Blurring the lines between myth and history and reconstructing it according to a tinted worldview is how the past is often distorted, and the present, polarised, in India today. This is the way stories are now worryingly told and heard in countless drawing rooms, as they are on social media and messaging platforms. This is why book series like The History for Peace Tracts by Seagull Books, which offers clear-eyed views on the subject, are more important than ever.

The series is a compilation of some of the most significant lectures from the annual conferences organised each year by History for Peace – an initiative by The Seagull Foundation for the Arts in Kolkata. History For Peace does what it says – it explores how history can be taught to create peaceful perspectives.

The first instalment in the series, which was released towards the end of 2023, comprises six titles including Learning to Live with the Past by Krishna Kumar; Partitioning Bazaar Art: Popular Visual Culture of India and Pakistan around 1947 by Yousuf Saeed; Reimagining Indian Secularism by Rajeev Bhargava; Nationalism in India by Irfan Habib; Is a Single Teachable Indian Past Possible Today? by Janaki Nair; and Remaking the Citizen for New Times by Deepa Srinivas. I look at the first three titles in this piece.

Learning to Live with the Past by Krishna Kumar

The first book I picked was by India’s foremost educationist, Krishna Kumar, because its title seemed to address one of the biggest cultural conundrums – learning to live with the past. The book includes two of his edited lectures from 2018 and 2019 from the History for Peace conferences, in which the Padma Shri-winning erstwhile head of NCERT (The National Council of Educational Research and Training) examines the structure and function of education. He focuses especially on history education, and whether it can be used for peaceful ends.

Looking through Kumar’s expert pedagogical lens, it becomes clear how the State decides in what way the youth of a nation should be socialised. Such socialising projects may often have contrary aims, such as wanting the youth to be secular on one hand, and creating a national identity on the other. Kumar notes how creating a national identity is often done through negation – by defining what we are not – and then foisting the undesirable attributes on the “other”. Thus, hostilities between India and Pakistan continue to simmer even 75 years after the Partition, because dichotomous master narratives of betrayer-oppressor get passed from the textbooks of one generation to the next.

Kumar underscores how teaching people to live with the past rather than in it is history’s highest purpose. Holding on to an idea of a glorious past and seeking to return to it is both pointless and dangerous. He writes: “If the past becomes too alive, leaving little epistemic space between where the students are, where we are positioned today, and where the past was, then we might lose track of its ‘pastness’. One true thing about the past is that it was drastically different from our present. History that is well taught ought to make us aware of this complete difference.”

But most importantly, Kumar leaves one with more questions than answers, as any good educator should. The book swirls with many profound yet fundamental ones such as: Does universal education guarantee peace? How does the concept of education translate effectively into a system of education? How do the values of regimentation and reflexivity collide in education? How does history translate from curriculum to syllabus to textbook, and then from media and popular culture?? Is it possible to engage with political nationalism in creative ways? Whether we can aspire to be Indians without being nationalists?

Partitioning Bazaar Art: Popular Visual Culture of India and Pakistan around 1947 by Yousuf Saeed

In one of Kumar’s essays, an interesting concept of “memory posters” comes up. These refer to visual representations used by people to hold on to their idea of childhood that is, their personal histories. At the collective level, we do this using popular art and media. The second book, Partitioning Bazaar Art: Popular Visual Culture of India and Pakistan around 1947 by Yousuf Saeed, examines the similarities, differences, and significances of such “bazaar” art. Yousuf Saeed is an independent filmmaker, archivist and researcher who specialises in the collection and study of ephemera. Yousuf’s lecture essay demonstrates how even transient art can have permanent effects on a nation’s collective consciousness.

As with most places, the arrival and adoption of printing technology revolutionised public communication in the subcontinent. It was vital during the freedom struggle for the creation and dissemination of nationalistic messages, but from the get-go, representation was skewed. Saeed notes how ephemera-like posters and calendars predominantly featured Hindu freedom fighters and political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, and Bhagat Singh. Posters of Muslim leaders were few and far between, and Maulana Azad was one such leader who made an occasional appearance. Further, themes of nationalism made themselves evident in Hindu art in India, but Muslim poster art was often restricted to themes of piety. This, according to Saeed, cemented the image of Muslims as a religious and apolitical people, and the trend only increased after Partition.

Even in Hindi cinema, the characters of freedom fighters tended to be more Hindu than Muslim. An interesting example offered is that of the song, “Mere Desh ki Dharti” from the film Upkar (1967), which names many national leaders, but none of them Muslim. Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs appeared only as token figures when the theme of national integration had to be depicted.

Even in Indian Muslim communities, the demand and use for visual images tended to be pious in nature. Common images included Mecca and Medina, children in prayer or partaking in Eid celebrations, and sacred calligraphy.

The reluctance to use visual images to depict Muslim culture seemed far greater in India than in our neighbours. Saeed charts a wonderful parallel course of visual art development in Pakistan, which reflects the evolution of their contemporary culture. Around the time of Partition, Pakistan saw a rise in the number of visual representations of their military and political leaders such as Jinnah, Liaquat Ali, Gen. Zia-ul Haq, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif. Eventually, the themes in art expanded and depicted things like military conquest, the liberation of Kashmir, and pious Muslim families.

Unlike in India, posters depicting historical Sufi saints and contemporary Sufi leaders are popular in Pakistan. Saeed also makes a note of the effusively colourful truck art of Pakistan that is globally recognised. Despite attempts at fundamentalist suppression, the love of loud visual art flows through the veins of Pakistan’s cultural body and meets India ever so often on common artistic grounds. Saeed’s book is a reminder of the wonderful sameness that binds us to our neighbours, no matter the diplomatic differences.

Reimagining Indian Secularism by Rajeev Bhargava

The plurality and paradoxes of culture and life in the Indian subcontinent that we find emerging in Saeed’s book, are fully explored in the third book of the series by Rajeev Bhargava. Bhargava, a well-known Indian political theorist and professor, is known for his work on multiculturalism, identity politics and secularism. In this monograph titled Reimagining Indian Secularism, Bhargava takes on the topic that is often a favourite target of Hindu fundamentalists, who claim that the foreign idea of secularism has no place in a country like India.

Bhargava begins by agreeing with the fundamental foreignness of the concept of secularism but contends that religion is so too. In fact, he even terms the early faith systems of India as “non-religions”. Thus, his proposition in this monograph is to reimagine secularism entirely in the Indian context and articulate its moral and spiritual power.

Bhargava builds an elaborate defence of secularism by going all the way back to the origin of religion. He charts the course of theological development, both in the East (referring to Vedic India) and the Middle East (the wellspring of Western faiths) and demonstrates how the two are fundamentally different. He takes the readers through the process and history of confessionalism in the West and how secularism developed as a resistance to it. Where they forced uniform religion on people, Sanatani Sanskriti was welcoming of ethical pluralism. However, the flipside was the extreme rigidity of social norms in India and intra-faith conflicts. The Western and Eastern problematics are different, says Bhargava, and so should be their solutions.

Just as religion is variously understood and expressed in India, secularism is too. Bhargava notes that in India, there are two primary views of the concept – the Gandian political view that acknowledges religious differences and espouses communal harmony, and the Constitutional view that adopts a critical respect for all religions while aiming to gently correct the social ills associated with them. The important thing to note here is that, unlike in the West, Indian secularism is not opposed to religion but adopts a principled distance from it.

In Bhargava’s view, it has been a mistake on the part of several Indian secularists to reject religion, when it is so enmeshed in the nation’s cultural fabric. “The complex, seemingly ambivalent stance towards all contemporary religions is the defining feature of Indian secularism. …to protect non-religions and to undermine religions – that is the distinctiveness of Indian secularism. Remembering this is part of reimagining it,” he signs off.

Between Kumar, Saeed, and Bhargava, considerable intellectual ground is covered in the History for Peace Tracts series. It arms one with several points and counterpoints that may be used to reason with unidirectional discourses that dominate social (and social media) spaces. Their vast and varied perspectives on history, however, drive home but one point: that truth is a many-splendored thing. There are as many histories as there are people, and to be able to hold these multiple truths simultaneously is the only way in which peace may be achieved. The rejig that is needed in the teaching of history is teaching of multiplicity. This Seagull Books endeavour is a right step in that direction.