Books of bias and errors

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

History in the New NCERT Textbooks: A Report and an Index of Errors by Irfan Habib, Suvira Jaiswal, and Aditya Mukherjee; Indian History Congress, Kolkata, 2003; pages 129 Rs.50.

TOWNS and cities in our Neolithic past? Cloth woven on wheels in ancient India? 4,600 B.C. as the date when the Indus Civilisation took birth? The Mughal emperor Babur deliberately selecting a site for a mosque in a place where the "tenth and last avatar of Vishnu was to appear at the end of the yuga"? The English East India Company established in 1600 in India? India, "a land of free looters"? Lenin leading merely a coup in Russia in 1917?

These and many more historical howlers contained in a clutch of history books brought out by the National Council of Education Training and Research (NCERT) in 2002 could have served simply to provide us a hilarious foray into nonsensical history, were it not for the fact that they form the stuff of school textbooks that will give lakhs of Indian children their only insight into nearly 5,000 years of their country's past. Carrying the stamp of approval of the powerful NCERT, which has a pervasive reach into the school system, the new history textbooks of 2002, written in conformity with the NCERT's own saffronised National Curriculum Framework of School Education, 2000, are shot through with factual errors, falsehoods, unreason and bias. They are surely a disgrace to the discipline of history writing, and draw nothing from the scholarship and analytical sophistication attained by this branch of the social sciences in India.

Although there was an outcry against these textbooks from several quarters after their appearance, it is the Indian History Congress (IHC), through the publication of the book under review, that has given the most serious rebuff to this official exercise in the falsification of history. The credentials of the IHC to do so are impeccable. With a membership of over 7,000, it is a forum that is representative of professional historians in the country today. Founded in 1935, the IHC has over the years set benchmarks in scientific and secular history writing; it has provided a valuable forum for peer interaction and review amongst historians; it has helped historians from small colleges and less advantaged departments of history to publish their work; and it has maintained its independence by putting in place a tradition of resistance to establishment pressures of one kind or the other. Thus, just as it once boldly opposed the Emergency as an attack on democratic and intellectual freedoms, it is today fighting another assault on scholarship and reason by a communal and divisive state-supported ideology.

When the NCERT published its policy statement on school education in 2000, the IHC responded almost at once at its session in Kolkata in January 2001. A detailed resolution was passed expressing concern at the way history was being treated in the school curriculum. In the following year at its Amritsar session, the IHC Executive Committee set up a committee to scrutinise the history textbooks that had been published by the NCERT in 2002.

The committee, comprising Professor Irfan Habib (Aligarh), Professor Suvira Jaiswal (Hyderabad) and Professor Aditya Mukherjee (New Delhi), produced a report along with an Index of Errors, which was released as a publication of the IHC in June 2003. Four textbooks published in 2002 were reviewed. These were Makhan Lal, et al: India and World, for Class VI (Historical Portion: Unit II); Hari Om, et al: Contemporary India, for Class IX (Historical Portion: Unit 1); Makhan Lal: Ancient India, for Class XI; and Meenakshi Jain: Medieval India, for Class XI.

In the published Index, each error in the textbook is quoted in full under the relevant page number. A concise analysis or comment follows the error. Note has been taken of the corrections made in the reprinted edition. The authors state that the Index is not complete and that "... many slips and misstatements of varying degrees of seriousness have had to be overlooked to keep our Index within manageable limits".

The Index lists 99 errors in Makhan Lal's India and World for Class VI, 112 mistakes and 22 spelling errors (of proper nouns) in Ancient India for Class XI by the same author, 127 mistakes in Meenakshi Jain's Medieval India for Class XI, and 141 errors in Hari Om, et al, Contemporary India for Class IX.

A quick categorisation of the errors listed in the Index in just one of the four books reviewed, namely, Meenakshi Jain's Medieval India, shows their range and incidence. A few errors find place under more than one category.

1. Errors of commission. Careless and inexcusable errors of historical fact. These account for the largest number in all the books. In Medieval India, 79 such errors out of 127 are listed. The corrections for these are provided by the compilers of the Index.

Examples: On page 194, the author says that Aurangazeb died at Aurangabad. (He died at Ahmadnagar). On page 132 the author says that Rana Sanga died in the Battle of Khanua. (In fact, he was not killed in battle at all; he fled from the battlefield).

2. Errors of omission. Important facts left out of the narrative, conveying thereby an incomplete understanding of the particular topic. Twenty-three of the errors listed in the Index in Medieval India come under this category.

Examples: In the description of Shivaji's administration (page 190-91) the author does not mention Shivaji's levy of chauth (one-fourth of revenue) and sardeshmukhi (an additional one tenth), which he exacted from areas not under his control with the threat of sacking those regions that did not pay up. In levying these exactions and in the punishment for non-payment, he did not differentiate between Hindus and Muslims. Or, the author's total omission of Akbar's views and actions on social matters, like his prohibition of slave trade, disapproval of sati and prohibition of involuntary sati. Or, when the author lists the appalling record of the number of Bahmani kings murdered, deposed, and blinded, she fails to mention that other ruling dynasties of that period had blood on their hands too. For example, the practice amongst the Rajputs and the Vijaynagar ruling classes of killing hundreds of wives, concubines and slave girls of a ruler when he died. The logic of exclusion suggests that the author would like to associate violence and cruelty with Muslims rather than with the conventions and practices that were common to all medieval ruling classes.

3. Errors deriving from communal bias. There are 14 such examples of communally biased assertions of historical fact. These also include attempts to Sanskritise names or terminology in a wholly inappropriate fashion.

Examples: On page 10, the author has separately classified modern historians of medieval India by their religions, that is, as Muslim or Hindu. On page 92, she states that Bukka I of the Vijaynagar period "freed practically the whole of the south from foreign domination". From this the reader must surmise that Muslims are equated with foreigners, as the compilers of the Index point out. The heading for Chapter 2 is "Struggle for Chakravartitva", an inappropriate phrase used obviously to make a point of Sanskritising what could, as the authors point out, have simply been titled "Political Supremacy".

4. Errors of spelling. There are seven such errors.

Examples: "Fawadul Fawaid" for "Fawaidul Fawad", Bahamani for Bahmani, Guru Arjun for Guru Arjan, Suleh-kul for sulh-i kul, and so on.

5. Errors of language. Poor English, along with displays of ignorance and obfuscation add up to nine examples listed in the Index

For example, on page 162 the author writes of Nur Jahan: "The new queen soon became the favourite of the Emperors' wives". What she obviously meant was that the new queen became the favourite wife of the emperor. On page 26 and page 27, the author writes about "Muhammad Ghur" and "Mahmud Ghazni", instead of Muhammad of Ghur, and Mahmud of Ghazni. The compilers refer to these errors as "pieces of illiteracy". On page 160, there is an illustration titled "Meeting of Jahangir with the Persian king Shah Abbas". The reader is not informed that it is an imaginary representation and that in reality the two never met.

According to the report, all four books reveal a shocking lack of awareness of basic historical facts. Secondly, the language is riddled with grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and inappropriate expressions. Finally, they all present History with a strong chauvinist and communal bias. Thus, in respect of the Ancient India textbook, the familiar myths abound - India is the original homeland of the Aryans; "Vedic civilisation" embraced the Indus civilisation; Hinduism is held to be the most advanced of all religions; the caste system was fine until some "rigidities" crept in later; women in ancient India were held in high esteem and had equal inheritance rights as men.

A "neutral or even admiring stance", according to the authors of the report, accompanies the accounts of sati and jauhar. The Medieval India textbook is imbued with anti-Muslim prejudice. Muslims, or "foreigners", brought nothing to India but bloodshed, violence and the practice of temple destruction. The substantial evidence of the rise of a composite culture in this period is firmly stamped out. Thus, there is barely a sentence on Kabir and his teachings, the report reveals.

The Contemporary India textbook appears to be in a class by itself in respect of the distortions mentioned. According to the authors of the report and the Index, this book portrays "Muslim separatism" as the beast, while Hindu communalism is ignored and Hindu Mahasabha leaders are idolised as patriots. The great Indian social reform movement is ignored; the modern values of democracy and secularism that the freedom movement stood for are passed over; Jawaharlal Nehru is either ignored or presented in an unfavourable light; and the Communists are vilified. The prejudice and distortion has, as its foundation, a singular ignorance of colonialism and its economic and political impact on India.

Indeed, the sheer range and variation of errors, 141 in all, as listed by the authors of the Index from Hari Om's Contemporary India, qualifies this single textbook as perhaps the most damaging of all. Here is an authorial pen that is untroubled by the rules of English grammar and usage, that constructs a history of modern India from which all modernity has been purposefully cut away, and that oftentimes projects Indian history as a theatre of the absurd. For example, on page 22, he tells us:

"Lord Curzon even went to the extent of saying that the people of India were `the peasants, whose life was not one of political aspiration'. This had a tremendous impact on the Indian Freedom Struggle".

Or again, on page 23:

"Both of them (Tilak and Aurobindo Ghose) believed in and advocated cultural nationalism... They also held the view that the Moderates were only playing with "bubbles" like the legislative councils and not taking up the issues capable of protecting and promoting the Indian culture."

"Bubbles" is Hari Om-speak for "baubles", but on a more serious note he has conjured cultural nationalists out of Extremists, as the index compilers point out.

The NCERT appears to be undaunted by the criticism and by the potential damage such textbooks might cause to young minds. Some minor changes have been made in the reprint editions, but more textbooks containing material on history for other classes have been published this year. For this once prestigious organisation, which brought out several splendid History textbooks from the 1970s onwards, the rewriting of history commissioned by it now surely represents a great leap backwards.

To conclude with this reviewer's favourite error, from Hari Om's Contemporary India, pages 59-60, picked out from the Index:

"... leaders and think-tanks like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and V.P. Menon."

The Index authors' tired response: "One has not heard of single persons as "think-tanks". But one lives and learns"!

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