Addressing transgenerational trauma through history education

For a civilisation which constantly reiterates its belief in the power of truth, it is sad that its descendants do not seem to have the courage of their conviction to let the truth do the talking through history books.

Two days ago, legendary West Indian cricketer Michael Holding delivered a powerful message on the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter movement which has taken the United States of America by storm and has started a global conversation on racism, in particular with respect to the stereotypes associated with members of the African community in predominantly White countries. While there are several relevant threads from an Indian perspective to pull from Holding’s heartfelt and deeply emotional message, following are the excerpts which this author wishes to focus on for the purpose of this piece:

“I hear people talking about brainwashing. I didn’t quite understand as a young man what brainwashing meant. I now understand what brainwashing means. We have been brainwashed, and not just Black people, White people have been brainwashed in different ways. I go back many years, think about religion. You and I are supposed to be Christians. I am not really a very holy person, not a very religious person. That’s what we were taught. Look at Jesus Christ, the image that they give you of Jesus Christ- Pale skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, where Jesus came from, who in that part of the world looks that way? But again, that’s brainwashing to show you this is what perfection is, this is what the image of perfection is. If you look at the plays of those days, Judas who betrayed Jesus is a black man. Again, brainwashing people to think “oh he is a black man! He is the bad man!”. Go through history…

These lights that are shining on us, you can tell me who invented the light bulb, right? Thomas Edison, right? Everybody knows Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb with a paper filament. It burnt out in no time at all. Can you tell who invented the filament that makes these lights shine throughout? Nobody knows, because he was a black man! I was not taught in schools. Lewis Howard Latimer invented the carbon filament to allow lights to continuously shine. Who knows that?! Everything should be taught! When you go back to schooling as a young man, I remember my school days. I was never taught anything good about black people.

 And you cannot have a society that is brought up like that, both white and black, that only teaches what’s convenient to the teacher. History is written by the conqueror, not by those who are conquered. History is written by the people who do the harm, not by the people who get harmed. And we need to go back and teach both sides of history and until we do that and educate the entire human race, this thing will not stop. They keep on telling me, “There’s nothing called White Privilege”. Give me a break! I do see white people going into a store and I don’t see them being followed. A black man walks in, somebody is following him wherever he goes. That is basic white privilege!…. and things like that have to change!”

 A thousand supremely qualified academics, educators, psychologists and historians can write tomes of books and reams of literature to make the very same point in a circumlocutory and esoteric fashion, but Michael Holding has hit the nail on the head- there is a clear and direct psychological impact of history education in schools on a community’s self-identity at the individual and collective planes, and the way the world perceives and treats members of the community.

While it would be factually incorrect to draw exact parallels between the Indic experience at the hands of various colonizers and the oppression suffered by Africans in different parts of the world, perhaps the common thread is the experience of dehumanisation through slavery which was religiously justified and institutionalised by various forms of colonialism. In fact, indigenous communities of Bharat have suffered bloodier forms of oppression for a longer period of time with the result being that members of several communities suffer from transgenerational trauma, which the Indian State has been conveniently oblivious to thanks to its conscious policy of historical amnesia since the 1950s.

The continued insensitivity underlying the said approach has been sought to be justified on grounds of preserving social harmony, when the fact remains that the fragility of this pretence of harmony is exposed so often that harmony is the exception and is rarely intentional. This thoroughly exposes the Indian State’s inability to wrap its head around the importance of presenting true history before the society so that the right lessons are drawn by all stakeholders. In general, one of the central purposes of teaching history is to ensure that, while the current generation cannot be held responsible for the reprehensible behaviour of its ancestors, there is sufficient disincentive in the form of social sanction against repeating such behaviour. This is the very object of memorializing the trauma of the past.

The Indian State’s failure to grasp this basic role of history education is one of the single biggest reasons for the existing fissures in the Indian society, and if the 484-page Draft National Education Policy 2019 (“the Draft NEP”) is anything to go by, there is no sign of improvement on this front. The Draft NEP presented the Government with a fantastic opportunity to institutionalise the process of truth and reconciliation by revamping its approach to history, instead of the partisan propagandic role history has been employed for over seven decades. However, there is no sign in the document that the Government has either the intent or the stomach for such an exercise.

While the Draft NEP (a) indicates a review of certain accepted premises of the Indian education system and (b) tentatively attempts to proffer a path which remoulds the system in a manner which is consistent with Indic civilizational ethos and aspirations, it appears that this is more inadvertent and incomplete than intentional and comprehensive. As a consequence of this diffident approach, the Draft NEP lands a half punch. For a nation which aspires to be a “Vishwaguru”, the Draft NEP lacks the civilizational confidence needed to revamp the education system to be able to achieve that status in the foreseeable future.

Even if such a lofty purpose were not placed at the centre of this exercise, at the very least the NEP is expected to be sensitive to the long existing and emerging challenges which can be traced to the Indian education system, right from the history curriculum which actively aids the maleficent process of historical amnesia, to the science curriculum which reinforces the accepted false notion that science and reason are essentially Western constructs which have been imported to civilize the superstitious natives.

The sad irony is that while colonizers had no compunction benefitting from Indic knowledge systems despite perpetuating negative stereotypes about it through the education system to deprive the native of his/her sense of selfworth, Indian education policy makers have had no qualms whatsoever in perpetuating the same mindset to the detriment of the present and the future, and certainly at the expense of the past. In other words, independent India has continued with the very same education system which was designed to produce glorified Anglicised colonialised subjects, instead of producing rooted, civilizationally aware and confident thought leaders, entrepreneurs and nation builders. In short, any Indian achievement is despite the education system, and not because of it.

Another critical aspect of the Draft NEP which is inexplicably terse (a single Paragraph) in its comments and suggestions for improvement, is legal education. The Draft NEP appears to be comfortable with the fundamental Anglo-Saxon outlook of the Indian legal system and makes no attempt to introduce and mainstream Indic legal jurisprudence, logic and reasoning as part of legal curriculum and as part of law-making in the country. This reflects a deep-seated ignorance, apathy and perhaps even a self-loathing approach to the native legal systems which held this civilization together even when it was not a single political unit.

Policy makers appear to be indifferent to the impression that exists in the minds of young law students and practitioners that concepts of justice and rule of law are necessarily and solely attributable to Western thought. No wonder even the highest Court of the land looks to the West for inspiration, as opposed to drawing from the vast ocean of Indic jurisprudence which is much more in sync with the native pulse of this land.

The bottom line is that the #BlackLivesMatter movement has stirred discussions across the globe which have long been brushed under the carpet for various reasons. Bharat must benefit from the momentum provided by this movement to ignite those discussions within its society which have been considered politically incorrect and taboo for generations for the fear of “hurting sentiments”. For a civilization which constantly reiterates its belief in the power of truth, it is sad that its descendants do not seem to have the courage of their conviction to let the truth do the talking through history books. If the truth doesn’t stand a chance in Bharat, does Bharat at all have the right to aspire for the status of “Vishwaguru”?

 J. Sai Deepak is an Advocate practising as an arguing counsel before the Supreme Court of India and the High Court of Delhi.