Many are arguing today that the history syllabi followed in Indian schools overemphasise the achievements of medieval Indian Islamic empires such as the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire. By contrast, they say, contemporary non-Muslim polities have received scant attention. It is also argued that this happened because successive post-Independence governments wished to highlight the achievements of a specific community over that of others.
Was this an outcome of a bias in the way history textbooks were written, as many including actor Akshay Kumar have hinted? Or was it a pattern in the way colonial historians approached historiography? It may prove useful to look at the issue from a different perspective.
Why textbooks prioritise large empires
Syllabi on India’s history were overwhelmingly focused, at least till quite recently, on narratives of large, territorially unified, centralised polities or empires. A cursory look at the ‘contents’ page of most history textbooks would reveal chapter names such as Mauryan Empire, Gupta Empire, Delhi Sultanate, and Mughal Empire. We must ask, who created this syllabus? The specific form in which we study History today (as a structured, academic discipline) was the creation of the British colonial government, which was also the first to create a formal history syllabus in India. This government, quite naturally, was deeply influenced by European views of political history.
The concept of the nation-state with its defining characteristics of a strong, centralised government controlling a vast territory with a well-defined boundary defended by a large army, emerged in Europe in the 15th century. This soon became the ideal political model for most Europeans.
So, when the British colonial government began to document the history of India, it viewed the past through the lens of this ideal. Since large, territorial empires were viewed as the most advanced form of polity, they received the greatest focus in the colonial syllabus. Periods when India was ruled by multiple smaller polities were viewed rather negatively – as unfortunate intervals when one empire had declined and the rise of another was awaited. This can, perhaps, explain why historians leaned toward writing about large armies and empires – thereby creating a panoramic drama in history.
Large empires were mostly in north India
The common thread linking all the empires mentioned is that the area that formed their core lay in the Gangetic plain (Delhi/ Agra region, Pataliputra). From this core area, they expanded outwards to build vast empires. Some spanned the subcontinent (Mughals) and beyond (Mauryas), others were mostly based in north India with more territories being gained or lost periodically (Guptas/ Delhi Sultanate). The point to note is that the territory that formed their base was the Gangetic plain—a vast, flat, alluvial plain (at times the Indus plain was also included).
This had important military implications. A single battle fought in the plains can make it possible for the victor to gain control over huge swathes of territory, a few more could make him the ruler of a significant part of the north Indian plain. The territory conquered was usually contiguous. Alluvial plains are inhabited by settled peasantry from whom regular and high revenues can be collected. Ease of movement across the plains meant that large areas could be controlled from a distant base (the imperial capital plus a few provincial capitals). Hence geographical factors were critical in the formation of large, centralised empires; factors present to a high degree in north India.
Another factor that determined the selection of kingdoms/dynasties was the availability of sources. Colonial historians were familiar with Persian (the official language used by the East India Company till 1835). Plenty of Persian sources were available for the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire. By contrast, the literary sources required to write the history of the Ahom Empire (the Buranjis of Assam) were not translated till the 20th century. Written sources that would qualify as ‘history’, as defined by the colonial historians, are scant for the Cholas too.
Other regions marginalised
This bias towards north India is hardly new. As early as 1853, an influential British administrator argued in favour of shifting the capital to ‘somewhere in Hindostan’ or the ‘Upper Gangetic Plain’ (George Campbell, India As It May Be: An Outline of a Proposed Government and Policy). He declared, “Hindostan is, and always must be, the centre of our military power…(there) we shall fight no provincial battle; there we must rally all the forces of the empire.” Such attitudes continue to permeate our syllabi where narratives of southern, eastern and northeastern India have been largely marginalised.
In most standard textbooks on the medieval period, the story of the Delhi Sultanate is accorded primacy as the ‘main’ narrative while contemporary polities in the south and east are categorised as ‘regional’ kingdoms. These included kingdoms ruled by Hindus (Vijaynagara) as well as by Muslims (Ilyas Sahi and Hussain Shahi Sultanates in Bengal). The 14th century is primarily seen as the period when the Delhi Sultanate was in decline, but that is also the period when the Vijaynagara kingdom in south India was at the height of its glory. The achievements of the Chola dynasty are rarely given the attention reserved for north Indian empires. Colonial historians had failed to sufficiently appreciate the triumph of Chola power over significant parts of Southeast Asia, which had far-reaching economic and cultural consequences. The Ahom kingdom in the Northeast hardly finds mention in history textbooks.
A fresh look at the structure and contents of the school history syllabi is necessary, one which gives due importance to the complex and diverse political narratives of India. It won’t be an easy task, but including new perspectives thrown up by rigorous academic research, particularly on non-literary sources, will be a step in the right direction.
Dr Krishnokoli Hazra teaches History at the undergraduate level in Loreto College, Kolkata. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)