The colonial school curriculum

Published August 16, 2022
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

HOW does one see India’s past?

The question took centre stage on Monday as Prime Minister Modi offered lessons from his knowledge of India’s past while celebrating independence day from the Mughal-built Red Fort. And while he was in full cry, an Indian warship was docking at San Diego, reportedly for the first time since independence, to celebrate India’s independence from colonial rule.

In his zeal to leave instructions on how to remember those who fought for independence, Mr Modi, tethered to his toxic narration of the past, put Nehru and Savarkar as equal heroes of Indian independence. For some, it would be akin to seeing Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as comrades in the defence of American democracy.

As things turned out, Karan Thapar had interviewed Prof Romila Thapar a day before Mr Modi’s national tutorial.

Read: Politics of identity in India

As a 15-year-old schoolgoer on Aug 15, 1947, Romila Thapar experienced the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of the moment of India becoming free. The historian used the interview to remind how Modi’s followers and his mentors had fallen for history espoused by the colonial scholar James Stuart Mill.

The Scotsman became the first historian to categorise Indian past in communal terms, into the Hindu, Muslim and British periods, on the basis of dominant political powers and their religious affiliations. That’s more or less what too many students in India and Pakistan have been regurgitating.

Mill, who wrote the History of British India in 1817 and noted that he had never been to India and was unable to speak any Indian languages, claimed nevertheless that this improved the work’s moral objective. The categories he created played no small role in the communal frenzy of 1947.

How one reads the past can depend on diverse factors, including early tuitions at home and from the pulpit.

How one reads the past can depend on diverse factors, including early tuitions at home and from the pulpit.

The Pope took 400 years to forgive Galileo, as Alistair Cooke reminded us on BBC, for unwittingly contradicting what the Bible taught. Galileo’s much-lauded telescope in a way got him into trouble when he discovered that it was the earth that went around the sun, and not what the scriptures said.

Mr Modi may know that there are mythical characters in different traditions across the world with a human head on an animal body and the opposite as well. However, he prefers to subscribe to the view that Lord Ganesha’s elephant head indicates ancient India’s ability to perform cosmetic surgery.

There is also a happier way to figure out the past, by probing the hows and the whys of historical events, particularly those that tend to get buried unnoticed.

Maulana Surti was among the more loved teachers at the Aligarh Muslim University. He would leave his class occasionally to offer prayers and then return quickly to the subject. He taught Darwin as a mandatory subject to students of humanities. A boy studying with the fabled Marxist historian Irfan Habib wondered aloud at the apparent contradiction in Maulana Surti’s belief in the Creation, and his informed lectures on evolution. “You may borrow the book from Prof Habib, the one Chairman Mao wrote, On Contradiction.” The class took the message with good cheer and everyone’s respect for Maulana Surti’s affable humour grew.

History is often mistaken as a compilation of important dates, though sometimes dates do become pivotal links to the present. ‘In fourteen hundred and ninety-two/ Columbus sailed the ocean blue.’ That’s one way, as Mr Dignum taught us at La Martiniere College in Lucknow, of remembering the crucial voyage Christopher Columbus made in 1492.

Another way of understanding the same moment would be to read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. Why did Columbus set sail, and why then and not earlier, and what impact does that voyage continue to have in faraway places today, say, in the evolution of racism in the US, or in imperialism at work in Ukraine, so tragically?

‘In fourteen hundred and ninety-eight/ Da Gama knocked at India’s gate.’ The Portuguese arrival in Calicut, in what is now northern Kerala, presaged the start of European rivalries in distant parts of the world, including in every direction of India.

In a nutshell, Vasco da Gama laid the grounds for not only colonial rule in India, but also planted dragon seeds by bringing along a new scholarship of history, which the Savarkars and the Golwalkars and their Muslim counterparts in Pakistan have continued to embrace.

Mr Modi additionally coins a task every now and then with which Indian citizens are expected to refurbish their faltering nationalist fervour. His curious advisories have included the exhortation to bang metal pots and pans from every Indian’s balcony or rooftop to coalesce the country into a united force against, say, the coronavirus. His followers were a step ahead, collectively chanting in small or large groups their magic mantra: “Corona go away. Go away corona.”

Read: Belief, not bargains — did Jinnah really want Pakistan?

Having theorised that the pandemic was spread by Muslims, the followers went on to observe their own religious mandate. They gathered in millions, without a stitch of safety measure, for a holy dip in the Ganga to salve their souls, collectively. The pandemic spiralled. It’s not that Muslim groups were not to blame. Mindlessness is not the monopoly of any single religious group.

The prime minister appears to be well-meaning. This year the advice was for every citizen to fly the national flag from the rooftops. History, however, reveals that Gandhiji would have problems with the call.

“But for the poisoned atmosphere prevalent here, I would have unfurled the tricolour flag myself,” he once said. “But to whom may I appeal today? Suppose I unfurled the flag and even my Muslim brothers accepted it but in sullen silence, I would not want that.”

It would not be wrong to see how Gandhi’s killers stalk India as traumatic reminders of the damage colonial scholarship has done to the dream the founding fathers nurtured for a very complex country, but unravelling just as they feared it could.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 16th, 2022

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