Our textbooks should teach about the greatness and flaws in history

Despite all the hullabaloo about history being rewritten by the Right-wing government. It appears that the only place the so-called ‘nationalists’ are rewriting history is in their WhatsApp factories.
Our textbooks should teach about the greatness and flaws in history

While writing the story and the screenplay for the various episodes of Swaraaj, a Doordarshan docudrama highlighting the contribution of India’s not-so-well-known heroes of the freedom struggle, I found something disturbing. There is hardly any mention of the heroes that the docudrama highlights in any of the history books our kids read. My teenage son and his friends expressed surprise when they heard of the freedom fighters I was writing about.

Some of his friends were talking about many history tidbits, reeking of jingoism, conspiracy theories, urban legends, absurdities, hyperboles and plain nonsense that could have only come from WhatsApp forwards. In this era of information diarrhoea, it is difficult to control the flow of facts or propaganda. The absurd and the idiotic will also flow to us through the information highways along with the profound and the wise. Our education should filter out the chaff from the grain. Why are our youngsters ignorant about the basic history of India while being aware of the impossible, improbable or nonsensical concoction of the same? 

I looked at the history textbooks of NCERT, and I got the answers. Nothing has changed from the slanted history I learned as a teenager, despite all the hullabaloo from the self-proclaimed liberals about history being rewritten by the Right-wing government. It appears that the only place the so-called ‘nationalists’ are rewriting history is in their WhatsApp factories. In a country obsessed with careers, most people stop studying history after Class XII, and what is taught in this impressionable age will remain throughout life. Please look at the syllabus of history in Classes XI and XII by NCERT. I don’t know why it is called a theme in Indian history when there is hardly any mention of any other region outside northern India.

Vijayanagara gets a passable mention for its architecture in one of the three books. There are a few lines about Cholas. Shivaji or Maratha empire, or the Sikh empire, hardly have any mention. The Northeast doesn’t exist. There are many pages about Delhi Sultanate, but nothing much about Rashtrakutas, Chalukyas, Palas etc. Kakatiyas, Gajapathis, Ahoms, Pratiharas, Rajputs, Ganga-chodas, Pandyas, Cheras, Hoysalas, Yadavas, etc. are ignored. There is hardly any mention of Kashmir or Kerala, and it is as if kingdoms in Rajasthan or Gujarat ceased to exist after the Indus Valley civilisation. 

I wonder why there are no chapters on Indian mathematics, science or metallurgy. No primer is given on Indian music or art history. 

One can argue that India has a long history of civilisation, which can be overwhelming; hence there is a need to be selective. One, however, needs to ask what is the purpose of teaching history? Is it to pass on surface-deep information that any kid can Google? Or is it to provide a lens through which one perceives one’s civilisational journey over the ages? In the initial days after freedom, the thrust was on nation-building and healing the wounds of Partition. So, the textbooks became sanitised. A Delhi-based cabal of historians started dictating the narratives. This was the history we all learned from our school texts. If we go by this narrative, it is a miracle that such a defeatist, good-for-nothing, deliberately cruel, barbarian and crude civilisation like India ever managed to survive or deserve to survive.

Even now, we don’t dare teach about the invasions and the genocides that followed. We talk about the atrocities the East India Company committed, and prominent intellectuals write books about the same and seek reparation from the British. Since the English don’t have votes, and no one associates the Indian Christians with the British, it is kosher to talk about that at international forums and earn platitudes. We, however, can’t talk about the damage done by the Ghaznis, Ghoris and Baburs without setting off a hundred mine blasts. Why should present-day Indian Muslims be linked to some distant foreign invaders? Similarly, our textbooks are woefully silent on the atrocities the caste system imposed for many centuries. It is also silent on the rebellions led against the caste system by various Indian thinkers and the subaltern movement that spans thousands of years against caste and priests. It doesn’t speak about how different communities and religions peacefully co-existed in many parts of coastal India for centuries. 

History lessons are not for the faint-hearted. We should be able to boldly show the greatness of Mahatma Gandhi’s ahimsa along with his flaws, like regressive views on caste and superstitions or debate his mistake in supporting the Khilafat movement. The textbooks should prompt the teenagers to discuss boldly the greatness of Jawaharlal Nehru in institution-building while acknowledging his strategic mistakes during the China war. The textbooks should talk about the bravery of Tipu Sultan in taking on the British while not obfuscating the atrocities and genocides he committed in Malabar, Mangalore, Mandya or Coorg against Hindus and Christians.

The kids should learn about the Inquisition of Goa and the fleeing of Hindus and Muslims from Portuguese oppression. They should know that Vasco da Gama was not just a great explorer, but also a pirate and butcher who had canonised the Hajj ship of Malabari Muslims after looting them or his pounding the market of Calicut with canon fire, killing thousands of innocents. There should be no holy cows in history. And India is not just the Gangetic plains and two empires in Delhi and one in Patna. If our textbooks don’t teach the next generations about our greatness and flaws as a civilisation, we are bound to repeat our mistakes.                

Anand Neelakantan

Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy


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