Debating India


Doctoring textbooks


Wednesday 3 December 2003, by MENON*Parvathi, RAJALAKSHMI*T.K.

Article paru dans Frontline, vol.15, n?23, Nov. 07 - 20, 1998.

State governments run by the BJP have sought to rewrite historical accounts and effect changes in school syllabi so as to reflect the Hindutva view. Some illustrations.

I used to think that the profession of history, unlike that of say, nuclear physics, could at least do no harm. Now I know it can. Our studies can turn into bomb factories like the workshops in which the IRA has learned to transform chemical fertilizer into an explosive. This state of affairs affects us in two ways. We have a responsibility to historical facts in general, and for criticising the politico-ideological abuse of history in particular.

- Eric Hobsbawm in ’Outside and Inside History’, a lecture given at the Central European University in Budapest, later published as ’The New Threat to History’ in The New York Review of Books, December 16, 1992.

IN India’s recent experience, there is no better illustration of history’s capacity to destroy - to become the "bomb factory" that Hobsbawm warns of - than the demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindu zealots in December 1992. This action was presaged by the assiduous reinvention of Babri Masjid history. An assemblage of myth, legend and hearsay became a ’historical’ theory, which had it that the mosque was constructed after destroying a temple, which in turn stood on the exact spot where the god Rama was born.

How would this event be written about in future history textbooks? Will future generations be taught to believe that the Babri Masjid demolition was the legitimate righting of a historical wrong, or will they understand it as an act of intolerance and bigotry that was based on a concocted view of the past that had no evidentiary basis whatsoever? If the first viewpoint is enshrined in the textbooks, it will divide people, promote communal hatred and perhaps fuel further acts of bigotry. The second viewpoint will teach children how to look at history dispassionately and critically, and will alert them to its political and ideological abuse.

School textbooks appear to be headed for a thorough recasting - this has been made clear by Union Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi on several occasions. State governments run by the Bharatiya Janata Party have already made in school syllabi several changes that reflect the crude communal bias and the generally low level of scholarship that characterise what has come to be called the Hindutva view of history. But with the BJP now leading the Government at the Centre, there is likely to be a more concerted effort at rewriting history, using government-funded establishments such as the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and the National Council for Teacher Training (NCTE). The unexpected political opposition shown to the Union Government’s attempts to reverse the existing education policy may make things less easy to effect such an overhaul, but an overhaul is very much on the cards.

ONE of the major weaknesses of textbook writing in India has been that it has not as a rule reflected the strides the discipline of history has made at the research level. In an interview with Frontline (August 22, 1997; Special Issue on the 50th Anniversary of Indepe-ndence), Professor Romila Thapar made the point that barring a few exceptions "Indian history is still generally taught in Indian schools as it was half a century ago." The exceptions are few - the NCERT series of history books for middle and senior school students can be counted amongst them. (In 1979, the Janata Party Government, under pressure from its then Jan Sangh-BJP component, threatened to withdraw these books, but backed off under the weight of the opposition to the move.)

Therefore, while the communal interpretation of history was delegitimised at the research and college levels by the sheer weight of secular scholarship in mainstream historical writing, it continued to find articulation in school textbooks, right through the years when the Congress was in power, and exert control over the process of education. Most history textbooks, for example, uncritically accepted the periodisation of history, popularised by imperialist historians, into the Hindu, Muslim and British periods. Hindu rulers were projected as having been tolerant and enlightened; Muslim rulers as bigoted and as the persecutors of Hindus. Another common bias, which flew in the face of all evidence, was that the Aryans were the original inhabitants of India.

The historical errors, biases, prejudices and outdated theories and assumptions that informed these textbooks have not been left intact by education boards in BJP-ruled States. Rather, they have ’updated’ these biases and distortions in shocking ways. One historical process that has been reworked completely is the freedom movement. Here the BJP has reinvented its past and put the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its leaders as central to the freedom movement, creating a history that is patently false. This has been done, among other things, to wash off the stain of history - the responsibility its ideology must bear for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

A 1993 report prepared on the basis of a study conducted by the NCERT of Hindi, history and mathematics textbooks of Uttar Pradesh, the textbooks brought out by Saraswathi Shishu Mandir Prakashan and Markazi Maktaba Islami, and the history syllabi and textbooks of West Bengal, provides examples of the kind of rewriting that history has been subjected to. The report pertained to the period corresponding to the tenure of the first Kalyan Singh Ministry in U.P., which ended in 1992. Many of the changes made then in the school textbooks of U.P. were subsequently reversed, although his present Government has declared its intention to reintroduce them.

The first clutch of biases mentioned in the report pertain to the identification of the outsider, or the foreigner, very early in Indian history, and the resistance to them shown by the people of India (obviously Hindus). Thus, the Aryans were the original inhabitants of India, they built the Harappan civilisation, and the achievements of ancient Indian civilisation surpassed all others. (For example, in High School Itihas Bhag 1, one of the sentences changed reads thus: "With the finds of bones of horses, their toys and yagna altars, scholars are beginning to believe that the people of the Harappa and Vedic civilisations were the same," page 43.) There is, of course, no historical basis for this.

On the emphasis given in the textbooks to Indian culture and civilisation, " being the true Indian culture" the report notes that it is "meant to ignore and to denigrate the cultural development during the medieval period as something un- or anti-Indian, the entire medieval period, in any case, being a period of foreign rule and, hence of struggle for national independence." India’s freedom struggle began 2,500 years ago, the textbooks assert, and this "national resistance" had been neglected in history textbooks because of a "Western conspiracy". Those figures in Indian history who fought for their own kingdoms become, in textbooks, fighters for national liberation. All these movements build up to the freedom movement, and here the founder of the RSS is projected as being among the greatest leaders of the freedom movement. "The inclusion of references to RSS and its founder in chapters dealing with the history of the freedom movement are meant to provide respectability to and legitimise the role of Hindu communal organisations and their leaders," the report notes.

The NCERT report makes the point that the books that were being used before 1992 were also communally biased and factually incorrect. But the changes made in 1992 gave them a "blatantly communal orientation". The period of medieval Indian history, in particular, "abounds in historical falsehoods", says the report, giving several examples from the revised textbooks. (An example of material added in High School Itihas Bhag 1: "The Indian society during the Sultanate period was divided into two main classes - ruling or Muslim class and ruled or non-Muslims of whom Hindus were the majority" (page 281). Or: "Hindu was merely the payer of taxes. In spite of being conquered in the political field, Hindus did not lose courage. To regain their lost independence, they went on raising their voice from time to time. Because of this, historians have called this period as the ’period of resistance’ "(page 283). In respect of modern India, in High School Itihas, Bhag 2, three pages are devoted to Dr. K.B. Hedgewar, the founder of RSS while the entire history of the freedom movement after 1857 is covered in less than 20 pages.

The committee that prepared the report recommended that these history books be withdrawn.

Delegates from U.P. to the fifth national conference of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) in Bangalore in June drew attention to specific examples of bias in the new textbooks. The class VII general knowledge book of the Saraswathi Shishu Mandir had the following questions: "Why is Mulayam Singh Yadav called the Ravan of the modern age? "; "When did Babar destroy the Ram temple and construct the Babri Masjid? "; "How many Hindus were killed by Mulayam Singh Yadav’s bullets during the attempt to demolish the Babri Masjid?"

The questions involved here relate not merely to changes in syllabi. The process of "spiritualising and Indianising" education has already been set in motion by the Uttar Pradesh Government. Children, regardless of their religious background, have to recite the Saraswathi Vandana in the mornings and the Bhojan Mantra before their afternoon meal. Muslim children are often asked to lead the prayers. There are punishments meted out for not praying.

Children are made to give the hand extended salute of the RSS, and it is alleged that in some places they have to respond with "Vande Mataram" at the time of the roll call.

State government officials are expected to participate in Hindu religious functions. Recently, Governor Suraj Bhan laid the foundation stone for the Kalyandas Saraswathi Vidya Mandir in Chharra tehsil, Aligarh district. It was done according to Vedic rituals, with a large number of RSS pracharaks in attendance. District officials were present in full force to assist the organisers.

THE NCERT report has also evaluated history textbooks of Classes VI to X of schools that come under the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education. The report does not spare the West Bengal Board, but the criticisms mainly concern lack of care in writing textbooks. On the Class X textbook, the report says: "Much of the description of the history of other countries is loose." The report makes the point that in West Bengal there is no system of prescribing textbooks in history. "The West Bengal Board recommends a large number of textbooks, and schools are free to select from among them."

It is clear that the problems in West Bengal are qualitatively different from those in Uttar Pradesh where textbooks have been rewritten incorporating matter that is factually incorrect to suit the ideological agenda of the party in power. In West Bengal, the Board has framed a set of guidelines, but has not followed up the matter to ensure that these are being adhered to.

The report has also criticised the West Bengal Board for allowing communal interpretations of history to remain in the books. "With regard to communalism, the way the syllabus is made is likely to promote a somewhat distorted view," the report says. "A separate section entitled ’Connected Account of Muslim Politics from 1920-34’ is provided in Class X history book. This is likely to promote a presentation that would treat Muslims as a distinct, homogeneous entity with a distinctively separate role from that of the nationalist movement. It is not even called ’Muslim Communal Politics’. This will encourage the tendency of singling Muslim communalism and ignoring Hindu communalism and other tendencies."

SUBSTANTIAL amendments and additions that suit the RSS ideology and seek to make BJP leaders and their allies popular have been made in grammar, history and political science books for Classes IX, X, XI and XII in Rajasthan. After the May nuclear explosions at Pokhran, school textbooks have been revised to justify the blasts as well as serve the function of indoctrination on the benefits that have allegedly flowed from the event.

Writings of RSS ideologues on subjects ranging from matters of science to ruminations over the loss of the Sindhu (Indus) river to the "other side" have been given substantial importance in school texts. In one of the texts, "A New Collection of Poems and Literary Writings" (Nutan Gadya Padya Sangraha - the original title in Hindi), prescribed for Class IX, there are, among others, four articles, one each by Prof. Rajendra Singh (Rajju Bhaiya), RSS chief; Tarun Vijay, editor of the RSS weekly Panchajanya; K.C. Sudarshan, also an RSS ideologue; and Dr. Jalamsingh Ravlot of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. All four articles were added this year.

While Rajendra Singh waxes eloquent on ancient Indian science and scientists, Tarun Vijay laments over the loss of the Indus and wonders why it does not flow in Bharat like the other rivers. Sudarshan advocates the adoption of an ancient, traditional approach in dealing with problems of modernity and blames the West for all ecological problems. What is significant here is that while the authors reminisce about the virtues of ancient India, they also promote contemporary BJP leaders.

For instance, the article by the Panchajanya editor mentions a trip to Leh organised by the Delhi Government under Sahib Singh Verma (who was recently ousted as Chief Minister) in October 1997, which included a visit to the Sindhu. The other persons in the entourage who are mentioned and highlighted in the article are Union Home Minister L. K. Advani, Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Gegong Apang, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, (both Apang and Abdullah now are allies of BJP in the Government it leads at the centre ) and the organiser of the event, Sahib Singh Verma.

In the exercise section of the chapter, there are some seemingly innocuous questions posed to students: "How did the Sindhu get separated from us?’’ or "Where does the rest of the river lie now?" or "Apart from the author, who were the other important persons and leaders who went on the Sindhu Darshan and what feelings did they express?"

In this venture, editorial assistance has been provided by Dr. Vasudev Prajapati, who is part of the Vidya Bharati.

In a textbook for Class XI, titled Political Science - An Introduction and Indian Political Thinkers, a chapter on Deen Dayal Upadhyay has been added. This 1998-99 edition describes him as a person who had deep respect for "ancient and highly sophisticated culture of India", who envisaged an "ideal Dharmarajya" and who was upset that "while designing the Indian Constitution, the natural and national values had been ignored." The 20-page section highlights his belief in "Akhand Bharat" which was all for dissolving the 1947 Partition and cites the occasion in April 1964 when he along with Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia conceived of a "Mahasangh" in which India and the partitioned countries (Pakistan and Bangladesh) would be included.

Dr. Rajeev Gupta, Associate Professor of Sociology, Rajasthan University, who is also president of the Janwadi Lekhakh Sangh, told Frontline that these additions and changes would be a political issue in the November 25 Assembly elections. He said that an entire generation was being communalised as subtle changes suiting the right-wing ideology of the BJP had been introduced right from the primary education stage through higher education. "Students carry forward a set of communal biases until the post-graduate stage. These kind of interpretations make no positive and qualitative change in their conservative mind-sets," said. Gupta.

He said that in a Class XI textbook on political parties in India a section on the Akali Dal had recently been modified substantially. Earlier the party had been projected in a poor light, giving it an anti-national image, but after it entered into an alliance with the BJP appropriate deletions were made.

Gupta said that the objection was against the projection of one ideological dimension - the right-wing one. "Only those who support the BJP-RSS brand of cultural nationalism directly or indirectly are now being encouraged to write textbooks," he said. As former general secretary of the Rajasthan University Teachers Association, he had raised the matter with the NCERT. Gupta said that the NCERT had agreed to take up the issue.

Ram Krishan Aggarwal, president of one progressive section of the Rajasthan Teachers Association, said that the books in which changes were made were prescribed by the Madhyamik Shiksha Board, Ajmer and were compulsory in almost all private schools and some government schools. Aggarwal, a schoolteacher himself, said that prayer meetings were made compulsorytwo yeats earlier; religious songs or slokas were read out even in schools which had a substantial number of Muslim children, he added In the name of moral education or Naitik Shiksha, religious education was being imparted. School libraries were subscribing to Panchajanya, he said.

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