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India: Delhi University to dumb history down into a utility toolkit

19 May 2013

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The Times of India - May 19, 2013

History as a utility toolkit

by Nayanjot Lahiri

NEW DELHI: India’s very recent history provides some choice examples of the institutionalized use and abuse of history for present-day ends. Bengal’s Marxists and the Centre’s Hindu nationalists, ideologically deadly foes, can become fellow travellers when it comes to the politician’s contempt for the disinterested pursuit of history. Those who have been living under the illusion that the Nehruvian legacy has insulated Congress from this tendency are in for a shock.

After reading the ’Indian History and Culture’ course that has just been approved by the academic and executive councils of the University of Delhi, it becomes clear that the HRD ministry of the Congress-led central government is keen to outdo both Left and Right. For if this document is implemented, it will not simply trample on history, it will throw every vestige of the entire discipline out of the window.

Considering that this new form of history will be taught to every student of the University, its assumptions and implications need spelling out in some detail, not merely for the sake of future students, but for the sake of the subject of history itself.

First, the modus operandi for arriving at this document. The university administration did not even approach its own Department of History when framing this course. This is unsurprising - the university administration’s very character is now precisely defined by ignoring its own departments.

Next, the substance of the course. Is it good history? The course claims that the study of history must "identify the roots and details of some of the contemporary problems faced by our nation and try to locate possible solutions to these challenges by digging deep into our past." Every historian worth her salt knows that history carries with it the thrill and enchantment of the unfamiliar, of seeing how past practices and institutions were often of an entirely different order from those today. In the premier university of India, the intention is instead to dumb history down into a utility toolkit.

The course’s "objective and expected outcome" states that the idea is to "bring a new perspective towards learning by organizing the study around historical themes and not laying emphasis only on chronology of the events." To specifically run down chronology seems to have a larger political purpose in this foundation course. Since the assumption is that "traditional India" can solve the problems of modern India, it helps if the specificity of periods and contexts is ignored and ideas mindlessly plucked out for lessons from the past. Every historian with two pebbles to knock in her brain knows that every attempt to arrive at a "usable past" is to arrive at something that is neither usable nor a past.

The rubric on "environment" in the course is written up in a way that represents all practices associated with the past as being progressive, whether water harvesting or the Mahatma’s ideas about the environment. The clearing and burning of forests, as depicted in literature and known through archaeology, are surplus to such a narrative. Caste and class do not figure at all. On water management, access to water by untouchables and lower castes is absent so that class and caste practices appear obliterated. It is not history that will be taught through this new course. It is primarily propaganda: all that matters are simplistic lessons from the past.

Gender is the only social category which figures prominently but even that is given an ahistorical slant. The idea is now to show women as perennial victims from antiquity till the feminist movement. The course specifically mentions that "women are kept apart from matters related to state". For instance, Ancient India’s women rulers from Kashmir to Odisha are wiped out of this history for the obvious reason that it would be inconvenient to the "woman as victim" trope.

History can be useful-as history. Historians can teach people how to think historically, not only about large events like the national movement but also about everyday forms and small events. It can sometimes serve to clarify the contexts of contemporary problems. The evolution of northeast India, for instance, can be better comprehended through history. Similarly, the problem of Dalit-upper caste relations in India can be intelligently comprehended by seeing how it has developed through time.

However, since none of these fault lines figure here, and since in the project work assigned to students there is no allusion to a monument or cultural form of the people of northeast or the tribal belt of central India, the question that should be posed is this: How would students of such backgrounds see their own historical trajectories reflected in this course?

Its patronizing attitude towards tribals would leave every tribal gasping. This is because, along with project work which involves visits to a botanical garden for making a list of traditional herbs as also a visit to the nearest sacred grove, students have been asked to "contact a tribal community to document their relationship with the lands, forest, flora and fauna"! Historians have often been urged by political parties to produce scholarship which amounts to propaganda. Now the Delhi University has actually produced a course in which propaganda masquerades as history.

(The writer, Nayanjot Lahiri, is a professor at the Department of History, University of Delhi)


The above article from The Times of India is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use