Indian history and distorted narratives

The latest policy document on undergraduate education presents an incomplete and ill-judged view

Updated - March 30, 2021 12:15 am IST

Published - March 30, 2021 12:01 am IST

The University Grants Commission (UGC) document on Learning Outcomes-based Curriculum Framework (LOCF), 2021 for undergraduate education in history begins with the declaration: “History, as we all know, is a vital source to obtain knowledge about a nation’s soul”. The document seeks to create a student body that will compete globally and be aware of its glorious past — one that will reclaim its history as it takes its rightful place in the new global order. It argues that a “new narrative” about the nation needs to emerge through a dialogue between the past and the present.

The document is a policy directive to mould undergraduate history education to these ends. However, a critical examination of the curriculum reveals that it falls short of its own stated goals.

The idea of Bharat

The LOCF makes an argument for inculcating “national pride”. The first paper of the course is titled the ‘Idea of Bharat’ and seeks to study the “primitive life and cultural status of the people of ancient India”. The five units of the course cover the concept of Bharatvarsha; Indian knowledge traditions, art and culture; dharma, philosophy and ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’; science, environment and medical sciences; and Indian economic traditions.

The course sits separate from the paper on ancient India (from the earliest time to 550 CE) while exploring ancient philosophical, cultural and material traditions under the umbrella of the term Bharat.

The course presents Bharatvarsha as an “eternal” concept, as an originary moment of the nation that lies in its ancient past. If one places this course within the entirety of the curriculum framework, it appears as a period untouched by invasions — be it Kushan or Sunga people of the early historical period, Timur and Babur of the medieval times, or the British in the modern period. It suggests an origin to the nation that is in a pristine ancient past.

In this schema, Bharat is an exclusionary concept with little space for land and people south of the Vindhyas, or from the east and the northeast. Further, it communicates no sense that this nation has a history as Bharat, Hindustan, or India, that as a nation it was crafted into being through the struggle of its people. Instead, it reads the nation into a deep past and renders it into a narrative stuck in the stasis of an autochthonous origin. Across the curriculum, changes in history are mapped through the rise and fall of empires, kings and royal dynasties and acts of violence and movement of armies. There is a preoccupation with violence as a motive force of change, whether it is through the examination of the Aryan invasions or the invasions by Timur and Babur.

The curriculum cleaves closely to the categories and modes of history-writing effectively utilised by colonial historians. Terms like the ‘Aryan Age’, ‘Hindu society’, and ‘Muslim rulers’ were deployed in colonial historiography to delineate periods as well as causation in Indian history. These were used to pose a contrast between the secular, modern Europe and the backward ‘oriental’ states, with their irrational adherence to religion. By bringing these terms back into use, the curriculum undoes the work of generations of historians to challenge colonial frames of history-writing and foreground socioeconomic and political processes.

The paper on medieval and early modern India (History of India, 1206-1707) best demonstrates the ideological bias in the LOCF. It treats the “Hindu society” and the “Muslim society” as discrete entities in the medieval past, replicating the understanding that these communities existed as separate nations, an understanding that last had valence in the run-up to the partition of India.

Further, it presents a history of only north India. In contrast, existing history syllabi currently followed in universities across India have been studying the processes of sociocultural, economic and political changes in different regions like Odisha, the peninsular India, and the Rajputana, Gujarat, Malwa, Bengal regions, among others. But this latest curriculum framework ignores the rich work in regional history and introduces some regions in the syllabus simply as political formations.

Pedagogical issues

Inherent in the LOCF is a pedagogical critique of current forms of history education. It forcefully argues that young minds are not “empty vessels” to be filled with “static narratives”. Young minds, it declaims, must be participants in knowledge production. This would make history an attractive area of study. However, the pedagogy suggested in the course outlines and recommended readings would achieve just the opposite.

The introduction of primary material in the classroom — parts of historical texts, archaeological artefacts, coins, visits to monuments and museums — bring the subject alive for students. Engagement with these allows students to parse historical analysis and make their own judgments. However, the readings prescribed in the curriculum do not contain a single reference to primary archives for history-writing. Further, the suggested readings are devoid of some of the most important works in different areas of history-writing. Readings in history, or any academic discipline for that matter, are central to building the discipline. We look at older writings and follow the evolution of historiographical understanding through critiques and the new questions posed. To develop critical thinking, students must be encouraged to read divergent opinions and engage with different ideological hues of historians. A curriculum framework that does not encourage this only provides faulty foundations for disciplinary education.

This curriculum framework, quite egregiously, omits some of the finest writings in Indian history. Instead, a bulk of suggested readings span from the 1900s to, at best, 1980s, with a heavy dependence on the work of Indologists. The omissions seem deliberate and ideologically motivated. Most importantly, rather than enabling students to critically engage with diverse schools of historiography and reaching their own conclusions, it seeks to curtail the resource base available to them.

What are the challenges facing a young student in the 21st century? Climate disaster, democracy, freedom of speech and movement, equity in rights and social justice are issues that must be considered. This curriculum, with its colonial underpinnings, is inadequate in preparing students of the 21st century. New modes of thinking about Big Data, digital mapping and visualisations, critical study of the environment, health and society are all missing from this curriculum.

Seen in its entirety, the LOCF is determined to project into the past majoritarian and divisive conceptions of contemporary Indian politics. It is limited and narrow in its understanding of processes of historical change, out of touch with the current state of research in the discipline of history, and dated in its pedagogy. In 2021, this curriculum framework seeks to make history education a space for passive rote-learning of ideas that had their heyday in 1921.

Anubhuti Maurya teaches history at the

Shiv Nadar University. Views are personal.

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