Who Writes Our History?

I was born and brought up in the beautiful state of Assam and spent the first 18 years of my life in Guwahati. When I was growing up in the early 2000s, many English medium schools had sprung up in the city. My parents, both educated in vernacular medium schools, felt that learning English as my primary language would give me a strong foothold in life.

After the US, India has the highest number of English language speakers. More than being treated as another language to learn, English is a determinant of identity and status in society – in many ways, it is a soft power tool.

In many schools in the city, at the time I studied there, there was a rule that children could only communicate in English when on the school grounds. Anybody found not obeying the rule would be punished and fined. Fluency may come with practice, but this rule was harsh and problematic – something I recognise now. There are many ways to encourage children to take an interest in learning a language other than punishing them.

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Over the years, I have observed that citizens of a formerly colonised country have a strange relationship with the English language. Especially in a country as diverse and multi-lingual as India – for many communities in the country, our mother tongues are different from the dominant language spoken. Those that have the capital to study in English medium schools have to maintain a three-dimensional relationship. And then those who have difficulty articulating themselves in English are looked down upon – it’s been written into our social code.

While mastering different languages is important for a world that is becoming more interconnected than ever, I believe no one language should have the kind of monopoly that English has, reinforcing a language hierarchy.

But that’s not where my grouse ends. The dominance of English has also had many other effects in our lives, sometimes in unknowable ways.

Anybody familiar with the CBSE curriculum is aware that the structure of the courses is uniform across the country. If you flip through your history books across all standards, you will realise that there is no mention of the history of Northeastern states. You won’t find it being discussed in ancient, medieval or even the modern history sections. A section of the Class 12 political science textbook is devoted to the integration of Northeastern states with the rest of the country. Apart from that, I cannot recall reading anything else about India’s Northeast in the CBSE curriculum.

The Northeast consists of Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Sikkim, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh. The states are always clubbed together, assuming that the region is homogeneous and share the same culture. While it is true that there are many commonalities, but every state has its own distinct culture and history. The ‘mainland’ narrative regarding this region is full of insensitive stereotypes ranging from our food habits to militancy.

While pursuing my Bachelors in Delhi, I remember our curriculum prescribed a reading that covered the Assam Movement. When one of the students in the class was asked to share her opinion, she dismissively said she doesn’t know much about it because it was not ‘our’ issue.

I could not defend myself or my region at that time, because what do you say when someone says you are not a part of the greater collective? Are you supposed to defend your existence?

This incident has stuck with me since then and has forced me to ask myself about the origins of history and historiography, and has compelled me to question the line which demarcates ‘our’ issue and ‘their’ issue. Every year, we hear multiple cases of harassment and bullying of students from the states of Northeast in major metro cities of the country. Do this insensitivity and abuse arise from ignorance of not knowing ‘us’? How do we restructure this dominant discourse of ‘us’ and ‘them’?

Also read: Why World History Textbooks Need to Go Beyond European Civilisation

In recent years, this thought has also translated into what I choose to read. I have tried to understand where history comes from and the discourse that it is narrating. History should not be studied from a singular perspective; a multi-dimensional understanding is salient while staying true to the facts and figures. These very foundational differences in understanding history leads to greater differences among people of the same country.

Studying history is crucial if one wants to encourage diversification, representation, and identity. We cannot forget that education is an inclusive process and erasing or excluding the history of any place or community not only dismisses its identity and existence but also further perpetuates misconceptions – which can have graver consequences later.

One of the primary books suggested to understand the history of Assam is Edward Gait’s A History of Assam. The search to find an English language book that narrates history from the perspective of the periphery is difficult to find and the one which is widely read is that from a white man’s perspective – a concern in itself.

I have been fortunate enough over the last few years to realise this and take a step towards understanding the history of my state better and read works of various indigenous writers. If academia wants to be more representative, a conscious effort has to be made to include the histories of different places and peoples.

Ankita Chakravarty is a masters student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Guwahati.

Featured image credit: Supichaya Sookprasert/Pixabay