Forgotten Tales

The NCERT debate misses the Sangh’s grip over local histories

The office of the Saptakoteshwar temple in Narve, Goa. The BJP government in the state recently refurbished the temple, under a project meant to “restore” temples it said were destroyed under Portuguese rule. SAVIKA GOMES / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
31 August, 2023

Around 2006, the Adventurers and Explorers Society of Delhi and the ministry of external affairs organised an expedition to follow the trail of a fifteenth-century Russian merchant, Afanasii Nikitin, who had travelled to India from his hometown of Tver, on the Volga River. It was a remarkable project of state-supported historical education and people-to-people diplomacy. On its return to India, the expedition visited the tiny town of Aland, in present day Karnataka. The Bahmani sultans, who ruled Aland in the fifteenth century, held fairs in the area, in the vicinity of the dargah of the Sufi saint Ala-ud-din. Nikitin had visited the fairs and the dargah, and described them in his diary.

The late historian Hari Vasudevan, who was part of the expedition, wrote about Aland’s reaction to the adventurers, in his book In the Footsteps of Afanasii Nikitin: Travels through Eurasia and India in the Twenty-first Century. Curious whispers followed them. Eventually, “an eccentric looking figure” greeted the visitors. The man, a local guide and expert, “appeared clutching books including Richard Eaton’s brilliant Sufis of Bijapur, to provide a learned discourse on the site,” Vasudevan wrote. Armed with credentials from foreign tour agencies, the guide “mentioned that he was in touch with foreign partners who were making a film on the area.” Another renowned historian, who had accompanied the expedition, then quizzed the man about the dargah, asking a series of questions that the guide was unable to answer. The man retreated, “abashed at his (now) diminished status.” Vasudevan was rueful. “This was a shame,” he wrote, “since he was clearly committed in his own way to Aland and made a living out of his knowledge.”

At the time of the expedition, Vasudevan was chairing the advisory group on social sciences for the secondary stage, for the National Council for Educational Research and Training, the autonomous body tasked with preparing school curricula in India. Vasudevan and his colleagues at the NCERT had begun to overturn attempts by the previous National Democratic Alliance government to align Indian historical education with Hindutva, following the NDA’s electoral defeat in 2004.

The old battles over history have been vigorously renewed under the Narendra Modi government in recent years, with the wanton rewriting of history in school textbooks. As my historian colleagues and I do what we can to protest this, Vasudevan’s encounter in Aland is a reminder of the precipitous decline in the public standing of our profession. Not too long ago, those whose desire for historical knowledge first quickened in the environs of their home could, and did, turn to our work. That a tour guide would rely on the work of a professional historian such as Richard Eaton—rather than social media—to navigate and explain his half-forgotten hometown seems almost incredible today. At the same time, it is difficult not to cringe at the contempt displayed by a member of my own professional class for this provincial enthusiast of history. Resentment at such hubris animates much of the public animus towards us today. Most notably, however, Vasudevan’s account attests to the appetite for knowledge of the past in even the most somnolent stretches of the country.