It’s only once you finish school and enter the real world that you really realise all the things that you haven’t actually learnt. Filing DU college applications and income tax returns were the pearls that stuck out most, personally speaking. But even while groaning about the woefully tragic shortcomings of economics or sociology lectures, I always found solace in History class. The airy, afternoon classes held the promise of great storytelling–tales of conquerors and kings, heroes and villains, uprisings and struggles. The parts that made up the whole of the ridiculously large and dynamic country that was India were neatly summed up. Too neatly, perhaps. It wasn’t until much more recently that I realised, we had been cheated after all.
History is the story of the victors, one of my colleagues (and large swathes of redditors) were quick to point out. Majoritarian history is rarely recorded as a collective effort, with winners and losers coming together to find the commonalities in their version of the story. This much is true. However, counter-narratives to such ‘facts’ must be recorded and handed down, if people are to make an informed decision about our country’s past. How else can we either learn from our mistake or develop a sense of identity that’s rooted in any kind of truth? And when we refuse to see the way in which powers that be wield this subject to fuse fact and fiction, all in order to win our blind support–the future of our country looks more grim than ever. So much goes into determining what goes into our textbooks, and recent headlines of the syllabus and curriculum being constantly changed and moulded to suit the dominant political ideology show just that.
Things don’t have to be quite as doom and gloom though. As a person who takes pride in being an autodidact and encourages other to do the same, the internet and self-motivated research allows new potential. Working at a digital publication, I’ve been lucky to have the option and opportunity to explore and learn new things about our past, things I can honestly say I did not know earlier but wish I had. Things I hope will be passed down to younger generations, now in school, as they cement their own identities in these formative years, before going forth into the world.
From royal families who held off the moghuls to single, lower-caste figures whose actions toppled ‘breast taxes’ to female narratives and more–there is a need to revisit history now more than ever. Even rewrite, or add to it in parts. Can we ensure that more perspectives are included, and more voices find space within the pages of text books? It’s a mammoth task best left to the ‘experts,’ but when the experts are hell bent on removing all trace of the Moghuls from Indian textbooks, then the responsibility falls on every single one of us to collect as much information as we can. After all, what remains in our hearts and minds, can never be deleted.
Today, I attempt to piece together bits of our country’s history–its people, its dreams and its struggles–that I wish I had learnt from my history books, below. Here’s hoping that future generations have it better.
I. Kerala’s Casteist ‘Breast Tax’ and Nangeli’s Forgotten Sacrifice
Low-caste Avarna women of 19th Century Travancore, colloquially understood as Dalit, were not allowed to cover their breasts in public unless they paid a special tax, termed mulakkaram. This could be seen as an extension of untouchability, a method so sadistic, it ensured that the dignity of women belonging to the backward classes was literally stripped taken away. Even more mortifying was that this tax differed according to the size of the breast.
Nangeli, a beautiful woman living in Cherthala belonging to the Ezhava community, wouldn’t have it anymore. She denied the pravathiyar, the village officer responsible to collect taxes, the money sought from her. Fiercely independent, she was determined to cover herself and venture outside. Once the news of her defiance spread, the tax officer came to her home to collect the tax. Nangeli followed rituals and prepared the plantain leaf on which the tax was supposed to be paid. Instead of the money, she came out of her home drenched in her own blood, having cut off her own breasts, which she summarily presented to the officer, much to his horror. Nangeli lost her life in a matter of minutes and was cremated by that evening. Her husband Chirukandan, unable to bear a life without her, sacrificed himself on the same pyre, one of the first recorded instances of a man known to have committed sati.
The next day, Sreemolam Thirunal, the then King of Travancore, took back the tax after having issued a royal proclamation. Women from lower backgrounds were now allowed to cover their breasts. The home of Nangeli and Chirukandan where the incidence took place became known as mulalchi parambu, the land of the breasted woman.
Why is it important? Modern India’s caste-blindness knows no bounds. As much as we like to believe ‘caste no longer exists,’ you only have to do mild investigation to realise just how insidiously caste affects every aspect of our life. More stories like these would help children understand just how brutal the caste-system was, and perhaps plant the seed for them to challenge such practices in real life one day. At the very least, they’ll be able to see it.
Read all about Nangeli and her sacrifice here.
II. India’s Forgotten World War I & II Heroes
Christopher Nolan’s latest Blockbuster, Dunkirk, did a remarkable job of disrupting traditional war-film storytelling. It also did a fantastic job of disrupting, if not outright deleting, history. Like so many historians before him, Nolan chose to ignore the fact that Britain’s outcome in both World Wars would have been very different without the massive Indian army troops that fought for them through out, as a colonised nation.
As the German army’s advancements through France and Belgium became more aggressive, it became apparent that more Allied troops were needed by the British army, and India (their colony at the time) and its 161,000 strong army seemed to be the perfect fall-back. From a lot of the accounts that have been gathered, losses were extremely heavy and India’s soldiers, more prepared for colonial warfare, were shell-shocked by the fierce fighting that was ensuing in foreign lands.
The sacrifice made by fighters from pre-partition India, a time when Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs fought as one, has almost slipped through the cracks of post-colonial Indian history, and needs to stand for more than just a war memorial, in the form of the India Gate. As historian Shrabani Basu told The Independent, “Few people are aware that 1.5 million Indians fought alongside the British – that there were men in turbans in the same trenches as the Tommies … They have been largely forgotten, both by Britain and India... The contribution of Indian and other Commonwealth soldiers should be part of the First World War curriculum in schools, and museums should highlight their stories. That is the only way to ensure that they do not become a footnote in history.”
Why is it important? Most of our colonial history is seeped in a biased reporting of events. India and Britain’s past is entwined in too many ways that affect our present in subtle if not obvious ways–one of the most dangerous ones being our ‘colonial hangover.’ Our sense of self was eroded during the many years of British Rule and it’s a phenomenon that pervades our behaviour even today. If we’re going to instill a sense of pride in young children today, it’s imperative we give them all the facts and ensure they don’t forget the parts we played in world history–both good and bad.
III. The Man Who Drew The Borders Between India And Pakistan
Did you know that the fate of India and Pakistan’s border, the ultimate design of their country’s partition lay in the hands of a British barrister? Adding to that, the only experience he had in the subcontinent during his entire lifetime was a mere five weeks. Cyril Radcliffe was said to have been regarded as the most brilliant barrister in England in 1947. A practicing lawyer based in London, he was summoned by the Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of British India, whom the Crown had entrusted the delicate task of solving the ‘India situation’ to.
While the formation of Pakistan and India was imminent, the division of Punjab and Bengal was undecided, with neither side backing down. The Mountbatten Plan had called for the members of legislative assemblies of Punjab and Bengal to decide through simple majority if the province was to be partitioned or not, while the Sylhet District in Assam and North Western Frontier Province were to hold a referendum on whether they would join Pakistan or remain with India. But the intricate details of the borders which would divide the two countries were yet to be decided for which two Boundary Commissions had been created. And here came Radcliffe, the common Chairman of both the commission’s, who had never visited India.
The Lord Chancellor explained to Radcliffe following his maiden journey to the subcontinent, that since Nehru and Jinnah could themselves never agree on the borders, they had entrusted this task into his hands instead. Any person who knew the country would certainly be disqualified as being prejudiced by either side and Radcliffe’s admirable legal reputation and his ‘equally admirable ignorance of India’ made him a suitable candidate.
After locking himself in a bungalow in Delhi with maps of India and provinces, the plans were finally revealed by Mountbatten to both the parties in the afternoon of 16th August as the violence, which had existed in Punjab for several months took on a brute force which words can barely elicit. Millions of terrified men, women and children now struggled to cross over borders which suddenly divided their neighbours, while the politicians argued and protested the ‘Radcliffe Line’ with the question of Kashmir now gaining momentum. The end tally of casualties in India and Pakistan from the violence of Partition stands between 500,000 and one million, with close to 14 million displaced refugees in India and Pakistan while Radcliffe would be nowhere close to the violence he had inadvertently given birth to. Radcliffe had flown out of India on August 14, never to return again.
Why is it important? Few events have impacted India (and Pakistan’s) psyche as deeply as the event of partition. Learning about how it ultimately went down provides an unlikely perspective of how shoddily the entire affair was conducted–ultimately leading to mass casualties. Of all the topics we teach in our history books, this is one neither country involved gets frank about and it’s this kind of thinking that leads to further animosity. Why are we hell-bent on instilling suspicion, rather than raising a generation of people who are more inclined towards peace?
Read more on Radcliffe’s personal thoughts and interactions in Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins’ Freedom At Midnight, you can purchase it here.
Read in detail about Cyril Radcliffe and his drawing of the ‘bloody line’ here.
IV. Lachit Borphukan & The Ahoms Who Curbed Mughal Invasion Of North East India
“I know a lot about the Mauryans, the Mughals and the Guptas. I have even written exams on these emperors. I know very little about Lachit Borphukan and the Ahoms who ruled Assam for 600 years defeating the Mughals 17 times soundly in battle,” said 12-year-old Aira Goswami in a letter and video addressed to the Prime Minister that went viral on social media. In it, she makes a simple request – that the history of her home state and the rest of north east be included in school textbooks in the country, so she could learn about her own people and their past.
There may be a Lachit Borphukan gold-medal awarded to the best cadet at the National Defence Academy every year, and Lachit Divas celebrated on November 24 every year in Assam, but you won’t find much about the epic battle of Saraighat in the history books. The Battle was fought in 1671 between the smaller Ahom army led by Lachit Borphukan and the greater mughal army, led by Raja Ram Singh under the rule of Emperor Aurangzeb. Combining his incredible tactical knowledge, guerilla warfare and intelligence gathering, Lachit Borphukan led a downstream expedition on the Brahmaputra, to take back a captured Guwahati.
Aurangzeb was an expansionist and shocked by the loss, he sent a huge army with Ram Singh to take back what he saw as his kingdom. The Ahoms were outnumbered and new they could never win if they met the Mughal army on land. Here is where Lachit’s brilliance shines. He knew their army would be at its weakest in water and forced them into naval warfare. It wasn’t always a win for the Ahoms, they lost thousands of men in skirmishes, Lachit even fell terribly ill, but he didn’t let that hold him back. He ordered all the land and naval forces to attack, even led war boats himself into what is regarded as fiercest river battles was ever fought. Lachit didn’t fight for religion, leaders or his own glory, but for his land and people and therein lay his greatness that is celebrated each year in Assam.
Why is it important? This one is fairly straightforward. The North-East of our country is consistently and fatally ignored. Whether it’s floods or uprisings, even in the current day scenario, the North East can barely get a word in edge-wise to the mainstream narrative. A little bit of historical conclusion, especially one that proves what a vital force they were in ancient India, is as good a starting point as any.
Read in detail about the battle of Saraighat, Lachit Borphukan and the Ahoms here.
V. ‘Disaibon Hul’ – The Santhal Rebellion of 1855-56
In the context of untold stories and histories in India, there are several instances that have been conveniently left out, purposefully removed, or just simply forgotten from our historical past. Out of many, one such case is that of the Santhal rebellion of 1855-56 in present day Jharkhand, then Bengal Presidency. The insurrection was against both the British colonisers and the oppressive zamindari system. The Santhal tribe were agriculturalists whose land was taken over by the British upon their establishment in India. The land was then auctioned off to rich zamindars who in turn gave it for cultivation to the Santhali people. Taxes increased manifold as did corruption, violence, tyranny and oppression, causing many of the tribespeople to relocate, breaking up the once-cohesive tribe; many were even forced into unpaid labour for British railroad construction.
As stated by Santhaledisom, the revolt took place led by four brothers and two sister - Sido Murmu, Kanhu Murmu, Chand Murmu, Bhairav Murmu, and sisters Phulo Murmu and Jhano Murmu. Many lives were lost in the battle for freedom from oppression.
Why is it important? The Hul [Santhal word meaning movement of liberation] was organised by ‘common’ people which mobilised thousands of other disenfranchised and oppressed members of society. It may have been relatively short lived, over a few months, but it has been hailed as one of the most “serious challenge faced by the English East India Company in the first century of its rule.” It forced the British to proved some sort of protection to the indigenous people of the country, in the form of the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act [read more about it here], protecting the land rights of Jharkhand’s Santhal tribe.
Read more about it here.
VI. This Judge’s Dissent During Emergency 1975
Indira Gandhi declared an internal emergency on June 25 1975 by which she suspended the fundamental rights of people, censored the press and arrested several political leaders. The three branches of the government ceased to matter as the sovereignty of the nation was usurped by one person. Gandhi had a particular distaste for judges, many of whom she would have superseded or transferred if they had ruled against her in previous cases. This is the reason why the actions of Hans Raj Khanna in 1976 deserve to be lauded for their bravery.
Khanna’s life changed when he took a stand in the Habeas Corpus case (ADM Jabalpur vs Shivkant Shukla) in Supreme Court. The court was asked to decide on whether petitions for habeas corpus, where an individual can protest illegal arrests and detention of himself or others, and similar petitions under Article 226 were maintainable on the grounds that the orders were beyond the statute, or were not in accordance with the law. The judgement came out on April 28, 1976, and while four judges, out of the bench of five, decided in favour of the government while Justice Khanna was the lone dissenter noting, “What is at stake is the rule of law... the question is whether the law speaking through the authority of the Court shall be absolutely silenced and rendered mute...”
The simple act of dissent lead to Justice Khanna entering the annals of history as Gandhi superseded him with Justice Beg for the position of Chief Justice of India in 1977. He knew it would cost him his Chief Justiceship, but he stood by what was right.
Why is it important? Khanna resigned post the supersession even after an illustrious career of upholding law and justice even in its most crucial challenges. In a country where you find the controlling arms of politics in many aspects of public life, and people have grown weary of the country’s judiciary, it’s people like him that provide a reassertion of faith in our justice system. Knowing that there are people like Justice Khanna who took this personal risk to ensure that law remained above personal and political animosity and served the people of the country, not just its leaders.
Read more about Justice Hans Raj Khanna here.
VII. What Every Educated Indian Woman Owes Savitribai Phule
In her time, Savitribai Phule triggered an incredible revolution against this male-dominated casteist ideology that ran her society. Hailed as the mother of modern Indian feminism and despite her several accomplishments, history books seem to have conveniently glossed over her immense contributions in the struggles against the discrimination of women, dalits, tribals and religious minorities. She has long remained in the shadows of obscurity, a secondary statement and supporting act of sorts, to the work of Jyotirao.
She was successful in organising a barber’s strike in Mumbai and Pune as a social stand against the practice of shaving widow’s heads. For victims of rape and young widows, Savitribai established the Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha, the first infanticide prohibition home, of sorts, in India. The establishment served as a safe home for young widows and even helped them deliver and raise their babies without fear and discrimination. After training, she became the first women teacher in the country and started the first school for girls in 1847. In 1852, she opened a school that was exclusively for girls belonging to the section of ‘untouchables’ who faced a double-discrimination of caste and gender. Savitribai started the Mahila Seva Mandal to mobilise and empower women, and make them aware of their rights.
While Jyotirao has been bestowed with the title of Mahatma and recognised as a prominent figure in the 19th century social reform movement in Maharashtra, it was after almost a century of her passing that the University of Pune was renamed the Savitribai Phule University of Pune, in March 2015, in her honour; the Maharashtra government also introduced an award in her name for the recognition of fellow female social reformers. Her contributions towards the liberation of minorities from intricate caste politics was honoured by the government of India in 1998 with the release of a stamp.
Why is it important? The achievements of women rarely make it into the prestigious pages of history textbooks, and Savitribai is among those who have slipped through the cracks. In patriarchal society, at a time when the thought of educating girls was considered absurd, and a shudras’ shadow touching you would require a person to undertake several purification rituals, Savitribai did real work on-ground to better the lives of women who were rarely seen as more than housekeepers. Her courage in opposing such strong forces of society deserves a lot more celebration.
Read more about Savitribai and her work here.