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The colonial hangover in the Indian education system

Textbooks should amend the terse and inaccurate statement attributing the discovery of India to Vasco Da Gama

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Debasish Mishra
Debasish Mishra
Debasish Mishra is a Senior Research Fellow in English Literature at National Institute of Science Education and Research, HBNI, Bhubaneswar, India. Prior to his current engagement, he has worked in United Bank of India and taught at Central University of Odisha. He is the recipient of the Bharat Award for Literature in 2019 and the Reuel International Best Upcoming Poet Prize in 2017. He is a published poet and short-story writer, whose work has appeared in globally acclaimed magazines such as North Dakota Quarterly, California Quarterly, Penumbra, Amsterdam Quarterly, The Headlight Review, Writer's Resist, Enchanted Conversation, and elsewhere. He has presented papers in prestigious forums of the University of South Dakota (USA), the University of Sheffield (UK), and Indian Institute for Human Settlements. He has published academic articles and book reviews in journals such as Mortality (Taylor and Francis), The Expository Times (Sage), Forum for Modern Language Studies (Oxford UP), and Muse India. In addition to academic and creative writing, he also writes opinion essays on current affairs, which have thus far found their homes in The Logical Indian, The Times of India, Orissa Post, Odisha Bytes, The Assam Tribune, and elsewhere.

The British landed in India in 1608 and administered the country from 1757 to 1947. In this duration, they imbibed Indian ethos and disseminated their own. Bhabha has discussed the exchange of ideas in a postcolonial setup through terms like “mimicry” and “hybridity”. Without understanding the nerves of the country, such a long span of power would not have been possible for the British.

Notably, the British popularised the Bible and Christianity in India. The bureaucratic structure that we have now is also a reflection of the organised British system, which prevailed before independence. Indian Administrative Service (IAS) is an offshoot of the Indian Civil Service (ICS). Similarly, the growth of English as a second language should also be attributed to the British legacy. Having said that, some colonial traits which are still evident in the Indian education system are detrimental. And it is not at all a positive trend.

“Unfortunately, because of the colonial rule, our education system was such that we are not taught about the true history of our civilisation. History calls Robert Clive the great, not Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, Rana Pratap,” honourable Vice President of India Venkaiah Naidu said during an inaugural ceremony at the Sant Shirobanath Ambiye Government College of Arts and Commerce in North Goa on October 28, 2021.

He further urged the vice chancellors of universities and other great institutions to modify the syllabus in order to incorporate the national and the regional heroes of the local region with emphasis on their life, their teachings and their preachings.

However, the colonial hangover precedes the syllabus of universities. As a matter of fact, we were taught in our schools that Vasco Da Gama discovered India in 1498. This statement, in a bid to be concise and informative, twists a vital part of indigenous history. The same caption still continues in several leading learning portals. To be honest, this statement is premised on a significant erasure. It would have been appropriate to say that Vasco Da Gama discovered India for the West in 1498. Plainly glorifying Vasco Da Gama’s voyage presupposes the European claim that India didn’t exist before their arrival. In fact, India flourished even before the Europeans knew of her existence.

The history of India should ideally begin with the Indus Valley Civilisation which flourished between 2800 BC and 1800 BC, with an advanced economic system. Spread over Northwest India and modern-day Pakistan, it was larger than Mesopotamian civilisation and the Egyptian civilisation. The richness of the civilisation is evidenced in the ruins of Harrapa and Mohenjo Daro, the two prominent cities of the civilisation, which include household articles, war weapons, gold and silver ornaments, properly-planned houses and deftly-designed towns. The people of this civilisation even had adequate understanding of agricultural tools and techniques as exhibited in their close proximity to rivers to optimise the fertile lands.

It was followed by the Vedic Civilisation, which gave us two of our greatest epics: Mahabharata and Ramayana. Gupta age is hailed as the golden age in Indian history because of the progress that happened in science, technology, engineering, art, dialectic, literature, logic, mathematics, astronomy, religion, and philosophy during this period.

Similarly, there were several other rulers who preceded Vasco Da Gama’s voyage. Crediting Vasco Da Gama with the discovery of India denies them their importance in the history of India. We are made to view India through the lens of the Occidents. In a way, we are othered from our own country. School syllabi should take care of such simple niceties, which threaten to tamper our understanding of history. 

The colonial hangover is still a reality on the other side of the globe too. I had recently submitted an article to a European journal of repute. One anonymous reviewer suggested me to consult ‘a native academic’ to improve the chances of the paper. Even if my paper had deficiencies in language, the reviewer could have suggested me to seek the expertise of a senior academic in lieu of a native academic. The reviewer’s insistence on the prefix ‘native’ puts forth his/her/their assumption that native academicians are better than non-native academicians. Sadly, that is not the case! Indians with their technical know-how are spread across United States and United Kingdom. Indians are equal if not better than their European counterparts.

It is a pity that we are still trampled under the colonial hangover. The Left repeatedly complains about the alleged saffronisation of education. However, it is strange to note that there is no noise against this colonial relic in schools. If we don’t recognise our country and the worth of our rich history, the West won’t pay heed to us too. The vice president raises this very concern: 

“I always feel that we should Indianise education. The process is on. We cannot continue with that colonial history, colonial mindset. Whatever good is there in the world, we recognize it, we welcome it. But at the same time, we must know the greatness, the values of our civilisation, the ethics that were taught by our forefathers. Rishis, Maharishis, Munis, sages and all other great people.”

In this regard, textbooks should amend the terse and inaccurate statement attributing the discovery of India to Vasco Da Gama. Instead, we can say, Vasco Da Gama discovered the sea route to India in 1498. In this way, the neocolonial trait can be undone.  It is high time that we decide if India is really our mother. 

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Debasish Mishra
Debasish Mishra
Debasish Mishra is a Senior Research Fellow in English Literature at National Institute of Science Education and Research, HBNI, Bhubaneswar, India. Prior to his current engagement, he has worked in United Bank of India and taught at Central University of Odisha. He is the recipient of the Bharat Award for Literature in 2019 and the Reuel International Best Upcoming Poet Prize in 2017. He is a published poet and short-story writer, whose work has appeared in globally acclaimed magazines such as North Dakota Quarterly, California Quarterly, Penumbra, Amsterdam Quarterly, The Headlight Review, Writer's Resist, Enchanted Conversation, and elsewhere. He has presented papers in prestigious forums of the University of South Dakota (USA), the University of Sheffield (UK), and Indian Institute for Human Settlements. He has published academic articles and book reviews in journals such as Mortality (Taylor and Francis), The Expository Times (Sage), Forum for Modern Language Studies (Oxford UP), and Muse India. In addition to academic and creative writing, he also writes opinion essays on current affairs, which have thus far found their homes in The Logical Indian, The Times of India, Orissa Post, Odisha Bytes, The Assam Tribune, and elsewhere.
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