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Reclaiming our story
By Neera K Sohoni


Notwithstanding reader fatigue, the controversy over the saffronisation of education does not die. As a student of history, it is amusing to see the jittery stance of earlier interpreters of history.

At the outset I must offer my credentials for writing this essay not only as a student of History at Delhi University, but more recently and importantly as a parent of three erstwhile school-going children. Teaching and learning is and should be an evolving process.

Claiming sanctity shows an absurd disregard for sifting and re-evaluating evidence. The prime minister makes a valid point in claiming that NCERT is not engaged in re-creating history but in interpreting it more meaningfully.

There is nothing Hitlerite in presenting historical events from the indigenous people’s rather than the coloniser’s perspective. To paint the above effort at indigenisation as some devious Hindutva act is entirely indefensible.

To denigrate it as ‘swadeshi’ is inexcusable. (The term swadeshi, a proud epithet otherwise, has been hijacked and given a negative import, which is perplexing to say the least. What is wrong with the swadeshi approach? Why is it a calumny? Should it not be every Indian’s prerogative to sift inherited facts and interpretations against the yardstick of indigenous experience and sensibility?)

Even a rapid reading of the much-contested and maligned NCERT Class IX book on Contemporary India is an eye-opener. Undeniably, the textbook contains ungrammatical writing and poor syntax. Some of the facts may even seem questionable or contrived. But in the main its approach appears sound. Its interpretation of British India, for instance, is refreshingly localised to Indian needs.

Earlier books in my own or my children’s student days echoed the British, therefore the ruler’s, take on events. Here is an effort to interpret British rule in terms of how it benefited the British but harmed India and the people England ruled. The book offers some harsh facts about the negative impact of British rule on Indian economy, agriculture, crafts, and development.

In my time, one had to wait to read Economic History of India at the graduate level before getting an inkling of the exploitative impact of British policies. The textbook speaks bluntly of the racialism practised by the British, rather than the one-sided ‘fair and enlightened rule’ gibberish we were fed with.

Even the foundation of the Indian National Congress is presented in more believable terms, not only as the benign act of well-meaning Anglican friends of Indians to enable Indians to taste and practise democracy, but also as a survival mechanism, to serve as a safety valve for the growing Indian restlessness.

Similarly, the performances of major British administrators (for example, Lords Wellesley, Dalhousie and Curzon) are briefly tackled for their divisive and deceptive nature, not as the earlier sources did, as indicators of great statesmanship and masterly rule. On the Indian side, there is vivid coverage of the nature and incidence, even persistence, of popular revolt.

Every reader must feel inspired to learn of the heroic resistance put up against alien rule and repression. This is intrinsic to nation-building as much as to building the self-esteem of a people. It is comparable to native Americans and American Blacks re-interpreting US history to account for how events played out differently for them.

The carping about ‘packing’ of educational and cultural institutions and ‘packaging of history’ has to be seen in a historical perspective. The patron’s wealth and power as much as the historian’s personality (name, fame, currency) and the ideational school to which she or he belongs have ever been the more decisive factors than plain ‘facts’ or ‘available evidence’ when interpreting history.

The current effort to plant pro-India historians and culture-ists in key positions is an endeavour to use posts and their personalities to influence the products they command or help produce. This is no novelty. It has been the practice of Hindu, Muslim or British India, as well as Congress-dominated free India, and for that matter, the Communist-led Indian states. British and other earlier scholars of India had their own agenda in presenting historical ‘facts’ in their terms and shaped by their compulsions.

Historians under the Indian Marxist and Congress regimes spoke to their covert and overt concerns. The ruling party, but more importantly the swadeshi school of thought, should be expected to do no less. Just because the shoe is not on the radical foot does not mean it should pinch the student body more.



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