Targeting history

Print edition : April 28, 2001

The National Council for Educational Research and Training decides to remove some history textbooks from the higher secondary curriculum, and this move raises questions about the Sangh Parivar's agenda with regard to historical accounts.

THE National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) is once again caught in a storm, following its decision to remove from the curriculum at the higher secondary level certain textbooks on history. The Council also intends to do away with history as a subject at that level and, instead, make it part of an integrated corpus of social sciences. The ostensible objective is to reduce the curriculum load and make it relevant and effective. These objectives were spelt out in the NCERT's National Curriculum Framework for School Education, which itself was criticised for its poor academic content and tendency to push the curriculum in a certain direction. The curriculum was released by Union Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister Murli Manohar Joshi on November 14 last year (Frontline, December 22, 2000).

The moves of the NCERT and the HRD Ministry fall into a pattern that has become familiar since the National Democratic Alliance government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party assumed office. The inaugural issue of The Journal of Value Education, an NCERT publication, came under fire for its attempt to equate human values with religiosity. Education Secretary M.K. Kaw had to tender an apology to the National Council of Minorities for the offensive statements in one of the chapters authored by him in the journal. The University Grants Commission's (UGC) recent move to approve and allocate funds for regular university-level courses in Vedic Astrology had only recently drawn widespread criticism (Frontline, April 13, 2001).

The move to do away with history as a separate subject at the higher secondary level is likely to come into effect from the next academic session in a phased manner. The textbooks that are sought to be removed are authored by eminent historians such as Romila Thapar, R.S. Sharma, Satish Chandra and Bipan Chandra.

In justification of the moves, NCERT authorities quote the National Curriculum document, like a holy book. R.K. Dixit, convener of the Curriculum Group and Head of the Department of Education in Social Sciences and Humanities, sees a conspiracy behind the opposition to the Council's moves because, according to him, his critics concentrated on history and not other social sciences. The entire exercise of drawing up the syllabus and deciding on textbooks, he says, was done on the basis of the guidelines given in the National Curriculum document. Spelling out its intent regarding social sciences, particularly history, the document states: "In order to make the social sciences education meaningful, relevant and effective, the concerns and issues of the contemporary world need to be kept in forefront. To this end, the quantum of history may have to be substantially reduced." It is significant that the document does not propose to mete out similar treatment to other social sciences.

According to Dixit, every student need not become a specialist. "They have to be successful, competent citizens of a healthy society... we thought we should give a system of education for a general member of society; therefore, we decided to give social science in an integrated manner. All these subject areas should be brought closer to the real-life needs of the people," he said.

Defending the exclusion of history textbooks, he said that new needs had emerged in society and some of the material produced decades ago had not proved good enough to meet these needs. Some history books, he said, had statements about minority religions, which had hurt people and court cases had been initiated. People belonging to some dominant communities too had complaints but they did not go to court, he said. There was no strict divide between the Left and the Right and people from all ideologies were welcome on the basis of merit, he said. "What we are bothered about is their balanced views, their academic interest and their willingness to tolerate, change and modify things. That is what has given us this inspiration that we approach people of different kinds."

Asked about the quality of the textbooks, Dixit said that they were written by persons who had been accepted as brilliant scholars in their fields. "Our point is that if these books have put us in a very inconvenient situation, why should we continue with the same lot? There is nothing personal against anyone. But these books create problems, in the sense that we are supposed to be absolutely secular. If that is not happening, then things become inconvenient. What we mean is equal respect for all religions, for the followers of all religions and for the holy books of all religions."

According to Dixit, some historians had been left out of the NCERT committees with a view to bringing in fresh faces. But it was evident that freshness was not the only criterion. The expert committee that has been set up with the blessings of NCERT Director J.S. Rajput has the names of historians who are known to be close to the ruling establishment, such as S.P. Gupta, K.S. Lal, Lokesh Chandra and G.C. Pande. Sources in the NCERT said that the committee was packed with either relatively little known names or persons who are too old even to attend its meetings.

Dixit denied that the HRD Ministry had instructed the NCERT to exclude persons subscribing to a particular ideology. He said: "We would prefer issues being put before the students in an open manner. If there is a question about some historical controversy, for instance, about whether the Aryans came from outside, we should not say definitely that Aryans were outsiders and they drove away the original inhabitants. These questions divide the nation."

Dixit's idea of history defies logic. Here is an example: "Anyone who visits the Qutb Minar is tempted to know what it is. But at the other side of the Minar you have the Quwwat ul Islam mosque. There is also a question about that. One reads there that the Masjid was built on the debris of 37 Hindu and Jain temples. This is immediate history. I don't think we should ignore this." According to Arjun Dev, Dixit's predecessor in office, the inscription is there for everyone to see and there is no special need for the NCERT to tell students about it.

A balanced view of history, according to Dixit, can be achieved by giving details about the Indian tribes and the people of the north-eastern region and southern India which, he says, have been ignored in the current textbooks.

The textbooks in question are Bipan Chandra's Modern India, Satish Chandra's Medieval India and Romila Thapar's texts on Ancient India and Medieval India. The objections to the books written by Bipan Chandra and Satish Chandra pertain to certain historical facts about two Sikh gurus which, according to Dixit, would not be accepted by the people. The facts are seen as problematic because they do not deify the gurus.

Arjun Dev said that the question today was whether history should be subordinated to theology, mythology or fact.

Said Romila Thapar: "If they wish to revise the books, let competent historians do it. Have they set up a committee and has that committee recommended the withdrawal of these books? We would like to know who these experts are and on what grounds has any committee decided to do away with these books. To say there is no ideological motivation is not correct." She demanded that the NCERT make public the list of experts that it has put out to design the syllabus. "They know if they write their RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) view of history, it will get rejected. That is one of the reasons for abolishing history," she said.

The textbooks, says Romila Thapar, were model textbooks and the understanding was that if the States were to make any changes in them, the names of the authors would be deleted. "We were not writing Marxist texts. We were trying to reflect on some of the ideas of social and economic history. The purpose was to give standard information."

Bipan Chandra said that since it was difficult to distort history, the idea of giving selected themes suited the communal lobby. Rebutting Dixit's argument that young people have been brought in, Bipan Chandra said that hardly anyone in the expert committee fitted that category.

Satish Chandra, whose textbook on Medieval India is proposed to be withdrawn, told Frontline that a syllabus needed to be worked out first before deciding on the textbooks. He wondered whether history should be written "on the basis of facts or on the basis of susceptibilities of communities. He said that he was prepared to deal with any specific objection relating to historical facts but would not accept the NCERT's argument for weeding out specific books. It must be remembered that these texts had been in circulation for 30 years or more, he said.

According to Arjun Dev, the textbooks have been re-examined, revised and updated regularly, so the question of their obsolescence does not arise. He said that the renowned sociologist Yoginder Singh's name had been deleted from the list of experts dealing with the subject. Similarly, the name of Aijazuddin Ahmed, who had authored the Class XII textbook on geography, has been removed from the list. Among the names that are dropped from the list of experts in history were those of Romila Thapar, D.N. Jha, K.M. Shrimali and Satish Chandra.

Observers feel that the textbooks may be dropped only after a major alteration is made in the syllabus. The new syllabus is yet to be formalised and the actual phasing out of the textbooks will begin in the academic session starting in 2002. Whatever be the curriculum changes, it is clear that an entire generation of students will be exposed to history in a distorted form.

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