Preaching History – Teesta Setalwad

Teesta Setalvad
Teesta Setalvad

Doesn’t every country or nation, society or civilization have a need, an urge, a natural one if you like to glorify its past?

Haven’t we all been disillusioned with and faulted, on valid grounds, the sanitised, drudgery that is being dished out to our hungry, fresh and eager minds under the epithet of the word ‘education’?

Haven’t we all, also, been speaking of the urgent need to take stock and re-evaluate the institutions of learning? To ask whether our schools are institutions that nurture, excite and stimulate the mind engendering simultaneously notions of community, sharing and sisterhood?

Has not there been, for some decades now, an intense debate on the need to re-locate the mother tongue creatively in the learning/education process to enable the rich, emotional and creative growth of every child?

Has not the urgent need for a creative and rich sense and source of history — through exciting history text-books, syllabi and the spoken word of the history teacher —been articulated time and again? So that the subject becomes a point of wonder and discovery of the past through which our visions of the present can coalesce and gell? So that future generations may well have pride, in our past, but a pride, deeply tempered with humility that critical insight and incessant questioning gives them? The humility of knowledge with the rewarding realisation that any reading or understanding of events and periods, dynasties and the peoples who lived under them will always be guided, or driven, coloured or enriched by the perspectives, locations and ethical-value systems of the receiver of that knowledge.

And when we speak of India, the rich, the poor, the rural, the urban, the tribal, the non-tribal, the Dalit, the Hindu, the Muslim, the Christian, the Keralite, the UP-ite, the Gujarati, the Assamese, the task becomes even more awesome. And therefore, a deep challenge.

How does the student, and the teacher of history reconcile the vastness of regional and linguistic distances and locations, the variety and contradictions in community lore and literatures, the differences of approach and nuance in varied religious traditions and their symbols and thereafter put all of this together as the study of the one big whole: India and its history?

The excitement and the challenge lies if we are able to preserve all these nuances and differences, the variations and the shifts, and gift to the young mind with its infinite capacity to wrangle with the multi-polar — varied senses of history. Not to be concerned as the more rigid adult world always is with offering certitudes but offer instead the ability to doubt, to question, to twist and turn things and beliefs, on their head, instead.

The legend of the Bhil tribal boy, Eklavya may or may not have the same emotive element for a Muslim or Christian youth living on the margins of acceptability in a deeply polarised Indian polity but as a profound comment on the denials of education to lower castes in a rigidly caste-ridden society and tradition, it surely has lessons for any student or teacher attempting to grapple with notions of social equity, justice and systemic deprivation in the days of yore?

The vivid account of Gandhari’s curse on Lord Krishna — the mythical image of a mere woman cursing a God — after the great war (Mahabharata) that left millions, including her eldest son dead, immortalised in Indian literature, may not have deep significance to the rigid follower of Hindutva but cannot but have profound meanings for women today grappling with more and more indignities — familial and societal violence included — in a violent, modern world.

The history of the first Arab settlers on Kerala’s shores may or may not be perceived to be of interest to students of history in the rest of India; nor the fascinating fact that 5,000 years ago when this land that we now dub not just India but Hindu-sthan, gave the King of Persia a copy of the book, Kalilavadamana that contained vital information on a medicine for immortality; but the business communications and trade links that this development lead to, and th e uniquely mixed communities that these associations engendered are critical in understanding the lives and cultures of these communities that line our vast shores.

The near-mythical intellectual association of the Shaivite jogin, Laleshwari and the sufi Sant Nooruddin have resonances through the folklore of Kashmir that both help and baffle us while grappling with the ethos and understanding of Kashmiriyat.

And the student and teacher of history in India, while looking at the Ramayana as a political epic will need to grapple and thereafter, reconcile that over 200 versions of the Ramlila – village-level performances of the epic — have dotted this land. Each one rich and contradictory. Where Ram is venerated by some and Ravana by others. If votaries of hegemonised history, that is Hindutva, violently disrupt the Dussehra celebrations in Tamil Nadu (as they did in October this year) that have always burnt effigies of Ram, not Ravana, as part of “their” glorious past and tradition, their aim becomes clear. The project launched to Hinduise history is also a project aimed aimed to stiffle democracy, variations and dissent in the rich area of culture and tradition and impose, in its stead, a set of “moral and religio-cultural dos and don’ts” on a land and culture that had, hitherto defied such strait-lacing nomenclatures.

Independent India’s text-books and history teaching approach even before the onslaught of the saffron brigade were unimaginative, sanitised and also prejudicial. The sangh parivar is intent on pursuing a narrow and dictatorial educational agenda that is defined in terms of addressing only a Hindu nation, but even before members of the sangh received political legitimacy, history was not only a most neglected subject for well nigh 50 years, and therefore the least liked, but the content of history text books at many regional levels also reflected blatant biases.

Under saffron-ruled Hindu-sthan the distortion of history project has been sought to be pushed through much more aggressively first through insisting on the study of a language, Sanskrit and the trappings of other symbols (like the recitation of the Saraswati vandana) that have a singular upper caste Hindu bias. The project and its intent is not limited to merely that, however.

The ominous terms “Indianising, nationalising and spiritualising” Indian education that Professor Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati have recently dished out have a specific import, coming as they do from the keen votaries of a sectarian and divisive vision of India not as a democratic, secular state but as a Hindu nation.

Sure every culture, and most civilizations have an irresistible temptation, a human failing if you like, to pick from the past, look for icons and symbols, hark back to traditions from the days of yore before packaging this potent mix into history teaching and syllabi. The moot question that needs to be asked is, which past, or which aspects of it, does the Hindutvawaadi agenda seek to glorify.

Is it the tradition that Jayabala and Gargi represented when they, as single women held discourses on sophisticated intellectual issues of the day described in the Upanishads? Or is it the practice of sati — the


burning of a woman alive on the funeral pyre of her husband– and the staunch defence of wife-burning as “part of our glorious ancient traditions” by then Vice President of the BJP, Vijeraje Scindia did in 1987?

The need in school curriculums to incorporate a study of the history and evolution of different religious faiths cannot be questioned. The inclusion in the recent proposal that has also advocated the incorporation of the Vedas and Upanishads into basic curricula, would hardly give commensurate space to the Koran, the Bible, the Puranas, the Guru Granth Sahib, the Buddhist and Jain texts. Much less would such a project be concerned with the vigorous and energetic study of the contexts and conditions behind the birth of faiths, the sets of belief that went with the believers, changing through the generations, a study of the History of God and man’s engangement with the divine, festivals and the forms that festivities took reflecting current day dominations and assertions.

Hegdewar, Golwalkar, Savarkar, – we certainly cannot blot their presence from the historical landscape and the attempt must be not to do so. Generations must study them, just as students of history we need to study Hitler and the ideology that he represented, Zionism and its impact on the minds of the Israeli people; the politics of exclusivism practiced by votaries of both a Hindu (RSS, Hindu Mahasabha) and a Muslim Nation (the Muslim League).

The Hindutva project, apart from stifling democracy, different and varied ways of thinking and approach also sees the words Christian and Christianity, and Muslim and Islam as alien and foreign, never mind that these faiths arrived on Indian shores 2,000 and 6,000 years ago. The contributions of Persian and Arabic to Indian languages, the birth and life of Urdu as an indigenous language, the contributions of women and

men of different faiths to the arts, the literature, the thought and culture of this land are disdained and excluded from this “Indianisation project” with hatred spewed on them in subtle and obtuse ways.

The exclusion of varied traditions from institutions of learning and the hate-mongering against certain “outsider” faiths have always formed the core of Hindutva ideology. But within this project to hegemonise and control the mind and impulse of future generations is also a repressive impulse against any social change and a vote for the status quo.

No proponent of Hindutva speaks for the alleviation of social inequities, poverty, discrimination in empolyment, free and fair access to education, for example. In its celebration of a selective and sectarian past, it is a project that denies the realities of history by exclusion and distorts the rest through blatant manipulation.

What the Hindutva project means for women also needs to be discerned. Quite apart from the “home-keeping” recommended as essential instruction to young girls in high schools, other outfits that are affiliated to the same ideology have in the past few days made threatening noises against women who are challenging brutal and violent treatment within the families by husbands. The Purush Hakk (men’s rights) samiti, at a very recent meeting in Mumbai threatened any woman with dire consequences who dared to complain against physical abuse using section 498A of the IPC to register cases of domestic violence with the police!

Myths and traditions, images and perceptions. In the words of middle-eastern author Fouad Ajami, “a country’s myth can console and knit together men and women of different needs, carry them through different times, explain sorrow, defeat, locate them in the world. But the myth can also hide the country from itself, hide itself from scrutiny”.


One of the myths surrounding the glorious golden, thousand-year old Indian (read Hindu) civilization that many of us fall easy prey too, is about its essence. We believe, or would very much like to go on believing that it is also one of the world’s most non-violent and tolerant. Do we by this very assertion hide ourselves from scrutiny?

There can be no doubt or of the myriad faiths, beliefs that have woven their own traditions on this soil. Or the manifold peoples who have found themselves on this land, a home. Various traditions touched this land, enmeshed, flowered , and have grown. Sometimes even flourished.

Yet Buddhism has almost vanished from the land of its birth. What traces remain, the modern day architect of the Hindu nation, Indian home minister, L.K.Advani would like to appropriate under the “all-Hindu” fold.

Inherent to the abhorrent notions of shudra and ati-shudra, menial castes whose status was supposed to equal that of women, is the concept of “ so impure as to be untouchable”. Do we really believe that there can there be any other system of repression or discrimination which can be more utterly humiliating than this? It has for generations now, successfully excluded a whole strata of people – nearly 25 per cent of them –from the eyes and ears of society and existence sparing them no means to livelihood, education and social upliftment.

In the readings of our past and our glorifications of it, we must be careful not to let it befuddle an inquiring mind. History, the reading and studying of it, must above all, sharpen the mind’s ability to, above all look at the past and the present with a searching and curious mind that is forever poised to phrase that eternal last question.

If the content and approach to not just history teaching, but all teaching under the Hindutva project is to dictate what should be learnt and what must be taught, outline the set of values germaine for a “strong and

unified nation”, leaving no space for the development of individual commitments, regional and linguistic variations, multi-polar religious and cultural influences, the project is a systematic and narrow attempt to regulate and control the mind. Limit its growth. Darken its spaces. And obliterate for a long time to come, that eternal last question.

(Guest Writer: Teesta Setalwad.)

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