They haven’t met each other yet, but Yellapragada Sudershan Rao and Dinanath Batra have plenty in common. For one, both have the blessing of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. Rao took over as the chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research two weeks ago under the Modi government. And the PM’s praise and endorsement of Batra’s Tejomay Bharat has led to the Gujarat government directing all schools in the state to make it available as supplementary reading material for children.
Two, both are united in their mission to rewrite India’s history from a ‘Bharatiya’ standpoint. In this, they share a passion for the Ramayana and Mahabharata, in which epics they seek historical fact. They tilt at “the Marxists” and their view of history, as they go about restoring ‘national pride’ in school textbooks and Indian history, by injecting into them a liberal dose of myth and spirituality.
At the Naraina Vihar headquarters of the Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas, the trust which Batra runs, the elevator moves up two floors to the chant of the Gayatri Mantra. At the end of it appears Batra, 86 years of age but still sprightly. Affable of manner, he could well be an eccentric granduncle in the family, one you can have a friendly squabble or share a laugh with. But Dinanath Batra is not a man to be trifled with. Not for anything has the media dubbed him the ‘book ban man’, a sobriquet he does not mind at all.
The badge was pinned on him after he sent publishers Penguin scurrying for cover with the demand that they pulp Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. Next he focused attention on Megha Kumar’s Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad since 1969, serving a notice on publisher Orient Blackswan which withheld its release on the very next day, May 16—the day the Modi government came to power—on the pretext of a pre-release assessment. However, his seminal achievement, as it were, has to have been getting Delhi University to withdraw A.K. Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas. All these works, according to him, distorted Indian epics and poked fun at Hindu gods and Indian culture.
Batra’s book-banning penchant stems from his grand vision of a history rooted in what he perceives to be the Bharatiya culture, not the distortions that pass off as Indian history in school curricula. “You tell me,” he demands, “while pages of history books have been devoted to Mughals, there are only a few lines about Rana Sanga (the 16th-century ruler of Mewar). He had 80 wounds on his body when he died.” Batra’s acolytes cluck appropriately in sympathy.
His ‘sarathi’ in this battle for restoring pride in Bharatiya history is Narendrajit Singh Rawal, a former school principal from Bhiwani, Haryana. Their association goes back to the time when both were principals of government schools in Haryana. “Today’s curriculum,” says Rawal, “is ill-equipped to teach a child about character-building or respecting human values. It is this we wish to address in our books.”
Enter Tejomay Bharat, which till 2010 was just another book languishing in school libraries. A chance meeting with Rekha Chudasama and Ruta Parmar of Vidya Bharati (the network of schools and institutions of higher education run by the RSS) led to its being translated into Gujarati. Then chief minister Modi chanced upon it and expressed a desire to write a foreword.
“Our ancient sages had the vision and gave to the world a scientific wisdom which was subsequently undermined by the British,” he wrote. “A vision of Bharat being dependent on the West was created and education under the British reinforced the view. But now, the world is looking with curiosity at Bharat acknowledging its contributions to science and technology. Tejomay Bharat under the direction of Vidya Bharati is a treasure of a high standard.”
Almost a month after Narendra Modi became prime minister, a June 30 directive by the Gujarat State Education Board enjoined upon more than 42,000 primary and secondary government schools across the state to make the nine-part series of Batra’s books, translated from Hindi to Gujarati, part of this year’s curriculum as “supplementary literature”. They are not mandatory, Batra clarifies, teachers will have the freedom whether or not to teach from them. But there is no doubt in people’s minds that Batra’s books will be taught following the diktat from the Gujarat government.
The man who left his roots at Dera Ghazi Khan (Pakistan) following Partition is not quite done yet. College curriculum is next on his agenda. Union HRD minister Smriti Irani’s intention to start a debate on the curriculum on the lines of the Kothari Commission’s recommendations is a godsend, he says. Set up in the ’60s, the commission had advocated promotion of Hindi and Sanskrit and a uniform policy of education, among other things. Batra is looking forward to a national debate and has already set up his own commission comprising scholars from the previous NDA regime, like former NCERT director Y.S. Rajput (accused of plagiarism, according to a media report) or JNU’s former pro-vice chancellor Kapil Kapoor. “Did you know NASA says Sanskrit is the language closest to computer programming and we don’t value our traditional strengths,” Batra thunders in incredulity.
In Batra’s ethnocentric world, Bharat and not India is the centre of spiritualism as well as science and technology. Not Pythagoras but Bodhayan had conceptualised the theorem of the square of the hypotenuse of a triangle being equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides! Seers of Bharat with their divya drishti (divine insight) knew long before anyone else how to measure the distance to the moon. Aryabhatta and Sushruta are the scientists teachers have forgotten to teach. “If students read Wendy Doniger, they will become deviants,” says Batra.
Clearly, it won’t be easy being a student anymore. Or a teacher, for that matter.