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Unveiling truths: Rewriting colonial narratives in education

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Embarking on a journey to rectify historical distortions and broaden the horizons of education, the need for a course correction has become increasingly evident. On a spree to modify the fundamental framework of school curriculum, the National Council of Educational Research has finally taken an initiative after 62 long years. The changing societal outlook prompted policymakers to give this idea a special thought. The narratives we’ve been exposed to, particularly in the realm of history, have often been skewed, perpetuating selective viewpoints and sidelining crucial aspects of the past.

In the framework’s goals and objectives, the National Curriculum Framework for School Education wants to address the longstanding problems afflicting India through a comprehensive approach. This raises two key queries: “Why?” and “Which particular problems are considered genuine?” The Modi Cabinet’s efforts in this direction are facing heavy scrutiny from a portion of society, making it necessary to respond to these questions.

Balancing Perspectives

The historical depiction of India has been centered on two individuals, Nehru and Gandhi, for several decades. This has caused Indian independence to be viewed primarily as a nonviolent revolt against British rule, led by the Indian National Congress and Gandhi himself. This portrayal of India’s past is not limited to textbooks and documentaries, but is instead widely accepted throughout the world.

Generations of armed resistance were at the heart of the complex process that led to Indian freedom. If we just focus on the post-First War of Independence era and ignore the history of fighting against Islamic invaders and European plunderers in the medieval times, we can see that local rebellions like the ones sparked by Bhagavan Birsa Munda in Jharkhand and Koireng Tikendrajit Singh in Manipur in the early 1890s were seen as a major threat, although were occasionally put down by colonial administration.

Instead, the bravery of leaders like Tirot Sing Syiem in the Khasi Hills, Surya Sen in Chittagong, Chandrasekhar Azad, Bagha Jatin, Rashbehari Bose, Bhagat Singh, Vinayak Savarkar, and many others has always been portrayed as an act of personal bravery rather than a component of a larger movement. 

The founder of the Hindustan Republican Association, Sachindranath Sanyal, predicted that the history of the revolutionary movement would be purposefully ignored when he wrote ‘Bandi Jiban’ in the 1920s, and I quote, “I am writing this book so that in the future a few chapters of Indian history can be correctly written.”

In our area, history is taught and debated more from the standpoint of Thomas Carlyle’s “The Great Man Theory” than from the standpoint of what we refer to as the “Complex Adaptive System”. The students’ exposure to the complex history of India has been limited by this one-sided portrayal, which ignores the nuanced contributions of lesser well-known individuals and movements that were crucial in forming the country’s history.

The Safety Valve

In order to establish personal dominance and support their demands, Europeans engaged in multiple wars and internal disputes during the 19th and 20th centuries. From the Napoleonic Wars to the Balkan Wars, nearly all of them deserved some form of personal acknowledgment. The heat of those wars, however, often ignited a fighting spirit in those locations where the Europeans were perpetrating thievery and dacoity as a result of the forced invasion of the westerners. Japan serves as one such excellent example, as the imperial monarch overcame Russia in 1905.  As the first Asian nation to defeat a major European force since Maharaja Marthanda Varma of Travancore defeated the Dutch at the Battle of Colachel in 1741, this defeat proved to be a turning point for the revolutionaries in this area. It eventually gave rise to the Pan-Asianist movement, which pushed for the unification of all Asiatic people.

Additionally, the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggles that took place in Europe during the interwar period severely weakened the colonial power and rendered them incapable of fighting on foreign soil. The Revolt of 1857, like with all of these battles, had a significant effect on the British. The British, on the other hand, realised that there was widespread dissatisfaction with them and that they needed to figure out a way to extend their warranty of loot in the area in the longer run as a result of the growing anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements which was later observed in this region  led by people like Manebendra Nath Roy in the form of communism.

At this point, a member of the Indian Civil Service named Allan Octavian Hume decided to take matters into his own hands and persuade his administrative colleagues that a safety valve would be required within the next several years. In December 1885, the Indian National Congress was established as a result of Hume’s efforts to create a unified platform for all the loyalists to mock various political agitations, which had the direct support of Dufferin, the new governor general.

Now, if this section were taught to students in the context of the Indian freedom movement, it would definitely be simpler for them to make the connections and see how the freedom we enjoy now was the result of many other forces, not only Gandhi, Nehru, and their INC.

Colonial Distortions

We’ve all encountered a topic in an exam or discussion forum that asked us to explain the advantages of the British Railways during the pre-colonial era. Because of what the majority of our teachers in school must have taught us, it is no longer surprising that few must have argued in favour of it. However, accelerating the plunder of Bharat was the entire purpose of building the British Railways. In addition, the construction of railway networks required extensive property purchases, which frequently resulted in the eviction of Adivasis from their ancestral lands. Their communities, cultural practises, and way of life were affected by this displacement.

Furthermore, these tribes were further marginalised by the British administration’s emphasis on extracting natural resources, which were frequently found in Adivasi districts. Due to the loss of their land, insufficient compensation, and a lack of job possibilities, the Adivasis were left vulnerable economically. The development of railroads also made it easier for outsiders to move into Adivasi communities, changing the population and upsetting traditional norms.

If the colonisers had not done it, the scenario where society frequently cries out for the rights of the “scheduled tribes” would not have arisen in the first place. These tribes were not historically as impoverished as is being suggested; instead, they had a fair part of the natural resources that the European plunderers brutally appropriated. 

Even if we are aware of the negative effects of colonial control, it is depressing to see that some circles still embrace and discuss colonisers favourably. Such beliefs are frequently the result of a distorted perspective that romanticises the period of colonial rule while conveniently omitting the crimes committed, the exploitation endured, and the lives that were upended by imperial powers. This selective amnesia ignores the systematic oppression and exploitation of native populations by colonial rulers, which resulted in great misery for many years.

The stories of resistance, hardship, and resiliency presented by individuals who experienced colonisation are hidden when colonisers are elevated as kind and generous benefactors. Without acknowledging colonialism’s darker sides, historical inaccuracies, an unfair power structure, and the idea that some lives and cultures are more valued than others—are reinforced when some aspects of colonialism are celebrated.

Instead of continuing a narrative that perpetuates harm and injustice, it is essential to critically study history, face its painful truths, and sincerely honour the experiences and narratives of people who were colonised.

The erroneous narratives we were given in schools and academic institutions are partly to blame for this ongoing support for colonisers despite understanding of their detrimental effects. The colonisers were frequently portrayed as heroic civilizers in educational curriculum, which ignored the cruelty of their deeds. These skewed viewpoints were made possible by the exclusion of indigenous perspectives and the sanitization of colonial history. 

Narrative Revival

The incidents discussed here all serve to highlight how crucial it is to reform education for the better right away. We may eliminate the historical errors that have contributed to these prejudices by updating curriculum to give an exhaustive and unfiltered view of history. Students who are taught the full story—including the agony, resistance, and tenacity of colonised populations—will become more compassionate and knowledgeable citizens, preventing the perpetuation of false narratives and the continued exaltation of people who have done tremendous harm. Real historical comprehension necessitates that we face up to unsettling facts and work to right past wrongs in order to create a society that is more just and equitable going ahead.

It is crucial to educate pupils about the complete and accurate history of their past. Students who truly grasp history have a greater respect for the nuances of their ancestry, the struggles that their forefathers overcame, and the victories they attained. Students develop a more realistic understanding of their culture, community, and the outside world by studying about many historical narratives. The truth about previous events illuminates the complexity of human experiences and sheds attention on the contributions of numerous people, organisations, and movements that could otherwise be overlooked. 

Such education fosters a generation that is not only aware of their roots but also well-equipped to manage the complexity of the present and design a more inclusive and just future. It also stimulates critical thinking, empathy, and a broader worldview. Therefore, teaching kids the truth about their past is an investment in both their overall development and the improvement of society.

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