Traversing India's past - an outline for newer imaginations and practice

Recently there was this note, a circular and a media release where the Union Governments Ministry of Education sought people's suggestions and views to correct Indian history as presented in its textbooks. The flyer I received in my WhatsApp and from several sources proclaimed that suggestions were invited as "an exercise to remove unhistorical facts and distortions about national heroes and that new books will ensure equal representation of all periods in Indian history." Foregrounded before the image of the parliament in this instagramable note were images of Ncert's history textbooks 'Our pasts'. The target of this entire exercise was rather obvious. No other textbooks seem to have as many problems as are Ncert textbooks.

Certainly there's a need for a relook of our social science textbooks leave alone history. Every political dispensation in power across the world always leans on a specific narration of the past to legitimise its politics, policies and programs. That BJP took so long to do is what is surprising. I for one certainly will be sad to see the Ncert 'Our Pasts' series go of which I have been an admirer for long and few of my earlier posts testifies to it. 

However over the years my own understanding and perception of history has changed and I have increasingly found the politics of the left-liberals in India severely problematic. Much of their analytical framework emerges from a disembodied reading of Indian past where a rather mechanistic idea of India is ushered. Yet their concerns of de-romanticizing Indian past is agreeable. No nation's past is one of complete glory, justice and fairness and life before modern epoch with its benefit of industrial science that diffused and percolated to bring things as mundane as three square meals, piped drinking water, electricity, robust dwellings etc to the masses, human pasts were generally one of extreme social division, precarious livelihoods, scarcities, ravaging feuds and wars.

But in portraying the Indian past particularly ancient and early mediaeval, the modern liberals, not to speak of Marxists, use their scholarship sieve rather whimsically, arbitrarily and selectively where we see perhaps not as much prejudice, but an ideology and more so an anxiety to defend a rather empty or hollowed out, soulless pluralism. A deracinated modernity and an equally problematic epistemic frameworks is posited often in contradistinction to indigenous thought and worldview. The complexity of social relations and culture is real and in fairness one does see diligence in analysing the several factors in play in understanding an epoch and its facets. Yet it leaves me with this very cold feeling where our past, particularly our ancient past (and I dare not use the H word here) abstracted in terms of conflict, largely around the axis of class, caste (mostly Brahaminism), gender where little normative standards rarely, if not ever, did mediate people's existence. False consciousness, hegemony, ideology entirely overdetermine the lives of people as we abstract from the pages of many such historical research. Thus one key take away that is implicitly if not explicitly forwarded is the very idea and possibility of a culture called Hinduism itself is to be rather largely rejected. Indeed often the idea of Hinduism existing as a belief and many of its singular attributes informing the polity, mores and values of people in pre-colonial and pre-Islamic past is discounted, often ridiculed. And all this with clever deftness under seeming adherence to 'evidence', objectivity and reason. But rather than facts speaking for themselves it is more a narrative structure that is so employed, as such seen in Ncert and even Eklavya textbooks. If pure facts were to speak of such less than inspiring pasts, then why is it an R C Majumdar or a Nilakanta Shastri never came across it and in whose work I find more fascination and inspiration than an Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar or a Satish Chandra who supposedly are more complex and nuanced? So among the many narratives that are invoked, often in lot of sophistication, one is a standard leitmotif of caste in its most exploitative, oppressive and therefore at its most egregious that is employed to render any homogeneous and harmonizing narrative of Hinduism as fallacious. Even when dilating on the moral economy of caste i.e. balutedari or jajmani system for example which did create its own civil society and gave mediaeval societies sui generis rigour and dynamism beyond its seeming oppression, is made light of. So much so, Hinduism emerges as nothing but synonymous with caste. Further divisions of language, denominational allegiances ( Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Saktha and in ancient times Buddhism, Jainism or heterodox sects) is again overplayed to negate any imaginations of homogeneity across the subcontinent. A 'thinness' suffuses their interpretation of Hindu cultures. That with advent of Islamic states, the liberal-Marxist narrative becomes even more skewed, is something die hard Hindutva adherents have repeatedly highlighted. But I'm not going into much of that here. I have already posted about my misgivings as to what and how secular histories insinuate cultural sensibilities and in anxiety to minimise the rather barbaric, marauding and destructive character of Islamic rule on non-Muslims, the pre-Islamic past too is read back to highlight similar bigotry, bloodshed, destruction to suggest such sanguinary attributes cannot be singularly foisted on Islamic states. The liberal-Marxist scholarship does, one must acknowledge, akin to the narrative used to interrogate and vivisect what they argue was non-existent Hinduism, do the same for Islamic rule highlighting schisms in terms of political aspirations, class, ethnicity, geography etc besides the constant feuds between Islamic states in India like between Mughals vs Deccan Sultanates. Then of course they go rather overboard to underline the accommodative character of Islamic state and society and the role of the Sufis in welding cultures. (Though funny that rarely Hinduism is seen to be accommodative of Buddhism where the latter is mostly posited in terms of resistance and difference) But such qualifications in itself does little to brush aside the fundamental antagonist refrain of Islamic precepts to non believers which most Islamic rulers regularly invoked in conflicts against Hindu rulers. Further that Hindus continued to exist as a majority never mind even if traumatised, politically neutered and totally supplicant subjects, was good enough to further the narrative of coexistence (only occasionally bloody), composite cultures, tolerance, cultural harmony and all finally all coming for denouement in modern independent India as a multicultural secular and democratic state. Partition, notwithstanding all the tomes of research done and much in seeming nuance is basically reduced to an outcome of British shenanigans and Muslim elites but where too Hindu communalists were culpable of making Muslims insecure. 

Inter-meshing of Indic philosophy and modern sociology

However, such caveats regardless and as long as we set aside some of the above reservations, pedagogically the Ncert textbooks as well as Eklavya textbooks are sound. It's curricular and pedagogical premise factors the social world of students - what they see, experience and enact to make the past relevant to their lived context. Implicitly and what's more important to recognise is that historical understanding is rendered into a modern sensibility, a new epistemology that is required for enabling a democratic spirit. Modernity opens and scales up new processes of social enquiry, just like physical sciences vis natural world. These lay bare social phenomena in context of the rather opaque and often imperceptible shifts and movements in a society's culture, economy, social relations that transpires and better explains the more recognisable events, developments and changes in history. Such deductive, contextual, logical framework as such is usually seen in contradiction to epistemology enabled by a more traditional prisms and its philosophical premises. For example if we were to take a more Karmic view of society and its past, wars, pestilence, famines may rather lamely be attributed to the lapses and dereliction of a monarch or even the people themselves. On the other hand social sciences delve into economy, sociology and politics of a society in specific time and space to explain such developments like war, famine, cultural and social change. However let's remember that ideas of logic, empiricism, reason, inference, comparison inform ancient Indian philosophy too. Also contrary to the rather simplistic notion of karma a more phenomenological examination of the six Hindu school of thought and beyond to include nastik traditions of Buddhism and Jainism would establish the very idea of causation being more evolved to factor those very elements in play that modern sociology brings in its knowledge pursuits. My argument therefore is Hindu or Indic knowledge systems can become an overarching framework in which could also be accommodated modern and Eurocentric paradigms that lay bare the processes to explain in more concrete and in less metaphysical methods the socio-economic and political developments of the world. It then constitutes Pramana and becomes validated as knowledge. To observe Dharma implies applying such knowledge subjectively and agentially to enable a Weberian Verstehen (meaningful action emerging from embodied understanding. Can even be called praxis). Therefore this knowledge emerges dialogically and is not mere received wisdom but one of constructive engagement and subjective creation. These elements forms the very kernel of modern learning and scholarship. This needless to point out is also an attribute of citizenship. In such a sense we see modern, secular and even if Eurocentric, notion of citizenship coalesce, if not very neatly, into the notion of Dharma (duty). Such very same paradigms that inform modern, contemporary practices of history, sociology or politics, that seeks to enable a new social order based on individual liberty, justice and equality itself becomes a Dharmic quest - when in this context rather than viewing it as duty, we see Dharma as a social order, albeit in popular discourse it is inferred as a divinely ordained one. Also important it is, to unravel such instances ( Ashoka is of course a well known example) from the past where the social and political process obtained in different periods reflected a Dharmic quest and often fruition of such order. And contrary to what one may assume it is possible to identify such instances in the everyday and cultural lives among the laity even in Islamic period where too several monarchs were deeply influenced by Indic ethos.

The problem is that most of those champions desiring to bring such Dharmic resurgence into education particularly in history today, recourse to a very crude and didactic notions of knowledge where little scope of dialogue or dialectics is enabled. Mere statement of events, political accomplishments of personas, neatly sorted causes for changes in polity and society etc completely disembody the more complex processes in play only to make historical knowledge simplistic, easy to memorize and regurgitate in exams which have been rendered farcical and hollow over the years. I cannot but only  recall in dismay the last attempt of BJP's (2001) history textbook rewriting attempt which emptied all the social, cultural and economic processes that shape different epochs. Even this flyer I began with indicates a desire of new 'record of unsung heroes'. Clearly history still continues to be imagined in archaic hero-centric mould. Therefore notwithstanding the many loftily worded NEP 2020 of nurturing critical thinking, I will be surprised if the current dispensation has the intellectual and curricular competence to go about it in a pedagogically appropriate fashion. As such Modi's government has repeatedly scorned contempt and hostility to any intellectual endeavour. Particularly for history textbook writing of the sort that I'm suggesting, which while jettisoning some (though not all) clumsily choreographed liberal-Marxist narratives incorporates not just methodologies from Indic intellectual traditions but also highlights the Dharmic quests in India's past in ways that can relate to a middle school students social world. I very much doubt the dispensations ability to cobble a team of versatile scholars, historians, sociologists and sound education thinkers whose synergy can pull off such a challenging task. 

An tentative outline for a new Indian History curriculum

One fundamental challenge is how to render a curriculum that includes a meaningful textbook and chart a method of teaching that can factor the discussed factors. I myself cannot answer that. The task is novel and therefore challenging. However I have made an cursory attempt to refashion the history of India. But I have done so only upto the early mediaeval period and for classes upto VIII. I have attempted here to focus on both the normative and sociological aspects that I feel the textbooks and new history curriculum should factor. The thrust is less on conflict but more on cohesion and harmony obtained in India's early past even as the historical processes in kept in mind. (Emile Durkheim's functional sociology should be much in evidence as also some Hegelian dialectics). Therefore the approach is thematic continuing to draw on several premises informing the current Ncert and Eklavya textbooks. But a new and more holistic textbook is certainly needed for this new endeavour. Further the many centripetal factors that can be seen at play in rituals, temple building, social relations emerging from division of labour I feel needs to highlighted as against the more schisms and inherently attritional basis of Indian society that is forwarded in Marxist-liberal discourse. While Indology has been more about normative and textual understanding of Indic cultures, I now feel that such textual understanding needs greater emphasis along with understanding of actual changes and developments across time and space in temporal domains. A kind of dialectics therefore is envisaged between normative underpinnings and changes in materiality and experientiality of a culture that provided the momentum and dynamism in Indian history.  The approach is also teleological where the Indian nation's emergence as Sri Aurobindo also had it was in the works for centuries through crests and troughs.  A concrete nationalist expression to pivot the past, the historical narration acquires greater purpose and meaning. But one would also note that even if telelogical, it is not simplistically linear.

Hopefully the graphics through which I have undertaken the endeavour will be helpful though I recognise many uninitiated and not clued in to debates and scholarship on historiography may find it abstract. One of the key takeaway I emphasize is to delineate on the Dharmic order obtained in each epoch and states. But this Dharmic order the teacher will have to engage with students constructively and be brought to bear criteria from modern democratic premises - thus the approach needs to be comparative across time even as relative to temporalities of the past, a society's culture, value system and polity may have a lot to commend for. But the value of harmony, justice, equality, amity inherent in many of the ancient normative texts could ultimately bear fruition only in free independent India where the Indian constitution again with its own limitations, establishes new normative standards. The idea of India reaches its apotheosis, something venerable as mother divine or Bharat Mata, an inclusive cultural icon, a legitimate political fruition of Sanatana Dharma. Of course this idea is scorned at by liberal-Marxist narratives in the most pejorative as communal and exclusionary. This Hegelian perspective informing history curriculum will be a key mediator for a meaningful pedagogy. 

The colours used in the graphic represent certain patterns - the centre rows are themes which in its changing colours represents changes and shifts and the nature of its cultural cohesiveness even when dynasties across India were also feuding. While the ones in blue are sub-topics that need to be dwelt upon, the ones in black indicate the larger context, issues that a teacher needs to bear in mind and understand while engaging with the themes. The last slide using nesting circles is to help see the way I have imagined Indian history and much of my explanation here and the curricular outline is best summed up in the last graphic. (Kindly zoom in for better clarity...will be best viewed in desktop mode.)