Written by Pradyumna Jairam.

In India, textbooks devised by the government very rarely allow scope for alternative interpretations, and are often geared towards identifying with the nation and developing a sense of patriotism. The teacher merely acts as the transmitter of the State’s national history (regarded as the only authentic narrative to the student) whose supplementary tasks are to maintain discipline in the classroom, and ensure students do not fall out of line with what is to be ‘learnt’. This piece will examine why it is important to break away from monotonous and memorialized history and enthuse future learners to contextualize their contemporary times in the history classroom, in order to bring out the true richness of the discipline.

Governments are thus in a prime position to write ‘their’ histories … designed to teach a particular brand of nationalism to students, that prioritizes community sentiment over historical fact.

The paradox of history teaching in India is that despite being regarded as boring, it captures the eye of every individual and government. The importance of history in scholarly sources written by renowned historians is slowly giving way to an easy history; perpetuated on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp or Google. Here, binaries are created which satisfy individual beliefs across the ideological spectrum. The rise of partisan websites, peddling propaganda to satisfy their ideology only perpetuates inaccuracies about history. A good example is the attempts by the IT cell of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to portray India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru as a ‘womaniser’. The images circulated indeed show Nehru hugging a woman (although a hug would hardly classify him being a womaniser). However, the woman in question was his sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit.

This shows that history can be altered with the right tools and lack of critical engagement in verifying facts, and checking for ‘fake history’. This is relevant to how it is taught in schools, and how students, because of the fear of failure, either do not ask questions or are content with memorizing the text. Governments are thus in a prime position to write ‘their’ histories, without fearing a significant backlash from schools. For example, Rajasthan has decided that the Mughal emperor Akbar lost the Battle of Haldighati to Maharana Pratap, even though the historical records show otherwise. Maharashtra has decided to do away with Mughal history altogether from its school textbooks.  All of these are designed to teach a particular brand of nationalism to students, that prioritizes community sentiment over historical fact.

Why is the school treated as an institution that should only cater to transmitting certain values? Contrary to popular belief, the school is not a neutral site, but is linked to broader structures of society that consolidate hierarchical inequalities, through the teaching of knowledge selected by powerful elites. The works of theorists like Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and more recently, Michael Apple, testify to the fact that the purpose of schooling is for dominant communities to transmit their ideology to the rest of the population, where schooling becomes an important medium.  School history also differs from academic or professional history, even though school textbooks are written by professional historians themselves. The purpose of school history, according to Marc Carretero is to develop a positive national image, a triumphant and progressive one, which brings out the nation’s identity along these lines. It is here that we see the danger of governments using history to satisfy not just their ideological leanings, but also settle old rivalries based on religion.  For example, in India, the story of the Partition is often incomplete and seeks to pin the blame on the Muslim League, hence, the loyalty of the Muslims continues to be questioned in the country even today.

There has been a lot of history made in India since 1947 which warrants significant attention. These include the reorganization of the states on a linguistic basis (in the 1950s), an Emergency which threatened the nation’s democratic foundations, communal riots which tore through the country, and caste-based discrimination in the form of lynchings of Dalits for daring to challenge caste orthodoxy. All of these need to be taught free from ideological baggage, because it is only by engaging with these uncomfortable events that we begin to understand that history is not about hero worship or about shunning the embarrassing moments of the nation. Only then do we begin to turn a more critical eye towards politics today. At a time where dialogue has given way to mob mentality, it becomes crucial to come out of the bubble one has constructed for oneself, and interrogate these uneasy truths. We all love to repeat this quote ad-nauseum “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. Perhaps it is the time we actually heed this warning and begin to investigate ‘our’ history with a little more intellectual and analytical scrutiny.

How do we avoid falling into this trap? For starters, we must not confuse highlighting the failures of the nation as cynicism, but rather as scepticism and caution, regarding how great the nation is, or how great statesmen and ‘heroes’ are. History can never be monolithic or have one definite interpretation. It is only by interrogating the ugly side of the nation, that we can look at ourselves in the mirror and acknowledge that as a nation, there are miles to go before we are truly and fully free.

Schools can provide an environment to students which enables them to challenge old hierarchies of power and authority. Teachers and students should take advantage of traditional and new resources made available in the virtual sphere by those who refuse to tow an establishment line and write based on fact, content and analysis. Attempts must be made to ensure that when students leave school they are armed with more than one just narrative of ‘their’ history, in order to continue their learning (and unlearning) through the university years. A citizen who is well-informed, questions their authorities in time of injustice and shouts for, and with, those who are not as privileged as him/her is the goal that we should be working towards, the ‘ideal citizen’, as only then will the power of a democratic setup be returned to its rightful owner, you and me.

Pradyumna Jairam is a Ph.D. student at King’s College London where he studies textbook writing in India and nationalism. Image credit: CC by History Classroom/ Wikimedia Commons.

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