The current controversy over the nature of history textbooks to be prescribed in schools reflects two completely divergent views of the Indian nation. One of the most important achievements of the Indian national movement, perhaps the greatest mass movement in world history, was the creation of the vision of an open, democratic, secular and civil libertarian state which was to promote a modern scientific outlook in civil society in independent India. The authors of the NCERT textbooks who are now under attack share this vision of the Indian nation. Over the last fifty years after independence a valiant effort was made by the Indian people to translate this vision into a reality in India. It is this great effort which is now being threatened by communal forces, which had little to do with the national movement and, in fact, through their loyalist policies, ended up weakening it. These communal forces are now attempting to use history textbooks as instruments to further their vision of a narrow, sectarian and 'Talibanised' Hindu nation.
The communal forces in India are deeply aware that communalism is essentially an ideology, a particular way of looking at society. Hence it is in the ideological sphere that they have focused their efforts. What better place to start than the tender formative minds of young children. Communal forces have tried to poison the minds of young children with hatred and distrust about other communities. For many years now, the RSS, for example, has through its Saraswati Shishu Mandirs and Vidya Bharati primary and secondary schools, and through its Shakhas undertaken this project.
They have, for example, in books published by Saraswati Shishu Mandir Prakashan for classes four and five, portrayed all communities other than the Hindus as foreigners in India, wrongly described the medieval period as the Muslim period and, following the footsteps of the British, portrayed the period as one of great oppression and decline. These books, in the name of instilling patriotism and valour among Indians, spread falsehoods, treat mythological religious figures like actual historical figures and make absurd claims such as that the Qutab Minar was built by Samudragupta. They claim that Ashoka's advocating of Ahimsa (non-violence) spread "cowardice" and that the struggle for India's freedom became a "religious war" against Muslims, and so on. (It isn't surprising that Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence and the builder of the freedom struggle as a common struggle of the Hindus and Muslims against British imperialism gets described in their lexicon as a 'Dushtatma'.)
Quite understandably, the National Steering Committee on Textbook Evaluation (consisting of a large number of experts from all over the country) appointed by the NCERT itself, a few years ago, came to the conclusion that "the main purpose which these books would serve is to gradually transform the young children into ...bigoted morons in the garb of instilling in them patriotism." One may emphasise here that the communalists have focused attention on history because it is on a particular distorted and often totally fabricated presentation of history that the communal ideology is hinged.
While the RSS/ Hindu communal effort to spread a communal interpretation of history has been around for many years, the new and more dangerous trend is the attempt to use government institutions and state power to attack scientific and secular history and historians and promote an obscurantist, backward looking communal historiography. In 1977, when the Hindu communal forces first came to share power in the Indian government (the Jana Sangh one of the former incarnations of the BJP had merged with the Janata Party) an attempt was made to ban school textbooks written for the NCERT by some of the finest historians of that generation. The attempt failed not only because the NCERT itself resisted such a move but also a countrywide protest movement developed on this issue.
In recent years the Hindu communal forces, who have a much firmer grip over state power with the BJP leading the coalition government at the centre, have launched an attack on secular and scientific teaching and research in History -- indeed the very discipline of history is under attack. Anticipating resistance from autonomous institutions like the NCERT or the ICHR the government first took great care to appoint Hindu communalists or those who had decided to serve their interests as their Directors or Chairpersons. Efforts have been made also to fill up other institutions, which would have an impact on education and ideology formation such as Universities, schools, colleges, and even the UGC with people who would toe or at least not resist the government's communal agenda.
It is in this context that the NCERT has introduced a new National Curriculum Framework which virtually seeks to take history out of school textbooks until class X in the name of reducing the weight of the current heavy schoolbag. Only certain 'themes, from history are now to be integrated with civics and geography and taught as one subject. Unlike 1977, this time round the attempt is not to ban these books but to do away with them altogether in the name of bringing in new books with the changed syllabus. For class XI and XII the existing history books are being doctored with until new books are produced. Paradoxically the present regime is imitating Pakistan which made a similar move in the 1 970s of keeping history out up to a particular level and then prescribing a distorted, one sided version at the senior level. Regimes uncomfortable with history or those with an agenda which is narrow, sectarian and undemocratic often seek to suppress or distort history.
What is particularly alarming is that the NCERT has brought in such major changes in the curriculum without attempting any wide consultation leave alone seeking to arrive at a consensus. This when education is a concurrent subject (involving partnership between the centre and the states) and virtually since Independence the tradition had been to put any major initiative in education through discussion in Parliament and the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE),a body which includes among its members the education ministers of all states and Union Territories. The NCERT has arrived at the new curriculum without any reference to the CABE thus violating both tradition and procedural requirements.
On the contrary the NCERT with the full backing of the education minister has launched a veritable attack
on some of India's best historians. The NCERT director J.S. Rajput, a self proclaimed adoring shishya
of Murli Manohar Joshi, in a signed article (Hindu, 23 October 2001)says that the NCERT had been "taken
for a ride" for "the past several decades" by authors of particularly its history books who
allegedly were furthering their "narrow political agenda". He is thus maligning some of the most
eminent and internationally acclaimed historians such as R. S. Sharma, former Head of the History Dept. of
Delhi University and Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research, Satish Chandra, former Chairperson
of the UGC, Romila Thapar and Bipan Chandra, both currently Emeritus Professors of the Jawaharlal Nehru
University. Also maligned thus is Prof. Arjun Dev a former Dean of the NCERT and author of some of the best
history textbooks produced by the NCERT. Criticism of some of the finest scholars who have done India proud by
a virtual nobody who no one had heard of till he acquired recent notoriety by attempting to introduce communal
considerations in what is taught to our children by what the Editor of Hindustan Times calls the "Talibanising"
of our education. (25 November 2001).
There is in fact a concerted attempt to malign and thus seek to delegitimise the major scholars who wrote the history textbooks for the NCERT. It is alleged that these historians monopolise official patronage and as Tarun Vijay the Editor of Panchjanya (a mouthpiece for the RSS) puts it they go for the three Ps, i.e., Paisa, Power and Prestige. It must be pointed out here that the prestige both national and international that these historians command is not a result of any official patronage. It is a result of their formidable scholarship and the large number of books and articles written by them that are read and cited all over the world. One cannot imagine how they wield any power by writing textbooks. As for paisa, it is perhaps not well known that the authors received hardly any payments for writing these textbooks. Romila Thapar, for example, is reported to have received a princely sum of R.650/- for one of the books written by her for the NCERT which has sold several lakhs of copies. What most of the authors receive annually after they have revised their books is not more than what they would make by writing two or three newspaper articles!
These authors agreed to take on the arduous task of writing these books out of a sense of social commitment. They believed that the best of scholars should not only not scoff at textbook writing for children but should actively engage in it. After all, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the great scholar and social reformer, wrote a primer in Bengali that continues to be read by millions ofBengali children as their first book over a century later. Samuelson, a Nobel laureate in Economics, wrote a textbook that is read the world over by generations of students.
A frequent charge against the authors of the "offensive" textbooks is that they are Marxists who owed their selection as textbook writers to the cartel of Marxist historians who exercised monopoly over history for many years. While leaving aside the question of whether they accept these labels or not, it is necessary to nail some lies. The All India Panel for History which entrusted the task of writing textbooks to Romila Thapar and Bipan Chandra in the early 1960s was constituted of the foremost nationalist historians of the time, with no Marxist among them: Tara Chand, Mohammed Habib, Nilakant Shastri, D.V.Poddar. S.Gopal, another eminent nationalist historian, headed the next panel.
If historians influenced by Marxism made an important mark among Indian historians from the mid- 1970s, it was not due to textbook writing by some, but because of the scholarly work produced by D.D.Kosambi, R.S.Sharma, Susobhan Sarkar, A.R.Desai, K.M.Ashraf, Satish Chandra, Irfan Habib, Bipan Chandra, B.B.Chaudhuri, Sumit Sarkar and many others. One may point out that some of the worlds' most outstanding historians such as E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill or E. H. Carr were influenced by Marxism and the world has not thought any the less of them because of it.
It has also been said repeatedly by the NCERT director, J.S. Rajput, the head of the education wing of the RSS, Dinanath Batra, and columnist for the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, Atul Rawat, that the existing textbooks are outdated. The question again arises how this conclusion is arrived at without involving any committee of historians. Even accepting that they are outdated, why are the authors not asked to revise them, as they had done in many instances earlier? If the present authors are unwilling or unable, the task of revision or even of writing new text-books could be assigned, through a proper process of selection by a committee of historians, to another group of recognised, possibly younger historians. But that would assume that the purpose is indeed to update the books, which it is not.
In fact, one of the ironies of the situation is that despite all the talk of Bhartiyakaran or Indianisation, the historiography that the RSS ideologues and followers espouse is essentially colonial. And though they like to call others the children of Macaulay, they are the direct descendants of James Mill, who first divided the history of India into Hindu period, Muslim period and British period. The notion that Hindus in the medieval period were suffering under Muslim tyranny is also a colonial construct, as the British rule could then be projected as having freed the Hindus from this tyranny. Further, depicting the Hindus and Muslims as warring communities created the justification for the British presence in India, and also prevented them from uniting against the British.
The communal interpretation of Indian history is based on the colonial interpretation, it merely adds a few more elements to it. This colonial and communal historiography has been effectively critiqued by the painstaking efforts of large numbers of historians since Independence. In India, communal historiography has virtually died out for the last 40 years or so, and as was once said very aptly by Irfan Habib, "Now we only have communalists, not communal historians. One could have argued with R.C.Majumdar, but how does one argue with those who do not know any history?" The situation today is that historians have abandoned communal history, only the cornmunalists believe in it. They are therefore now trying to invent communal historians, to create them where they do not exist. In doing so, they are trying to take Indian history backwards, to undo the gains of fifty years of research. Can we really believe after all this that they are motivated by a genuine desire to update textbooks and incorporate latest research in them?
The NCERT has now instructed the Central Board of Secondary Education, CBSE, after of course the eminent historian Prof. D. N. Jha was unceremoniously sacked as the chairperson of the history syllabus committee to delete passages from history books written by Romila Thapar, Satish Chandra, R.S.Sharma and Arjun Dev. This was again done without following proper procedure and legality. The authors were not consulted, nor their permission taken, before the changes were made, thus violating the copyright agreement entered into with them.
Further, the deletions were not made after consultation with or on the basis of recommendations of any recognized committee of historians. The NCERT has not been able to name a single well-know nationally and internationally recognized historian who is associated with the changes sought to b' made in the syllabus. It has been done secretly and the Director of NCERT has publicly refused to give the names of the historians involved in the revision or the writing of the proposed new books which will apparently be prescribed by March 2002, on the flimsy ground that if those names are given the authors will be "disturbed."
It is indeed worrying that while on the one hand we are told that new books will be introduced by March 2002, till Mid-December 2001 there is not a single historian whose name has been given as the author of these books, and many newspaper reports in recent days have suggested that the NCERT seems to be having trouble finding willing authors from among historians. This either means that the entire job of getting new books ready is being undertaken in a cavalier fashion, or that the books are really being prepared by people whose names will not pass scholarly and popular scrutiny. Either scenario is a recipe for disaster as far as school children, in whose name and for whose welfare this entire exercise is being carried out, are concerned. Instead of books by internationally recognised historians, they would possibly be dished out thinly-veiled communal propaganda literature.
If professional historians have not made these changes then who has? Clearly RSS ideologues have played the major role. In fact, the General secretary of the Vidya Bharati which runs a large network of schools and colleges for the RSS, Dina Nath Batra complained that Murli Manohar Joshi was moving too slowly. Vidya Bharati had suggested 42 deletions but the NCERT had carried out only four (actually there are ten deletions from four books) so far. (Outlook, 17 December 2001).
In a book edited by Dina Nath Batra ofthe RSS, called "The Enemies of Indianisation: The Children of Marx, Macaulay and Madarsa" published on15 August 2001 one can find an article listing 41 "distortions" in the NCERT books and another by the NCERT director J. S. Rajput which adds a few more. (Rajput was also present at the function releasing the book later) Significantly, the deletions from the NCERT books ordered by the CBSE on 23 October 2001, on the basis of a NCERT notification removed some of the 'distortions' listed in Batra's book.
It may be also pertinent to point out that the author of the list of 41 distortions is a Mr. Atul Rawat, a regular columnist for the RSS mouthpiece the Organiser. This Mr. Rawat whose academic credentials apparently do not go beyond an M.Phil. in international relations was appointed as consultant by the NCERT to review the history books written by professional historians with great academic standing. If this is not bad enough the NCERT has appointed to its Executive Committee and Departmental Committee people like K.G. Rastogi a self-proclaimed RSS activist whose only claim to fame is his confession that he killed a Muslim woman during a riot.
It is being repeatedly claimed that the deletions are in deference to the religious sentiments of minorities. Unfortunately, the claim appears spurious, as all the books from which deletions have been made are being withdrawn from March 2002 (the beginning of the new school session ) anyway, and children have already covered that portion of the course in which these extracts (barring one) are present.
The immediate purpose thus seems to be to try and garner votes in the forthcoming Punjab and UP elections by putting forward claims of protecting religious and caste sentiments. However, the larger purpose is clearly to create doubts about the books in people's minds by making allegations that they violate religious sentiments of different communities, and thus divert attention from the real motive: to replace secular history with communal history. If those who are master-minding the whole show had any concern for minority sentiments, would Dina Nath Batra, the head of the Education section of the RSS, say in justification of the deletions: "Jesus Christ a najayaz (illegitimate) child of Mary but in Europe they don't teach that. Instead, they call her Mother Mary and say she is a virgin." (Outlook, 17 December 2001.)
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine