India’s history as dictated by the British has largely continued its sway over school and college curricula, and thereby into mindsets.
The most successful colonial empire in human history, the British Empire, ensured that the history of India as taught in schools and colleges would reduce the imprint of both the Vedic as well as the Mughal periods, passing off most of the first as fictional and the latter as a seamless and accelerating period of national decline. In contrast, the 230-odd years of British domination of the subcontinent was presented to our young minds as a period of enlightenment and empowerment, while in reality it was marked by a steady reduction in overall historical awareness and in economic growth. By the close of the British era, the subcontinent was much poorer than during earlier epochs. Given that the post-1947 leadership of the country adopted, often without adaptation, an overwhelming proportion of colonial constructs and practices, it was no surprise that India’s history as dictated by the British has largely continued its sway over school and college curricula, and thereby into mindsets. As a consequence, the sense of history that the British, the Chinese, the Japanese or other nationalities including the French have in abundance is much less visible in India. Caste, language, region and religion rank above nation in the loyalty calculus of many citizens. In substantial part, this is because of a lack of knowledge of the civilisational treasures found in any comprehensive and accurate recital of Indian history through the ages. Just as the period in the continental United States when Native Americans owned the land was almost entirely airbrushed out of existence in histories of the US, which usually began with the arrival of settlers from Europe in the 1770s, the Vedic period has practically disappeared from view in India, and what little gets presented is labelled as myth. Even the government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was on the cusp of dynamiting into dust the Ram Setu linking India with Sri Lanka, until stopped by a court decision acting on an application made by Subramanian Swamy. Any individual who considered the bridge of stones that was created thousands of years ago as anything other than a natural formation was considered a crank, a looking away from the past that has continued even after NASA (hardly a Hindutva bastion) authenticated the Ram Setu as having been created by human effort. Sporadic moves have been made to ensure a more balanced recital of the totality of Indian history, but efforts by some politicians to link this to religion has led to a greater adverse reaction than would have been the case had such changes been implemented in a secular manner. After all, every epoch in the history of India is the cultural property of every citizen of this country.
In his zeal to stamp out any Vedic impulses from the educational structure, a Veenayak Shah has asked the Supreme Court to ban shlokas in Sanskrit from Kendriya Vidyalayas. The implication is that Sanskrit is not just a language, but is a mark of Hinduism, and hence any resort to that language would be to attempt to proselytize and spread the Hindu faith. The hymn’s words themselves are unexceptionable, calling for a transition from falsehood to truth, from death to immortality. This is a phrase that is daily used more than a few times throughout India, including by many Christians in Kerala, who have in the practice of their faith retained much of the millennial traditions of the land. Not to mention that several Muslims in India are fluent in Sanskrit at a time when few Hindus know the language. Hence it came as a surprise that the PIL in question was not ignored by the SC, but was instead accepted. Indeed, a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court will hear and decide on Mr Shah’s petition, clearly indicating that the recital of a Sanskrit verse in every Kendriya Vidyalaya is a matter of seminal importance in the life of the country. In the system of governance that has evolved in India since the 1990s, in practice the government of the day proposes while the courts dispose. In effect, a government at any level lacks certainty over the implementation of a decision, unless the same gets affirmed through the court process. Courts in India have accepted for judicial review a plethora of matters, even as the final decision in several issues takes a while to be concluded through the judicial process, unless of course (as in this case) the Supreme Court itself accepts a prayer and begins to hold hearings on the same, as is the case with the matter of a Sanskrit hymn in Kendriya Vidyalayas. It must be said that Attorney-General Tushar Mehta seems to have misnamed the Vedic period as the “Hindu” period, when as mentioned earlier, the culture of those times encompassed much more than any particular faith. Justice Nariman with Tushar Mehta correctly observed that the very motto of the Supreme Court was in Sanskrit, a fact that has had no effect on the secular impartiality of the judges. Given that, why a matter which to the uninitiated seems less than earth-shaking needs to be cogitated upon by as many as five SC judges is somewhat of a surprise.
The PIL demonstrates how many obstacles will need to be faced before a history of the land becomes commonplace that is separated from the one-sided recital promoted by the British Empire and continued by post-1947 governments. In Europe, Japan and China, governments make a determined effort to showcase the past and in the process, generate self-confidence within the present. Any other country but India would by now have rebuilt the path taken by Lord Ram from Ayodhya to Sri Lanka and back, beginning with a Lord Ram complex in Ayodhya that would of course be separate from the future Ram Temple. Such a complex would be civilisational, but unlike the temple, not religious. Should efforts be made to make such a complex a reality, it is certain that some will use every available path to block such moves at reclaiming the full history of India. Viewing culture and civilisation exclusively through the lens of religion created a situation in the 1930s that led in 1947 to the partition of India. There should not be a repetition of that error in these times. What India needs is Indutva: a confluence of the Vedic, the Mughal and of course the Western. A merger of civilisational streams that is present in the cultural DNA of every citizen of India.