Last week, members of a fringe Rajput group vandalised the set of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s upcoming film Padmavati in Jaipur, Rajasthan and assaulted the filmmaker , accusing him of misrepresenting the story of the Rajput queen on whom the movie is based. This incident, apart from sparking controversy and conversation, has exposed problems and gaps in our education system and pedagogy.

A strong education system is one that not only motivates students to learn but also equips them to understand the limits of knowledge and discern what information is more credible than others. Sadly, the Indian education system, like most around the world, is designed to do neither. It compels students to learn and accept everything they hear or read uncritically, instead of encouraging them to make active and informed deliberations.

Too much information

Knowledge, as the cliché goes, is power. Our education system thrives on this principle. It emphasises on knowing things – the student gets rewarded for knowing the answer or theory or event or fact. Every question must have an answer and the question itself must never be questioned. This makes students competitive and supposedly pushes them to strive to know more. Not knowing is considered to be shameful and is penalised.

There may have been a premium on knowing facts and answers in the days when accessing basic information was an ardous process. However, today, thanks to the technological boom, information of all kinds flows thick and fast. Students, therefore, need to be equipped with a completely different skill-set – to discern between credible, non-credible and highly speculative information and understanding what is knowable and what is not.

For example, at a national level quiz contest in school some 15 years ago, the deciding question thrown to my team was: who was the first cricketer to be given out hit wicket in one-day international cricket? We had no clue whatsoever. Just imagine the kind of research required at that time to find this out. I would probably have to consult Wisden Cricket Almanack for every year since the inception of ODIs to get the answer – which by the way, is Roy Fredericks of the West Indies. Today, all this requires is a Google search. I can have my answer in less than a second.

Online searches are easy, fast and accessible, which makes the answers to quiz questions such as the one above less prized. But online searches are also extremely misleading.

Going back to the debate over Rani Padmavati, an internet query on her will bombard users with all kinds of information. But does our education system equip them with the tools to choose what to read, what to ignore and what to trash?

For instance, in order to judge what kind of information on Padmavati must be considered seriously, a reader will have to ask many of the following questions:

  1. What kind of data/evidence do we have? Do we have references of such a character in coins or state documents? If yes, what can this possibly tell us about Padmavati?
  2. Do we get references from written texts? If so, who wrote the text and what could have been the possible reasons for writing such a text (once we ask this question, we might begin to cut the much reviled Mohammad Bin Tughlaq some slack)?
  3. Is this evidence contemporaneous to the person in question or is it a later reference?
  4. If this is folklore, what are the possible messages that it tries to convey and can that be deemed to be enough to weave a plausible story of a person who lived in the 13th century? Why do some folklores survive while others do not and why do some get resurrected and acquire political urgency all of a sudden?

Importance of plausiblity

The word “plausible” here is extremely important and a crucial lacuna in our education system. We stress so much on knowing that we forget that knowledge is always contingent and partial. Instead of over-emphasising on knowing, we also need to teach our students the skills to perceive what we do not know and what we cannot. More often than not, the best we can do is discern between what is plausible and what is not.

In the particular case of history as a mode of knowledge, it must be kept in mind that history is not something out there waiting to be discovered. There are severe limitations to our knowledge and consequently, on what we can say with surety and cannot. Rather than what happened, we have a better grasp on what may not have happened and could not have happened. Our education system has to gear people to make such fine but important distinctions, unless we want more Donald Trumps to rule the world.

What we do know and don’t

In Padmavati’s case, as several scholars and publications have already pointed out, the earliest reference we have of the queen is Sufi Saint Jayasi’s poem, Padmavat, written some 200 years after she was believed to have walked the earth. At some point, her story became part of folklore. Beyond this we know very little, except some historical and contemporary generalities, which are actually more consequential than the question of Padmavati’s existence.

The queen’s story, fictional or otherwise, holds immense importance for Rajputs as she epitomises the ideal woman, one who would rather kill herself after her husband is defeated and slain rather than fall prey to the invader.

Women’s bodies have for long been used to exhibit masculine honour, valour, chivalry and patriotism, which explains why there is a heightened risk of sexual violence against women in conflict situations. Winning kings expected to gain the loser’s harem and the losing side often expected harem members to kill themselves rather than “sleep with the enemy”.

We do not know what women wanted in such situations, how they felt and whether they had any agency in this regard at all. Teasing out women’s perspective in these situations requires a lifetime of research, which many historians are carrying out, often silently and without much support, recognition or money. And yet, the answers they will come up with, after consulting several kinds of evidence and deploying complex qualitative, archival and literary techniques, will be necessarily incremental and at best only establish greater plausibility, not certainty.

More crucially however, such research will tell us more about what did not or could not have happened.

With regard to Rani Padmavati, all possible interpretations are up for grabs, which in other words means we know too little about her to misinterpret anything. If at all there is a story in Padmavati’s purported history, it is this: that women bear the worst excesses of state-formation, conflict and war and that our education system and pedagogy do not equip the students and people with the necessary skills to make better sense of an extremely dynamic, fluid, hate-filled and dangerous world.

Gaurav C Garg is a PhD candidate in the History Department, New York University