Sanjeev Sanyal (author of Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography) makes a case for rewriting Indian history books:
The debate over the need to re-write Indian history textbooks is heating up and, yet again, it is likely to spiral into an ugly political spat. Sadly this debate will distract from the many sensible reasons history books need to be changed.
Indian history is mostly written from the perspective of Delhi or at most northern India, as if the rest of the country barely existed except as mere provinces. The average Indian student, for instance, will learn almost nothing about the great Satavahana, Vijayanagar or Chola empires of southern India. Unless you live in the northeast, you may never have heard of the Ahom kings who ruled Assam for 600 years and even defeated the Mughals. This absurd imbalance needs to be corrected. Moreover, history is not just about the rise and fall of empires but also about other streams of history. For instance, Indian textbooks say almost nothing about the country’s rich maritime history beyond a passing reference to Chola naval raids on Southeast Asia. Students learn very little about thriving
Indo-Roman trade or the exploits of ancient Odiya merchants who pioneered sea routes across the eastern Indian Ocean. The great influence of Indian civilization on Southeast Asia is barely mentioned, if at all.
We hear about groups who came to India as conquerors but nothing of people who came to India peacefully as traders and refugees—Parsis and Jews from the west and the waves of Southeast Asian tribes from east. Similarly, even university-level textbooks are written as if the geographical landscape of the country is static. Little is mentioned of shifting coastlines and rivers, changing wildlife, and evolving cities.
The extraordinary history of Indian science is similarly ignored or, as some would argue, deliberately downplayed. There is more than adequate evidence that ancient Indians made great advances in metallurgy, medicine, mathematics and so on. As others have also pointed out, by downplaying genuine scientific contributions, textbook writers have created a vacuum that is filled with claims of flying chariots.
What is the way forward? We have no choice but allow govt to appoint historians to take a fresh perspective. Even if it is biased, it will restore some balance. The earlier scholarship has already done a lot of harm:
Indian history textbooks need to be rewritten. Opponents will argue that the current government will use this opportunity to insert “right-wing biases” but this is no excuse for perpetuating outdated scholarship and the biases of colonial and Marxist historians. Indian historians tend to mix up the evidence with their opinions. This happens everywhere to some extent as all history is written from some perspective, but mainstream Indian historians are notorious for doing so.
Perhaps one way forward is for the next generation of textbook authors to separate the hard evidence from their interpretations. This will have two good outcomes. First, it will make the author’s opinions more transparent. Second, it will encourage students to think more critically and draw their own conclusions.
This will have the added advantage of making the subject more an exploration of the past rather than the memorizing dates.
Really well put. Again how much history matters. It shapes your views and ideas for a much longer future than one can imagine. It isn’t just knowledge of your past but also to access your future as well.
And here, one can clearly say how Indian historians have really short charged Indian history. It is only when you grow up and get exposed to all kinds of books, you realise how little you know of Indian history. How distorted and selective the views have been. A country which has history in all its corners is really badly covered. There is superb history of not just politics, but economics, finance, foreign policy and even cricket. One can look at things from so many lenses and mirrors.
This is a real challenge and no clear answers. The whole discipline has been dominated by selected few and any attempt to change it will lead to the demeaning word – saffronisation. No one points how whitewashed (or redwashed) we have been all these years..