Teaching & Learning

When History Empowers

This is a companion piece to ‘When History Empowers: Recovering the Life Stories of the Begums of Bhopal for Women’s Learning and Gender Equality’ recently published in History Workshop Journal 96.

The debate over how history should be taught to Indian schoolchildren was reignited earlier this year when a chapter on the Mughal dynasty was removed from a new set of textbooks prescribed by the state-run National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). The chapter, entitled ‘Kings and Chronicles: The Mughal Courts’ was in a text for Class 12 students. It addressed how the Mughal court was documented in historical chronicles commissioned by the dynasty’s Muslim rulers during their administration between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Schoolchildren at a rural school in Kanchipuram district, Tamil Nadu. Wikimedia Commons

Though immensely significant, it was not the only omission. Several pages on the Mughal empire and its predecessor the Delhi Sultanate were removed from History texts for other years, together with a section detailing a mosque. Politics texts lost lines that linked nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination to Hindu extremists ‘provoked’ by his ‘pursuit of Hindu-Muslim unity’ along with references to freedom fighter Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and the 2002 riots in Gujarat. More broadly, Darwin’s theory of evolution was expunged from Science texts for Class 9 and 10 students, as was the Periodic table.

The changes were justified as a ‘rationalisation’ exercise intended to reduce demands on children catching up after the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, forming governments since 2014 and in 1998-2004, has long been committed to rewriting textbooks on Indian history to reflect its agenda of Hindu nationalism. Key to this programme has been a glorification of Hindu contributions to Indian culture and society whilst vilifying or excluding Indian Muslims, as well as those of other faiths. The mythological theory of dashavatar projects human evolution through avatars of the God Vishnu.

The ferocity of the debate over India’s school textbooks reflects deep-seated divisions over what a national curriculum is meant to achieve. Should history teaching foster religious unity and integration in accordance with a secular ideal or, instead, a vision of Hindu and Indian culture as ‘synonymous’? In a recent article for History Workshop Journal, I explore with my collaborators applied education researcher Radhika Iyengar and sociologist Nafhesa Ali how engaging with history might have another purpose. As we ask of our collaboration with local women’s group Mahashakti Seva Kendra (hereafter, MSK) based in Bhopal in central India: ‘Could a local past be used to inspire women’s agency and autonomy?’

Bhopal, it should be noted, has a unique history specific to our endeavour. For four generations, it was ruled by a dynasty of Muslim women rulers (1819-1926). These remarkable women – Qudsia, Sikandar, Shah Jahan and Sultan Jahan – were renowned for their administrative savvy demonstrated through public works, cultural patronage and socio-religious reform. They left an indelible mark on the living city: from the roads, parks and hospitals that still bear their names to the palaces and mosques where locals pass and pray. And yet these Nawab Begums of Bhopal, as they were known, are rarely commemorated or even remembered in Bhopal today. Indeed, the traces of their rule are increasingly erased as a symptom of the political ideology known as Hindutva.

A studio portrait of the third Nawab Begum of Bhopal, Shah Jahan (c. 1877) Wikimedia Commons

Women come to MSK to learn practical skills with earning potential, including basic sewing, computer literacy and block printing. Most live in the slum dwellings and resettlement colonies near Union Carbide’s abandoned pesticide plant which still experience the consequences of ‘the world’s worst industrial disaster’ in December 1984. To engage in learning and reflection on Bhopal’s history with an international research team thus offered something different to the daily norm. Over the course of a week in January 2020, women participants joined a tour of historical sites, an illustrated talk and discussion sessions (the latter were recorded and woven into a short film). At the encouragement of MSK lead Pooja Iyengar, all these activities were planned to link history lessons to women’s lived experience and sense of place.

A discussion session with project participants at MSK’s work shed in Bhopal (17 January 2020) © Siobhan Lambert-Hurley

One of the most profound experiences was a visit to the city’s largest mosque, the Taj ul-Masajid, led by local heritage enthusiast Sikander Malik. This grand structure was commissioned in the late nineteenth century by Bhopal’s third woman ruler, Shah Jahan, with dedicated areas for women’s prayer. Most in our party had passed the mosque many times, but presumed, in line with more dogmatic understandings of Islam, that women were not permitted to enter. Reflecting on the visit afterwards inspired many recollections about Hindu-Muslim relations in Bhopal, from communal riots to a more congenial past. Still, there was an entirely positive response to the mosque’s ‘peaceful’ interior that MSK’s women were keen to communicate to others.

Women from MSK with two of the paper’s authors at the Taj ul-Masajid in Bhopal (15 January 2020) © Siobhan Lambert-Hurley

In the end, our research team was left with a clear sense of the immediate and defined impact on gender empowerment made possible by this type of engagement with a local past. The dramatic change was perhaps best captured by new imagery associated with the ‘typical’ Bhopali woman. At the start of our collaboration, MSK’s participants had described her as a ‘traditional’ figure defined by marriage and a modest appearance. By the end, she had taken on the clothes and confidence of the Nawab Begums’ active lifestyle and statesmanship to be envisioned as a ‘very dangerous tigress’. The potential for women’s learning and autonomy shone through in a desire to learn more of Bhopal’s neglected history with the intention to pass it on to their own children and others.

The women with whom we engaged at MSK imagined entering the classrooms of their neighbourhood schools to share the inspirational life stories of the Nawab Begums of Bhopal that had, in turn, been shared with them. The content and style of this history teaching certainly would not resonate with the new NCERT textbooks, but our study suggests just what it could achieve in terms of girls’ education and gender equality.

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