12 Jul History Matters
By Anjum Altaf
The member-secretary of the Indian Council of Historical Research resigned from his post last month without completing his term. Amongst his major concerns was the ‘changing of textbooks’: “The simplification and dumbing down of history in order to support many of the unfortunate stereotypes that circulate in society is something to be worried about.”
This controversy raises its head in India from time to time but at least meets vociferous opposition from many professional historians. In Pakistan, the manipulation of textbooks has long been completed and accepted without much protest perhaps because by now the country is bereft of historians. K.K. Aziz wrote The Murder of History: A Critique of History Textbooks Used in Pakistan in 1993 and nothing much has changed since. Later examinations such as The Subtle Subversion: The State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan released in 2003 confirm the perpetuation of major distortions and biases.
Attempts to manipulate history by the state to serve parochial interests is taken for granted at least in South Asia. It is up to civil society to contest such manipulations and civil society has been more vigilant in some countries than in others. While there is always a contestation in India, whether or not it is fully successful, one gets the sense that in Pakistan the distortions have now become owned by many academics, opinion-makers, and the public alike.
The more surprising dimension of this phenomenon is the conscious or unconscious elisions and oversights by individuals otherwise known for their awareness of history. Recently I received an email from an Indian reader with regard to an observation by the respected Pakistani columnist Huma Yusuf. In a recent column (Treasures of Islam) she had reported on a visit to the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. As part of her observations, she wrote: “The museum holds one of the oldest surviving copies of Ibn Sina’s Qanun, which aggregated medical knowledge from the Muslim, Greco-Roman and Chinese worlds.”
The Indian reader sent the following email:
I read an article by Huma Yusuf in Dawn on a museum in Toronto that showcases achievements from the Muslim world. Ms. Yusuf mentioned Ibn Sina’s famous ‘The Canon of Medicine’ saying that it was brought together from Muslim, Greco-Roman and Chinese sources.
But it is well established that the writings of Sushruta and Charaka were among the primary references for Ibn Sina and he credits Indian sources for many of the medications and drugs he lists.
Why do you think Ms. Yusuf failed to mention the Indian sources?
I am unable to answer the question because I don’t know Huma Yusuf personally though I have heard from many that she is not a prejudiced person. My guess is that she is like most people these days who know of these texts second-hand not having read the originals or any commentary on the originals. So, she might just be unaware of the primary references and reported what she read in the entry at the museum. That would be the generous explanation for the omission. If she has deliberately ignored the Indian references, it would be inexcusable.
I found even more surprising a claim by Professor Amartya Sen in a recent commentary on the travails of Nalanda University at the hands of the Modi government (India: The Stormy Revival of an International University). While the historical demise of Nalanda was not germane to Professors Sen’s argument, he described it in very categorical terms:
After more than seven hundred years of successful teaching, Nalanda was destroyed in the 1190s by invading armies from West Asia, which also demolished the other universities in Bihar. The first attack, it is widely believed, was led by the ruthless Turkic conqueror Bakhtiyar Khilji, whose armies devastated many cities and settlements in North India. All the teachers and monks in Nalanda were killed and much of the campus was razed to the ground. Special care was taken to demolish the beautiful statues of Buddha and other Buddhist figures that were spread across the campus. The library—a nine-story building containing thousands of manuscripts—is reputed to have burned for three days.
Much academic work on Nalanda attributes its decay to a combination of factors: the decline of Buddhism, the resurgence of devotional Hinduism much like its present incarnation, disagreements between different Buddhist sects, and Muslim incursions. There are records that Nalanda was destroyed earlier at least twice – by the Huns under Mihirikula (455-467 CE) and by the Gaudas (606-648 CE). Both time it was rebuilt. By the time of Khilji’s attack Buddhism was in steep decline and no patronage was available for restoration. It is also recorded that the Saivite ruler Shashanka (590-626 CE) destroyed many Buddhist images nearby as well as cutting down the sacred Bodhi tree.
Given the above, it would seem historically accurate to state that the causes of the decline and destruction of Nalanda were multiple and contested without in any way minimizing the contribution of the Turks.
Ironically, the reason this matters is because of Professor Sen’s impeccable record for objectivity in the description of historical and contemporary events which is evident even in the article on Nalanda. Just because of that many who do not have time for research would quote him as the final word on this event in history. Given Professor Sen’s record, I can only presume that because the decline of Nalanda was not central to his argument its mention was telescoped to the point that it lost its nuances.
Credible authorities like Professor Sen and writers like Huma Yusuf shape opinions that have a huge bearing on public discourse. As one who participates in South Asian discussion forums I am well aware of the innumerable comments that would cite such claims as evidence to support parochial objectives. For this reason alone, we need our public intellectuals to be extra careful in their observations even when these are not central to the main themes of their writings.