The Future of History: Holding on or Letting go the ‘Indian’ Mughal Past

The move of National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) to remove some crucial chapters on Mughal history from the new curriculum for the class twelfth history syllabus has called for a noisy reception in the academic world. Nearly 250 historians and academics collectively came up with a public statement criticising the removal. The statement has urged the NCERT to withdraw these deletions because they seem to have a communal agenda behind them. The deleted chapter from the textbook is ‘Kings and Chronicles: the Mughal Courts (16th and 17th Centuries), other themes to be removed include the portion on Mahatma Gandhi’s life and assassination, Maulana Azad’s contributions, communal riots, caste and gender inequalities and Dalit writings. 

Also read: NCERT Drops Mughal Empire, Gujarat Riots From Class 12 History Books

Whenever we have witnessed erasure of a particular community from our history, it is usually followed by a genocide of the community” said noted professor Aditya Mukherjee (JNU) on an NDTV show.  

Opposition has also found a route through the Indian History Congress (IHC), the largest association of professional historians in South Asia. The body has issued a statement opposing this deletion of the Mughal history sections as a politically guided step of NCERT which harms the holistic understanding of India’s past for the history students. The director of NCERT, Dinesh Prasad however has denied the allegations and stated that the step only seeks to lessen the burden for the students. 

History of a country defines its identity, what it was and what it aims to be 

As pointed out by historians, history is a rational subject because it is based on records and primary sources and thus cannot be an imagined or a manufactured territory. In this context these deletions are going to majorly alter the future of the discipline itself as portions from history cannot be removed without sabotaging the comprehensive understanding of the subject due to the very nature of history. Pedagogy of history is processual i.e. relating to processes instead of discrete events. Causation in history is thus a series of successive interconnected developments and phenomena. 

How do you teach India’s freedom struggle if you skip the chapter on the advent of British colonialism to India? And if India’s colonial past is to be taught then understanding of the Mughal monarchy that preceded- becomes essential. This move shall diminish the understanding of the real extent and reach of Mughal dominions and structures of governance, thereby marring student’s ability to contextualise the shifts that followed in the political history during the colonial and post-colonial periods and how they shaped major events and processes in Indian history.

How Distortions paved the way for Deletions 

The NCERT’s call to delete the chapters of Indian Mughal past is a manifestation of a lengthier exercise set over a longer duration of time. In recent years a systematic attempt was unleashed to compartmentalise historical dynasties as Hindu or Muslim in order to hatch the ‘us versus them’ portrayal of the past. While academics interacted and fought head-on with these developments; a carefully orchestrated dissemination of the flawed notion of the glorious Indian ‘Hindu’ past followed by the dark mediaeval era of foreign and ‘Muslim’ rule took place through social media. These deletions appear to be an official extension of the WhatsApp history distortions which painted such a ghastly picture of the Mughal past that it was considered fit to eventually be done away with. 

Why Mughal History is Otherized 

The vitriol aimed at convincing the masses of the insignificance and brutality of the Mughals as ‘Muslim invaders’ and luteras (robbers) was frequently echoed by political leaders. History platforms for competitive exams and social media groups regularly bombard false information in order to trivialise the significance of Mughals to be considered a part of the nation’s history. 

Reinvoking violence of the monarchs in the present is a culture of villainizing the past rulers which entails shock and despise against historical personages in order to divide people in current democracies. Colonial historiography made cautious attempts to villainize the Delhi Sultans and the Mughals as barbaric and ruthless in order to whitewash the atrocities and subjugation they unleashed on the Indian populace. No monarchy is bloodless or benevolent in the complete sense of the term and thus Mughal acts of cruelty cannot be isolated from other contemporary rulers who were equally brutal. 

The ‘chastising’ of the syllabus thus can be understood as an otherization of the Mughal rulers because it tends to focus on their foreignness and religious identity. This in itself is a flaw because history demonstrates how rulers like Alauddin Khilji or even Akbar played the Sharia (Islamic Law) for their own liking. The underlying issue in the whole process is the fallacy of viewing the mediaeval dynasties only through the prism of their Muslimness.

Marxist historiography remains the most hated on social media platforms as we are increasingly becoming a nation interested in the past narratives to incite communal hatred and malice towards communities. False histories online and a series of Bollywood movies villainizing historical figures contributed greatly in sowing the seeds of discord. Marxist historiography on the other hand taught us not to view history in religious binaries of ‘Hindu versus Muslim’ or ‘us versus them’ narratives but to focus on economic and political factors of historical dynasties. This obstructs the propaganda of hatred more than anything else and thus Marxist historians face regular abuses and maligning. 

Impact on the pedagogy of the discipline 

The NCERT textbook deletions shall seriously undermine the understanding of the Indian past and will hugely impact the future trajectory of the discipline and its pedagogy. Students will be raised without the understanding of how monarchies functioned in the socio-political realities of the Indian subcontinent and resultantly, will lose the ability to distinguish between democratic governments from monarchies. Students will fail to grasp how the idea of India was shaped and enriched through a synthesis of various identities and wasn’t something that was ever existing in its complete and sacrosanct form. This process will seriously tamper with the mental faculties and critical reception of historical processes for students. It will cultivate the habit of viewing history as a linear and unified territory and not as a dynamic, multidimensional, layered discipline. Thus, a challenge of unprecedented level will be unleashed for history educators to teach the subject matter without touching on these contested territories.

Denial of these histories purges on our sense of self

A significant chunk of our Indian culture is an inheritance from the Mughals which entails: meticulous documents, histories, languages, musical instruments, visual arts and extensive heritage. Dress, cuisine, calligraphy and aesthetics being the secondary yet not unimportant part of it. Mughal architectural marvels do not even require a lengthy digression here, only the tourism value and revenue generated from them annually shall furnish why they need to be preserved if not celebrated in this systemic denial and deletion. Can one understand the heritage structures around us without knowing a bit about who their builders were without compromising our Indianness? We cannot deny half our history without denying our sense of self. Thus, the removal of Mughal past from the syllabus not only seriously alters the course of Indian history but the collective Indian memory and the sense of identity

In Europe a person of power or an item of luxury and aesthetic value is still classified as ‘Mogul’ alluding to the dynasty. The memory of this monarchy lasted long enough to be transformed as an adjective. Despite the fact that the Europeans were not first-hand witnesses to this process; they never saw them rule, only the Mughal luxuries reached there as a result of colonial plunder. Whereas we have closely witnessed the beauty of their architecture, marvelled at their paintings, read their literature, relished the cuisine they perfected, flaunt clothing that they designed. Are we ready to renounce this legacy because of the political menace that tells us it is not ours? Of Course it is ours and it rightfully belongs to all of us. 

Why should the Mughals matter to us 

If the idea of these removals rest deep in the urge of a singular unified nation then Mughals are the most central to it if not the ones of who initiated the ‘idea of India’. They brought the entire subcontinent’s regions under unified rule for the first time. Akbar’s royal chronicler Abu’l Fazl was the first to recognize the Hindu Kush as the geographical frontier of India long before the idea of a unified India or Akhand Bharat was even born. A generation of students brought up sans this knowledge is an injustice not just to the discipline but also to their collective memory and identity of being Indian. 

A frequently wrought argument is the ‘over representation’ of Mughals and Delhi in the history lessons and whataboutery on the Chola, Pallava and Vijayanagara history. Notwithstanding the fact that they were retained in the revised syllabus, this is never driven by the quest to learn the marginalised histories but rather to put them as essentially opposed to and in conflict with the Mughal history. The function of textbooks is not to prepare exhaustive lists of all that happened in the past, it is to present major occurrences of the past which the nation recognizes as theirs in order to develop cognitive faculties of the pupil and to nurture future prospects in the subject. 

Mughals are significant to Indian history because they synthesised politics that accommodated religious differences by policies of Sul I kul (peace with all), something which is a mirror and an antecedent to India’s secular past and its formation. The most hated and allegedly orthodox of the Mughals, Aurangzeb had more Rajput nobles in his nobility than Muslims. Mughal nobility was an expression of India which is diverse and accommodating and not ethnically or religiously exclusive. The royal atelier of Akbar had multiple translations and illustrated copies of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana epics. Akbar forced his Muslim chroniclers to learn Sanskrit to translate for him these epics. Both Akbar and Jahangir had Jesuit nobles at their courts and that led to the collection of Christian-themed paintings. They frequently visited the Jain monks. The whole corpus of Hindi literature generated for Hindu deities and structures commissioned by the Mughals can only be referenced here passingly for its huge size. Can this remarkable legacy be renounced without crippling our understanding of the past?

Who is stopping you from rewriting history?’ said a prominent minister in a speech. As a historian I beg to differ. No! history cannot be rewritten, it can only be studied and interpreted or distorted and deleted. The nation has to choose what it shall make of its history. 

Zainab Naqvi is a research candidate of Mughal History at Aligarh Muslim University. 

Featured image illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty.