ALDOUS HUXLEY’S Brave New World (1932). The DHC—the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning—personally conducting his batch of new students around the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. Pausing dramatically mid-tour, the DHC says, “What I’m going to tell you now may sound incredible. But then, when you’re not accustomed to history, most facts about the past do sound incredible.”
We need not go into exactly what he reveals to his incredulous but conditioned wards. For it has to do with times before “Our Ford,” that is when everyone in the World State was naturally born rather than hatched in incubators, 96 to an egg, thanks to “Bokanovsky’s Process”. After all, efficiency and obedience in interests of the greater “good of Society” are the hallmarks of the World State. They are enshrined and emblazoned in the state’s motto, “COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.”
As if the DHC’s tour and exposition of the premises weren’t special enough, the students are suddenly treated to an even more spectacular visitation—it is none other than His Fordship Mustapha Mond! “The eyes of the saluting students almost popped out of their heads. Mustapha Mond! The Resident Controller for Western Europe! One of the Ten World Controllers. One of the Ten … and he sat down on the bench with the D.H.C., he was going to stay, to stay, yes, and actually talk to them … straight from the horse’s mouth. Straight from the mouth of Ford himself.”
Mond, in his trumpet-like deep and powerful voice, tells the students staring at him with adulation and astonishment, “You all remember, I suppose, that beautiful and inspired saying of Our Ford’s: History is bunk. History,” he repeats slowly, “is bunk.” Waving his hand, the Controller flicks as it were “an invisible feather whisk.” As if brushing away a little dust, he whisks away the dust of Harappa, of Ur, of Chaldees. Thebes and Babylon and Cnossos and Mycenae are brushed away like spider webs.
“Whisk,” Huxley continues, “and those specks of antique dirt called Athens and Rome, Jerusalem and the Middle Kingdom—all were gone. Whisk—the place where Italy had been was empty. Whisk, the cathedrals; whisk, whisk, King Lear and the Thoughts of Pascal. Whisk, Passion; whisk, Requiem; whisk, Symphony; whisk….” The Controller adds, “That’s why you’re taught no history.” It is all in the interests of stability. “No civilization without social stability. No social stability without individual stability,” the Controller’s voice booms.
From this dystopian satire, let us turn to a real-life example. My friend, the late Yvette Rosser, better known in India as Ram Rani, spent several years studying the history books of the Indian subcontinent. Her findings are found in a 600-page PhD dissertation, ‘Curriculum as Destiny: Forging National Identity in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh’, submitted in August 2003 at the University of Texas at Austin (https:// bit.ly/41l8TXV). Revised portions of it were published in Islamization of Pakistani Social Studies Textbooks (RUPA, New Delhi, 2003) and Indoctrinating Minds: Politics of Education in Bangladesh (RUPA, New Delhi, 2004).
Rosser shows how, after the Partition of India, textbooks in the three major countries of the subcontinent, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, to put it mildly, “have entertained distinct, often opposing visions of the past.” After studying rival narratives, she finds that “historical interpretations, often characterised by omission, elision, and embellishment, may become standardised narratives used as justification for ethnic violence and military brinkmanship.” This is particularly true in Pakistan, where schoolchildren are indoctrinated to hate both India and Hindus. Large swathes of history, between the Indus Valley Civilisation and the invasion of Sind in 711 CE have been passed over or wiped out. Rosser adds, “The civic imperative to create patriotic citizens finds a malleable, teleological tool in the social studies.” Hostile nations often use textbooks “as a site for negatively ‘othering’ their neighbours.”
Rosser finds that government-sponsored history writing is informed by “the intent of developing students into patriotic, productive citizens.” But in the process, “appropriation of history to reinforce national ideologies” is frequent: “When history is seen as a tool to mold a nation’s youth, interpretations of historical events are often manipulated in response to current events, as heroes become villains across the borders of neighboring countries, and opposing political parties within nations vie to control the grand narrative of the nation state.”
Similarly, Rosser discovered the tremendous anti-Hindu bias in the US and Western universities: “Many scholars who specialise in ‘South Asian Studies’ have a very negative, preconceived notion of the ‘Hindu revivalist movement’ in particular, and strangely enough, towards Hinduism and Indic civilisation in general, especially as ‘Hindu India’ interfaces with modernity in the socio-political realm.”
She adds, “At conferences at American universities on the religion and history of South Asia, ‘Hindu’ seems to be used mainly as a derogatory term. The modern Hindu cultural-political movement is referenced by its detractors as ‘Hindu Nationalism’, ‘Hindu Chauvinism’, ‘Hindu Fundamentalism’, ‘Right-wing Hinduism’, ‘Hindu Fanaticism’, ‘Obscurantist Hinduism’, ‘Hindu Fascists’, and other pejorative terms. The term ‘Saffron’, the traditional ochre colour of a Hindu holy man’s robes, is used as a retrogressive, pilloried classification, a blanket term inferring all of the above-named negative characteristics.” Rosser was quickly branded, pilloried, and boycotted herself for “cavorting with ‘Hindu-Nazis’”, though she clearly saw herself as left-of-centre, a “Peacenik social activist, wannabe Hippie tree-hugger” and a Gandhian.
Given the above two examples, one fictional, the other all too real, but both quite disheartening, the brouhaha over the recent changes in the history books for Classes 6-12 by the National Council of Education, Research and Training (NCERT), seems very much like a storm in a teacup. Why? Because this is the third round of revisions and rationalisations over the last eight years. In fact, in the 2017 review, 1,334 changes in 182 books were carried out. Even earlier, changes made during the Vajpayee-led BJP rule at the Centre were promptly reversed when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), with Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, came to power in 2004.
The real reform in our education system will be to free students from fixed answers, encouraging them to research topics in-depth on their own. Or even choose which epochs, regions, and topics to focus on
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We may quibble till kingdom come on what should or should not be included in our textbooks. But what both students and teachers need to understand is that there is no such thing as a completely true and totally impartial history. This is an error into which many fall, whether we are Left, Right, or Centre. Why is this so? Simply because of the innumerable possible ‘facts’ and events from the past, it is only their selection and arrangement that makes them comprehensible.
This process of highlighting, omitting, including, excluding, arranging, and rearranging was famously termed “emplotment” by Hayden White. In other words, histories are bound to be written and rewritten, depending on the interests and predilections of those who write and rewrite them. It is this process of historiography that both students and teachers need to understand rather than getting stuck in the quagmire of what is true or false in history. As White put it in Tropics of Discourse (1978): “But in general there has been a reluctance to consider historical narratives as what they most manifestly are: verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences.”
Our history wars, in this sense, are nothing new. They go back to the very disciplinary origins of historiography in India, when James Mill in his monumental History of British India (1817), showed us as a people lacking both in history and rationality, fit, therefore, to be ruled by an imperial Western power such as the British East India Company. Despite the Indian “hunger for history”, the pushback came nearly a hundred years later, with VD Savarkar’s The Indian War of Independence (1909). Indian historiography has been dominated, in turns, mostly consecutively, by imperial, nationalist, Marxist, subaltern, and other such schools. Now, it seems, that it is the turn of the neo-nationalist or Hindutva school to set our agenda.
In every such instance of rewriting, revision, and correction, there are always both positive and negative outcomes. Why should our history be so Delhi- or Mughal-centric? Why can’t students spend more time and attention on other parts and dynasties of India? In any case, there is enough information available for any intelligent or curious person not to take whatever is in their textbooks as the gospel truth.
In that sense, the real reform in our education system will be to free students from fixed answers, encouraging them to research topics in-depth on their own. Or even choose which epochs, regions, and topics to focus on. If both teachers and students develop the ability to think critically and creatively, as the National Education Policy (NEP) recommends, they will be equipped to find their way out of the labyrinth of conditioning that Huxley mocks in Brave New World. That will also be the way out of the history wars that plague our education system.