Written by Arun Kumar
In the past few weeks, the public life of history has been unprecedented. Discussions about the economic hardships of people have been replaced by ones about the nature of Indian history. It has been alleged that Indian historiography and textbooks focus too much on the “bigoted dynasties” of Delhi and belittle the history of the Cholas, Vijayanagar Empire, Ahoms, Rashtrakutas. Although the call for democratisation is always welcome, the polarised language of the call and regressive understanding of historiography need to be called out.
Two important changes seem to form the context for this development The first is that political power has moved from the Congress party to the BJP. Historically, nation-states and political parties have always sought their legitimacy through a specific past, conducive to their ideologies. The very rise of history as a discipline in the 19th century was tied to the rise of nation-states. Imperial powers like England, France and the US used the past to legitimise their exploitative claims over colonies, and anti-colonial nationalists wrote histories that mobilised nationalistic feelings. After Independence, academic history in India was predominantly framed within the nation-building exercise, but from the 1970s onwards, history writing shifted from the crude political history of elite personalities to include the histories of ordinary people, women, workers, and Dalits. We saw the rise of subaltern studies, gender history, environmental history and caste studies. We not only learned how the Gandhi-led Congress built a nationalist movement but also how ordinary peasants, tribals, and workers shaped Gandhi as the Mahatma. More recently, we are seeing the rise of “global history” — history that goes beyond the nation-state boundaries — around the world.
Second, social media has opened a new space for history in formats that are easily consumable. As much as it opens up the discipline to a larger audience, it also carries the potential danger of putting forward simple, divisive, and one-sided narratives. It is not surprising that we are seeing an epidemic of twisted, cherry-picked, and often politically-charged popular history. It is becoming difficult to separate verified claims from false claims. TV journalism played a role in this by giving little space to trained historians.
Dynasty-centred history is an old form of history writing. In the last two decades, very rarely has an academic work focussed on a single Mughal or Delhi Sultanate dynast. Pitching the allegedly “glorious” history of the Mughals against the “glorious history of the Cholas” does not offer anything new, intellectually, other than dry political history, as there is no dearth of scholarship on non-Islamic dynasties. We cannot ignore the works of Burton Stein and Nilakanta Sastri on the Cholas, Vijayanagar, the Pandyas. It could be said that Indian history and its teaching is north-India centred, but it is not Delhi-centred. Moreover, in the last decade or so, greater attention has been paid to non-north India-centred history such as the history of Maratha state power (Prachi Deshpande), the Mysore state (Janaki Nair), early medieval south India (Kesavan Veluthat) and Ahom identity formation (Yasmin Saikia). New histories take time to translate into textbooks.
The allegation that NCERT’s medieval history textbooks focus too much on the Delhi sultans and the Mughal empire is not entirely accurate. The NCERT textbooks since 2005 seem to have moved away from crude political history. I looked at the NCERT textbook for class VII, in which three out of 10 chapters are on political kingdoms (the Chola kingdom, Delhi Sultanate and Mughal empire) and others refer to various dynasties. Histories of kings are not presented as reductionist histories of heroes and villains of the past, but are embedded in society, economy, and culture. I also looked at Uttar Pradesh’s Basic Education History and Civics textbook for class VII, where the accusation about Delhi dynasty-centred history applies with greater force and requires historians’ attention. Out of 14 history chapters, 12 are devoted to the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal empire (often personality-centred). So why are just NCERT’s textbooks at the centre of controversy? The logic of the present call is skewed. In the Class VI NCERT textbook, there is a whole chapter on Ashoka and a chapter on the Gupta, Pallava, and Chalukya dynasties. Why is the logic which is used for textbooks on medieval period history not automatically extended to textbooks on the ancient period?
Besides, there is no point in going back to a trend of history-writing that is outdated in terms of global scholarship and produces textbooks that are too lengthy for children. By returning to the history of dynasties and kings, we are turning history into lore and legend, which sounds pleasing to the ears of a few. Let sleeping kings and queens lie. Histories of heroes/villains, good/evil dynasties require that historians become “social therapists” and write history as “therapy reading sessions”. We do need to democratise history but, sadly, this will not happen by giving a polarised overtone to existing historiography or by revisiting the history of dynasties. We need research grants and permanent academic posts for universities that have been running without permanent faculties. We need alternative histories, not “alternatives to history”.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 29, 2021 under the title ‘Let sleeping kings lie’. The writer is an assistant professor of history at Nottingham University