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Denying generations their history

by Teesta Setalvad, 16 February 2001

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Communalism Combat, 1 December 2001

The recent history textbook controversy raises issues of political control over historical interpretation, sectarian motives behind history writing and the marginalisation of local and regional histories

BY TEESTA SETALVAD

Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, India’s union human resources development minister has, in a clever masterstroke, recently announced his intentions to consult religious heads over the content of history books printed by the Central Board for secondary Education (CBSE).

To quote, he has made it known that any historical account that hurts ‘the feelings of people of any caste, religion, region or language’ will be removed summarily from school textbooks. To ensure that this
is done, Joshi wants all history books to be first vetted and cleared by religious heads of various communities before they are introduced in schools. In fact, he would like these tomes to be prepared in
consultation with the religious heads of various communities. He wants this done, he explains, for the express purpose of sparing the impressionable minds of children, which are unable to digest ugly and controversial facts. (The Indian Express, December 6, 2001)

Joshi has positioned his intentions well. Apart from ideologically problematic sections like historically authenticated references to beef–eating in Vedic times in the books authored by historians R.S.Sharma
and Romila Thapar in CBSE texts– these two historians, it must be remembered are the proverbial bete noirs of the current political establishment —the list of current ‘deletions’ include references to Guru Tegh Bahadur’s motivations and campaigns and other passages removed following objections raised by the Jain community. (The Sikh protests made to the said sections were, incidentally, in a Congress–dominated Delhi legislature by a Congressman who happens to be a Sikh). By listing a variety of ‘deletions’ that apart from caste (Brahmanical) Hindu ones, which can be ‘sourced’ to the hidden motivations of the votaries of Hindutva, include others that involve the Sikh and Jain minority, Joshi has sent out the required signals to his political rivals.

Would you wish such passages to remain, was the question posed to edgy Congressmen and women in Parliament who, themselves unsure of ‘alienating communities’ and also guilty of political interference in education had nothing left to say.

Interestingly all this discourse about Indian official textbooks has carried on while it is known that outfits like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu parishad (VHP) and the Markaz Maktabi: NCERT Report 1993—see CC October 1999) are running over 20,000 schools all over the country all openly using parallel textbooks that do nothing short of spreading hatred and venom.

Existing, official Gujarat State textbooks call ‘Muslims, Christians and Parsees foreigners’ (Std IX) apart from glorifying Fascism and Nazism. (Following the campaign launched through KHOJ carried in Communalism Combat–Oct 1999, a Parliamentary Committee that investigated the matter had ordered deletions in the objectionable portions. Yet the textbooks are reprinted, without adequate corrective measures being taken.)

Joshi clearly hopes to silence the dissenting voices through the use of the current, buzz terms, ‘religious and linguistic interests and sentiments.’ It is interesting that little has been heard on Joshi or the NCERT moves from India’s otherwise vocal Dalit and tribal communities on what such a mono–coloured history will mean for the depictions of the vast majority of the Indian population and their rich histories and symbols; or from the Muslim minority community or it’s leaders, normally vocal.

Can we therefore assume that the banner of ‘religious and community spokespersons’ as historical censors is a thought that has it’s appeal for many self–styled as such hailing from ‘communities’ across the spectrum? The CBCI (Catholic Bishops Conference of India) and other Christian associations dealing with education have formulated and presented their objections to the NCERT moves, albeit silently.

The issues as debated in large sections of the media relate to the serious consequences of such moves on the calibre, methodology and content of historical inquiry, the question of political control and dominance over history writing and depiction. Specifically, they expose more sharply than before the desire to control the thinking and minds of future generations by both distorting and denying them their history.

History writing and depiction the world over has been influenced by political dispensations and centers of power. With Joshi and his mates the impetus has simply taken the most crass and base form.

Like other facets of individual and collective human lives, religion that is both a personally and spiritually empowering source also becomes, in its institutionalized, hierarchical form a source of the exercise of power. A history of religions show their empowering and dark sides as is true of all human history.

The stranglehold on economic power, production or spiritual power through knowledge and education that Brahmanical (caste) Hinduism had on the masses in this country oppresses and denies even today; the fate that befell Galileo in the ‘dark, medieval ages’ apart, one million women were burnt at the stake in the space of four hundred years of an avenging Christianity; the history of the spread of Islam is complex: it happened through sufi saints, traders, and an exchange of knowledge as much as by military campaigns.

These are uncomfortable facts of history that as Joshi puts it, simply need not be told. It is better that our children and our adolescents grow up distanced from the knowledge of human impulses and lifestyles, cultures and their formations, of injustice and poverty, of deprivation and denial and imbibe instead a goody–goody brew that is myth, not history. We can collectively thereby deny them and ourselves, any assiduous and creative questioning.

While the world attempts to moves in the direction of reconciliation and dialogue, we through the machinations of Joshi hark back to medieval denials. There is no need to know of the evils that the system of rigidified caste deteriorated into severely oppressing the livese of 240 million people in South Asia. If we were to portray Acharya Giriraj Kishore of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad as a religious leader we would be bound under Joshi’s dictates to follow his dictum: ‘there can be no question of abolishing caste
as it is a denial of my human rights.’ (The Times of India, July–August 2001)

South Asia is a bitter example of the shattered images that we try to draw through a distortion of history. If we leave aside Nepal, Myanmar and Bhutan and look closely at Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka we have a sorry record to show future generations. In Pakistan, the Indus Valley Civilization that Joshi and his ilk are busy claiming ‘Hindu’ lineage for is not taught in schools; in Bangladesh there is a desire to deny the history between 1947 and 1971; in Sri Lanka Tamil and Sinhala speaking children are taught diametrically opposed histories.

Even before the brazen and direct assaults by Joshi and his ideological brigade on the subject and textbooks, Indian history textbooks did contain distortions and evasions. Moreover, serious caste, communal and gender biases could be obviously located in the texts even prior to the current more
systematic efforts. (see CC, October 1999). The subtle demonisation of Islam and Muslims, the evasive treatment of the subject of Partition, the lack of exposure or development of the movement of Dalits against injustice during the struggle for Independence and their serious differences with Gandhi and Nehru, the scant treatment of the subject of the assassination of the father of the nation, Gandhi are some of the most obvious examples.

As serious, is the fact that Indian history textbooks have contained a curiously centralized and linear way of approaching the subject that has not seriously engaged in weaving the complex realities of local and regional histories within and without the ‘national’ or ‘centralised’ frameworks. The attendant conflicts and contradictions often have often been glossed over and avoided.

Hence the tension and dichotomy between central history and regional historical inquiry and interpretations have not really gotten rigorously and creatively resolved. For example, Maharashtra’s history texts written by the regional educational board have not been able to de-personalise the persona of Shivaji and the depiction of his encounter with Afzal Khan retains both communal and aggressively violent overtones (see CC, February 1995). Conversely, in centralized and national historical lingua, however, the fiery ruler from the peasant castes who symbolized the breakaway from latter day feudal (Mughal) rule has been reduced to a less than honorable place.

Similarly, the necessity of de-communalising medieval history, especially given it’s overtly anti-Muslim portrayals in the past cannot be undermined and has been achieved through the works of renowned historians. But the tendency to look at even medieval India in an entirely centrist, ‘national’ perspective without examining–or portraying — the struggle of Kashmiri rulers against Mughal domination or the campaigns of the kings of Assam (also driven by similar motivations) have limited the growth of a rich and dynamic ‘Indian’ history further.

The regional histories of regions that we today identify as the ‘states’ of Kerala, Orissa, Manipur, Andhra Pradesh are rich, complex and varied. They deepen the understanding of the economic, social and political processes that resulted in actions in both the distant and not so distant past; at the same time they challenge the ‘modern’ ‘Indian’ mind attuned to viewing the reality of this country in the context of political realities of the past 60–150 years.

The treatment of the struggle for freedom from the British suffers most from this linear treatment. ‘Regional freedom fighters’ suffer exclusion or scant mention. This has been an issue and cause for debate for some decades now. The different streams within the struggle against the colonial powers are not given just treatment; the desire not to deal with the complexities of means and methods has ignored the revolutionary stream; the need to be politically ‘correct’ has failed to record that Savarkar was a fiery leader from Maharashtra who fought for freedom; fought against the indignities of caste; but who also, soon, evolved a sectarian and militarised vision of a ‘Hindu Nation’ (Hindutva)

Indian home minister, Lal Krishna Advani is one of the media’s oft–quoted politician ideologues. His recent comment, post–September 11, while waxing eloquent on his favourite subject of terrorism describes Mahmud Ghazni’s raids on the Somnath temple in 1026 AD as the world’s first incident of (Islamic) terrorism.

What are the implications of such a statement when the work of historian Romila Thapar (DD Kosambi lectures, January 1999, Narratives in the Making of History) reveals the complexities behind the periodic
interpretation and narration of Mahmud Ghazni’s raids on the temple site? Her work shows among several other things how the accounts of the chroniclers who accompanied Ghazni interpreted it as a ‘pan-Islamic campaign’ at the time; that this, however, was not the perception of the local communities as seen in the temple inscriptions and the Jain texts; that this is proven by the fact that centuries after the raids, the local panchakula (community of fiver persons) of the temple decided to award a portion of the temple land for the construction of a Mosque to one Nooruddin Piroj a trader of Arabic descent; that it was the colonial British who, in 1843 first used the term ‘Hindu trauma’ to describe the raid; this term that was lapped up and relayed by K.M.Munshi a minister in Nehru’s cabinet through his book published in the 1920s, Jai Somnath and echoed for present generations through the potent advocacy surrounding Advani and his rath yatra launched in 1990.

If Joshi’s vision for future Indians remains, which version of the Mahmud Ghazni’s raids will we give future generations in our history texts? Will references to the raids on the Somnath temple be simply deleted, will they follow Advani/Munshi’s interpretation or will they have the courage to offer the findings of Thapar’s work? If history texts contain silences while the public arena is replete with the utterances of the Advanis, Joshi’s and Giriraj Kishore’s versions of historical truth, what will this mean?

Though sharpened by the obvious deletions in the textbooks, the current debate has actually been with us for well over three years now ever since the same ministry under the BJP-dominated NDA, tried to formulate it’s new education policy that was vehemently protested by state education ministers (November 1998). Eleven months to a day, in December 2000 Joshi had presented us with a fait accompli in the guise of the NCERT’s New Curricular Framework on Value Education (see CC, January 2001) that heralded a new era for education policy makers in Delhi, minimizing or demoting history and introducing education about religions, prioritizing above others Sanskrit and Hindi as languages and emphasizing ‘patriotism’ and ‘Indian culture’ as important values that needed to be taught, without defining the characteristics of either term.

The move on the CBSE texts in November 2001, is, in a sense, the logical culmination of this earlier policy articulation. The policy has been implemented through actions based on it’s framework — that is a gross departure from earlier policies — despite lack of deliberation over it. The policy had not been scrutinized or debated in Parliament or put before the State Education Ministers as is a mandatory Constitutional requirement given the fact that education is a subject that sits on the concurrent list, despite vociferous protests and mobilizations against it.

Alongside the introduction of Vedic Astrology in Universities and more recently, Occult Sciences too (a recent circular of the University Grants Commission points this out), the moves on deletions in history texts are clear indicators what sorts of generations and minds that the current political establishment seeks to evolve and build. Sources within the government have also revealed to CC that future candidates for IAS examinations may not have to grapple with the question of studying social sciences and history (a circular on this far reaching policy is being contemplated by the current political establishment.)

Quite apart from the inherent issues of stringent historical method and inquiry, the wider issues surrounding this debate relate to the ability to tolerate different interpretations and dissent. Apart from the invaluable nitty–gritties concerning the approach and validity of a historical proposition are the intellectual prerequisites of integrity and openness. These qualities demand the ability, and strength, to look at a subject like history minus spectacles coloured by a blatantly sectarian ideology that the Joshi brigade represents which is to look at history minus the cloak of religious or tribal or caste or linguistic identity.

However these qualities demand that we do more. To be able to do more with history; to answer it’s challenges, it also means approaching it with no preconceived notions of absolutes because history is of humankind made. The impulses, happenings and interpretations –subject of course to rigid historical scrutiny — will often necessitate the reflection of human societies in all their conflicting and myriad forms. While faithfully carrying out this exercise we may find often however, that these do not fit into neat pigeonholes or patterns.

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