Concern over distortions

Published : Jan 20, 2001 00:00 IST

Participants at the Kolkata session of the Indian History Congress express concern over attempts to distort history in school textbooks and thus subvert secular education.


THE way the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) is being used to subvert scientific and secular education in the country came up for sharp criticism at the 61st session of the Indian History Congress (IHC), held in Kolkata from January 2 to 4. Historians who attended the Congress appealed to Parliament and State governments to protect history from extraneous influences. The Congress expressed serious concern over attempts being made to "distort the teaching of history".

The IHC felt that efforts to establish religious worship in protected monuments be stopped so that these monuments could be preserved structurally and their cultural status protected. The Congress wanted that the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Site s and Remains Act, 1958, which prohibited "restoration" of religious worship in a place where it had previously ceased, be enforced in an impartial manner by the authorities concerned, including the Archeological Survey of India (ASI).

The IHC condemned the ASI's excavation at Fatehpur Sikri, besides the decision of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) to suspend the publication of the two volumes of "Towards Freedom" written by Professors K.N. Panikkar and Sumit Sarkar.

Eminent historian and IHC vice-president Irfan Habib told Frontline: "The earlier regimes appealed to sentiments of civilisation and growth. The present regime appeals to sentiments long abandoned, by glorifying the destruction of monuments. In th e Srinagar session of the IHC in 1984, we adopted a resolution demanding that no monument that was a place of worship should be touched and worship in a place where it had ceased should not be restarted. The resolution also stated that the excavation of a historical site could not be undertaken without the prior permission of the Government of India. What the ASI did at the Fatehpur Sikri palace complex is appalling." It is a well-known fact that there is a cell below the tank and A'in-i-Akbari s tates that Mughal emperors drank Ganga water. "It is ridiculous to dig up a monument like the Anup Talao, part of the World Heritage site, and announce these discoveries," said Professor Habib.

He felt that the present regime was trying to force an unscientific mindset. "History deals with religious beliefs. But they are two independent studies. If they are mixed in Indian education, then scientific progress will not be possible. According to t he Sangh Parivar, the Aryans did not come to India, they were from North India, in fact, more specifically, from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. This is ridiculous, and it has reached such a point that whoever says that the Aryans came to Indi a are labelled racists and those who say that they were from India are hailed as patriots," said Professor Habib.

Historian Romila Thapar said at the conclusion of her lecture on "Concepts of time and their relationship to history": "The protection of history is necessary. Attempts are being made to reorganise the past. We must explore the past in all dimensions and prevent misuse of history through faulty interpretations."

Nobel laureate and renowned economist Amartya Sen, in his inaugural address titled "History and the enterprise of knowledge", spoke against the "rewriting of Indian history from the slanted perspective of sectarian orthodoxy." (The text of Sen's address follows this article.)

Former West Bengal Chief Minister and veteran Marxist Jyoti Basu, who addressed the Congress, said that "fundamentalist political forces", instead of using history as a tool for social progress, "were attempting to take us backwards and mould our intelle ct with obscurantism and fundamentalist values." He said that in the name of curriculum reform textbooks were being rewritten in tune with the communal ideology. "I gather that in a series for school children, the section on Indian freedom movement eulog ises (K.B.) Hedgewar and (M.S.) Golwalkar, but undermines the contribution of mainstream national leaders, Muslims and the Communists. The changes proposed in history textbooks go against our perceived wisdom and certainly do not rest on consensus. Hindu tva, now being assiduously propagated, is a direct assault on secularism, a basic feature of our Constitution," Basu said.

West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya said: "The phases of history starting from the Vedic civilisation are given a subjective and motivated interpretation with the contention that Hinduism has been the only religion in India." He said that H indu zealots had the vicious design of establishing a religio-fascist state in India through systematic distortion of history.

B.N. Mukherjee, IHC president, who could not attend the Congress for health reasons, in his speech read out by Irfan Habib, called for the reversal of the trend among political parties, governments and some academic institutions, of being intolerant of o bjective historical research, in their efforts to impose their views on others.

Professor Habib, in his speech on "Imagining river Sarasvati - a defence of commonsense", refuted V.S. Wakankar's theory, supposedly upheld by the Sangh Parivar, that the human race had descended from the "holy banks" of the Sarasvati in Ambala and Karna l districts of Haryana. "In crediting the Ambala and Karnal districts of Haryana with producing the first human beings, Wakankar expressly recalls to us the fossil Ramapithecus found in the Siwaliks. He apparently has not read that Ramapithecus is the fe male of Sivapithecus, found subsequently in Pakistan, and that both of them belong to that branch of the evolution tree which has led to the ape orangutan, and not to you and me," said Professor Habib. He also dismissed the David Frawleys theory that the Aryans were migrants from India.

The renowned archaeologist from Pakistan, Ahmad Hasan Dani, who is visiting India after 40 years, told the Congress that there was no archaeological evidence to show that the Aryans came from India. "The Aryans used swords. There is no evidence of swords in the Indus Valley civilisation," said Dani.

Historians in the liberal camp, such as Habib, believe that there is a political motive behind the Central government's sanction of a substantial grant to the Sarasvati Research Project. This, they feel, is an attempt to legitimise the Sangh Parivar's "A khand Bharat" concept.

As for the Babri Masjid-Ram janmabhoomi controversy, Dani told Frontline: "There may have been a temple. However, I have not seen a mention of it in any historical text. Even in Babur Namah there is no mention of a temple." Habib observed t hat this kind of distortion of facts was not only pernicious, but put scientific research under threat. "Outrageous theories like the Dravidians being people made civilised by the Aryans completely reject the scientific, linguistic interpretation of hist ory and make us a laughing stock in front of the world. In the 1970s, archaeological works in India were held in high regard internationally. Now nothing we say is taken seriously," Professor Habib told Frontline.

However, the ICH session in Kolkata was not without its share of controversy. The feud between the Central government-controlled Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) and the IHC was rekindled, with ICHR Chairman B.R. Grover stating that the IHC w as using the forum for political propaganda. A senior IHC member and noted academician told Frontline, on condition of anonymity, that the ICHR, which was controlled financially by the Centre, mostly had the Central government's representatives in its governing body. "It is not just the Leftists who have been sidelined there. Any liberal individual who opposes the mythification of history is sidelined," said the IHC member. Replying to Grover's comment that what Amartya Sen said in his address to the IHC had to say should not be taken "seriously" as he was not a historian, the senior IHC member said: "Well, neither is Grover. He may be a scholar, but he is not a 'historian'. So why should his words be taken seriously? Besides, Amartya Sen never claimed to be a 'historian' and before beginning his lecture he said he was a 'non-historian interested in history'."

While expressing disgust over the government's sanctioning of a certain project, which in his view was based on flawed logic and evidence, Professor Habib called those responsible for it "lunatics". Grover, who was present at the lecture, protested, sayi ng Habib should not call "honourable Ministers" lunatics. Professor Habib had not mentioned any names.

Among the significant features of the IHC session this year was the presence of octogenarian Dani and two other delegates from Pakistan - Sikandar Hayat and Sayed Ali Shah. (All three were from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.) This was the first time in over 20 years that Pakistan sent a delegation to the IHC - a delegation from Pakistan had attended the IHC's Mumbai session in 1979. While Hayat spoke on Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the achievement of Pakistan, Shah's lecture was titled "Khudai Khidmatga rs and the Partition of India". Dani in his lecture spoke of the stone inscription of the Shahi ruler Veka, found a few years ago in the northern part of Afghanistan. The inscription refers to the reign of Shahi Veka. "This discovery should lead to a rev ision of the date of the first Hindu Shahi ruler Kallar from A.D. 843-850 to A.D. 821-828," said Dani.

In another lecture, Dani said that the archaeological remains found around Lahore recently went as far back as the Bronze Age. "If my view is to get accepted, then Lahore would be the oldest living city not only in the subcontinent, but the whole world," said Dani.

Far more delegates attended the session than was initially expected. Professor Aniruddha Ray, local secretary of the IHC said, "We expected about 600 delegates, but over 1,250 turned up from all over the country. This is the largest turnout in 20 years." There were also 20 delegates from countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Israel and Hungary. "We have adopted a policy of inviting representatives from all our neighbouring countries, irrespective of the kind of relationship our respective governments enjoy," said Ray.

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