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History and sensibilities

Print edition : Oct 27, 2001 T+T-

The government's censorship of the NCERT's Class XI history textbook following a hue and cry by the Sikh community over the depiction of Guru Tegh Bahadur angers social scientists.

History should not be commanded to any direction that the writer fancies. Discuss.

ANY undergraduate student of history answering this question in the present context will perhaps find a case study in the controversy raging over the depiction of the ninth Sikh guru, Tegh Bahadur, as a plunderer in the Class XI Medieval India history textbook authored by Professor Satish Chandra. After scrutinising the debate on the use of sources by historians to write history, the student would no doubt be disappointed with the Human Resource Development Ministry's response of quashing the debate with a fiat to delete the controversial paragraphs. Worse still, any scholar would be concerned, as most social scientists now are, about the secrecy being maintained by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) in writing new history books.

"Hurt by the account" in the textbook, Arvinder Singh Lovely, a Congress legislator, raised the matter in the Delhi Assembly on September 28. The Congress members called the use of Persian sources, which gave a "distorted" account of the Guru, "an act of sacrilege". Talking to Frontline, Arvinder Singh said that Satish Chandra referred to Persian sources as the official account, completely ignoring religious sources.

The passage that has been found objectionable in the textbook reads: "However, in 1675, Guru Tegh Bahadur was arrested with five of his followers, brought to Delhi and executed. The official explanation for this as given in some later Persian sources is that after his return from Assam, the Guru, in association with one Hafiz Adam, a follower of Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi, had resorted to plunder and rapine, laying waste the province of the Punjab."

Satish Chandra, a former Professor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, clarified that he called the Persian source an "official account, or the official justification, because for a historian, official accounts are generally full of evasion and distortion to justify official action."

He said that he did not want to hurt the sentiments of any community and that he was willing to change the wordings in one of the objectionable passages. "My emphasis has been to present the social, economic and religious factors to the students." Religion was just one of the factors that are instrumental in the study of history, not the only factor, he said. "The social and economic factors are very important. Students need to be made aware of these factors so that they can think independently," he explained.

Apparently, the controversy has provided the HRD Ministry a golden opportunity to place history books before religious teachers. Outraged by the Ministry's knee-jerk reaction, social scientists said that the vetting of texts by religious leaders would curtail scientific inquiry, which starts on the premise that there are always more than one viewpoint. Historians have objected to HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi's directive to the NCERT to have the portion on the Sikh Guru deleted.

"If sentiments are the criteria for deleting portions from history books, then what would happen to scientific inquiry? Reason has to prevail in history, not sentiments," said K.M. Shrimali of Delhi University. "We strongly object to the directive of putting history textbooks to the censorship of religious leaders. Such a decision is reprehensible in a country committed to secular values and cannot be accepted by any historian or social scientist worth the name," said eminent historian Irfan Habib at a media conference organised to condemn the government's action.

"It remains to be seen what kind of people would qualify to be religious teachers," said Dr. Arjun Dev, former head of the Department of Social Science and Humanities in the NCERT. "The government is bent upon destroying history as a branch of knowledge," he said.

Historians are also concerned about the secrecy with which the NCERT has been handling the new syllabus. This view was endorsed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who wrote a letter to the Prime Minister on October 12 asking the government to demystify the process of changing the syllabus. "I believe such secrecy in academic matters is unprecedented," she wrote.

In the process, the debate on the use of sources in presenting historical facts has been silenced. Objections to the depiction of Tegh Bahadur are not new and are a part of the debate on the use of Persian sources in the study of Sikh and Mughal history. The Persian source referred by Satish Chandra is Siyar-ul-Mutakharin, written in 1783 by Ghulam Husain Taba-Tabai. Historians who have discouraged the use of the text have pointed out that it was written more than a century after Guru Tegh Bahadur's death. And Ghulam Husain lived far away from Punjab. Also, the Guru's association with Hafiz Adam is anachronistic. Hafiz Adam died in Medina in A.D. 1643, 21 years before Tegh Bahadur attained the status of Guru. Further, they point out that according to Ghulam Husain, Tegh Bahadur was confined in Gwalior, where, under imperial orders, his body was "cut into four quarters" and hung at the four gates of the fortress. Critics say that Tegh Bahadur was executed in Delhi where the Sisganj Gurudwara is situated at present.

Further, there are various translations of Ghulam Husain's text. The historian, Joseph Davey Cunningham (A History of Sikhs; London, 1842) has used Raymond's translation, on which Satish Chandra has also relied.

There is another translation of the same text, which is more precise and less derisive of Tegh Bahadur. This has been used by noted Sikh historian Ganda Singh in his works.

It reads: "Tegh Bahadur, gathering many disciples, became powerful, and thousands of people accompanied him. A contemporary of his, Hafiz Adam, who was a fakir belonging to the order of Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi, had gathered about him a great multitude of followers. Both of these took to the practice of levying forcible exactions and moved about in the land of the Punjab. Tegh Bahadur took money from Hindus and Hafiz Adam from Mussalmans. The royal news writers wrote to the Emperor that the two fakirs, one Hindu and the other Muslim named so-and-so, had taken to the practice. It would not be strange if, with the increase of their influence, they created trouble." This translation which makes no mention of "subsisting by plunder" has been accepted as more accurate by historians such as Harbans Singh and Norman Gerald Barrier in The Punjab: Past and Present: Essays in Honour of Dr. Ganda Singh, Khushwant Singh in 'A History of the Sikhs' and A.C.Banerjee.

Satish Chandra said he would have no objections in using this translation in the NCERT book in place of the "objectionable" one. He said: "If it is a question of changing a few words I would be a very happy person. I have never wanted to hurt the sentiments of any community. Unfortunately, at the time that I wrote the NCERT book I did not have the Persian translation and I relied on Cunningham's translation. Later I came across other accounts that I have found more convincing."

The second point of controversy refers to the following passage in the textbook: "According to Sikh tradition, the execution was due to intrigues of some members of his (Guru Tegh Bahadur's) family who disputed his succession, and by others who had joined them. But we are also told that Aurangzeb was annoyed because the Guru had converted a few Muslims to Sikhism. There is also the tradition that the Guru was punished because he had raised a protest against the religious persecution of the Hindus in Kashmir by the local governor. However, the persecution of the Hindus is not mentioned in any of the histories of Kashmir, including the one written by Narayan Kaul in 1710. Saif Khan, the Mughal governor of Kashmir, is famous as a builder of bridges. He was a humane and broad-minded person who had appointed a Hindu to advise him in administrative matters. His successor after 1671, Iftekhar Khan, was anti-Shia but there are no references to his persecuting the Hindus."

The Congress legislators objected to the negation of the Guru as the protector of Kashmiri Pandits. However Satish Chandra says: "I have treated this issue in a slightly different manner. My focus was to render a constructive interpretation of tradition. Hence I have concluded that the Guru was giving expression to the discontent and disaffection of the Hindus of the region over Aurangzeb's decision to break some long-standing temples." He has used Sohan Lal Suri's Umdat-ut-Tawarikh to come to this conclusion. Satish Chandra has however concluded in the textbook: "Whatever the reasons, Aurangzeb's action was unjustified from any point of view and betrayed a narrow approach," and that "the Guru gave up his life for cherished principles."

Historians, including Max Arthur Macauliffe, who support the role of Tegh Bahadur as a saviour of Kashmiri Pandits, quote Bachittar Natak written by Tegh Bahadur's son and the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh. Tegh Bahadur is described as the protector of the sacred marks (tilak) and the sacred thread (janju) of Hindus. The book also states that the Guru courted martyrdom to uphold his religious beliefs.

Satish Chandra questions the use of Bachittar Natak as a contemporary source. "Bachittar Natak is a religious account. It is not history in the strict sense. Moreover, it does not say explicitly that Hindus came to the Guru and protested. It does not even mention the important historical fact that Tegh Bahadur was asked by Emperor Aurangzeb to perform a miracle," to prove his divine powers. These controversies have cropped up because the details regarding Guru Tegh Bahadur's execution are shrouded in mystery. Historians use hagiographic accounts in the contemporary and near-contemporary sources to buttress their accounts. As a result, there are competing Muslim and Sikh claims about Tegh Bahadur's activities and capture. The Persian sources maintain that the Guru was a bandit and was justly executed for his rebel activity. The Sikh narratives hold that Tegh Bahadur died during an attempt to secure the rights of all the people, particularly, the Brahmins of Kashmir, to practise their religion and don their religious symbols in good conscience. By using Persian sources or emphasising Kashmiri sources, Satish Chandra has not been ambiguous in his stand. Hence, even his worst critics cannot accuse him of suspending judgment.

Satish Chandra told Frontline: "There is no occasion for creating and nursing the feeling that in the textbook the Guru has been maligned or that an attempt has been made to hurt Sikh sentiments. On the other hand, the book places Guru Tegh Bahadur on a very high pedestal." For other historians, honouring or dishonouring historical figures is not so much the point as understanding them in their social and political contexts.

Satish Chandra has objected to NCERT Director J.S. Rajput's statement that the deplorable tradition of denigrating minorities by some historians who are working hand-in-glove with the destabilising forces must end. He said: "If some historian, or for that matter any individual, acts in collusion with destabilising forces, the Government of India has the authority to act against them. It is hardly the NCERT Director's job to make such allegations, thereby creating unnecessary tension and importing politics into what was a historical debate."

Historians have reacted strongly to the NCERT's decision to ask Dr. T.P. Verma, formerly of the Benaras Hindu University, and Makkhan Lal, Director, Institute of Heritage Research and Management, for writing the Class XI Ancient India textbook. They point to the saffron hues that were apparent in Verma's Ayodhya ka Itihaas Evam Puratattva and Makkhan Lal's tacit approval of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement. Arjun Dev said: "Apart from ideological leanings, the quality of the works produced by such experts in questionable. Dr. Lal specialises in the archaeological branch of painted greyware. He does not seem to have a general background in ancient Indian history that would have helped him write the volume. There is more to ancient India than archaeology."

The NCERT's response to the controversy over the Medieval India textbook and naming of Verma and Makkhan Lal as writers of the Ancient India books shows that the NCERT has made up its mind to "rewrite history with a completely different ideological leaning," Arjun Dev said. Questioning Dr. Verma's credentials, Dr. Shrimali said: "He has only one research monograph to his credit. If writing pamphlets for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is a credential, then it would reflect on the end results as well. All this is a very serious matter. We shudder to think of the future and remain wary of where we are being led."