India Ink: Meet 3 friends who simplify history for us

Screengrab from India Ink website

India Ink summarize’s long research papers into short, easy-to-read articles, and make animated explainer videos that explore how history affects us today. 

Riya Talitha |

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NEW DELHI — It is almost impossible to ignore the punchy tagline of India Ink. “History is complicated. We simplify it.” Nothing could have summed up the online platform better than this one sentence. India Ink is a website that “publishes simple articles and explainer videos about Indian history that are relevant to today’s debates.” 

This collaboration between a group of long-time friends, Shireen Azam, Visvak Ponnavolu, and Thomas Manuel, started in response to their curiosity and its inevitable death in the face of intellectual, historical, and sociological debates with difficult-sounding jargon. 

The three friends work together to make things easier for us. They summarize long research papers into short, easy-to-read articles, and make animated explainer videos that explore how history affects us today. And not just links, they aim to publish the full content of India Ink articles and videos on social media.

Should we include caste in the census? Caste is an issue that is at the core of Indian politics and shapes the lives of millions of people from marginalized backgrounds. Yet so many of us hesitate to get into this debate because of our sheer ignorance. We blame our ignorance on the absence of someone who could explain this historically nuanced issue. That is where India Ink comes in. 

A visit to India ink simplifies this debate. “Throughout 2021, momentum has been building behind the demand for a caste census in India. Whether a caste census will lead to greater social justice or a more divided society is one of the most contentious and long-running political debates of independent India. This paper analyses the arguments for and against it,” says a big column on the website. And inside that link, Amlan Sarkar, one of the contributors, has summarized a significant paper by Nandini Sundar in seven major points. The paper is titled Caste as Census Category: Implications for Sociology.  

India Ink launched its first video essay in early March 2021, almost a year into the pandemic crisis. The three-person team behind it had been planning it for a few months, and their efforts swiftly paid off as their Instagram page grew to 15.6 k followers within weeks. 

The team 
Shireen Azam, Visvak Ponnavolu, and Thomas Manuel, the three friends who are founders of India ink have known each other since their school days. Visvak and Manuel have backgrounds in journalism, and Azam is the founder of the Economic and Political Weekly journal’s multimedia section EPW Engage. 

All three share a love for learning and a professional and almost ideological/principled commitment to accessibility. They’re also all prolific writers experienced in a diverse array of mediums – digital & print reportage, scriptwriting, playwriting, academia, podcasting, editing, commissioning, and blogging.

Visvak describes Manuel and himself as “well-read journalists but not scholars” who are fascinated with academic research. They’re the first to admit that academia’s reputation of being insular and hard to understand is well-deserved. “We wanted to help demystify “everything that we didn’t learn for other people”, explains Vivek. 

Their aim has never been to change people’s minds stuck in their ways and beliefs. India Ink’s primary audience comprises a subset of progressive and liberal English speakers ignorant of critical historical scholarship. According to Visvak, most of the comments they get are along the lines of “Oh, I never knew that!”. 

India Ink’s first round of video essays was a six-part series called Past Continuous, which critically explores the common understanding of the impact of British colonialism. The roots of so many of modern India’s fault lines are put squarely on the British. But, objective data and history put far more blame on upper-caste and upper-class groups, with vested interests in obscuring their legacies of encroachment, misgovernance, and collaboration with colonial forces. 

Some of the suggestions they’ve received for their content illuminate what these kinds of viewers find comfortable and/or palatable. Their drawing out of Brahmanical superstructures in their analysis of history and politics has been described by followers as “too loaded”. 

The idea is to have an objective facts-based focus with a lens unapologetically critical of mainstream narratives. They are almost fanatical about citing their sources and making the scholarship they draw from as easy to understand/consume as possible. 

Besides ideo-essays, India Ink also produces summaries of research papers in easy-to-consume formats like factoid charts and listicles. They cover various topics/arenas, ranging from Backward Caste political formations in Bihar, analyses of the need for a Caste census, the past 100 years of India’s response to pandemics, a history of Public Interest Litigation, etc. The choices of scholarship they chose to make into articles reflect a keen understanding of digital culture and deft handling/leverage of ‘discourse’ as propagated by social media. 

The propagation of fact-based history education is more crucial than ever. The year 2021 was marked with numerous syllabus and curriculum changes/interference by the government – at every level and in almost every educational board. The removal of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry from the CBSE history textbooks, the deletion of a chapter on violent caste conflicts from the NCERT curriculum, and changes in the UGCS syllabus drastic enough to court accusations of saffronisation all seem to be evidence speaking to an arguably targeted effort to spread a certain kind of viewpoint/silence a more secular educational direction. 

Numerous educators at both schools and universities have used India Ink content as a learning supplement or even added it to their syllabi (LINKS) at home and abroad institutions. For the team, it’s the result closest to their hearts, considering their self-professed love for learning. It’s an outcome that was “hoped for but not anticipated”, says Visvak.

In many ways, India Ink is a quintessentially pandemic project – a wildly successful independent project with Creative Commons 4.0 International licensing, drawing in thousands of views, publicity in the press, and grant funding. It was their full-time job for almost a year as they essentially played all the roles themselves. 

The India Ink team is currently on a hiatus of sorts, as they are working on their projects. Azam is presently a doctoral candidate at Oxford University’s Department of Theology & Religion. Manuel’s creative non-fiction rendition of the historical opinion trade between British India and China was published in MONTH 2021. Visvak says it’s “more a question of money than time”. While they are otherwise occupied with endeavours that can financially support themselves, they have plenty of upcoming plans and collaborations for their many subscribers and supporters.

Riya is a fellow at the SEEDS-TCN mentorship program.