Community sentiment and the teaching of history


back to issue

HISTORIANS have long come to terms with the bogus absolutist claims of ‘scientific’ history. No one any longer contends that the teaching of history is free of choice and judgement of selection, omission and deletion. All historical knowledge is necessarily partial and incomplete. Our past goes further back than we can tell, is connected to the pasts of countless others and reveals itself variously from different vantage points never available simultaneously to us.

Besides, everything – persons, groups, practices, events or processes – has a past. Countless items in the world can become objects of historical knowledge. Therefore, historians must select and do so on the basis of their understanding of what is generally significant and deserving of cognitive attention. The writing of history is necessarily replete with absences and omissions.

This ‘selection’, already ingrained in history writing and research, is magnified when history is taught. First, there is the sheer volume of available historical texts to contend with: plainly, teachers have too much history to teach and students far too much to learn! Anyhow, skills imparted to school children, even in the teaching of history, are different from those learnt and perfected by students of academic history. School teaching of history is one component of a more general educational programme; part pedagogy and history only in part. If so, school ‘history’ can never be identical to the academic discipline called ‘history’. What it takes from academic history quite simply has to be selective.

For these and many other related reasons, it is not selection, omission or deletion as such that are at issue or are objectionable. What is really at stake is whether these are done on justifiable grounds. It is keeping this in mind that we ask: is the decision of the NCERT to remove sections it deems objectionable justified? Can a particular section of a school textbook be deleted on the sole ground that it hurts the sentiment of any community?

To answer this, I identify at least three assumptions that underlie this decision. First, that the communal identity of persons is the only one they have. Second, that sentiments are naturally given, unalterable and cannot be morally evaluated. Third, that respecting a person or community always implies overlooking defects, refraining from being critical. Since each of these assumptions can be challenged, the decision of the NCERT is unwarranted.

British colonial writing never conceived India as a nation but instead saw it as an ad hoc conglomeration of several discrete communities. In addition, these communities were seen not as rational agents but only as subjects of feelings. Individuals, on this view, saw themselves solely as members of sentimental communities, with no reflective powers to distance themselves from their community or be able to challenge practices they found unbearable. The NCERT replicates this Orientalist view and simply grafts it on to modern India today. It thereby perpetuates a deeply offensive picture of India self-consciously and painstakingly fought against by the movement for independence.



More importantly, this picture is plainly wrong. I doubt that a society has ever existed in which all its members defined themselves exclusively in terms of the community to which they were attached. Almost always, at least some people in society possess the capacity to reflectively endorse or challenge the practices of their community. This was true too of India in the 18th and 19th century.

Could our great social reformers such as Gandhi or Phule have achieved anything if they had always worried about the sentiments of religious communities? Could improvements in the life of religious communities have been possible if religious reformers such as Guru Nanak, Dayanand or Vivekanand looked over their shoulders to see how their actions distressed the feelings of orthodox religious leadership?

The decision makers at the NCERT may respond to this by saying that they are not making mutually exclusive claims. Individuals can belong to a particular community and yet see themselves independent of it. Individuals can be simultaneously rational and emotional. The point, they might say, is that even rational individuals have feelings. Though mostly rational, Hindus have sentiments too which are hurt when told that their ancestors ate beef. So do Sikhs when they read that Guru Teg Bahadur indulged in plunder.

This is all very well, but embedded in the NCERT response are three further assumptions. First, that emotions, quite like sensations, are biological perturbations that occur within us, not collectively generated entities for which we are responsible. Second, once triggered off, there is no easy way to control them. All counter strategies to deal with powerful emotions are therefore impotent. Even the persuasive powers of reason are annulled when faced with strong feelings. An emotion is like pain; it cannot be expunged by rational talk. Third, what is beyond our control is also outside the ambit of rational or moral evaluation. If we, conscious agents, are mere receptors of feelings that just happen to us and that spring from sources outside reason, then they can neither be rational nor irrational, neither be good nor bad.



Does it make sense to say that our inability to fly is irrational or that our mortality is immoral? Is it immoral for me to have a tooth ache? We may regret that we are finite creatures, but surely we cannot say that there is something wrong about it. These are just plain facts about us, beyond reason, beyond good and evil. It is the same with feelings. We cannot rationally assess or morally evaluate them. Because they overwhelm us, we are entirely passive in relation to them. It is best then to give in to emotions and bow before the much stronger sentiment of collectivities.

This conclusion is false because the assumptions from which it flows are mistaken. Most human emotions are socially constructed. We are not biologically programmed to be indignant about injustice. Many feelings, such as shame and guilt, are culturally specific. Almost all emotions are amenable to rational assessment. If someone says that he had a pang of regret, it is perfectly legitimate to ask if he was justified in having it. If someone is angry, it is entirely appropriate to ask if that anger is reasonable.



This is so because like beliefs and unlike sensations, emotions have an intentional content. They are always about something. As with any mental entity with a content, it is always legitimate to ask if emotions fit or cohere with the world. Emotions, like beliefs, can be shown to be false or unreasonable.

Take an example. Suppose that I am angry because I believe that my low grades are due to a deep bias against my caste. If, on closer examination, a bias shows up in the pattern of marking, for instance, if other members of the same caste have secured poor marks, then my anger seems to be justified. If not, then it is unfounded. Surely, others can reasonably expect me to shed my anger and to accept my just desserts. Emotions can change by rational persuasion.

Just as emotions are rational or irrational, they can be moral or immoral too. It is not exactly moral to feel bad about the legitimate success of others. It is certainly morally wrong to gloat at the misery of others. We discourage children from being jealous or envious because such emotions harm them as well as others. Emotions then are not mere eruptions that are independent of our beliefs, judgements and appraisals. It is legitimate to ask if resentment is rationally endorsed and morally justified. If not, even though difficult, it is best to drop it.

However, those who favour these deletions may reply that Hindus and Sikhs have good reason to be offended, that their resentment is morally justified because these statements are unambiguously false. And who will decide the truth and falsity of these statements? The community, of course, they would answer, and Truth is what the community says it is. This relativist position is plainly unconvincing. Though there are no absolute, final, unrevisable truths, it is humanly possible to arrive at beliefs which, given available information, it is most reasonable to hold. This is so in social science and history as much as in natural science.



The cognitive content of feelings of hurt and resentment must then be assessed by procedures of sound and valid arguments and broadly acceptable standards among historians by which good from bad interpretations of available historical evidence can be distinguished. If so, what is included or jettisoned from history textbooks must be decided by or be consistent with the judgements of professional historians.

Has the NCERT consulted relevant historians? If the moral legitimacy of sentiments depends, as far as is reasonably possible, on the best available interpretation of evidence, the validity of arguments and on the plausibility of historical accounts, then the judgement of historians is relevant to whether or not feelings of hurt and resentment are justified.

The NCERT can furnish a further, desperate argument: some statements, even if true, must be removed if they offend the self-esteem of any community. Is it not the case that sometimes truth hurts, lowers self-respect or our respect for others? Will our respect for a person not be diminished when we hear something true but disagreeable, distasteful or nasty about him? Not necessarily. We do not lose respect for parents or friends even when we recognise their failings. This, primarily because we also know of their strengths and virtues that far outweigh their known faults.

Respect is consistent with criticism and with a recognition of some defects in character. So is love. Criticism, however, is incompatible with blind submission, subordination and deference. The acknowledgement that our ancestors did something of which we now disapprove does not necessarily diminish our respect for them. We lose respect only when nothing worthwhile at all is found in their way of life.

Similarly, disrespect towards religious communities is shown when an entire way of life is condemned, not when a few of their practices are criticized. To my knowledge, history textbooks from which selected portions are deleted do not condemn the way of life of any community and show no disrespect for religion. They do, however, discourage a deferential attitude. Because good critical education is incompatible with deference, this, indeed, is how it should be.



I have taken the claims of NCERT seriously and at face value as sincere and reasonable. But given the overall context in which they are made, one suspects that beneath the assumptions of such claims, deeper, more sinister conceptions of politics, education and history are at play – that politics is all about the deployment of brute power and the non-consensual enforcement of a set of preferences, that education, a somewhat less coercive element within this agenda, enables strait jacketed socialisation of children into these preferences, and that history, an even smaller component of this education, is pure fiction justifiably conjured up by shrewd tacticians out of prejudice, rumours, half-truths and lies.

This is not the place to challenge all these conceptions, but it is not out of place to reiterate once more what all good historians and educationists already know, that history is taught to open the minds of school children not to politicise or socialise them.