Updated: December 7, 2021 8:34:14 am
The parliamentary panel on education has got it all wrong: It is not the job of parliamentarians to instruct historians on how to write history textbooks or teach history. The House panel headed by BJP MP Vinay P Sahasrabuddhe has called for a review of the way freedom fighters have been represented in history textbooks, and suggested that “ancient wisdom from the Vedas” be made part of school textbooks. It has also pitched for “due and proper space to hitherto unknown freedom fighters”, “removing distortions about national heroes”, better representation of “community-identity-based history” and “equal weightage” to various eras, kingdoms and events. All these suggestions might be, on the face of it, innocuous and well-meaning, but they come up against vital questions: On what academic basis is the diagnosis of unfair representation being made, and solutions being prescribed?
Ideological contestation over the teaching of history is not new in India. All nations and national ideologies draw legitimacy from narratives of the past. But the objective of the historian is not to create simplistic or comfortable nationalistic myths, but to arrive at a richer and complex understanding of the past. Unlike popular misconception, there is no “true” or “bias-free” history that exists out there, waiting to be reclaimed by the exercise of right intentions. Nor is historical research a version of the “my freedom fighter versus yours” contest currently being played in contemporary politics and social media. From the 1960s and 1970s onward, academic history writing has moved away from narratives of “great men” and “great kingdoms” to engage with the histories of ordinary people, to look at history from the prism of gender and caste. There is also a growing body of scholarship on regional histories and kingdoms, though it is true that it has not yet found reflection in textbooks. Questions and contestations over blind spots and exclusions have been a part of history writing, but these are debates which the professional historian — and not the politician looking for fuel for more culture wars — must lead.
While several organisations have made depositions before the House panel, it is concerning that the Indian History Congress has opposed the recommendations of the committee, instead arguing for the involvement of “recognised scholars” and “with adequate attention to the academic content, derived from a research-based understanding of different historical periods”. Any revision of NCERT or state history textbooks in the future must conform to these basic standards.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on December 7, 2021 under the title ‘My history vs yours’.
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