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The Future Of The Indian Past

An understanding of the past can illumine the present and enable one to think more meaningfully about the future. How the past is to be understood is one among the many alternatives for the future that Indian society is facing in present times.

The Future Of The Indian Past

The full text of  the Seventh D. T. Lakdawala Memorial Lecture delivered at FICCI Auditorium, New Delhi on 21 February 2004, organised by the Institute of Social Sciences.

I would like to express my gratitude to the Institute of Social Sciences and its director, Dr George Mathew, for doing me the honour of inviting me to deliver the Seventh D.T. Lakdawala Memorial Lecture. Given the eminence of my predecessors, this is a more than ordinary privilege for me. The person we are remembering today was an economist with a deep concern for social and economic justice in Indian society. For him, as for many others, the protection of the values that accompanied this concern was essential. These values, necessary to the present, were for him equally crucial to the projection of the future. The link between the present and the future was therefore, intrinsic.

In a seemingly contradictory way, looking into the future requires an understanding of the past. Such an understanding can illumine the present and enable one to think more meaningfully about the future. History as a commentary on the past becomes essential to this process. How the past is to be understood is one among the many alternatives for the future that Indian society is facing in present times. I shall be speaking about the choices before us that will determine the future of the Indian past. Such choices are dependent on our understanding of the past, but among other things, are also tied to the shape that we wish to give to the future society. What is sometimes referred to as the controversy over history, and on which I am speaking this evening, is an indicator of this connection.

The tradition of liberal, independent historical writing in India is now under attack from an official interpretation of Indian history. Many historians are currently opposing the attempt to use history in support of an ideology of religious nationalism. The opposition was sparked a couple of years ago by the government condemnation of existing school textbooks in History published by the NCERT. These textbooks were discredited so as to justify their being replaced in 2003 by a history that would endorse the current political ideology. Historians have been troubled not just by the content of the new textbooks but also by the manner in which these changes have been made.

The school curriculum was changed by government fiat, without consulting the educational bodies that had earlier routinely been consulted, such as, the Central Advisory Board of Education. Such a consultation would have prevented the implementation of what many now regard as a sub-standard curriculum for schools, quite apart from the rather drastic re-orientation of history.

Middle School students are to be taught the following subjects: a package entitled "Social Studies" consisting of potted versions of history, economics, civics and geography; Vedic Mathematics; Simple Sanskrit; and Yoga and Consciousness. On the completion of Middle School they will be tested to ascertain whether they go into the academic stream or the vocational stream and the tests will draw on the Intelligence Quotient, Emotional Quotient and Spirituality Quotient - whatever these may be.

An immediate action was the arbitrary deletion of passages from the existing history textbooks. The government claimed that various religious organizations had demanded these deletions. Their objections were not discussed by any committee or organization of professional historians prior to the passages being deleted. Discussion in school of the deleted passages was also prohibited. These passages included seminal questions, among them the origin and evolution of caste society in India. In a society where caste remains hegemonic, it is ironic not to allow a discussion on how social hierarchies came about. Other deletions referred to the eating of beef in early India, to the difficulty of dating the Mahabharata and the Ramayana because of later additions to the texts, to the mention of a brahmanical reaction contributing to the decline of the Mauryan empire, and so on. The rationale for these deletions remains unclear. It would seem that these were random objections made by anyone who chose to and were used to discredit the books. A year later these textbooks were replaced by hastily put together new ones, some of which were pedagogically incompetent, apart from their slanted history.

One is not arguing against the periodic revising of textbooks but rather, one is insisting upon such revisions observing accepted pedagogic procedures such as were observed in earlier years; and also urging that textbooks should provide updated, refereed, knowledge, and in a manner that encourages students to think critically and independently. In other words, to perform the role expected of textbooks. At the best of times, textbooks raise pedagogical problems as they did even in the last fifty years. But one had hoped that educational policies would keep addressing these problems and improving on the process of educating students. Unfortunately what is happening now is a series of retrograde steps in terms of structure and content.

One possible amendment to this would lie in the availability of a range of professionally vetted textbooks. Together with this, examining boards concerned with school education, in prescribing such books, should be made responsible to regularized procedures of discussion among schoolteachers and historians. There is furthermore, an urgent need for transparency in and information on, what is being taught in schools run by organizations that describe themselves as religious and cultural, be they the Shishu Mandirs of the RSS, the Madrassas, the schools run by Gurdwara Committees or Church mission schools. As for state schools there is an additional fear that a sub-standard curriculum will intensify the current bifurcation in education: where quality education is available in private schools for those that can afford such schooling, and a near worthless education for those that cannot. We have been far too casual about what is taught in school and are reaping the consequences of adopting a system that is politically malleable.

Textbooks are not just learning manuals. They are also the media through which societies transmit the definition as well as the rights and obligations of citizenship, and these in turn help formulate identities. Future citizens have to learn to assess the institutions that constitute their state and society, an assessment linked to encouraging a critical enquiry in the young mind. Far from making it an investment, education is being reduced to a rather meaningless game of scoring marks. When to this is added a doubtful content in what is taught, the system of education begins to annul education.

Not satisfied with changing school textbooks, the government has also claimed the mandate to propose a uniform history syllabus for colleges and universities throughout the country. This has been done through the funding body, the University Grants Commission. There is a hint that non-compliance may affect funding. The proposed syllabus is seriously deficient as it ignores developments in methodology and historiography of the past half-century. Some universities are currently teaching far more advanced history courses.

There is now a greater interference in the autonomy of universities, with attempts to centralize admission procedures, exams, syllabi and funding, not with the intention of raising standards but to exercise maximum governmental control. The state will of course demand the right to intervene in state-funded institutions, but the intervening should not violate the professional autonomy of the institution. Legitimizing obscurantism through introducing Departments of Astrology cannot be a unilateral decision. It has to be seen in the context of whether the same funding could be used more effectively in other areas, as for instance, in developing libraries for students. It is claimed by the University Grants Commission that introducing Departments of Astrology at University level will prove that astrology is India’s contribution to world science and that it can solve the problems of the world. That many Indian scientists have described it as a leap backwards did not deter the UGC.

Dismantling the autonomy of universities is being permitted by academics, who either out of apathy, or a wish to conform to government directives, do not protest against the changes. One remembers the words of Miguel de Unamuno, rector of the University of Salamanca in 1936, that at times silence is a lie for it can be interpreted as acquiescence. The latest attempt of the Government has however, met with some resistance. Various university teachers’ associations have rejected the UGC’s proposed Model Act for Universities of the Twenty-first Century in India. It is seen as an attempt to introduce control by the government and corporate houses and to eliminate democratic procedures, not to mention the responsibilities of the state for funding higher education.

Attempts are also being made to dismantle specialized institutions of technology (IIT) and management (IIM) by changing the fee structure and the syllabus. Since this impinges in a more observable way on the future prospects of the middle-class, a small protest is beginning to be heard. But now that the court has validated the Government’s objective, the protest may become ineffectual. The objective is that the degree of self-financing of these institutions - which is considerable - is to be drastically reduced so that they become dependent on heavy Government subsidies. There is little logic in this. The funds for these subsidies would be better spent by the Government on financing primary and secondary education and on providing full scholarships for impoverished students to be trained in the IITs and IIMs. Nor is the element of greed altogether absent in these objectives. The wealthy alumni of the IIMs and IITs send funds for the institutions where they were trained as a gesture of appreciation. It has been proposed that such funds should now be channeled through the central Bharat Shiksha Kosh, so that the funds can be used anywhere and not necessarily on the institutions for which they were intended.

At the level of research there has been the virtual banning of two major publications putting together documents taken from the National Archives pertinent to the two decades prior to Indian independence. From 1970 to 1983, documents from the Archives in Britain referring to these events were published under the title of The Transfer of Power. Indian historians decided to publish documents from the National Archives in India on the same period in a multi-volume project. Some volumes had already been published but another two sets of volumes had just reached the press when the present government decided to prohibit their publication, with no reasonable explanation for this action. The government, it would seem, can ban the publication of documents from the National Archives, even when they are not time-barred.

An atmosphere has been created in which any group can object to a book, and threats can lead to the banning or the withdrawal of such books. Organizations claiming the right to arbitrarily decide what is intellectually and culturally permissible now resort to physical attacks on persons and books. The recent incident when the major Sanskrit library, the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute was ravaged by such an organization, has received little condemnation by the self-appointed protectors of Sanskrit and the Vedic tradition. Books are banned because they question the political agendas of certain groups, and the banning becomes a demonstration of power. The other side of this is that these books continue to be published outside India. If the banning of books becomes a habit in India there will be different histories read inside and outside India. The difference will not be because of academic views but because of the dictate of politics and the suppression of free expression.

We may well ask why there should be a fear of independent historical writing. The reasons behind the fear need investigation. Reducing history to the lowest and most doubtful common denominator means that this is not only an attempt to wreck the discipline, but has wider social implications. Since the earlier textbooks are dismissed because they are said to be not only Marxist in their orientation but also anti-national, an understanding of this allegation has to begin by briefly reviewing the history of nationalisms in India.

Nationalisms sometimes require a demarcation between the Self and the Other through constructing narratives that define each. These are not permanent categories but are projected as such. The reformulation of cultural idioms creates a contest over who does the reformulating and with what intention. Defining the Self and the Other is a complex process and inevitably varies in time and in the requirements of the particular nationalism. It is also worth investigating the point at which the Other becomes the Enemy.

Colonial societies, emerging from colonial experience and its policies, have known more than a single nationalism. In India there were two recognizable forms, generally distinct but occasionally over-lapping. One was inclusive nationalism dating from the late nineteenth century. This kneaded together the segments of Indian society and opposed colonial power. For this anti-colonial nationalism, the Other - the one to be contested - was the colonial power. The focus was on the sovereignty of an Indian identity, based on democratic and secular institutions.

Nationalism attempts to knead together the segments of society that were characteristic of earlier times. This gives primacy to particular features. Anti-colonial nationalism also focused on what shape the future society should take after independence. Implicit in this was a liberal, secular, democratic society, although what this entailed in terms of re-orienting society was not worked out in any detail. But there were other kinds of nationalism that made religion the keystone. There was an assertion that there should be a return to ‘traditional culture’. But this in effect did not and cannot happen. The encounter with Orientalism, produced a new interpretation of Indian history, religion and culture, reflecting in part the perspective of Orientalism and in part a reaction against some of these perspectives. The Indians that dominated intellectual life in the nineteenth century were responding to both a colonial discourse about India and a nationalist construction of what was viewed as a traditional discourse. The colonial discourse gave primacy to history as a component of that reformulation.

In the early twentieth century two new nationalisms acquired visibility. The earlier nationalism was contesting aspects of current imperial views of history, whereas these later forms were more rooted in the colonial discourse. These were groups drawing on a religious identity - either Hindu or Muslim - and for whom the identity of an independent nation-state derived from the religion of the majority community in the proposed state. This kind of nationalism drew substantially on the inheritance of identities moulded by colonial policy and the colonial interpretation of Indian history. Discussions in this context highlighted formulations equating community and religion. These nationalisms projected imagined, uniform, monolithic religious communities and imbued them with a political reality. Both nationalisms took shape almost simultaneously in the early twentieth century and have become virtually mirror images of each other - each maintaining the viability of separate nation-states. For religious nationalists, the Other, the one to be contested, was not the colonial power, to which they pledged loyalty, but the followers of the other religion, as also those who opposed religious nationalism, such as Mahatma Gandhi whom they assassinated. Political parties propagating this nationalism claimed to speak for communities as defined by religious labels - either Hindu or Muslim. The focus on the Indian citizen faded in their vision.

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