Photograph of Anil Chawla

Author - Anil Chawla

History is supposed to be a subject that deals with the dead. But the subject has invited such lively debate in India in the past few months that any observer outside the country is bound to be surprised. The hype on the subject had its high point at the recently concluded conference of History Congress at Bhopal.

The conference had the overtones of a political jamboree. City of Bhopal was decorated to welcome the delegates. Politicians of ruling party put up hoardings at key points proclaiming the welcome of delegates. Historians acquired a star status for three days. The deliberations of the seminar spilled over to the newspapers.

One of the issues that the assembled historians applied their mind to was about the content of textbooks in class eleventh and twelfth. It seemed that the august body was vertically split between rightist and leftist historians. The rightists criticized the leftists for cooking up theories that tended to denigrate India. On the other hand, the leftists spared no words in accusing rightists of being unscientific and chauvinistic.

In the midst of all this stone-throwing and name-calling, the wise men who claim to see yesterday, did not even spare a minute for the apocalypse facing their own discipline in the country. History seems to be dying and historians are either not aware of it or are not prepared to face the reality. The great debate about the curriculum and textbooks of history in class XI and XII is ridiculous because it ignores the fact that there are hardly any students studying history in India.

At the time of choosing subjects after passing class X, the first preference of students across the country is science and mathematics. There are a few students who choose science with biology. Commerce is the choice of all those who cannot get admission to science. Of course, there are a few who choose commerce in spite of good academic record. Arts (History, Geography, Economics) stream is not available as an option in most schools. In the few schools that the stream is offered, the number of students is nominal. Even amongst those who decide to study these subjects, the ones who make their decision on the basis of love for the subject are very rare. Generally, arts is chosen by those who cannot even get admission to commerce stream or by those who feel that it is the easiest way to later appear for civil services exams. One can make a guess and say that the number of students studying history at higher secondary level is less than two per cent of the total students of that level.

To sum up the multiple screening and sieving process, without denying the existence of bright exceptions one can generalize and say that the rock bottom of the student community gravitates towards history and such subjects in India. The rock bottom of intelligence and talent that the subjects get influences the level of general competence in the subject. Considering the fact that this sieving process has been going on for more than four decades, today's teachers of the subjects are yesterday's rock bottom students. Naturally, they are unable to teach in a manner that makes the subject interesting. The worst part is that they as evaluators of bright exceptional students demotivate them by ridiculing any initiative in learning that a student may adopt. Thus one generation of second-rate teachers builds the next generation of third-rate teachers. This iterative process repeated over generations and generations will surely produce historians who are perfect morons.

My apologies for the hard words. But the fact remains that the level of competence in all subjects other than science, engineering, commerce and management is falling drastically. Most universities in India no longer have departments for subjects like history and philosophy. The community of academicians in these subjects has shrunk to such low levels that there is a very high level of inbreeding. The concept of peer evaluation which is considered the cornerstone of academic excellence is replaced by 'you scratch my back, I scratch your back'. In other words - "I raise no questions on the horrible thesis submitted by your Ph.D. student and you do the same for that terrible junk produced under my guidance. After this there will be two more of our type and four of us shall shout down anyone who calls anything produced by us as bad."

That is indeed an exaggeration, but one that is not too off the mark. One has to read the junk that gets passed as research papers in many Indian universities to realize the pathetic state of these subjects.

Once it is accepted that the academic world in these subjects has reached its nadir, there are a few fundamental questions that the nation must ask. Can the country let a bunch of incompetent people occupying academic chairs be allowed to decide the country's history? How should disputes relating to the country's history be resolved when the people deliberating are not competent to deliberate, to analyze and to study? Should such decisions be taken democratically on the basis of majority vote?

History Congress at Bhopal witnessed more back-stage action than academic discussions. Congress and Sangh clan were counting the number of delegates that each could command. Strategy was worked out in each camp to abduct the conference. At the end of the conference each side was making tall claims about the success of their strategy. Without commenting on who was successful, there can be no doubt that if any of them was or could have been successful, the gathering was surely not an academic gathering but a meeting of people who were subject to manipulation by political bosses. Can the country permit such puppets to take vital academic decisions?

No country can survive for long without historians or without philosophers or without economists. Technology can create hardware for the growth of the country, but there can be no growth without software of history, philosophy and economics. The country surely needs experts on these subjects and not puppets or morons masquerading as experts and academicians. The greatest challenge before the country is to separate the wheat from the chaff and to create suitable environment for talent and not rocks to come to these subjects.

The million rupee question that must be asked relates to the way that this challenge can be met. Overthrowing a political power is easy, but it is not easy to overthrow an academic establishment even when it has become rotten to the core. Possibly, all that the country can do is to wait patiently for the death of history before it can be reborn.


26 January 2002

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ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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