Beyond Nehru, ICHR Poster Continues Historical Tradition of Forgetting Women

The recent poster celebrating the 75th year of Indian Independence released by Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) has been in the news as it excluded the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. “Like making a movie poster without the hero,” said Dr. Shashi Tharoor. The poster included Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, V.D. Savarkar, Bhagat Singh, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, Sardar Patel and Dr Rajendra Prasad.

However, as a nation used to seeing movie posters without any sign of the heroine on them, it was not surprising to see that the ICHR poster did not include a single female freedom fighter. The sacrifices of female freedom fighters are seldom acknowledged or even taught in school. They are mentioned at the end, without any details of their contributions.

Though history has recorded the feats of many women, they have mostly not been the primary focus of study. Women’s study was always a “supplement to history” without “rewriting history”, as Virginia Woolf said. The approach towards history and history writing has always been androcentric and elite biased.

J.W. Scott writes, “Women’s history does not have a long-standing and definable historiographic tradition within which interpretations can be debated and revised. Instead, the subject of women has been either grafted on to other traditions or studied in isolation from them.”

The earliest kind of history of women that was recorded or documented were mainly hagiographic. And even when it came to women rulers, they were still not analytically visible with this kind of approach and study. It just supplemented the larger historical narratives of various events in history. However, it cannot be denied that these documents could help the historians in bringing out a better women’s history in later years by reading it “along” and “against” the grain, as Ann Stoler and Ranjit Guha call it respectively.

Gerda Lerner writes, “Men and women have experienced exclusion from the historical records but no man has been excluded from the historical record because of his sex, yet all women were.”

If one was to look at the recorded history, it is written by men mostly in their words and their idea of women’s agency. It is only in recent years that these narratives are being questioned.

Even today, when the history syllabus has been revised a number of times and has been a topic of controversy every single time, we still cannot find enough female representation in it. Lot of women took to the streets and led processions but have been neglected and never given the same importance as male leaders have been. We have long been taught that ‘courage and ‘bravery’ are  “masculine” characteristics, thus it is hard for society to fully understand how women also fought for India’s freedom and led from the front.

September 5, celebrated as Teachers’ Day in memory of India’s first Vice-President S. Radhakrishnan, will soon be upon us. For years, many have criticised the celebration of a day honouring teachers in September and not on January 3, the birthday of Savitribai Phule who is more deserving to be remembered for her contribution towards education. She was not only the first female teacher of the fist women’s school in India but she also she fought against the caste system and worked for the upliftment of the marginalised.

For Savitribai Phule and Jyothirao Phule, there were many long years of struggle. They were thrown from their house while working for the revolutionary school education movement they initiated for Shudra women. Phule would carry an extra sari with her every time she would go to school to teach as there would be men waiting in the streets who would throw cow dung or mud or even pelt stones at her, so she had to change her soiled clothes. But she never gave up on her mission. The guard who was then appointed to her, wrote in his memoirs about what she would say to such men, “As I do the sacred task of teaching my fellow sisters, the stones or cow dung that you throw seem like flowers to me. May God bless you!”

In recent years, a few scholars and teachers have been taking initiatives to mark January 3 as Teachers’ Day, initiating new beginnings.

Even today, after numerous debates and writings on the exclusion of female participation in all spheres of life and history, it is still normalised and easy for us to accept their absence from historical works. While some are hailed as martyrs, others are forgotten. And even in the list of hailed martyrs, we always find women from the Bahujan community absent.

Anne Mary Shaju is pursuing a Masters in History at Delhi University. She is interested in gender, and economic and socio-political oral histories.