The role of history as preserver of shared identity often gets underplayed. As does its importance as the factor that fosters bonding in the community. A society with a stronger sense of its history is likely to hold together better than one without it. In Odisha, how deep or far does it go?
Not much. Simply because our young are not made aware of their past the way they must be. Check the presence of Odisha’s history in the curriculum till class ten and you get the picture. Also, it has to with the flawed way we approach history as an academic discipline.
History, as we decipher from our text books, is about larger than life personalities – some lionised, some demonised – from the past, grand monuments and time-defining developments. The milestone-centric approach has several demerits, the most important being blank spaces. There are massive empty areas between the milestones.
From the text books we never know whether these were a cauldron of human activity or cesspools of inertia or whether the intellectual, economic and social churn in those periods in some way shaped the milestones. Research throws up a wealth of knowledge but that hardly goes into what we study as students.
The Kalinga war of third century BC was a landmark event in ancient Odisha history. It is well-documented that emperor Ashoka, the mighty Maurya, encountered a stubborn challenge from the Kalingan warriors, possibly the toughest during his reign. The result is common knowledge, but little is known about the people who stood up to the mite of the empire with such fortitude. A robust fighting apparatus does not exist in a vacuum. It is always the product of a strong and stable government backed by a sound economy. What made the Kalingan army a formidable force? How much do you know about the history of the state before the great battle? Ask this to any student in Odisha, you are likely to draw a blank.
The other landmark that our text books would offer is Mahameghavahana Kharavela, placed by historians in the first and second centuries BC, whose inscriptions in Hatigumpha throw light on his rule. What do we know about the state of the affairs between the Kalinga war and the rise of Kharavela and the period beyond him? Again, you hit a blind spot. Research may have revealed irrefutable evidence of the vibrant, resilient nature of our society but none of this is public knowledge.
The problem of history being understood through milestones is that many currents that construct the times become irrelevant. To explain this through an example, if the rise of Narendra Modi is pinned down to the singular fact of his winning the general election of 2014 by historians a century later, then would be grossly incomplete knowledge for later generations. The explanation of his ascendancy would be inadequate without reference to the many developments that preceded and propelled his success, including the Anna Hazare phenomenon, corruption under the UPA, the diminishing faith of the citizens in their leaders, the growing distance between the political class and the people they represent, pervasive feeling of despondence in the country and so on.
Also, history is about people. How many times as students are we told that Odias were intrepid sea-faring people, who besides ruling the waves planted their culture across countries? Or they had a strong mercantile spirit that set them on voyages to the south-east Asian countries and as far as Sri Lanka? Or all major religious movements of the country found a base in the state and spread to other geographies from there? Again, not much. All achievements of the past should form part of our collective identity and pride. They bind people better than the stories of dynasties.
If we find something amiss on both fronts, then we must blame ourselves for being irreverent to the deeper meaning of history.