Among the intangible things that independent India’s governments inherited from the British was a nervous insecurity about unconventional books and historical maps. Banning books (from Aubrey Menen’s Rama Retold in 1955 to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988) was the simplest (and least effective) way to deal with the issue. The National Archives’s cartophobia meant scholars were prohibited from copying maps (which were freely available in Britain and the US). The paranoia has abated — not because the government has become more liberal, but because digitisation and satellite photography have made books and maps freely accessible.
The insecurity, however, has taken a new form — of airbrushing names of people and places off our imagination, and shifting dates around, to invent new pasts. It is time that places got Aadhaar cards. They have unique identities just like individuals. Place names mark the intersection between time and place, between history and geography. The timber market, the wholesale market, the market by the river, the twin market have endured as Kath-godam, Mandi, Darya-ganj, Jor-hat. There is no call to change them, just as the name Oxford endures even if one does not see oxen fording the Cherwell river. Victory was commemorated in Fatehpur and Vijayanagar. Rulers are remembered by the names of forts they built near older settlements — Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Bikaner, Ahmedabad, Faizabad. Temples created sacred towns — Sri-nagar, Sri-rangapattana, and numerous towns with the prefix “Thiru”.
It takes time to build a new town. How much simpler to rename an old one! Indian politicians of all parties are alike when it comes to renaming. They have never seen history as a discipline. Every now and then, someone (usually with no credentials to be doing it) “requests” that the name of some place be changed, and, bafflingly, this gets done. The British misspelt but did not change names. The Congress erased British names in favour of names of modern Indians, the BJP shunts out Muslim builders of towns and forts. You can place people by their surnames — Punekar, Banarsidas, Indorewala, but if things continue the way they are going, place names or airport names will reflect communities — starting with Agarwals and Nath devotees.
A nation is not a given, it is a house being built, embellished and kept in good repair. We add to it, we do not pull out parts to replace them. That would lead the building to collapse.
Many countries have built gazetteers and local histories over centuries. We have the raw material for these — sthala-puranas — local stories, genealogies, travelogues, and, more recently, photographs. It is not too late to compile our equivalents of The International Dictionary of Historic Places and the Encyclopaedia of Historic Places. There is nothing as satisfying as an evocative and sympathetic description of a place. For England, there is a short, charming book by Caroline Taggart — The Book of English Place Names: How Our Towns and Villages Got Their Names (2011).
In France, the Academie Francaise, a body of 40 distinguished scholars, is charged with approving/rejecting words to be included in the French dictionary. This is understood as a nation-building exercise, too important to be left to ephemeral governments. In India, we need to safeguard names of places by setting up a similar consultative board. It should include independent-minded writers, artists, scientists and linguists. Equally important is to have a dedicated body, again independent of government, to constantly scrutinise school textbooks of history — to ensure that the books convey a sense of time, space, and chronologies, go beyond political and statist narratives, beyond the subcontinent, and, above all stimulate students to think for themselves. For most people, “history” is what they read till Class X, topped with an icing of TV serials. All the more reason that serious and constant attention should be paid to textbooks.
And let us put an end to the description of textbooks as “the Congress ones” or “the BJP ones”. Minister Manish Sisodia said the spirit of Ram would be expressed far better by building a fine university than by building a temple. Similarly, we need fine books of history which we would be proud to show anyone, not shabby texts intent on scoring points.
In March, HRD minister Prakash Javadekar said that “Our government is the first government to have the courage to even question the existing version of history that is being taught in schools and colleges.” (There were four occasions before 2014 when syllabi were questioned and changed — in 1966, 1977, 1998, and 2004) . From 1966, when the first set of school textbooks in independent India began to roll out, there has been a parallel narrative of piecemeal complaints by individuals who compile lines from textbooks that they claim “hurt sentiments” of different communities.
It is reported that in November 2016, a committee was appointed, consisting of a geologist, archaeologists, Sanskrit scholars and two bureaucrats, to prepare a “holistic study of origin and evolution of Indian culture from way back (later specified as 10,000 BCE) and compare it with other cultures across the world.” “The Ramayana and the Mahabharata have to be shown to be fact, not myth, today’s Hindus as being directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants many thousands of years ago, and the national identity matching the religious views of those ancestors, that India is a nation of and for Hindus.” (Reuters).
By coincidence, the Harvard team researching the DNA of South Asians, have published an interim report; this reinforces the argument that Central Asians moved into north India in the 2nd millennium BCE. This has led one of the members of the committee, a Sanskrit professor, to push things back beyond 10,000 BC to say that India’s Hindu culture is millions of years old. In other words, much older than Homo sapiens!
The committee is said to have submitted its report in November 2017. A year has gone by. We wait breathlessly.