by Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee

Professors of History
Centre for Historical Studies
Jawaharlal Nehru University

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 ëTalibanisedí 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 Ashokaís advocating of Ahimsa (non-violence) spread ìcowardiceî and that the struggle for Indiaís freedom became a ìreligious warî against Muslims, and so on.(It is not 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 ëDushtatmaí.) 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 ìthe main purpose which these books would serve is to gradually transform the young children into Öbigoted morons in the garb of instilling in them patriotism.î 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 governmentís 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 ëthemesí 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 1970s 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 Indiaís 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 ìtaken for a rideî for ìthe past several decadesî by authors of particularly its history books who allegedly were furthering their ìnarrow political agendaî. 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 ìTalibanisingî 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 beread by millions of Bengali 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 ìoffensiveî 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, Mohammad 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 worldsí 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 died0 out for the last 40 years or so, and as was once said very aptly by Irfan Habib, ìNow 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?î The situation today is that historians have abandoned communal history, only the communalists 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-known nationally and internationally recognized historian who is associated with the changes sought to be 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 ìdisturbed.î 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 of the RSS, called ìThe Enemies of Indianisation: The Children of Marx, Macaulay and Madarsaî published on 15 August 2001 one can find an article listing 41 ìdistortionsî 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) Significanly, 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 ëdistortionsí listed in Batraís book. It may be also pertinent to pointout that the author of the list of 41 distortions is a Mr. Atul Rawat, a regular columnist for the RSS mouthpiece the ëOrganiserí. 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 peopleís 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: ìJesus Christ was a najayaz (illegitimate) child of Mary but in Europe they donít teach that. Instead, they call her Mother Mary and say she is a virgin.î (Outlook, 17 December 2001.)

The claim that the deletions have been made to protect the tender minds of children from controversial subjects is equally spurious. Most of the deletions have been made from books prescribed for class XI and XII. These are books read by children between 16-18 year old. To say that children at an age where they have acquired voting rights or are at the verge of it are unfit to handle multiplicity of opinions and controversial data is to cast them in the mould of unthinking automatons.

Given that these books have been around for at least two (and sometimes three) decades, it is very remarkable that all of a sudden they have hurt so many sentiments! The NCERT Director claimed that he had received 50,000 letters (Indian Express, 26 November 2001) and then changed this to hundreds and thousands of letters of protest (statement made during TV show ëThe Big Fightí on 1 December 2001); Arjun Dev, who retired from the NCERT in February 2001 asserts that in his entire career of about 30 years, not more than 100 letters would have been received. And even if one was to concede that religious sentiments have been hurt, the NCERT could have done what it has always done on the few occasions when complaints have been received in the past: send the complaints to the authors, get their response, and try to arrive at a solution which upholds the essence of what the author is saying while altering some phrases or words which have caused misgivings. This had worked fairly well and there is no reason to believe it would have not worked now. Therefore the suspicion that the motive is not redressal of (real or imagined) grievances, but the opposite: manipulation of religious sentiments for narrow political ends, and that too at the expense of school children.

Apart from handing over the textbooks to RSS activists and supporters an equally dangerous trend has been started with the NCERT director asserting that he ìwould consult religious experts before including references to any religion in the textbooks, to avoid hurting the sentiments of the community concernedî. (Times of India 5 October 2001, italics mine) This extremely pernicious move has been reiterated by the education minister Murli Manohar Joshi, who states that ìall material in textbooks connected with religions should be cleared by the heads of the religions concerned before their incorporation in the booksî. (Hindustan Times, 4 December 2001). Once such a veto over what goes into textbooks is given to religious leaders or community leaders, as this government has started doing, it would become impossible to scientifically research and teach not only history but other disciplines, including the natural sciences. Deletions have already been made from textbooks for pointing out the oppressive nature of the caste system in India, presumably because some ësentimentsí were hurt. ëSentimentsí have been hurt in India among some when the practice of Sati was criticized. Would this mean deletions of references from textbooks regarding this evil practice? Sentiments could be hurt if science lessons questioned the ëimmaculate conceptioní or if they proposed theories of origin of man which were not in consonance with the beliefs associated with most religions. Should such lessons be altered or ëtalibanisedí according to the dictats of various religious leaders? If the teaching of modern scientific advances ëhurtsí the religious sentiments of one or the other group, should it be banned altogether?

Equally alarming is the trend to attack those who do not agree with the kind of interpretations or fabrications promoted by the Hindu Communal forces. They are being branded as anti-national. The RSS Sarsanchalak K. S. Sudershan calls those who are resisting the revisions of the NCERT textbooks as ì anti-Hindu Euro-Indiansî. (Organiser, 4 November 2001). Sudershan laments that these anti-Hindu euroóIndians hate ëVedic mathsí and do astonishing things like not believing that in ancient India we knew about nuclear energy and that Sage Bharadwaja and Raja Bhoj not only ìdescribed the construction of Aeroplanesî but discussed ìdetails like what types of aeroplanes would fly at what height, what kind of problems they might encounter, how to overcome those problems etc.î

Calling them anti-Hindu and anti ónational is not enough, now a group of Arya Samajis has demanded that the historians Romila Thapar, R.S. Sharma and Arjun Dev should be arrested. The HRD minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, at whose residence this group had collected, defended the deletions from their books and called for a ìwar for the countryís cultural freedomî. (Hindustan Times, 8 December 2001). The Minister has now gone one step further and added fuel to this fascist tendency by branding the history written by these scholars as ìintellectual terrorism unleashed by the leftî which was ìmore dangerous than cross border terrorismî and exhorting the BJP storm troopers to counter both types of terrorism effectively. (Indian Express, 20 December 2001) The dangerous implications of Joshi making this charge against these eminent historians at a time when the whole country is agitated by the attack on parliament by cross border terrorists must be noted.

Civilised societies cannot ban the teaching of unsavoury aspects of their past on the grounds that it would hurt sentiments or confuse children or it would diminish patriotic feelings among its children, as the present government is trying to do. Nor can we fabricate fantasies to show our past greatness and become a laughing stock of the world. Should America remove slavery from its textbooks or Europe the saga of witch hunting and Hitlerís genocide of the Jews? Let us stand tall among civilised nations and not join the Taliban in suppressing history as well as the historians.

The communal attempts to distort Indian history and to give it a narrow sectarian colour in the name of instilling patriotism and demonstrating the greatness of India actually end up doing exactly the opposite. It in fact obfuscates the truly remarkable aspects of Indiaís past of which any society in the world could be justifiably proud. The Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, for example, argues that the ìIndiaís persistent heterodoxyî and its ìtendency towards multireligous and multicultural coexistenceî (aspects vehemently denied by the Communalists) had important implications for the development of science and mathematics in India.(ìHistory and the Enterprise of Knowledgeî, address delivered to the Indian History Congress, January 2001, Calcutta) Arguing that the history of science is integrally linked with heterodoxy, Sen goes on to say that ìthe roots of the flowering of Indian science and mathematics that occurred in an around the Gupta period (beginning particularly with Aryabhatta and Varahamihira) can be intellectually associated with persistent expressions of heterodoxies which pre-existed these contributions. In fact Sanskrit and Pali have a larger literature in defence of atheism, agnosticism and theological scepticism than exists in any other classical language.î He goes on to say that rather than the championing of ìVedic Mathematicsî and ìVedic sciencesî on the basis ìof very little evidenceîÖ. ìwhat hasÖ more claim to attention as a precursor of scientific advances in the Gupta period is the tradition of scepticism that can be found in pre-Gupta India going back to at least the sixth century B.C. particularly in matters of religion and epistemic orthodoxy.î (The tradition of scepticism in matters of religion and epistemic orthodoxy was continued by Mahatma Gandhi, for example when he argued ìIt is no good quoting verses from Manusmriti and other scriptures in defense of Öorthodoxy. A number of verses in these scriptures are apocryphal, a number of them are meaninglessî.)

Let us hope no group with hurt sentiments now demands the arrest of Amartya Sen as yet another son of ëMacaulay, Marx and Madarsaí. Let us hope Murli Manohar Joshi in true Taliban fashion does not ask his storm troopers to extinguish the ìintellectual terrorismî unleashed by Sen, in the same manner as it was felt necessary to silence Gandhi, ëthe greatest living Hinduí.

(This is a revised version of an article in Mainstream, Annual Number, 22 December 2001.)