Revisiting Indian History: How History Ought To Be Taught

The other day I stumbled upon something on Quora, someone had asked, “Why do we teach Mughal/Muslim history in India when they were actually foreign marauders? Shouldn’t we be teaching our own ancient history?”

This set in motion a chain of thoughts inside me. Firstly, we teach history on the premise that, events closer to our times have a greater bearing on us. Let’s rephrase it through a simple example; the partition is the single biggest event in the history of the subcontinent over the past century. Many among us, especially the older generations in some way or the other were affected by partition. Many lost their properties, their families & many millions were permanently uprooted from their ancestral lands. Such was the upheaval that, the world cringed in fright as they saw the history’s biggest mass-migration fraught with bloodshed & beastly violence. Isn’t it necessary that we teach our children the immediate gory past of our land so, that they must know the dangers of religious fanaticism?

Another one, I remember, back in the school days, we had a whole course on Civics, which is nothing but a fancy term for contemporary history. The primary focus of the course was teaching young students the history of post-independence era India; the constitution, the governance, the electoral process & the trajectory of the Indian democracy.  It inordinately focuses on few political figures like; Nehru, Shastri, Indira & Rajiv. Using the logic of the question, people I just mentioned appear to be occupying unreasonable space in our books.  Again if we were to consider the fundamental premise of history I stated in the last paragraph, we’ll find that, these are the people whose policies shape contemporary India. A secular India is Nehru’s legacy. Similarly, Indira’s authoritarian proclivities shaped India’s polity in the 70’s & 80’s. Likewise, a pliant Rajiv Gandhi with no administrative experience is the best example to understand how things can go awry when a popular leader begins to appease fundamentalist Hindus & Muslims. The issue of “triple-talaq”, the Babri Masjid demolition & the ensuing riots that continue to mar Hindu-Muslim relations in India is his legacy. I think, these examples are enough to convince us that the “inordinate” focus on the history of our immediate past isn’t some conspiracy but, a necessity to understand our present day problems.

Saffornizing History

Pretty similar is the argument behind teaching Mughal/ Indo-Islamic history at schools.  The later-medieval era & the events in those times have a greater impact on our present than some long lost battles between two tribes in the 4th century AD.  It was the Mughal era when the conception of an Imperial India with a definite physical boundary was realized. The present day relation between the Hindu & Muslim communities across India & South Asia is partly influenced by the events of Medieval India.  The militant Hindu organizations love to fashion themselves as the protectors of the ancient faith defending their brethren against the fanatic Muslisms. The fundamentalist Muslims on the other hand romantically long for the day when an Islamic state is finally established. It makes the matter only worse when we see high-decibel pitched battles between proponents of the Left, Right & Centre every evening on prime-time debates painting every issue in binaries; a battle between the virtuous & the depraved, between “Us” & “Them”.

At times as such, it’s necessary that we dispel the myth of seeing our history as a constant struggle between Hindus & Muslims. I can enumerate almost an inexhaustible list of instances to validate my point that our history isn’t actually an eternal struggle between people of two religions rather; it’s a history of constant struggle between despots of varying hues who accidently happened to be Hindus or Muslims.  There were Rajput generals like Raja Jai Singh who commanded the Mughal army against Shivaji.  It doesn’t help the bigots when they find that Maharana Pratap’s army against the mighty Mughal Emperor Akbar was led by a Pashtun Hakim Khan Sur.  How do they explain Harshvardhan’s defeat to a co-religionist, the Chaulakya King Pulkeshin? They conveniently ignore such facts as it never serves their agenda.

I’d like to establish another valid observation here, how do we understand the actions of people like Raja Jai Singh or Hakim Khan Sur? Were they actually an anomaly in a world where fanatic wars were the norm?  An emphatic no, these people weren’t some champions of secularism in the medieval times. They were driven by the only motive of securing a fortune or a political end just like most of the despots of those days. Subduing the Marathas possibly would help Raja Jai Singh to win favors from the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Hakim Khan Sur wanted to exact revenge from the Mughals for humiliating his ancestors of the Sur dynasty. Similarly, Pulkeshin was defending his realm against a marauding Harshvardhan. Babur who’s at the heart of the Babri Masjid- Ram Mandir controversy didn’t flinch at waging a bloody war against his co- religionist Sultan Ibrahim Lodhi, for the crown of North India.

There’s a concerted attempt by vested interests emanating directly from the upper echelons of the present regime that seeks to subvert the secular nature of our constitution.  It’s incumbent on us as responsible citizens to fight this creed of hatred & bigotry. The very first step in this direction is teaching conscientious version of history to our impressionable children so, that they won’t grow up to become the standard bearers of hatred & bigotry.

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