The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Talking about a nation’s glory is the easiest way to teach its history
India's present

Twenty years ago, one of our more exuberant public intellectuals introduced a collection of his own essays by saying, “I shall not grudge it if some enterprising reviewer finds unconvincing history in the following pages, as long as he finds in them convincing myths.” As I read those words, my stomach turned a little. The declaration of preference for myth over history by a recognized social scientist made me wonder when the pigeons would come home to roost. They are now coming home to roost.

Historians and social scientists do not produce myths. At best, they provide the raw materials from which others produce them. Those who provide the raw materials for the production of myths are rarely able to anticipate the form the finished product will take. It is often far removed from the dreams of the providers of raw materials.

What makes a myth convincing is different from what makes history or social science convincing. Myths cannot be subjected to the same test of evidence to which history and social science must submit. It is this freedom from the test of evidence that appeals most to some of our public intellectuals, and their tribe is increasing.

The myth by which increasing numbers of Indians are now willing or even eager to be convinced is the myth of national greatness and glory. It is a seductive myth but, like all myths, it simplifies the reality and shows scant respect for contradictory evidence. It is far from my argument that historians or social scientists should not be patriotic, but they should not distort or disregard the facts of the case. The difference between history and myth is that in history, where the facts are unavailable, the argument must rest without a conclusion, whereas a myth must move to its inevitable conclusion, so where there are no facts, they have to be invented.

The natural inclination of teachers of history in India, particularly school teachers, is towards what may be called “edifying history” as against “objective” or “positive” or “scientific” history. Talking about the greatness and glory of a nation is the easiest way of teaching history — or sociology — in an edifying way to the young. It is easier to do this for the past than for the present, so that teachers of sociology have a harder job than teachers of history, particularly ancient history, where the facts are vague, unclear and amenable to divergent interpretations. In India, teachers do not like relating unpleasant facts to the young, unless the unpleasant facts are about other people.

Indian civilization has great achievements to its credit. Why should teachers of history be loath to talk about them to their students' It is indeed their duty to talk about these achievements provided they take care to avoid too much exaggeration and embellishment. Distortion begins when the teacher turns the spotlight only on the achievements of his nation and always away from its failings. There is no civilization that has only achievements and no failings. The natural tendency in nationalist myth-making is to embellish the achievements of the nation and to brush its failings under the carpet.

Perhaps the majority of teachers would like to say to their students that India is a great country and, as I have suggested, there is no harm in this provided some moderation is maintained. Some go on from there to say that India is not just great, it is the greatest, and it is at this point that the falsification begins. It is, of course, difficult to maintain that India is the greatest in its present state, but one may, with a little effort, persuade oneself and others that it was the greatest in its pristine state. For the teacher who is a zealous nationalist, history has more possibilities than sociology.

The glory begins with the land. India has, of course, been represented in song as a land overflowing with milk and honey, and this is true of many other countries as well. The question is, how far what is commemorated in song should be taken as the literal truth to be taught to students through text-books of history and social studies. In a recent book, written for a wide readership, India is represented as having the best of everything: the best of sunshine and rainfall, the best rivers and mountains, an abundance of every form of plant and animal life, and, of course, inexhaustible stores of all the necessities of everyday life.

In this representation, the country’s most valued resource is its traditional social life, animated by tolerance, forbearance, fortitude, compassion and all the other virtues that made India the envy of the rest of the civilized world. The privileged site of these virtues was the Indian village community where peace, prosperity and goodwill among men prevailed. Reading all this, one would get hardly any idea of the divisions of caste, the practice of untouchability or the subordination of women; and the representation is completely at odds with Dr Ambedkar’s depiction of the Indian village as “a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism”.

Dr Ambedkar notwithstanding, more and more students are being taught by their teachers about the greatness and glory of India. After learning so much about India’s pristine condition, some of them might wish to know why there is so much poverty, inequality and discord in India today. Why is India’s present so completely different from its past' Those who read the edifying text-books also read newspapers and watch television, and it is difficult to reconcile the messages that come from these different sources.

There is an obvious and attractive explanation for the mismatch between the splendour of the past and the squalor of the present, and that is the intervention of colonial rule. The same text-books that represent the India of the past as a land overflowing with milk and honey also represent colonial rule as a period of relentless plunder, spoliation and degradation. Myths have need not only of the forces of light but also of the forces of darkness. In the last few decades, the best liberal and radical historians have trained their heaviest guns against the misdeeds of colonial rule to which all of India’s present ills are attributed. This monotonically anti-colonial historiography has made it easy for the traditionalists to represent India’s past as a period of glory and grandeur.

The British were no doubt alien intruders who disrupted a contented and harmonious way of life. But were they the first or only intruders to do so' What our radical and liberal historians have started is being continued further back into the past by other historians. A recent account of the pristine greatness of India and its spoliation by the British ends by saying that perhaps the gloom had set in earlier, around AD 1000. Who were the bearers of this pre-British gloom' Could they have been Afghans, or Turks' The myth of the destruction of everything that was good in India by the British has extensions that may not all be pleasing to those who have contributed to its making. But the creators of myths do not expect to be asked to take responsibility for their creations.

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