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INDIAN HISTORY CONGRESS

A debate on distortions

Parvathi Menon

Friday 30 January 2004, by MENON*Parvathi

Article paru dans Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 02, January 17 - 30, 2004.

FOR a forum that sees its primary task as providing a platform for historians to share the fruits of research, the Indian History Congress’ (IHC) decision to host a special panel on the projection of history in school textbooks is a measure of its recognition of the need for professional historians to be involved in the writing of history at all levels, including school and college.

While the concern over school textbooks arose as a response to the mistakes and distortions contained in the crop of history books commissioned recently by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), the problem is not confined to these books alone.

"Our focus is not just on the NCERT textbooks," said S. Settar, general president of the 64th Session of the IHC and chair of the panel on textbooks. "These are used by a very small section of students. We are looking at how to address the neglected state of school textbooks at the State level and the casualness with which these books have been written," he said. Settar heads a review committee on school textbooks in Karnataka set up by B.K. Chandrashekhar, Minister for Primary and Secondary Education.

The interest in the issue of textbooks was evident from the number of people who attended the session. The seminar room where the session was held was filled to overflowing. At least 60 schoolteachers from various parts of the State attended the session. The panel comprised Professors Irfan Habib, Suvira Jaiswal and Aditya Mukherjee (authors of the IHC publication History in the New NCERT Textbooks: A Report and an Index of Errors), Arjun Dev and Aniruddha Ray.

In his opening speech, Chandrashekhar said that historians must be deeply committed to "constitutional principles and multi-cultural values of peace and co-existence". He said that even as recently as a couple of decades ago, "we had not anticipated how state power and a carefully designed ideological campaign would target young minds and teachers". Chandrashekhar was also critical of the attempts to impose the CBSE and the ICSE syllabi by the Central government, an "architectural disaster" from the point of the view of States that wanted to design their own syllabi for their own examinations. In view of the "patently objectionable stuff" in school textbooks, Karnataka was now recasting its history syllabus in a major way, he said.

In his keynote address, Irfan Habib made a deeply reasoned and impassioned case for a history at the school level that is premised on modern, democratic values. Responding to the view that history is a subject that can be dispensed with in favour of science, he argued that this would impoverish the educational system and the citizenry that emerge from it.

"If a school child grows up thinking that men are superior to women, that his religion is better than all others, that his caste is superior to others, that property is everything that counts, would such a person be able to make use of the scientific education that he receives, which is after all paid for by the poor people of this country? What kind of country would ours become if it were comprised of people with these views?" Irfan Habib asked. The primary concern for history is a study of how modern values developed, he argued.

Irfan Habib said that in the writing of textbooks, even if bias could not be removed altogether, accuracy was of the utmost importance. "If the Bharatiya Janata Party had reintroduced the textbooks by Majumdar and Raychoudhary, I would not have had a problem. Majumdar was closely associated with the Hindu Mahasabha and wrote history with bias, but he was a professional historian. I am sure he would have dismissed the NCERT textbooks out of hand," he said. Referring to the writer of a recent NCERT school textbook who listed "rakshasa marriage" (where a woman is forcibly abducted by a man to be his wife) as a "legitimate" form of marriage in the past, Irfan Habib noted that such teaching could only create the wrong kind of citizen. He said that history must give children a "correct memory of their past and not a manufactured one".

In his presentation, Arjun Dev analysed the basic motivations behind the changes made by the BJP-led government in rewriting textbooks. He also commented in some detail on the Karnataka syllabus, calling for a thorough review.

Aniruddha Ray drew special attention to the excessive load on children. He argued that in the Karnataka syllabus, north Indian dynastic history dominates and certain "legends" of history continue to find favour (like the thesis on the origin of the Vijayanagar empire put forth by Robert Sewell). State formation in the south is underplayed, according to him, and even Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan have been given short shrift.

Aditya Mukherjee underlined the serious practical implications that textbooks that poisoned young minds have for the future of Indian society. "The state is telling us what kind of history we should write, and if we refuse we are called `intellectual terrorists’," he said. Textbooks brought out by the Hindu Right are the new purveyors of violence. "What is at stake is our survival as historians, citizens and members of a liberal democracy," he said.

In their interaction with the panel, schoolteachers were exposed to some new themes in historical research for the first time. Apart from their concerns with the distortion of content, the teachers brought a much-needed classroom perspective into the debate by discussing issues of level and load, unnecessary repetition in content and the difficulties of completing a heavy syllabus in the prescribed time.

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