History as conflict
The one meta-narrative that runs through much of history is wars. Whether the ruling classes in the past had indeed nothing better to do other than wage wars against one another, for the flimsiest of reasons, one really cannot say. But yet our soporific textbooks glean little of the manner in which these battles were fought other than the place and participants in these wars.
Major wars of Indian history
While no textbooks or books meant specifically for children on wars comes to one’s mind, a recent book by Kaushik Roy, an young scholar based in Delhi, titled ‘India’s historic battles’ (Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2004) highlights in excellent detail the important battles in the history of India. Covering 12 battles from The Battle of Jhelum to Kargil, Roy, from whatever sources he could muster, outlines the context in which two (or more) opposing forces met and how the outcome of the war changed the course of Indian history. There is wealth of information on how each leader of the opposing forces planned (or did not plan) for the war and the ideas that shaped a dynasty’s perception of warfare. For example while describing the second battle of Terrain, Roy describes how the Rajput notion of ‘dharmayudha’ (righteous warfare) limited the lethality of warfare but which was hardly to be appropriate to the ‘kuttayudha’ (warfare by deceit and deception) mindset of the Islamic Turks. The misplaced notion of individual bravery and the persistent undermining of infantry who were provided with little or no training and the dependence of Arab steeds rather than the Central Asian steppe horses, led to the undoing of Prithviraj Chauhan and his forces against Mohammad of Ghore’s mounted archers.
A revealing narrative interspersed with interesting nuggets of information on 12 important battles which includes among others, the first, second and third battle of Panipat, Buxar, Plassey, this book is a must read for all teachers who are eager to make history interesting. This book can help teachers to prepare a primer for children who can usefully refer to for projects on battles in India.
Why so many wars?
Very often in our eagerness to provide all the necessary details of the different battles, both teachers and children miss the woods for the trees. While each battle was unique there were commonalities too. Conflict was perhaps intrinsic to the nature of ancient, medieval and early modern societies. While one can also argue that violence and war is intrinsic to the human specie, wars were essentially conflicts between the ruling classes (kings, zamindars, landlords etc) for appropriating surplus (revenue) and each attempting to define and form a state using different ideologies. The political class i.e. ruling classes were a divided lot in the past and though they may have been alike in terms of religion and language, these classes competed with each other to gather as much surplus i.e. state revenue through taxes on agricultural produce, as possible. (We should remember that This brought them into mutual conflict again and again. Hence the wars. Bear in mind that till early modern times, agricultural revenue was the dominant source of income for the kingdoms/empires. In Europe once nationalism emerged as an ideology thanks to the print culture and nation states emerged by 15th century, the nation states fought wars again for maximizing revenue from trade. (i.e. colonial wars) Today perhaps wars are also fought apart from territorial, religious, economic reasons for issues like democracy, human rights etc (the ostensible claim of George Bush for US presence in Iraq!!!). For what can be seen as ‘secular reasons’.
Establishing a scenario
After putting across such a broad perspective, build a scenario where the children can picture themselves as a rich landlords having thousand of acres of lands living in the time of Chalukyas (7th century AD), with all the local people in his village and other villages too looking upto him. You also serve your king but realize that the king is weak and also figure out that the neighbouring monarch with much of his territory in the fertile river belt, too is there for the taking. You declare war on the king and mobilize support among the local people, who are mostly worshippers of a local goddess whereas the king and also the neighbouring rulers worship Vishnu and Shiva respectively.
Tell them now to prepare an army and they have to pick three of the following arms: bows & arrows, spears, chariots, horses, cannons, catapults, armour made of steel. Please ask them to factor in the terrain (hills and jungles) where the battle is likely to be fought and limited ‘man power’ (less than 1000) they have at their disposal. This against an army of 10,000 men.
Dealing with children’s response
Children are more likely to be tempted to include armaments like cannon and catapults. This would naturaly be erroneous since cannons were not used in India till the Delhi Sultans (Babur actually, by popular consent). And when children query as to how is it possible for a mere 1000 men to fight an arm of 10,000, then give them instances of Alexander’s battle against Paurava where despite the latter having the numerical superiority, lost to Alexander who was a better strategist and tactician. Like wise East India Company with mere 2000 men under Robert Clive through shrewd (and cunning) moves defeated Siraj-ud-Daulah army numbering more than 50,000. Also help the children to figure out how the terrain can be put to one’s advantage to defeat your adversary (Sivaji against Aurangazeb) Kaushik Roy’s book would come in as an excellent book for the teacher’s reference giving details of these battles.
Now ask the children as to why as a rich landlord they are tempted not only to go against their own king but also neighbouring king. (Hint: fertile lands/revenue) And what will make their attempt to mobilize people around their villages easier (hint: different religious ideology)
Making history current
As a teacher you need to make the study of wars/battles contemporary. Show them film clippings of films like A thin Red Line, Platoon (avoid blockbuster films which tend to romanticize war) and have somebody do a comparative study on how wars have changed from medieval times to Kargil. Raise questions if war is still the best way to settle differences (India-Pak dispute over Kashmir) and highlight the death and destruction which war causes to common people.History will become meaningful, relevant and alive only when children themselves are encouraged to think independently, make abstractions and form their own opinions on the present and the past.