Time to reclaim history

Prof Rakesh Goswami
For several years after Independence, India history textbooks have called the first war of Independence in 1857 a mutiny. Alexander and Akbar, the two invaders who plundered India’s wealth, were suffixed with ‘the great’ even as freedom fighters such as Bhagat Singh and Khudiram Bose were called terrorists. And there has been no mention of the Vedic period calling the period between 1500 BC and 600 BC as the dark age. This is how history has been taught in our schools for more than 70 years of Independence. But all this is now set to change – and why not.
History should always be open to be rewritten as new facts and evidences appear. For example, until a few years ago, everyone believed that the Indus Valley Civilization existed 3000 years before Christ but new discoveries at Harappan sites in Haryana now suggest that the civilization existed at least 8000 years BC. This will obviously warrant a rewriting of history.
The problem with history, more so about Indian history, is that it has many dimensions and only the dimension seen by the victory is popularized through writings. It is a sad fact that the British were the first ones to write the history of India. Hindus, despite their intelligence, bravery and resilience, had little regard for documenting history. For instance, Harsh-Charita by Banbhatt gives no information about when the famous Hindu king Harsh Vardhan ruled and what was the extent of his kingdom. Had it not been for Chinese monk Hiuen Tsang, who travelled over land from China to India, and wrote his memoirs and for the British scholars who translated the writing into English, we may have not known about the reign of King Harsh Vardhan.
Hindu kings had either no sense of documenting history or their records were not preserved and have disappeared with the passage of time. Even today in the family preserves of many erstwhile royal families, many documents are getting destroyed by insects or getting rotten but the families are loath to pass them on to historical societies or to the National Archives of India, where these records can be preserved and be accessible to researchers.
Maybe for this neglect for documenting history, when British Imperialistic historian James Mill wrote The History of British India (1817) he wrote about the time between the Vedic period and 1206 CE in one volume while the other two volumes covered 500 years of Muslim rules and 100 years of British rule, respectively. This Scottish historian was the first writer to divide Indian history into three parts, Hindu, Muslim and British. Unfortunately, this book influenced the Indian historians a great deal. Mill never visited India and only on the basis of documentary material and archival records portrayed that Hindus never possessed a high state of civilization.
India’s apathy towards preservation of its rich cultural and heritage continues even today. As many as 1,170 sites of the ancient Harappan civilization have been identified during its mature phase but only around 100 sites have been excavated so far. As urban areas expand and agricultural land gives way to residential high rises, there is fear that many of these sites will disappear. In response to a Parliament question, the Archaeological Society of India said that 42 protected sites have vanished from Delhi alone. Obviously, the high rises stand on them.
Mill was not the only historian who distorted India’s glorious past. Army officers and administrators of the East India Company also wrote history books that later became standard textbooks in India. Some of these are: A Memoir of Central India (1824) by Maj Gen John Malcolm; History of the Marathas (1826) by Captain James Grant Duff, History of the Rise of the Mohamedan Power in India (1829) by Gen John Briggs; Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan (1829-32) by Lt Col James Tod; History of India (1841) by M Elphinstone. These books were prescribed for teaching in the British system. Many of our leaders were educated under this system.
These British history writers either translated works of Muslim authors during the Muslim rule in India or referenced heavily from them. Therefore, they continued to glorify the Muslim invaders. According to this version, the Ghazanvis, Ghoris, Gulams, Turks, Afghans, Khiljis, Tughlaqs, Lodis and Mughals were very brave and noble. They carried out reforms after reforms. Then came the British, who taught peace and prosperity to this troubled land. Under them everyone is happy. They introduced rule of law which Indians never knew before.
Isn’t this version of history laughable? Who would believe that before the invaders India had nothing to be proud of? Was it for nothing that all these people invaded the country?
The British introduced the Aryan invasion theory as part of their policy of divide and rule. Several scholars on ancient Indian history, including some from the West, have blamed the British for distorting Indian history and challenged the Aryan theory. They say no ancient or medieval Indian text supports this.
When India attained Independence and the history needed to be rewritten, the historians influenced by the Communist ideology were entrusted with the huge responsibility. They renamed Mill’s classification of Indian history as ancient, medieval and modern history but the medieval history, unfortunately, continued to be only Muslim history and centered around the throne of Delhi. So, we were taught that Allaudin Khilji captured Chittore fort in 1303 CE after defeating the Rajput rulers but never told that a Rajput prince reclaimed the fort 10 years later. And while the history textbooks glorified Aurangzeb’s despotic rule, Shivaji’s virtues were never glorified.
Historians should possess the ability to question the validity of the contemporary beliefs in the light of new findings and reject the traditional thinking when required. History should analyse evidences on the basis of reason and logic and not on flimsy assumptions. The British disallowed this. Therefore, it is essential that Indian history is rewritten and rewriting doesn’t mean fabrication as the Nazis or the Communists did; rewriting simply means scrutinizing new evidences, facts and documents and making changes accordingly. Rewriting simply means writing history with the Indian perspective so that the mutiny for the British is a war of Independence and terrorists for the colonial rulers are freedom fighters for us. It also means giving as much space to Hindu rulers in the history textbooks as they deserve, and not be projected as any inferior to the invaders.
When India celebrates 100 years of Independence in 2047, we should have the complete history from the Vedic period. The classification can be the following: the first between the Vedic period and the reign of Harsh Vardhan (647 AD); the second from the end of Harsh Vardhan to 1760 AD when the British came; the third from 1760 to 1947 to highlight nationalism; and the fourth, the history of Independent India.
(The writer is Regional Director of Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Jammu.)