols of evidence rather than focusing on as compelling a narrative as other kinds of groups lay claim to. Stories are necessary and multiple stories are extremely necessary particularly in a country like India.

So, I am going to invite you to share with me a reverie about method. To say that perhaps what we can do as teachers of history is to encourage certain kinds of historical thinking. It really does not matter what kinds of historical examples we take up in order to demonstrate the value of historical thinking. I have chosen one little clip. There are many associations in the United States which are engaged in historical thinking. I have argued elsewhere that perhaps we have spent too much time in the immediate post-Independence decades talking about the necessity of scientific temper, and it is perhaps necessary, and important, for us as historians to insist on the necessity over historical temper. If we insisted on historical temper, what would those elements of historical temper be? I am going to share with you a video that has been prepared to think about the elements of critical thinking and thinking historically.

It was convenient for me to use that because it is so beautifully put in just the space of seven and a half minutes. I want to suggest that the 2006 NCERT textbook in fact achieved what is being proposed—it allowed students an opportunity to compare contradictory sources. (I am talking about the C