Inheriting a distorted past.
an article by Avishi Gupta
Dear Asian Youth,
As a young history enthusiast I often pinned my faith on the ceaseless classroom sessions and textbook readings procured during school level education. However, now as a prospective history major I’m forced to question the legitimacy of the past that we inherit as students.
It all began with reading Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette: The Journey. Often in classroom sessions Antoinette had been portrayed as a vain aristocrat infamous for her remark, “Let them eat cake!” signifying lack of empathy towards the plight of the starving citizens. However, Fraser’s book left me gaping as I realized this was an elaborate myth like many others! In fact Antoinette though continuing to exhibit some side effects of aristocracy was a seemingly kind-hearted individual, much concerned about the plight of her people. There’s no historical record of her making the infamous statement, the last mention of which dates back to Rousseau’s memoirs written prior to Antoinette’s arrival in France.
Coming back home, Shah Jahan has been wrongly accused of chopping off the hands of the Taj Mahal workers which has been deemed as another myth. This doesn’t end here, Yasmin Khan in her book The Great Partition, points out the blame game going on at an international scale where both Indian and Pakistani curriculum continues to spin their own version of partition history where the hunter and the prey keep fluctuating.
So, is the past we learn about in textbooks and classroom lectures actually legitimate and unbiased or the author or teacher’s personal perspective?
Romila Thapar in her memoir: Writing History Textbooks, talks about the harmful policy of historical negationism rooted in Indian Education System. With the changing regimes be it state or national education, the ruling government continues to distort history in order to mould it into a version that seconds their ideology.
Be it the ruthless subversion of history textbooks in Rajasthan threatening to alter the outcome of Battle of Haldighati among many others by the then BJP government or the Congress’ plea to put greater emphasis on the role of Congress leaders during the freedom struggle, thus overshadowing others; history is slowly becoming a battleground of politics rather than foundation truth of our society.
With the mingling of so many myths, nation-wise perspectives and most importantly ideological perspectives, history as a discipline is slowly losing its credibility. In this scenario it is essential to constitute a think-tank of accomplished historians free from political bias to restructure history books.
Instead of force-feeding students a rigid perspective, they should be supplied with ample facts enumerating not just the country’s triumphs but also its defeats and then allowed to formulate a personal opinion. Students at very few schools are encouraged to participate in classroom debates and are mostly left to the devices of rote learning.
This is a long drawn struggle as some communities are still fighting to make their history known. History of many tribal and regional communities doesn’t even make it to textbooks under the pretext of them not reflecting a pan-India outlook or are sometimes even blatantly deleted to make the curriculum more ‘examination-friendly’.
As someone who aims at pursuing research in the field, the question lingers: how do we contribute to a nation’s history without it falling prey to fallacious myths and biases?
As I was preparing for my college interview I came across this book called The Past as Present : Forging contemporary identities through history by renowned Indian historian Romila Thapar. Thapar talked about an extremely important and widespread issue that no one is interested in talking about i. e. distortion in history taught at school level as a result of interpolation of various myths, political and social biases. This article is an attempt to highlight the said issue.
I'm an 18 year old high school graduate with a passion for poetry, literature and history.