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Distortion or depreciation: The problems facing Indian history writing

The problem is that the official history contained in our textbooks simply does not ring true to most Indians

columns Updated: Aug 11, 2016 01:23 IST
Even our politics is impacted by who did or did not pull down a temple in the sixteenth century. If anything, we Indians are obsessed with history.
Even our politics is impacted by who did or did not pull down a temple in the sixteenth century. If anything, we Indians are obsessed with history. (AFP file photo)

One is often told that Indians do not care for their history. This is an odd accusation to hurl at a people who have a fair claim to being the world’s oldest continuous civilisation. Millions of Indians start their day with Bronze Age chants and everyday conversations are peppered with allusions to Iron Age epics. Even our politics is impacted by who did or did not pull down a temple in the 16th century. If anything, we Indians are obsessed with history. Perhaps what we do not really care about is the stuff in the textbooks.

The problem is that the official history contained in our textbooks simply does not ring true to most Indians. First of all, it is quite amazing the extent to which colonial-era prejudices have been perpetuated to this day. More overt biases such the blatantly racist Aryan Invasion Theory have been challenged, but many others remain embedded. For instance, we routinely term Chanakya as ’Machiavellian’ and Samudra Gupta as the ’Napoleon of India’.

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It may appear that calling someone ‘Napoleon’ is a compliment, but even a casual deconstruction of these epithets shows that colonial historians meant something totally different. Remember that the British were proud that they had defeated Napoleon repeatedly — so the real message to an Indian audience was that Samudra Gupta may have been a great general but the British would still have defeated him. As the African saying goes, “Until the lions have their own story-teller, history will always glorify the hunter”.

Rather than systematically remove colonial prejudices, post-Independence historians added an additional layer. Quite apart from the political preferences of the Nehruvians and Marxists, the narrative came to be dominated by Delhi as if the rest of the country must exist as mere provinces. Thus, we are told of obscure Delhi-based dynasties like the Lodhis but virtually nothing about the Vijayanagar empire, the Deccan sultans or the Ahoms of Assam.

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Delhi’s monopoly has introduced a peculiar inland bias that ignores the country’s extraordinary maritime past. Thus, it is possible to grow up in India without hearing anything about the exploits ancient Odiya mariners, the links of the Cholas and Pallavas to South-East Asia or Indo-Roman trade. This is rather like retelling European history without mentioning Athens, Venice, Portugal, Spain and England.

The landlocked mindset has a real impact on how we engage with the world. Coastal history is about exploration, risk-taking and external orientation whereas Delhi views the outside world as the perpetual source of invaders. In turn, this has influenced our economic and foreign policy. For example, India’s geopolitical approach is entirely dominated by China and Pakistan. From a maritime perspective, however, Oman and Indonesia are our close neighbours. A more balanced historical narrative would tell us of our close ties to these countries over thousands of years. Indeed, the Indonesians take so much pride in our civilisational links that they named their country and their currency after ours! Even their national airline is named Garuda after Vishnu’s eagle. Contrast this with Pakistan’s official policy of erasing its links to the Indic civilisation. On whom should we spend our diplomatic energy?

Another major problem with Indian history writing is the disdain for evidence. Historical facts are not static since new discoveries are constantly thrown up by archaeology, genetics, climate sciences, and so on. As with all fields of knowledge, existing hypotheses need to be tested against new evidence.

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Note that I am not complaining here about differences in interpretation. When people can argue so vociferously about current events, it is not surprising that historians disagree on thousand-year old events. The real problem is that so much personal and sometimes political capital gets invested in certain narratives, that evidence is simply not updated. Quoting authority is seen as more important than primary material.

This problem is not unique to either India or history writing. As physicist Max Plank famously said, “Science progresses one funeral at a time”. The problem is that it takes more than one funeral in a country with a strong tradition of dynasty and “guru-shishya parampara”. The disdain for facts, in turn, has discouraged the systematic collation of primary evidence. Reports of major archaeological digs are left incomplete and key artefacts are often untraceable, perhaps stolen.

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These are a few of the problems facing Indian history writing. Note that I have deliberately avoided getting into ideological and political debates. I think correcting the above three distortions should be acceptable to serious scholars from across the ideological spectrum. Quite apart from removing major distortions, it will have two important benefits. First, it will make history more about exploration and discovery than about memorising a static narrative. Second, it will give Indians a feeling of ownership over their own story and a broader worldview.

Sanjeev Sanyal is the author of The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean shaped Human History

The views expressed are personal