The Prime Minister has justified the deletion of ten passages from NCERT history textbooks (to 1oe followed soon by their replacement and then the abolition of history as a separate subject till Class X) on the ground that these books are "one-sided". How does he know? And how does being Prime Minister give him the authority to issue such a fatwa? It is nobody's contention that the NCERT books are perfect, but any revision must be based on at least a minimum level of competence in the subject. It is significant that the names of those writing the new textbooks are being kept strictly secret.
A second justification, offered by BJP spokesmen like V.K. Malhotra, is even more dangerous. The books are not factually inaccurate, but they are unsuitable because they hurt the "sentiments" of children of sundry communities and religions. Once again, who decides, when and whose sentiments?
The passage in Satish Chandra's book about the execution of Guru Tegh Bahadur, which no one had objected to even at the height of the Khalistani movement, suddenly comes under attack, and sadly, first of all from the Delhi Congress just on the eve of Punjab elections. And what if "sentiments" are mutually opposed? References to the oppressive aspects of the varna system and, no doubt soon, any criticism whatsoever of the ancient Brahmanical society, are to be deleted. Dalits, subordinated castes, women, have obviously no "sentiments" worth bothering about.
Even more importantly, is it the function of history to ignore all "unpleasant" facts, and become a collection of moral fables or happy tales, its contents dictated by "religious" and/or "community" leaders chosen by the Sangh Parivar for its political games? Surely, education is worthwhile only if it stimulates rational thinking and questioning and much of inherited common-sense necessarily comes under scrutiny: as when children learn that, contrary to the evidence of their eyes, the earth moves round the sun. Maybe, the scientific explanation for eclipses should be banned, for it might hurt the belief that they are caused by Rahu?
But it is dangerous to be sarcastic about such things, for we have a minister who might think this to be a good idea...
"History" of a particular kind is vital for the Sangh Parivar, to consolidate its claim to be the sole spokesman of the "Hindus" who have to be convinced that their interests and emotions are and have always been unitary and inevitably opposed to those of Muslims or Christians, regardless of differences of caste, gender class, immense regional variations. There had once been a certain fit between such assumptions and the habit, derived in part from the British, of slicing up Indian history into "Hindu" and "Muslim" periods, treating religious communities as unchanging blocs and defining eras in terms of the religion of rulers. All this changed as history-writing came of age and progressed beyond the deeds of kings and great or evil men. The BJP's doctoring of history, so reminiscent of totalitarian states, is an attempt to turn the clock back and, if possible, do away with history altogether.
(Sumit Sarkar is Professor of History, Delhi University. This article first appeared in the Times of India, 2 December 2001 and is reproduced here courtesy Delhi Historians Group)