History has always been written and re-written. But by whom? A Dutch historian, Peter Gieyl, reflecting on various versions of the Napoleonic legend rightly called history "an argument without end''. It is in that sense that Croce declared that "all history is contemporary history''. But, history is a discourse. Official history by Government fiat is not history but propaganda. History by Government propaganda is the death of learning - destructive of the discourse of history and education itself.
The present controversy of the `Talibanisation' of textbook history stems from the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) edict of October 25, 2001, to delete certain passages from wellknown prescribed textbooks. Students were warned that examiners "will not evaluate the students' understanding of the (excised) portions''. The National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) obliged by deleting those passages not to the liking of the Sangh Parivar. The Government's support - indeed, directive - for these gross acts of censorship and propaganda is self-evident. On November 24, the Prime Minister, Mr. A. B. Vajpayee, said he was prepared for a debate on this. History has been re-written at the bidding of the Government. Students who deviate from knowledge of such history have been threatened with failure.
Banning and censorship are increasingly becoming a pernicious part of civil and political governance. The attacks on Husain's paintings, and Deepa Mehta's films, the civil injunction on Professor Jha's book on "beef eating in Ancient India'', the illegal banning of Sahmat's posters, the Shiv Sena's threatened censorship of ideas and many other incidents reinforce an aggressive climate of banning thoughts and ideas not to the liking of fundamentalists. It is true that shades of Muslim fundamentalism led to India's ban on Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses'' - to be followed by disastrous global consequences. But, the dominant fundamentalism that menacingly threatens India today is an aggressive Hindu fundamentalism which is pugnacious in its tone and posture; and wholly uncompromising in according second class status to all other faiths and beliefs. Politically aligned to the concept of a newly-invented `Hindu' India, Hindu fundamentalism physically and ideologically threatens those that oppose it or fail to accept its dominance.
The CBSE and the NCERT concentrated on the work of certain secular historians and commanded certain specific deletions on the eating of beef in ancient India, archaeological evidence rather than Puranic and other texts to historicise the Lord Ram and Lord Krishna legends, the role of brahmanical indoctrination to sustain the caste system, facts relating to plunder by Jat rulers, new facts or assertions relating to the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur and so on. It has never been anyone's case that the textbooks are threats to public order requiring immediate action by the Government under the banning provisions of the criminal codes. In any case, fundamentalists invariably create an atmosphere of threats and violence to sustain their banning and censorship demands even where no controversy exists. Thus, it is clear that the actions of the Government, the CBSE and the NCERT constitute a politically-sponsored censorship of books and ideas.
The state's entry into the domain of textbooks can be traced to the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court in the Punjab Textbook case (1995) to the effect that the `executive' power of the state extended to selecting and prescribing textbooks for schools recognised by it even without the authority of an enacted law in preference to the books of private publishers. In the MP Textbook case (1974), Justice Bhagwati's insightful judgment warns against arbitrary and capricious actions by the Government. In our present case, there is a bigger failure. Two other seemingly autonomous bodies have decided to succumb to fundamentalist pressures. The CBSE is an examining body which cannot play to political tunes. Its textbooks have stood the test of time. For the CBSE to abjure its own books under Sangh Parivar pressure is wrong. It is even despicable for a Board which should be promoting the culture of critically examining ideas to send a menacing message to young students on pain of failure that they should not dare question the fundamentalist message of the textbooks. The NCERT has been equally pliant.
In the NCERT case (1992), the Supreme Court respected the autonomy of the NCERT by refusing to identify it with the state on the assumption that the Government's role was simply confined to overseeing the proper utilisation of funding grants. Today, the NCERT is unashamedly propagating the Government's and the Sangh Parivar's fundamentalism. The object of this entire exercise is not just electoral gains but a deeper quest to establish a Hindu hegemony to subordinate all other faiths, beliefs and ideas. This sets up an awesome nexus between education politics and religion which is contrary to the intrinsic secularism which holds a fragile India together. It is not for the NCERT to play politics. Concerned with academic excellence, it cannot act as censor or edit texts because the Sangh Parivar and its kindred spirits are upset. If the NCERT can be held to political and communal ransom, it does not deserve to exist or occupy the pivotal positionby the Indian education system.
This is not a matter of parliamentary banter. Valuable parliamentary time was wasted in considering whether the term `Talibanisation' was unparliamentary. Even though used as a political catch phrase, the term `Talibanisation' cannot be said to be inappropriate. The Government supported censorship by the CBSE and, the NCERT is a form of `Talibanisation' - both in terms of encouraging closed minds and the ferocity with which the new `learning' is threatened to be inflicted on young examinees. It is to the credit of the Congress(I) Government (1991-96) that it refused to implement even the recommendations of a committee of historians to review, ban or censor history books though it was under pressure to do so. There is a discipline about textbooks. Stray passages cannot be extracted for political scrutiny and censorship. No self-respecting academic will ever write textbooks if his or her work is excised peremptorily for political reasons and without any consultation.
In Unnikrishnan's case (1993), the Supreme Court declared education to the age of 14 to be compulsorily provided. For the vast majority of students, the provider of such education will be the state through Government schools. The NCERT's job is to assist in this task with examinations to be conducted by objective agencies such as the CBSE. The pending 93rd Constitution Amendment Bill seeks to provide `education for all'. This programme cannot be hijacked by the Government and political parties for disbursing communally-slanted education.
So far, India's textbook system through the CBSE and the NCERT has worked well precisely because it has striven for excellence to get the best known authors (and not any politically-selected rabble) to independently write good books. The `Talibanisation' of textbooks put this system under threat. Till now, no one thought NCERT books were not good books or argued that texts cannot be updated or changed. But this cannot happen for political or fundamentalist reasons. India's Ministries of Education and related institutions were not created to be instruments of propaganda. If this continues, a new system insulated from political interference would have to be devised immune from communalisation and politicisation. But any new system must be carefully crafted so that the solution does not spread the disease. No doubt in the market place of ideas, each issue must be openly and strongly discussed - fairly and fiercely. But with the advent of fundamentalism, India is losing its capacity for such discussions. Manipulating textbooks for children is unacceptable. India has suffered enough communalism. Leave textbooks alone.
Originally appeared in The Hindu, 30 November, 2001. Reproduced here, courtesy, Delhi Historians Group