All of modern India’s unique contributions to humankind come from ancient India. And yet, our ancient past remains almost totally hidden behind a dark, dark curtain. What we know of it comes to us from colonial historians and after Independence, from Marxists who saw even Mahmud Ghazni and Muhammad Ghori as benign invaders who destroyed ancient temples only to steal their great wealth. Not as early jihadists who had deep contempt for us infidels and our idol-worshipping land. If we had undergone a process of real decolonisation after the British departed, it is possible that one of the things that would have come up for correction would have been the history books that are prescribed in our schools. This did not happen because it was considered (wrongly perhaps) as offensive to Muslims.
This despite the first prime minister of modern India having written in his first memoir about how India had through centuries of decay and humiliation ‘clung to her immemorial culture, drawn strength and vitality from it, and shared it with other lands’. For unknown reasons, possibly because he was too busy with other more important things, Jawaharlal Nehru did nothing to decolonise the education system we inherited from the British. So the process of colonising the Indian mind has continued fully after we became an independent country. Most Indian children grow up today learning more about American history than their own. What little they do learn comes from Bollywood movies, if Hindutva fanatics do not find their way to stop these films from being shown.
So if the Prime Minister has set up a committee to examine ancient Indian history, it should be welcomed. Instead the story filed by Reuters made international headlines as yet another attempt by Hindu fanatics to ‘rewrite’ history. And, when Sonia Gandhi gave a keynote address at the India Today conclave last week, she deplored the rewriting of history in the same sentence as she deplored attacks on Dalit and Muslim communities by cow vigilantes. For this Narendra Modi has himself to blame. If he had personally condemned these vigilante mobs with the same stern words he just used to condemn the tearing down of statues, they would have stopped a long time ago. He did not, and today all attempts to try and rectify wrongs done in the name of ‘secularism’ have become tainted by Hindutva hate crimes committed in the name of protecting cows.
This is a shame because Indian children have a right to learn about where yoga comes from and whether there really was a king in Ayodhya called Ram or was he just a mythical king. They have a right to know about the civilisation that created a language as sophisticated and scientific as Sanskrit so very long ago. Who were these people? Did they really come from Europe as colonial and Leftist historians would have us believe or was there an ancient civilisation that existed on the banks of the Saraswati river and disappeared when the river did?
If the Modi government has set up a committee to examine ancient India, it is to be welcomed. But, we must hope that there are real historians and scholars who constitute it and not the kind of pamphleteers who flock to the RSS and spend their time denouncing the books of western scholars in unreadable, unscholarly tomes of their own. What is worrying about the committee is that some of its members have said some very stupid things to the Reuters reporters who went to meet them. Of these perhaps the most embarrassing comments of all came from the Minister of Culture, Mahesh Sharma, who is quoted as saying, “I worship Ramayana and I think it is a historical document. People who think it is fiction are wrong.” Now there is a problem there already because if it is history, then it cannot be worshipped. It can only be worshipped if it is indeed a religious myth that sought to create for good Hindus the ideal man and the ideal king.
Those who condemn any re-examination of history books as an attempt to rewrite history should keep in mind that Indian children are today growing up with no knowledge of what it means to be Indian. It is not just privileged, rich Indians who are sending their sons and daughters to English-medium schools but semi-literate, desperately poor rural parents who believe learning English is the only way their children will be able to secure their future. When I meet young people who emerge from these rural schools what saddens me is that they speak no English, have never read a story in this language, and have at the same time hardly learned their mother tongue. So if the ministries of Culture and Human Resource Development are collaborating on this project, can they please rewrite our school system as well?