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Does History Matter?

History is all about unvarnished rendering of past happenings. It has no scope for acquiring any kind of tint under the influence of any ism. — Dr. Jaya Kakkar


It is ofcourse known to us all that while history is an important discipline of study for any educated person, its teaching-at the school level, at least-fails to gets its due cognition. One reason perhaps is that unlike commerce and sciences, history commands little ‘market value’. This, however, does not take away from the fact that knowledge of our past truly and adequately prepares us not only to face our future but also shape it. Young minds can be molded in either direction-dogmatism or rational thinking-by imparting knowledge of history which may have been presented through colored prism. History links past with our present. In the process of presenting this narrative, history creates a public ethos, it shapes our culture, our way of thinking and acting. Tangible (architecture, sewage system) and intangible (values, mindset) heritage, ranging from ancient to modern, establishes a link between even past happenings and present norms related to the society, governance, moral and ethics, so on and so forth. If the discourse on history is poor, biased, and shaped by isms (be it Marxism or Hinduism) it will severely compromise our capacity to cope with our present obstacles and carve out innovative and sustainable solutions to shape our future in a productive manner. The result is likely to be a chaos all around us. 

The history teaching is mired in deep political controversy in present times in India. To be sure, India is not alone in this respect. No nation is unscathed from such debates about their past and how it needed to be retold. For example, America is uncomfortable with Hiroshima historical legacy while Britain can never find peace with Gandhi. The genesis lies in the fact that history is nothing but publicly shared past; this imparts a collective memory and identity. When this history is officially told through text books by public institutions like NCERT, it gets authentication and stamp of approval. These become words having sanctity form the government. Young minds, highly impressionistic, can easily be molded by what they learn from such ‘official’ sources. Such young minds, even if imperceptibly, tend to acquire a politically tinted disposition; they can later be mobilized to accept certain ‘truth’, about polity, exploitation, economy, races, rulers, etc. That is the reason why most nations use history to build collective memory and identity. Most often, education may not be perceived as a means to resolve a problem (say, immigration). Rather, an attempt may be made to create the bogey of a collective identity (self) which may be fighting against a monolithic (and antagonistic) ‘other’.

History narrative is a faithful, unbiased chronicling of events as they took place. It is the study of people, actions, decisions, interactions, and behaviours. It should help us distill lessons for today. The purpose of studying it is to stand at the centre of diverse, tolerant, and intellectually rigorous debate about society, culture, economy, and political systems. But presently open and free debate is suppressed. And the cause of this intolerance is easy to identify. History grants the ability to legitimize or discredit events, actions, and individuals to those who control the narrative. This is true for every regime. But to marshall history and use it as a weapon to serve the needs of those who can control it amounts to its misuse and abuse. History is not a tool to fight cultural wars. Unfortunately in most regimes it is clumsily wielded by those who deliberately harbor to impose their own ideological agenda. History has become the handmaiden of identity politics and self flagellation. But this leads to a unidimensional understanding of out past. History stands at a crossroads; it must refuse to follow the trends of the times.

Currently there is a streak of ultra nationalism, majoritarianism and cultural hegemony. India, according to this view, is essentially Hindu civilisational legacy. And therefore there is a conscious attempt to rewrite the history. This view can be contrasted with earlier ideas when nationalism meant opposition to the British rule, there was inclusive polity with a conscious attempt to promote power sharing between dominant religions, plus an attempt to retrieve the pluralistic past that had composite culture. There was no attempt to identify civilisational legacy with Hinduism. It was a different history that was written.

But isms should not dictate as to how the narratives should be set. There should be place for contrasting ideas. And let ideas fight ideas. A reader should be introduced to all viewpoints and be invited to critically examine them. There should also not be a violation of the fundamental democratic principle of freedom of expression. The ideas should not be stifled, nor should the debates be killed. The discussion between orthodoxies and reformists should be encouraged. Alas, political illiberalism kills it all. To be sure, at no point of time in our writing of History the according of it has remained free from dominant political thought of the time, be it earlier Nehruvianism or now Majoritarianism. 

This is where the role of credible history comes in. it should be a forum that should provoke a reader to engage in a debate and arrive at an informed but unbiased conclusion. It should not attempt to provide definitive answers. The traditional Left-Right binary should not dictate understanding of our past. It should allow the reader to be free from any colored opinion, be it red or saffron. History should be presented as it happened, rather than as we would have liked it to happen.

History should not be fanciful, it has to be factual. History should dictate opinions, opinions should not dictate history. In reality, however, most societies may attempt regimentation of learners’ mind, thoughts, and emotions. Increasingly, there is an attempt to wean the youngsters away from being reflective, or analytical; a culture of ‘rote’ learning is encouraged which emanates from an intensely competitive environment. Attention to details is a big casualty as is the ability to shift facts from fiction; ‘facts’ are presented as ‘facts’, not as points of debate.

As we said earlier history is not ‘sexy’ since it is not a passport or the golden route to high income jobs in management, manufacturing, or medicine. History is out of the landscape of middle class aspiration. Yet, the fact remains that history- biased or unbiased – has a great role to play in shaping the larger political ethos of the nation state. Both-content and the way it is taught and interpreted matter vastly for a discipline like history. Poorly taught history infact matters more than well taught history. The former fails to arouse curiosity, does not encourage the disciple to deploy tools of analysis; rather it creates an emotional barrier for further exploration and inquiry.

Unfortunately or fortunately we write our own history. History as body of knowledge to be passed on is created and crafted according to the historian perception and own sense of right and wrong. Thoughthere should be, actually there is perhaps no ‘objectively’ presented history of past events. The learners’ have the right to know and learn from history. History should equip us with the capability to separate myth and reality. An attempt to present history based on mere myths, parables, and factoids is worthy of being condemned. There cannot be a ‘new’ history, as desired by the ruler of the time.               

Dr Jaya Kakkar, Associate Professor, Shyam Lal College, University of Delhi 

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