It was in school that i read the words ‘Din-i Ilahi’ in my history textbook for the very first time. To jog your memory a little bit, ‘Din-i Ilahi’ was a new religion founded by none other than Akbar, the greatest of all Mughal rulers. The textbook then went on to highlight the various ways in which the Mughal empire transformed India in areas as diverse as spirituality, arts, culture, architecture, economic activity and more. What I didn’t realise at the time as a child was that the history that we were taught, and possibly are still being taught’ is quite lopsided and highly whitewashed.
The Mughals had it all
From the biggest palaces to the best food to the finest clothing to the most celebrated art forms, the Mughal dynasty had given India almost everything. Or at least that is what you are supposed to believe as a history student. Even in the case of ‘Din-i Ilahi’, what is conveniently left out is the fact that Ilahis exclusively consisted of members from the highest echelons of the Mughal political hierarchy. It was a more liberal form of Sufism that rarely spilled out of the four walls of the Ibadat Khana in Fatehpur Sikri. Given the scale at which the mughal Empire operated, the religion is nothing more than a trivial detail that held almost no consequence in the lives of the peasants of the time.
Details about Din-i Ilahi make it clear that India does have enough scholars and historians who have learned about even the minutest details of the Mughal Empire. What is not evident here though is the loud silence about all the other dynasties, big and small, northern and southern, that have contributed to the Indian civilisation. India’s modern history has been reduced to nothing more than the Mughal rule followed by the British Raj. Everything before and in between, has been brushed aside and buried deep under a version of history that is incorrect and mostly irrelevant to say the very least.
Painting over India’s real history
If one starts from the Indus Valley Civilisation, India’s history is no less than 6000 years old. To even imagine that in the last 6000 years, the only royal dynasty of real consequence were the Mughals, is a grave error bordering on the blasphemous. India has had many powerful dynasties that have changed the course of history through their military conquests alongside their patronage of arts, culture and timeless architecture. Most of us never studied in school that the Chola dynasty, a Tamil empire from South India, ruled for over 1500 years. The Mughal Empire in comparison lasted a mere 331 years. Many historians have noted that at its peak, the Chola Empire ruled South India in its entirety along with some parts of Sri Lanka.
The Cholan navy is defined as the peak of ancient India’s maritime power. It was a mighty empire that counted the Tang dynasty of China, and the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad among its trading partners. If in the case of the Mughals, every single detail is aptly highlighted and authoritatively imparted through history books, then our historians also have the moral obligation to dissipate such detailed historical accounts about the Rajputs, Marathas, Cheras, Pandyas, Palas, Manikyas and many many more.
Present day lessons for history
The lessons for us in this context are already present in the western world. USA, which has grappled with racial injustice against African Americans (much like the suppression of Dalits in India), has over decades whitewashed its dark history. The American educational system in most states finds it inconvenient to impart the real knowledge about white slave owners and black slaves. The result is an unprecedented level of misinformation and political polarisation over the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests that have turned violent many times. History textbooks now make children in America believe that racism against blacks ended with the civil rights movement spearheaded by Martin Luther King, Jr.
On the other end of the spectrum is Germany which has for decades taught students about its inconvenient Nazi past. ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ which in German means the “struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past” is a concept that the country uses to sustain public debate on a problematic period of its history. The German school curriculum provides each child with lessons on different aspects of Nazism from the fifth grade onwards. Children even visit concentration camps as part of their school trips. The goal is to fully understand the mistakes that were committed in the past and ensure that they don’t reoccur in the future.
Back in India, we have relegated a mighty and powerful kingdom like that of the Cholas to less than two paragraphs in history textbooks. It is the kind of educational injustice that has kept many generations of Indians unaware of India’s true history. By painting over facts with what’s politically or ideologically convenient, the Indian educational system has catalysed the creation of generations of ‘educated’ Indians who take no pride in their roots and somehow find the Indian Civilisation irrelevant and maybe even inferior to its western counterpart.