India takes pride in its ‘world’s largest democracy’ title. But today, 70 years after breaking the shackles of British rule, we find ourselves fighting a bigger battle — of finding independence from the regressive mindsets that lead to intolerance and violence. What could be the explanation for the Supreme Court of India ruling that cinema halls have to mandatorily play the national anthem and all those present there have to stand up to show respect? Or the lynching and killing of people suspected to be cow slaughterers? Or the constant attempt to erase history from school texts? Scholars Ganesh Devy and Vikas Chitre throw light on the recent incidents, the ideas of nationalism, various aspects of our history, and its relevance in our present and future.
WHAT IS NATIONALISM?
Whether it’s India, Pakistan or the USA — to prove nationalism, people are being encouraged to hate another community, country and continent. And how much can symbolic gestures of nationalism like standing for Vande Mataram, or using only Indian products, etc, can help? Youngsters, who grow up on such ideas, will hardly go beyond those symbolic gestures. Also nowadays, all that we get to watch on our TV screens are debates on what is right and wrong. But how exactly can we bring about viable changes?
According to Devy, noted linguist and activist who took up the cause of Freedom of Expression and writer of the book Of Many Heroes, “This is a result of the nexus between the self-aggrandising market and the relatively weak state structures that ‘nationalism’ of a new variety is on the ascendancy. In this variety, democracy is seen more as the business of the majority and for the majority. Such is the situation in countries like Turkey, Egypt, Russia, France, United States and Indonesia. Our country is no exception to the global trend. In this trend, emotively evocative symbols, a highly derogatory political terminology and selective filtering of collective memory are used as techniques for political domination.”
Ask Devy whether the young generation will ever return to the open-minded questioning and he says, “It can be answered by pointing to the fact that the young generations of the 1930s and 1940s in Italy, Germany and Japan were quite remorseful of their immediate past of the 1950s and 1960s. Reason and rationality, compassion and courage are perennial qualities of the human mind, even if they get occluded momentarily in the course of history. People who are far from the politically hot ends, in every country in the world, are normally the most perceptive, the most sensible. They have, collectively, the ability to restore balance of society and heal wounds.”
Devy feels that fortunately, the 1.31 billion Indians have to their credit several thousand years of civilisation founded on the principles of diversity and compassion. “They ensure our future,” he says optimistically.
Chitre, honorary fellow and president, Indian School of Political Economy and editor, Journal of Indian School of Political Economy, thinks that it is a pity if a need is felt for anyone belonging to any section of any country’s population to have to prove their nationalism. “That itself is a sign of the sentiment or the idea of nationalism of the country being inadequately developed,” he says and adds, “Singing Vande Mataram and standing while doing so and recalling the fervour associated with this song during our Independence Movement may be a natural thing for some of us. But having to force others to do the same is a reflection of political immaturity. The idea of Swadeshi may help promote Make in India. But it is too thin a reed to depend upon for emergence and sustained development of a truly globally competitive national enterprise.”
HISTORY OF OUR HISTORY
In the light of Maharashtra Government’s decision to delete chapters of Mughal rule from school texts and include modern history, the questions that arise are — What will happen when even Emergency will become ancient or Gandhis and Modi are gone? How often will we delete and add chapters? And is such periodical reassessment of history really necessary or on the contrary, it’s detrimental to the very essence of ‘history’?
Devy believes that history, the academic subject that we normally find entertaining, and the one that political groups use to serve their own interests, is a ‘discipline’ or a ‘science’. “History textbooks which draw upon critically-acclaimed works of historical research are, however, a matter of selection. Any selection has some inherent limitations, even flaws, arising out of the class, gender and cultural biases of those who make the selection,” he says.
“The recent episode of reconfiguring history texts in Maharashtra is not a standalone instance. Similar attempts were made in Rajasthan and Gujarat; and numerous other instances can be mentioned from different parts of the world. It would be instructive to see how every such change results in the emergence of a young generation affected by partial cultural blindness that is prone to nurturing social or cultural stereotypes. Unfortunately, in the name of ‘correcting’ a genuine, or even a perceived flaw in history texts, new regimes commit exactly the same error of exclusion and purge rather than going the way of a larger inclusion,” he adds.
Chitre feels those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.He elaborates, “Selective dementia of one’s history is a sure sign of a feeling of an insecure present and a faltering future, what to say about missing the diverse strands contributing to our culture. The reassessment of history is always essential but it has to be done on entirely scientific exploration and interpretation of the past.”
Devy further adds that periodic assessment of history has been at the heart of the discipline. “Such assessments result in the rise of new schools of thought about history. Yet, all of the schools of history over the last two centuries — since History came to be recognised as a science — respect the basic tools of history,” he says. “The most basic among them is ‘a reasonable evidence’. When this tool is ignored as being necessary, what results is not history but cultural blindness leading to either false pride in the past or unjustified anger about the ills in the past,” he observes.
RELEVANCE IN THE 21ST CENTURY
For a generation that lives in the moment, even what happened a year ago is history. How do we then make the history of Indian Independence and the ancient eras relevant to them?
Devy affirms that no sane person will deny that the Indian Independence has been the most momentous of the events in Indian history for the last several thousand years. “This year, we are seven decades away from it and we are a good 160 years away from 1857, and a total of 4 centuries since the East India Company was set up, and a huge 1000 years since the Mohamed of Gazanvi attacked western India. We cannot keep punishing the present generation by constantly reminding them about the setbacks in the past nor can we pamper ourselves by boasting about the great acts of sacrifice that Indians made two or three generations ago. We must learn to deal with the present. However, a healthy and inclusive history based on evidence and rational argument provides one the wisdom to cope with the present,” he says.
On the other hand, Chitre believes it is only necessary to remind ourselves that every moment that we live in carries with it the sparks ignited by and the shadows cast by happenings in remote and not so remote past. “Which history would then be irrelevant for the current moment?”, he questions.
But considering the flaws in the Indian education system, the political pressure on the committees that draft and revise syllabi, will students ever learn the authentic history? And is there anything as authentic history?
“History is not to be judged on the criterion of authenticity. It is to be judged on the criterion of evidence and logic. And the ‘logic of history’ is so completely intertwined with a range of contextual details that no selective history can ever be fully logical history. It ceases to be history and becomes an easy way of the collective wish-fulfillment,” points out Devy.
Chitre adds, “Authentic history is only relative to the extent to which the facts of the past have been carefully decoded. Political pressure to distort the learnings of history is a sure way to kill the spirit of exploring the truth from the children’s mind.”
COLONISATION AND ITS AFTERMATH
Former Union Minister Shashi Tharoor has been pointing out the importance of shedding light on the history of India and why people need to know the effects of colonisation on the economy and lives of the people. So why do we only discuss the journey of our country or subcontinent in terms of India before Gandhi/Nehru/ Indira/ Modi, rather than talking about it in terms of pre and post colonisation?
Chitre feels that time and history are both limitless. “What is more, history of one epoch naturally flows into that of the next epoch. Understanding the history of an isolated period is only a compromise which we make for our convenience, and surely has its costs,” he says.
Devy opines that historical researches about India over the last two centuries have produced excellent material about every period of history and histories of every part of India. He states, “Of course, to load the young minds with all those researches will be unfair to them and will leave no school time for learning other subjects at all. Therefore, as a pragmatic method, school texts select some of the iconic events, some of the historical periods, some geographical focus, and so on, while preparing a course to be taught over a period of nine or ten months — which is the academic year.”
He feels that it needs to be decided as to how much time is to be given to various important personalities. And this is where short sighted selectors or academically incompetent committees can slip and impose on school children large doses of surgical amnesia.
He worries about the decline in the scientific method of history. But he is even more worried by the increased dependence on artificial memory, the memory chip, in our intellectual transactions. “Probably, the future generations will have difficult access to the natural memory due to the serious incursion of the artificial memory in human life. For those generations, our current debates about history may look like Gulliver’s view of the violent conflict between ‘the big-endians and the little endians’ (people quarreling over the right way to split open eggs), he says.