Mythological Revisionism as Historic Revisionism
#25
Captain Mandrake,

I think these problems persist for two reasons:

(1) The lack of focus on modern (1200 C.E. - present) Indian history in discourse and pedagogy.

(2) Religious thinking which gives people alternatives to scientific history.

Combined, both of these allow obfuscations like the Hindutva and Dravida movements to flourish.

The first thing is, why are we obsessed with ancient India? Commenting on why the Indo-Aryan topic is such a touchy subject in India, the Sanskritist Michael Witzel noted that this kind of attitude was unique to the subcontinent. Italians aren't fighting over who is more Roman and who is more Germanic barbarian, the British aren't fighting over who is more Anglo-Saxon/Celt vs. Norman or what not. And the Normans invaded England in 1066 C.E., nearly 2500 years more recently than our own Aryan invasion. Why is it such a touchy topic for us?

As an aside, I'm not sure why history courses in school focus so much on ancient India either. I am an American who was educated in the US, and I remember that anytime we studied India, we would cover the Aryan Invasion and the Buddha for a week. In a few days, we would maybe go to Ashoka, an aside on Akbar, and then suddenly Gandhi. I would like to think that the situation in India is somewhat different, but all the debates I see in newspapers or on TV are invariably about ancient Indian history!

In our class, our essays asked us to analyze modern India using what we had learned about Aryans, etc. Although there may be some relation, is it really the best strategy to analyze a society with information from 3500 years earlier? Would I be in the best situation to comment on modern North Africa when all I know is a history of the Punic Wars? The situation in India is worse. Imagine David Cameron and his party having debates in Parliament and in the press about the historicity of King Arthur, who built Stonehenge, and whether or not to revive the Saxon witan. Meanwhile, noone talks about the Elizabethan era, the Industrial Revolution, and the Empire, which are more relevant to modern Britain than the Norman Invasion.

There are also no histories of independent India taught in India itself. This is problematic when an entire nation doesn't know its own history. Ramachandra Guha notes this in his introduction to India After Gandhi. There is a problem here too-- modern history is once again heavily politicized.

When you add to this the fact that many Hindus in India believe that Indian civilization is a million years old, and you have obfuscations from the Dravida and Hindutva movements, you truly have a mess.

There needs to be a stronger emphasis on history in India, particularly modern history. Especially since in India, history is less an intellectual pursuit and more of a weapon which people bend to their own wills.
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#26
As a side note, I would really like to see a Nirmukta article performing a critical analysis for some of the claims of the Dravida movement Biggrin.
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#27
(09-Jul-2013, 02:17 AM)Sachin1 Wrote: As an aside, I'm not sure why history courses in school focus so much on ancient India either. I am an American who was educated in the US, and I remember that anytime we studied India, we would cover the Aryan Invasion and the Buddha for a week. In a few days, we would maybe go to Ashoka, an aside on Akbar, and then suddenly Gandhi. I would like to think that the situation in India is somewhat different, but all the debates I see in newspapers or on TV are invariably about ancient Indian history!

Actually we did not spend much time on ancient India. Roughly speaking the mandatory (until 10th grade) history curriculum went something like what is described in this post (http://nirmukta.net/Thread-On-Vivekanand...85#pid7285 ).

We only spent a little bit of time in 6th grade on Ancient India. Much of the revisionist history is picked up outside of school through effective propaganda by regional and national supremacists. Problem is that people do not have their bullshit detectors on when subjected to such propaganda.
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#28
The syllabus you linked me to is actually not terrible. One might argue that it focuses too much on big personalities and events and less on things like the evolution of social structures, identities, etc. But quite honestly, what more could you expect out of a high school syllabus? While it is biased toward regional history, this is not necessarily a bad thing-- India is such a diverse country that it may be better to have those stories told rather than stifling students with a national narrative.

Given that the BJP NCERT controversy had centered around ancient India, I had assumed that ancient India played a large part in Indian education. I do wonder, then, why ancient India is always the hot topic.

That's the way it is in the US though. Oftentimes, we ended up having to write arguments about why Indian politics is a certain way because of the inherent Aryan/Dravidian tension. And there was always a group of students who tried to correctly place South Asian students in a given caste based on their skin color!

Sounds like the Indian classroom is doing quite well, though.
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#29
(09-Jul-2013, 02:17 AM)Sachin1 Wrote: I think these problems persist for two reasons:

(1) The lack of focus on modern (1200 C.E. - present) Indian history in discourse and pedagogy.

(2) Religious thinking which gives people alternatives to scientific history.
.....
There needs to be a stronger emphasis on history in India, particularly modern history. Especially since in India, history is less an intellectual pursuit and more of a weapon which people bend to their own wills.

(09-Jul-2013, 02:17 AM)Sachin1 Wrote: Sounds like the Indian classroom is doing quite well, though.

The historical attitude, or historical indifference, or seeming historical illiteracy of the generation of educated Indians now in its 20s may perhaps be better understood by considering, besides their passable history textbooks, the sights and sounds in the classrooms they were taught and also in the homes and neighborhoods they were raised in.

A common sight in many classrooms in India at the time was a wall-chart like these (1, 2). The absence of a true historical moment in the Indian freedom struggle where all 'founding fathers' would take a united stand, seems to have been compensated for by making icons of disparate freedom fighters and arraying them into a pantheon. A backdrop such as this makes a visual suggestion that Gandhi, Bose and Ambedkar were on the same team, which though readily shown to be ahistoric, remains an unspoken yet unmistakable background assumption pervading the young republic's historical consciousness. That there was a single 'idea of India' which brought together the 'greatest generation' of freedom-fighters, and it is on this idea that the republic is founded, is in its own way a foundational myth that though not taught in as many words in the textbook is somehow learnt and falsely remembered. Outside of mainstream classrooms in a certain 'cultural nationalist' organization, such a myth of Gandhi, Bose and Ambedkar together standing for a unitary idea of India (and to this organization also timeless idea of India), is far from unstated but actually proclaimed in a daily hymn!

Be it in secular classrooms or cultural nationalist rallies, one phrase that is impossible to miss is 'glorious past' which of course is not about the medieval era of subjugation and ignominy, but alluding conveniently back to 'time immemorial'. In the documentary, 'The Age of Reason' by ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall, a young Nepali school student mentions how a recurring refrain in Nepali history textbooks is that the country never in her history fell to foreign invaders, with an unstated subtext that it is a distinction India can never claim. Avoiding the dubious distinction of having been a much-invaded country maybe one reason why the 'glorious past' prior to the invasions appeals so much to the national imagination. Perhaps one reason for the staying power of the wall-chart of united freedom fighters of the colonial era, is that is a symbolic ritual compensation of sorts for the historical disappointment of not presenting a united front during medieval invasions.

'History homework' is something that scarcely finds mention in the houses this generation was raised in, in a society famously obsessed with 'maths homework' and almost proudly disdainful of any school subject deemed irrelevant to success in a 'professional course'.The parentally sanctioned neglect of history as a school subject seems to be unsurprising in a context of state-sponsored neglect of memorializing history. As a school student in Bombay in the 1990's, it seemed incongruous to see how the sites of momentous events during the freedom struggle described in history textbooks were scarcely noticeable in the burgeoning urban sprawl of the city, let alone receiving the care due to a heritage site. It has been suggested that it is 'younger nations' and recently war-torn nations who zealously cherish the little history they are left with, and nations with as hoary a history as India have too much history to bother caring for it. How indifferent our young republic is to the history in our midst, hit home hard for me during this incident in 1999. It was during an awards ceremony for a city-wide science-talent examination in Mumbai, named after Homi Bhabha. Unnoticed among the students, parents and relatives in the auditorium was an unassuming, diminutive sari-clad elderly woman who later said she had simply stopped by to 'to delight in how the brilliant young future generation of Indians is doing'. Had it not been for the presence of mind of astrophysicist J J Rawal who recognized her as Usha Mehta and ceded his spot as chief guest to her in a spontaneous gesture, the parents celebrating their children's 'science talent' would never have known that their children was also in the presence of one of India's fast dwindling 'greatest generation' of heros hailed in those very children's history textbooks.

Zooming back in to the history textbooks themselves, it maybe said that despite regional diversity in curricula, every curriculum is an heir to Nehru's Discovery of India which though not intended as a textbook seems to have supplied a meta-curriculum to every Indian history textbook ever since, both in content selection and style as an extended elaboration of the 'unity in diversity' motto as it were. The topic-selection, which can be seen at a glance here in the episode listing of the Bharat Ek Khoj television series inspired by the book remains almost de rigueur and what is missed there is also missing in standard history books. A case in point is how the Bengal Renaissance is routine textbook fare nationwide whereas the Kerala Renaissance receives only cursory mention if at all.

'Nehruvian historiography' has its vociferous discontents, who are often but not always the same as the discontents of Nehruvian secularism or the Kosambi school of 'Marxist history'. Some with a progressive bent complain of insufficient coverage of reform movements (Kerala Renaissance and the Ambedkarite mobilization) and undue triumphalism over Independence in the textbook narrative, whereas others with a more revivalist bent complain that a provisional, syncretic presentation of the 'idea of India' ignores what in their minds is a civilizational continuity with unchanged defining principles. Here is an example from a blogger self-christened bhAratendu, intent upon 'setting the record straight' about the role of Bose during the freedom movement, in a series of posts which quite usefully debunks the ahistoric myth that Bose subscribed to the same 'idea of India' as cultural nationalists, but does so only by operating throughout within the framework of another myth: that all syncretism is corruption and the one true and timeless (sanAtana if you will) idea of India needs safeguarding, and salvaging, from any syncretic experiment. More disturbingly, the same blogger seems to recommend the adoption of 'retaliatory revisionism' as it were, as a remedy to India's indifference to history in this TEDx talk. Inadequate investment in pedagogy is now receiving undesirable return in discourse.

Television programming, which in the era of the effective Doordarshan monopoly was ostensibly devoted to the cause of 'national integration', also served as a vehicle of Nehruvian historiography in Shyam Benegal's Bharat Ek Khoj series of 1988 mentioned above, most of whose episodes can be viewed online. The narrator playing Nehru in the series would speak a self-conscious Hindustani, unlike the more Sanskritized Hindi of the later televised epics, saying, for instance, tehzeeb rather than sabhyata for 'culture'. It was the television adaptations of the Ramayana and Mahabharata though, that seemed to 'speak the language of the people' or at least, the language they wanted to hear, for it was these teleseries that would capture the popular imagination and become nationwide cultural sensations in a way Bharat Ek Khoj never could. This response of a broad Indian audience at the time is but one of many illustrations of how both the collective and internalized narratives of identity seem readily inspired more by myth than history, however compellingly told. How not only a sense of history but also a realistic sense of identity is being lost due to this national obsession, is the underlying lament of this short article I had written up some years ago, somewhat dramatically titled 'The Mother of All Identity Thefts'.
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#30
Arvind,

Reading your post was depressing somewhat in that I became less optimistic that things would change. For the Hindu side, the answer to that is religion. In America, science and religion are well known enemies. Despite Darwin being well known even in the 1920s, a full 60% of Americans still don't believe in evolution-- and this is with universal public education.

India, however, doesn't have universal education, so we already have a problem. Natural science is not the problem here, however-- at least superficially, it doesn't pose a threat to the Hindu mind since Hindus will just appropriate it and say it was already in the Vedas or something. History is a problem though. How the heck are you supposed to reconcile history or mythology? The moment you accept real history, I think you stop being a Hindu because the historicity of the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranas disappears. Most of the Hindus I know who have done this are hardly Hindu anymore and more resemble New Age practitioners like Deepak Chopra. Thus, I think that as long as Hinduism persists, we will have right wing revisionism unless Hindus are able to come up with some sort of synthesis like those scientists who believe in God.

Hindutva revisionists have also done a great job of creating mistrust in authority and the official story. Two such things I remember-- that I once bought into myself-- were that Europeans had misidentified Greek references to Sandrocottus as Chandragupta Maurya when it was really Chandra Gupta, putting the Gupta dynasty in c. 320 B.C. and throwing chronology off. Another more popular one is that Max Mueller set the 1500 B.C. Rig Veda composition date based on Noah's ark and biblical chronology. Of course, both are wrong. Maybe a possible solution for this is to include the process of writing history in textbooks so that it is understood to be less received wisdom and more a scientific endeavor.

Apart from these things, I have a hard time understanding the persistence of Dravidian/Dalit revisionism. Why is it still there when its thinkers have arguably abandoned religion? Moreover, most of the mouthpieces for this kind of revisionism that I've read don't even seem to be aware that what they're saying isn't supported by the scholarly community. But this is just an assumption. Maybe they're just good at not acknowledging scholarly criticism by throwing it in with "Manuwadi criticism" or "Brahmin criticism?"
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#31
(10-Jul-2013, 04:38 AM)Sachin1 Wrote: Maybe a possible solution for this is to include the process of writing history in textbooks so that it is understood to be less received wisdom and more a scientific endeavor.

It is often emphasized here that Science education must be centered on the scientific method rather than assortments of scientific facts. A similar emphasis on the method of writing history seems overdue in history textbooks. The polymath DD Kosambi makes a case for methodological rigor in the essay Combined Methods in Indology, which also features in an anthology of his work published under the same title. The book India Invented is inspired by Kosambi's project as is the documentary series of the same name (available online in full here.)

More color plates of archaeological finds along with insets with quotes of investigators that first made the discovery, maybe useful additions to textbooks. Even granting that illustration-rich books maybe prohibitively expensive for state educational boards to print, one demand that seems reasonable to make is for the inclusion of more visual timelines in history textbooks, preferably drawn to scale. To-scale timelines in textbooks can hopefully reduce the need for frequent clarifications like these in response to claims of inflated antiquity. Methodological training combined with a readier familiarity of time periods can perhaps serve as some degree of inoculation against the revisionist tactics of the likes of Francois Gautier here, who peddles the conspiracy theory that any Indian history documented by westerners is automatically suspect as a victor's history of a wounded civilization, whose dates and accounts can't be trusted. On why their own dates and accounts must be trusted, the revisionists say precious little, smug in the assurance they can get away with it in the midst of an audience unused to asking for evidence and anxious to lean on revisionism as prop to sagging esteem.

As observed above and earlier here, teaching critical thinking is well, critical, in history class besides science class. The urgency of promoting a dialectical culture both in primary and higher education are highlighted in this Ivy-Leaguer exchange-student's account of New Delhi's elite St. Stephen's College, which makes a fitting addition in this discussion comparing educational systems and classroom styles. In this student's account, we can also find a fitting response to Gautier's casual slandering of 'western' historians and commentators.

Quote:The only questions I heard asked during my classes were about whether the material being covered that day would be on the exam. Remember, this was not any regular liberal arts college — St. Stephen’s College is regarded as one of, if not the best, colleges in India.
...
Bearing in mind the richness of India’s intellectual tradition, my entire study abroad experience in India, from an academic standpoint, was an enormous disappointment.

To pause for a moment, here is the problem with me talking about this topic: right now many Indians reading this are starting to feel defensive. “Nationalist” is a term I have heard as a self-description as they defend Mother India from the bigoted, criticising foreigner. They focus on me rather than the problem. I have had people unfriend me on Facebook and walk out on meals because I politely expressed an opinion on politics or history that went against the publicly consented “Indian opinion.” For a nation that prides itself on the 17 languages printed on its currency, I am greeted with remarkable intolerance. Even after living in India for close to three years, attending an Indian college, working for an Indian company, founding an Indian company, paying taxes in India, and making India my home, I am not Indian enough to speak my mind. But in a nation that rivals all others in the breadth of its human diversity, who is Indian enough?

Edit Aug 24 2013 : Added link to India Invented documentary series that became available online recently.
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