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CLIO AND THE STATE

Clio has a propensity to cling to the state. Historical narrative traditionally places state power at its centre. In part, this is related to the origins of history-writing in court chronicles and annals of kings and their wars. Alternative radical histories aimed at deflecting attention from the activities of elites also have a power structure in mind even if that configuration of power lies somewhere in the future. In India, the presence of the state is palpable in history-writing. History-writing in India began with the efforts of British administrators to know the country over which they ruled and to justify their own rule. The rise of nationalism saw the emergence of a brand of history-writing that undermined the claims of imperialist historiography and heralded the arrival of a free nation-state. After independence, the links between history-writing and the state were strengthened as the latter directly patronized history research. The creation of the National Council of Educational Research and Training extended this patronage to the level of school textbooks. The accession of the Bharatiya Janata Party to state power has given an immediate ideological charge to history-writing because it has been a trenchant critic of previous history textbooks and of the way most professional Indian historians have looked at the past. It is thus important to look at the new textbook on world history issued under the auspices of the NCERT.

A school textbook is one of the most difficult things to write because it is in the unique position of moulding minds at an impressionable age. It falls on the writers to be accurate as well as interesting; they should avoid being tendentious. This new textbook fails the test because it has too many errors, factual, typographical, stylistic and of bias. It is obvious that the book has been badly edited, if it has been edited at all. Leftists will be disappointed in this book and will try and detect in it a hidden agenda. Their objections will be grounded on the book’s treatment of Soviet totalitarianism. The book emphasizes the use of state power by V.I. Lenin to eliminate political opposition, and it treats the regimes of Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini on the same analytical plane. Unfortunately for the comrades, very few historians, except those with ideological blinkers, will object to such an approach. The authors have merely followed the prevailing trend of professional history-writing. Only the ignorant deny the presence of terror in the erstwhile Soviet Union, especially under Lenin and Stalin.

The objections to this book should be pitched at a completely different level. There should be a campaign by historians to free history-writing from state patronage and tutelage. That it was done by previous governments is no argument for its perpetuation. History-writing, including the writing of textbooks, should be left to historians, and educational institutions should be left free to choose the books they want without any kind of interference from the state. Only this will ensure that the best books thrive and history-writing will be relieved from oppressive ideological hot air.

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