There are few instruments as potent in reshaping popular consciousness as history, a power recognised by monarchs and democratic governments alike. This, unfortunately, also means that few fields are as hotly contested or tightly controlled. India has been no stranger to this churn, with successive governments and their ideological inclinations seeking to shape how history should be taught to millions of young minds, rather than allowing subject experts to debate and arrive at a consensus.
The Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) has added to this debate with its new project, an initiat-ive to rewrite India’s history from the time of the Indus Valley civilisation till the present day, using sources available in Indian languages and scripts. The body said this project — Comprehensive history of India — aims to give credit to dynasties who the body believes were missed out in existing texts and correct texts that the body thinks were written with a Eurocentric focus. In theory, this sounds like a good idea. After all, many countries are attempting to decolonise their histories, allowing more rooted and indigenous perspectives to take centre stage, rather than depending on canonical texts that, more often than not, were influenced by racial and patriarchal worldviews. In India, too, such efforts to reimagine histories date back to the late 19th century when freedom fighters sought to reject imperialist ideas of what India was and bring into popular circulation texts by Indian stalwarts. As a raft of research suggests, this was done by popular magazines and pamphlets in myriad languages, contributing to a renaissance of Indian consciousness.
But any such effort must steer clear of political influences or attempts to make ideological points. The transient nature of historical research makes objectivity both difficult but also pivotal — after all, only subject experts can understand and debate the context, lineage and importance of a source and how reliable it is in constructing a narrative. Unpacking colonial narratives should not give way to mythmaking, making unsound claims or erasing the line between history and mythology because such an eventuality will erode India’s impressive legacy of historical research and teaching. Consultations must be deliberative, transparent and scholarly and seek to accommodate a multitude of perspectives, including from those less studied (such as lower caste or feminist histories). History writing is an inherently political act but there’s no reason it should rake up political rows. The ICHR project is a significant step forward. But it needs to be carefully thought through.
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