Over the years, India has witnessed passionate debates over the writing of its history. Under the National Democratic Alliance government, Murli Manohar Joshi began the process of purging history textbooks of their alleged Marxist slant. The move drew flak from the established history lobby and led to a spirited campaign by those Arun Shourie sneeringly dubbed “eminent historians” against perceived saffronization of the school curricula. The election of the United Progressive Alliance government in May 2004 led to the human resource development minister, backed strongly by the left and so-called “secular historians”, to initiate a process of “detoxification”. Predictably, the whole issue has been polarized along party political lines, leading to the abrupt end of fruitful discussion.
The publication of William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal has led to a much-welcome revival of the debate over history. To narrate the fascinating story of what happened in Delhi during the Uprising of 1857, Dalrymple perused bundles of documents, known as the Mutiny Papers, in Delhi’s National Archives. The documents, painstakingly collated and catalogued by archivists in 1922, had gathered dust for more than eight decades before Dalrymple and his associates set to work deciphering their contents, written mainly in arcane Persian.
The realization that it had taken a freelance British Indophile to unearth the treasures that had been available all along in the National Archives has triggered what I consider to be a far more worthwhile debate on history-writing. In various interviews, Dalrymple has justifiably attacked the indolence of India’s professional historians. Why, he has legitimately asked, have the eminent historians not guided their doctoral students into looking at the Mutiny Papers'
The beleaguered history establishment has reacted to accusations of intellectual laziness with an undercurrent of chauvinistic indignation, reminiscent of the prickliness associated with the Edward Said Fan Club. Dalrymple has been charged with ignoring some histories in Hindi and Urdu written in the Fifties. Maybe Dalrymple has not read all the available literature but the tell-tale requisition slips in the National Archives suggest that the Mutiny Papers had by and large remained unopened for just too long.
Leaving aside the predictable polemical flourishes, a signature tune of historians, the discussions on Dalrymple’s book have helped shift the terms of debate from bias to two other overlooked areas — the prose of history-writing and the very purpose of reading history.
The question of language is not insignificant. Ever since historiography’s centre of gravity shifted from the painstaking empiricism of the British universities to the radical social science faculties across the Atlantic, the prose of history has altered beyond recognition. Whereas an earlier generation had focussed on telling a story with documentary rigour and stylistic elegance, new breeds of historians —influenced by newfangled literary theories and post-Marxian radicalism — have begun writing in code. An over-emphasis on theory has been accompanied by the growing neglect of archival work. It has led to historians writing for fellow historians and snapping their valuable links with the wider community of lay readers. Just as the study of literature has witnessed a disdain for the classics and the endeavours of “dead, white males”— what has been described by Harold Bloom as the “closing of the American mind”— the study of history has witnessed an elevation of mumbo-jumbo.
The impact on India has been severe. For the past three decades, courtesy the noble attempt to widen the reach of education and not discriminate against first generation literates, the language curricula in schools have been steadily devalued. Traditional education — including the earlier higher secondary and Senior Cambridge courses — aimed at initiating students in the complex skills of expressing ideas. The new emphasis is on acquiring functional skills — writing a job application, filling a form, addressing a complaint and so on. The essay, which presupposed both craftsmanship and vocabulary, has been steadily devalued so much so that class XII students are instructed to write their history answers in point form. Publishers are often bewildered as to why so few books are sold in India — as opposed to newspapers. The answer may lie in the deadening effects of a school education which negates the virtues of self-expression.
The superimposition of barely-understood academic jargon on conceptual neo-literacy has proved devastating. Coming in the wake of the country’s single-minded devotion to science, technology and business studies, the worthwhile study of the humanities has virtually collapsed in India. There are elite schools up and down the country where subjects like history and literature are not even offered for the school-leaving examinations. The decline and derailment of history-writing in India mirrors this uncritical endorsement of job-oriented education.
The study of history has traditionally been viewed as a key element in the development of an all-round, clear-thinking citizen. If the classics defined enlightenment in the early 20th century, the liberal arts came to occupy that role from the Thirties. In the competitive examinations for the higher echelons of the civil service, grounding in history was felt to be invaluable for two reasons. First, the organized study of history and particularly its in-built emphasis on essay-writing facilitated the organization and articulation of facts and ideas in a stylish but comprehensible language. The history student was encouraged to sift through a mass of secondary literature and arrive at well-argued conclusions. What was important was not the conclusion but the manner in which it was arrived at and how convincingly it was argued. Till the mid-Eighties the civil service examinations in India incorporated a separate essay paper which tested precisely these skills. It may legitimately be held that scrapping the essay paper has allowed many unsuitable candidates to get through, thereby eroding the steel frame.
Finally, the intensive study and appreciation of history was aimed at by two types of students. There was a minority that took enormous pleasure in rarefied knowledge. “There is nothing so very exciting,” wrote Robert Irwin in For Lust of Knowing, a fascinating study of European Orientalists, “about pedants busily engaged in making philological comparisons between Arabic and Hebrew, or cataloguing the coins of Fatimid Egypt…Pious bishops, worthy patrons, timid antiquarians, museum curators with time on their hands, bewigged and gowned dons pursued their recondite enquiries in dusty tomes… In their minds they walked and talked with dead men. Many of the Orientalists … regarded their scholarly research as a form of prayer.”
There was, of course, a more pressing relevance of history for nations that looked beyond their selves. History is the most organized study of power — how it is wielded, how it is lost, its limitations and its impact on societies. Till the Seventies at least, diplomatic history was the bread and butter of those who worshipped at the altar of modern statecraft. The ups and downs of British India’s Afghan policy, the world view of Lord Curzon, and the infuriatingly complex Balkan question once agitated the minds of students and their professors. Today, these have been banished from the curricula and replaced with studies of “empowerment”.
The shift is telling and political. The liberals and Marxists have found solace in dissecting India’s victimhood and the Hindu nationalists have retorted with an abstruse preoccupation with the Aryan invasion and the seals of Harappa. At a time when India is shaping up to play a much larger role in the world and aiming to be a global power, this obsession with powerlessness and defeat is at odds with the national mood. The sheer imperatives of India’s global quest demands that history be rescued from the history faculties.