Communalising history textbooks

Print edition : August 13, 2021

A joint meeting of members of the National Steering Committee and focus groups for the NCERT National Curriculum framework review held in Hyderabad on March 6, 2005. Photo: The Hindu ARCHIVES

Romila Thapar. Photo: The Hindu archives

Bipan Chandra. Photo: The Hindu archives

Satish Chandra. Photo: XXX

Arjun Dev. Photo: XXX


Members of the Hindu Jana Jagarana Samithi protesting against the so-called distortion of history in NCERT textbooks, in Visakhapatnam on July 16, 2009. Photo: The Hindu archives

The recent as well as past attacks on history textbooks, with those engaged in distorting Indian history seeking to use textbooks to push their political agenda of creating a Hindu nation, is a curious inversion of reality.

“Of all the social sciences, it is history which rouses the greatest interest in the minds of the politicians. There are various reasons for this. It has always had an inventive and purposive use. The line between history and mythology is thought to be thin; the past can be used to lend legitimacy to any aspect of the present….”

—S. Gopal, ‘The Fear of History’, Seminar, 1978

More than 40 years ago, the debate about what kind of history should be presented in school textbooks emerged in the public domain when the Janata Party-led government appeared to be bending under pressure to remove textbooks authored by Romila Thapar and Bipan Chandra that were introduced for classes VI (Ancient India) and VII (Medieval India) and XII (Modern India). They were published in 1966, 1967 and 1971 respectively. These books were commissioned initially by an editorial board comprising eminent scholars such as Tara Chand (Chairman), K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, Mohammad Habib, Bisheshwar Prasad, B.P. Saxena and P.C. Gupta. In 1966, the board was reconstituted with Sarvepalli Gopal (Chairman), Nurul Hasan, Satish Chandra and Romila Thapar. The three books, and those written by R.S. Sharma (Ancient India) and Satish Chandra (Medieval India) for classes XI, and Bipan Chandra (Modern India) and Arjun Dev with Indira Arjun Dev (Story of Civilization-1 and 2) for classes VIII-X, continued until 2002.

Given the continued criticism arising from a communal interpretation of history, and which dovetailed with the political agenda of the time, new textbooks were introduced by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government (1998-2004), which demonstrated neither academic rigour nor serious scholarship. When the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came to power in 2004, a committee comprising J.S. Grewal, Barun De and S. Settar was set up to review the textbooks because of widespread scholarly criticism of the NDA government’s move. The committee recommended that the textbooks be withdrawn. As a temporary measure, the previous books were brought back, while the process of constituting a new editorial board and bringing out new history textbooks was under way.

Also read: College draft syllabus: Messing with history

From 2006 onwards, textbooks titled Our Pasts—1, 2 and 3—were introduced for classes VI, VII and VIII respectively; India and the Contemporary World—1 and 2—for classes IX and X; Themes in World History for class XI; and Themes in Indian History—1, 2 and 3—for class XII. Each of these books was developed by a team whose members were drawn from different institutions in various parts of India who contributed to the writing and refining of the chapters.

Right-wing criticism

This history of NCERT’s history textbooks is important for it demonstrates that both in the pre-2002 period as well as the time when the current textbooks were written, there was wide consensus that the foremost historians of our times with subject expertise be brought in to write them. Some members of the NCERT’s departments concerned have also always been part of these teams, but the actual content was devised and put together by the subject experts. Thus, the notice of the Rajya Sabha Secretariat regarding ‘Reforms in the Content and Design of School Text Books’ is both surprising and a cause for concern. Even before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education was constituted and, indeed, even before the NDA came to power in 2014 (in fact, from the time when the first textbooks were brought out there had been criticisms from non-academic, political sections with regard to the publications), some groups and individuals with clear political affiliations had been raising the volume on the so-called factual errors and apparent lacunae in the existing textbooks.

There were media reports that the NCERT had invited historians for a review meeting in 2015 to deliberate on the matter. However, the real heat has been turned on in the past few months, with a virulent social media attack on what has been termed as “the whitewashing of Mughal history” and the lack of importance given to the “Vedic era”. It goes without saying that these are ideological views not rooted in an understanding of structural analysis of historical phases and, in fact, are embedded in a colonial idea of distinct Hindu and Muslim periods of Indian history. A report in The Hindu (January 13, 2021) quotes J.S. Rajput, former Director of the NCERT (1999-2004), and others representing Hindutva-oriented organisations, as stating that 1,000 years of foreign rule before the British was left out in these books. Embedded in this assertion is the Hindutva view that Muslims are foreigners and the erroneous colonial characterisation of the medieval period in India as ‘Muslim rule’.

It is interesting to pause here and take stock of the criticisms levelled against the books authored by Romila Thapar, Satish Chandra, Bipan Chandra, R.S. Sharma and Arjun Dev. The idea of a crystallised Hindu identity in ancient India, and of Muslims not representing Indian culture and civilisation was very much a beating stick as early as the 1970s. Then too, it was felt that Sultanate and Mughal rulers, who were essentially presented by the critics as bigoted iconoclasts, were not mentioned as such in textbooks. The medieval history books were attacked for mentioning the Mughal patronage of Hindu places of worship or those of other religious communities, and of brahmans being given land grants. It was reported on Twitter and other social media that the current NCERT books were burnt for stating something similar.

Also read: Noted historians and scholars use webinars to dispel myths about history

Those committing the incendiary acts posted tweets saying that the statement of patronage by Muslim rulers to Hindu establishments was not based on fact as the NCERT was unable to respond to a right to information (RTI) question regarding the source for this statement. As mentioned earlier, the NCERT has several members on the textbook development committees, but this question should have been posed to historians engaged in research on medieval India, involved in writing these books. They would have referred the petitioner to Akbar’s order of 1565 creating an inam grant to support Gopaldas, the chief priest of the Madan Mohan temple at Vrindaban. Or, to the farman of Aurangzeb prohibiting the destruction of an existing temple in Banaras in 1659, or the orders prohibiting harassment of Hindu subjects, particularly brahmans from the same place. We have evidence of individuals who were given grants, such as Bhagawant Gosain, the preceptor of Raja Ram Singh in 1680. While a fair amount of temple desecration and looting did occur (Richard Eaton has contextually analysed around 80 such instances), there were also other more politically expedient measures in matters of religion that were implemented (https://frontline.the 30255557.ece).

Satish Chandra (1986) has closely examined the times of the Mughal emperor who has been most vilified, and has demonstrated that Aurangzeb’s religious policy was neither fixed nor continuously antagonistic towards non-Muslims. Further, scholars have highlighted how even Jains were patronised, with some Jain monks being invited to the Mughal court.

So, the evidence attesting to a varied public policy premised on notions of governance and control is available and several scholars have pointed this out through their historical research, and writers of the pre-2002 and post-2006 textbooks were certainly aware of it. Also, there are several instances of political violence being advocated or committed, including the destruction and looting of temples, that can be gleaned from the treatises, epigraphic records and material artefacts of the early medieval regional kingdoms, before the so-called ‘Muslim’ rule.

Also read: Politics of history

The realpolitik of state power and territorial aggrandisement has always seen some polities at the receiving end. For instance, the Pallavas and Badami Chalukyas, or Western Chalukyas, and Cholas often waged battles against one another in the south. Rajaraja or Rajendra Chola were important historical figures as were Satyasraya or Somesvara who fought against the former; several polities like the Gangas, Nolambas and Muttaraiyar were enmeshed in complex political relationships with the Cholas and Chalukyas, and territorial conquest, looting and claims of depredation marked these relationships. Similarly, the several Rajput rulers who dotted the political landscape of northern India were fighting with one another, as well as the dominant powers of the time, namely the Delhi Sultans and the Mughals. To demonise one set, namely the latter, as ‘foreign’, and valorise the former is beyond the brief of a serious historian.

The Aryan question

A second point that is a bugbear for those pushing a Hindu communal agenda with regard to history textbooks is the Aryan question. Romila Thapar recounts that as early as 1969, a Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Education wanted her to mention that Aryans were indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. Related to this Aryan question has been the claim of a glorious Vedic period which could not be tarnished with mention of beef eating, as had been done in R.S. Sharma’s Ancient India. With regard to the current textbooks, there is the accusation that the ‘Vedic era’ has been downplayed.

With regard to the issue of Aryans as autochthonous, both Romila Thapar and R.S. Sharma rejected this understanding, citing copious evidence to bolster their view that Aryan could not be construed as a race but as a linguistic category.

Also read: ‘Hindutva is not the same as Hinduism’: Romila Thapar

Romila Thapar’s “The Past and Prejudice”, delivered as the prestigious Sardar Patel Memorial Lecture, sought to counter some popular misconceptions about the past that stemmed from colonial prejudices, that were carried over in certain nationalist interpretations of Indian history, particularly relating to indigeneity and Indian identity. R.S. Sharma, in his In Defence of “Ancient India” (1978) did not mince words in rebutting the assertions of those who were peddling ideology as history, again focussing on prejudices relating to identity and history. D.N. Jha, an eminent historian of ancient India, had shown through copious evidence that beef was indeed a part of the diet across the social spectrum in ancient India and that it was only gradually that some sections of society introduced taboos against its consumption. R.S. Sharma’s Looking for the Aryans (1994), research articles by several scholars on the question, and edited volumes such as India: Historical Beginnings and the Concept of the Aryan (2007) and Romila Thapar (ed.), Which of us are Aryans? Rethinking the Concept of our Origins (2019) frontally addressed the issues relating to movements and migrations of people, language assimilation (particularly the hegemonic presence of Indo-Aryan), and the development of cultural matrices from around the middle of the first millennium BCE.

Ideological constructs

The desire to claim Indian history for Indians (read Hindus), who are identified as Aryans, has been expressed often enough by those who have opposed historical research and interpretation that does not fit such a political agenda. In the case of Nazi Germany, the search for an authentic German race going back to the prehistoric period, was based on flawed understanding of archaeological excavations and historical developments. Heather Pringle’s study (2006) of the Ahnenerbe (‘Ancestral Heritage Foundation’), an elite think tank founded by Heinrich Himmler, a top Nazi official, unravels how a body of knowledge was sought to be created, premised on the superiority of the Aryan race as the source of the original Germanic people. Hitler himself was an ardent believer in this thesis and talked of the three primary races of mankind as "the founders of culture, the bearers of culture, the destroyers of culture". Even before this, prehistorians such as Gustaf Kossinna promoted such simplistic ideas about ethnic identity being traceable in the archaeological record. Such ‘scientific’ studies were used by the Nazis to legitimise their attack on Jews, who were believed to be the destroyers of the original foundational culture of Germans. Kossinna’s and Ahnenerbe’s efforts were no academic misadventure, despite their own self-proclaimed assertions of scientificity; such efforts need to be seen for what they were—ideological constructs implanted surreptitiously and/or overtly as academic enterprise.

The attacks on textbooks in the Indian context since the late 1960s have more or less been from the same quarter, with difference only in detail with regard to two major points raised: (1) that indigenous Aryans and the foundations of Hindu identity may be located in ancient Indian history, and (2) that the medieval period marked the beginning of foreign (Muslim) rule in India. Assertions of this kind are uncannily reminiscent of the efforts of Himmler’s men in the Ahnenerbe to prove an original German-Aryan identity and to proclaim the Jews as the outsider. Seeking a homogenous Hindu identity hinges on demonising the Muslim other, two sides of the coin of identity politics at play. In a bid to press the indigenous identity claim for Aryans, fragmentary archaeological evidence and imagined historical continuities based on myths and symbols are garnered.

Also read: Roots of Hindutva

Bizarre as it may seem to today’s readers, M.S. Golwalkar, the original father-figure of the Hindutva-vadis, claimed that the Arctic region had moved upwards from India taking the Aryans into Europe. So, there was migration, but it was outwards from the Indian subcontinent. While Golwalkar pushed back the Aryan civilisation by 10,000 years, recently there was a claim that the Hindu civilisation went back to 80,000 years ago “with the arrival of late Pleistocene founders during Middle Paleolithic era” (sic) (@ProfVemsani, Twitter, 02 June 2020). The same tweet has a hashtag “#NoAryan”, a deviation from the Aryan identity sought by earlier proponents of the original Indians-Hindus thesis. All such assertions, of course, are made turning a blind eye to the historian’s craft, without a modicum of understanding of histories of human evolution and civilisational growth, and ignoring the importance of evidentiary analysis. Further, where does this monolithic construct leave the tribes and communities whose languages, not to mention their culture and traditions, clearly indicate a different origin from the Indo-Aryan, such as Dravidian and Mundari? They certainly cannot be subsumed under a fabricated Aryan identity.

There is a third point that has been made against professional historians with regard to textbooks not adequately portraying national heroes. Generally, trained professional historians define the national in relation to the modern period of history. Obviously, those who raise these non-issues are oblivious to the value of such distinctions. But if we stick to historical notions of national heroes, a cursory examination of the textbooks gives ample references to the freedom struggle starting from the revolt of 1857, going into tribal and other socio-political movements, and the phases and stalwarts of the national movement from the 1890s to the 1940s. While one may quibble about whether more space is given to some figures than others, one can certainly not talk of any deliberate attempt to denigrate national heroes. In the final analysis, a curious inversion of reality may be seen in these recent as well as past attacks on history textbooks in India, where those engaged in distorting Indian history seek to use textbooks to push their political agenda on the basis of identity politics towards the creation of a Hindu nation.

Over the years, a cynical and quite ominous commonsensical argument has been propagated that every regime changes the textbooks, which conveniently removes the historical scholarship out of the reckoning. It is only when we scrutinise the substance of the so-called critique that we can unravel the insidious anti-historical understanding at the root of such criticism.

R. Mahalakshmi is professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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