The NCERT's censorship of history textbooks represents a Hindutva attack on the ideas of pluralism and tolerance.
THE Bharatiya Janata Party is playing with fire. Its campaign to rewrite history and excise "inconvenient" passages and unpatriotic "distortions" from school textbooks published by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) is the most obnoxious ideological project yet undertaken in India by anyone. It aims to influence young minds in the way they view this society, its whole past, and its present character. The project is an assault on the pluralist-secular conception of India. The campaign has now received the approval of Atal Behari Vajpayee, who has discarded his "liberal" mask and joined the Hindutva chorus rationalising the censoring of history textbooks.
The BJP has openly linked this effort to its electoral preparations in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. The incendiary mixing of politics with the doctoring of the textbooks should itself expose the mala fide nature of the Hindutva education project. Its content and process are both repugnant.
The manner in which the "objectionable" paragraphs were removed was grossly, profoundly, undemocratic. It originated with Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, who has no business to judge history textbooks in the first place. It was executed without even the pretence of transparency by NCERT Chairman J.S. Rajput - without informing the authors, obtaining their consent, or undertaking a content review.
No worthy democracy can countenance such censorship by fiat, which makes a mockery of the long deliberation over syllabi, author selection, expert consultation, and legal contracts forbidding editorial changes, through which textbooks are produced. Yet, the NCERT is not going to stop with this. It has a clandestine history syllabus and a range of new textbooks, written by prejudiced authors, which are under production and due for release next April.
There is every reason why the coming batch of textbooks, as well as censorship of existing ones, should be thoroughly opposed. State governments not in hock to the BJP must produce their own textbooks in keeping with their rights. They must also legally challenge the coming series, and repudiate the censored texts. We need a massive counter-campaign of resistance. Or else, our historians and children will be muzzled, and vital truths about India's past, such as casteism, will be suppressed.
WHY did Joshi and Rajput censor the textbooks? The "objectionable" portions were at odds with Hindutva's brahminical version of history which glorifies India's past and presents it as a series of "Hindu" achievements, unmatched anywhere else. Crucial here is the tailoring of truth to specific prejudices. For instance, the paragraphs deleted from Professor Romila Thapar's textbooks say, "beef was served as a mark of honour to special guests" in ancient India, but that "in later centuries, Brahmans were forbidden" from eating it. Similarly "objectionable" is a Modern India paragraph, which says the Jats established "a state in Bharatpur, conducted plundering raids in the region around Delhi. They also participated in court intrigues" - something that many communities did in the 16th or 18h century.
Hindutva's ire is also especially directed at passages which say there is no archaeological evidence of an ancient settlement around Ayodhya, and that the "earliest inscriptions" in Mathura do not attest Krishna's presence. This runs counter to the literal, superstitious belief that Rama and Krishna were actual historical figures (rather than mythological ones). However, the BJP's new official line, enunciated by spokesperson V.K. Malhotra, is that Rama and Krishna are historical personages. Similarly, the axe has fallen on any discussion of the rigidities of the caste system and of the role of "brahminical indoctrination" in promoting fatalism about varna among the lower castes.
Hindutva's saffron agenda in education has another angle too. This is to erase one central truth about Indian culture and civilisation for 2,000 years - namely, its plural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious character. As Amartya Sen says: "It is futile to try to understand Indian art, literature, music, food or politics without seeing the extensive interactions across barriers of religious communities. These include Hindus and Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Parsees, Christians... Jews... and even atheists and agnostics. Sanskrit has a larger atheistic literature than exists in any other classical language."
Hindutva ideology, and the Vajpayee government, simply cannot stomach this. Their mortal fear of facts is rooted in ignorance, hatred (of "the Other") and a deep inferiority complex about Indianness itself. This complex demands that everything in India's past must be depicted as uniquely great. On this view, India's past was a sort of continuous Golden Age interrupted only by external "aggression". This dogma runs counter to facts. Ancient India undoubtedly had many remarkable accomplishments: in literature, linguistics, dance, dramaturgy, mathematics (although not "Vedic mathematics"), astronomy, architecture and sculpture. But many other civilisations, Chinese, Arab, Persian, Greek, Roman, and so on, also had great achievements.
There are many worthy things about, say, 2nd to 10th century India, which led A.L. Basham to write The Wonder That Was India. But there were very ugly things too: casteism, Dalit oppression, entrenched social inequalities and power hierarchies, religious factionalism, rampant superstition, extreme gender discrimination, low levels of productivity, and widespread deprivation and disease. India's interaction with the world was important. For instance, during the Middle Ages, India received a great deal from the Arab world in administrative systems, land and revenue management, music, architecture, chemistry, medicine, even couture. Similarly, it gave a great deal to the rest of Asia, and Europe.
Understanding all this, and grappling with the reality of sati, widespread illiteracy, or tyrannical village life, requires confronting, not censoring, the past. Such understanding is absolutely indispensable if we are to have a future, indeed even relate to our present. Hindutva makes this impossible. It suppresses all complexity.
Because Hindutva nationalism suppresses the negative or egregious aspects of the past, it cannot reform what the present inherits from it. Its glorification agenda ends up rationalising and perpetuating past horrors. This sets it apart from the freedom struggle, which even today remains a major inspiration for progressive, people-empowering politics. The freedom movement had two components: opposition to imperialism and an agenda of internal social reform. Both were crucial to its popular appeal. There were more or less radical elements in that movement, but they all shared this general orientation. Hindutva did not.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was not part of the freedom movement. It set its face firmly against social reform and popular empowerment. It has now resurfaced in an expanded form as a deeply conservative anti-reform force. Falsification of history to rationalise casteist privilege or gender inequality is closely linked to this conservative agenda.
At work is a narrow, sectarian, anti-pluralist mindset which is crucial to Hindutva. In some qualitative respects, Hindutva is no different from the Taliban or Pakistan's Islamic fundamentalists, with whom the BJP has been rightly compared. The Taliban could not stand pluralism or "dilution" of Islam. They destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas to "purify" Afghanistan. The BJP-VHP-RSS could not stand pluralism and the Babri mosque. They razed it. Both Hindu and Islamic fundamentalisms are equally intolerant and allergic to what they regard as interfering or "alien" elements.
For instance, history is taught in Pakistan through "Pakistan Studies", courses which are compulsory at school and college. In its "official" format, history jumps straight from Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro to the next "real" civilisation, which "naturally" begins with the "Islamic conquest" of Sindh. The intervening "Buddhist" and "Hindu" periods are treated as pitiable voids or unpleasant aberrations. Scholars like Pervez Hoodbhoy and Mubarak Ali have analysed the biases and elisions in Pakistan's "official" history.
Hindutva's version of history neatly parallels these. It too has a gaping medieval hole which is sometimes filled with fantasies such as P.N. Oak's insane "theory" about the Taj Mahal being a Hindu temple! (Recently, RSS supremo K.S. Sudarshan dramatically extended this even to the modern period, by claiming at his Vijayadashami address that one Talpade test-flew an airplane in India before the Wright Brothers did!)
Pakistani civics textbooks blatantly project a view of that country modelled on "nation-building" principles purportedly derived from patriarchical Islam. Counterposed to this is the contemptuous treatment of India as a "feminine" and "weak" but "mean" entity. A standard text claims that Islam empowers women: "Islam gives respect to all women... They are considered mothers, wives, daughters and sisters. Prior to the advent of Islam, a woman's status was that of a slave or servant. Islam gave women human rights and the right to inheritance."
At the same time, the book asserts: "In Pakistani society, the male is superior. The male is the head of the household and descent goes down in his name... Islam has determined woman's status. A Pakistani woman, unlike Western women, is not free of parental control or suffocated like women in traditional Hindu society. She is looked upon as the Queen of the Home. Heaven lies about her feet and this is an important concept."
This mirrors the infamous Hindutva formulation of the rape report of the National Commission for Women: "However, in India, in ancient times, women had enjoyed an able position in the household and in society. As the 'queen' of the household, her position was envied by her counterparts elsewhere. Unfortunately, constant invasions by foreign elements from about the 8th century changed the scenario to the detriment of women. Her vulnerability to abuse by the invading hordes bestowed upon man a responsibility to protect her and from thence developed the inherent dominant role of the male within the family fold and her inevitable dependence on the male."
Contradictorily, and in an exact replica of the Pakistani text, this supposedly "exalted", "honourable" position of women is identified through rubrics such as 'ardhangini', 'grahlaxmi' and the 'dharmapatni'- all male-derived categories. If Pakistani textbooks denigrate India - in which "the Muslims and untouchables are mistreated and not provided with justice" - pro-Hindutva texts glorify India and vilify Pakistan and Islam. Both lay claim to an intense militant nationalism. The comparison is relevant because Pakistani textbooks are now recognised as one of the prime sources of Taliban-style fundamentalism and ideological obscurantism. Their Indian counterparts are growing in number on the strength of identical prejudices.
The NCERT's "National Curriculum Framework" and many other saffron tracts exude these same prejudices. But it is in Gujarat, the country's most developed laboratory of communalism, that Hindutva textbooks reach their full-blown, complete, vicious, expression. Sahmat's recent booklet, The Saffron Agenda in Education, has discussed these issues at length. It will suffice here to outline the stated "objectives" of the Class VI syllabus, pertaining to ancient India. These aim to ensure that the pupil
* Is introduced to Vedic literature which is an expression of Indian culture;
* Knows about the respectable status of women in Indian culture;
* Gets acquainted with the basic truths of life against a backdrop of Indian culture;
* Learns for himself the truth; that in the context of Indian culture a person acquires a high status not by right of birth but by merit;
* Knows about how in the Indian cultural context the rules were oriented towards the subjects;
* Imbibes the basic values of Indian culture expressed by the narratives of the epics, Ramayana, Mahabharata, and by the main characters in it; for instance, the importance of 1) the purity of domestic life 2) steadfastness in adhering to truth even at the cost of suffering;
* Moulds the character which makes one abide by one's duty when there is a conflict between personal relationship and a sense of duty.
OTHER textbooks in Gujarat present the varna system as "a precious gift of the Aryans to the mankind" (sic), and label all minorities as "foreigners". A Class IX textbook discusses the "problems" of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the following manner: "Of course, their ignorance, illiteracy and blind faith are to be blamed for lack of progress because they still fail to realise importance of education in life. Therefore, there is large-scale illiteracy among them and female illiteracy is a most striking fact." This is a specious argument. It is also insulting to Dalits and Adivasis.
It would not be long before NCERT books resemble such garbage. The vile prejudices underlying the censorship episode make nonsense of the very idea of education, which has to do with cultivating the mind to think critically, understand complexity, and value truth.
BJP apologists have rationalised textbook censorship as a means of promoting "tolerance" by removing passages that can "hurt sentiments" (of Jats, Sikhs and other communities). In reality, it amounts to promoting the sum-total of intolerances by appeasing varying parochial sentiments. Nor is the present controversy an esoteric dispute between Liberal-Left scholars and others. Rather, it separates those who see history as a truthful account of reality, which demands continual reinterpretation, from those who yoke history to narrow "nation-building" agendas inculcating irrational national "pride". The latter will make whole generations ignorant. They will breed hatred and hubris - as Hitler did with his Master Race myth. Under the BJP's "leadership", India seems headed that way - and at least towards the destruction of secularism and pluralism. Nothing could be more dangerous.