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Tampering with a textbook

Print edition : Jul 21, 2001 T+T-

The NCERT wields the axe against a history textbook by R.S. Sharma.

THE National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), which functions under the aegis of the Human Resource Development Ministry, is in the news, for the wrong reasons again. The strong resentment within and outside the Council against its controversial decisions, such as the framing of a new curriculum for school education and the withdrawal of textbooks authored by prominent historians, does not seem to have deterred its decision-makers. Now it has tampered with the history textbook for Class XI, authored by well-known historian Ram Sharan Sharma, and transferred Pritish Acharya, a Reader in History, from the Department of Social Sciences and Humanities to Bhubaneswar for resisting attempts to introduce changes in the textbook without the consent of the author. Earlier, it appointed Atul Rawat, a regular contributor to Organiser, the mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a consultant for history. Rawat, who has an M.Phil. in American Studies, will be in charge of preparing draft syllabi for history for all stages of school education.

As part of its "rectification campaign" in the field of education, the HRD Ministry has been targeting history consistently, mainly because many leading historians in the country happen to hold views that do not conform to the Sangh Parivar's perception of history. In its "integrated system of social sciences for the secondary level of education", the importance of history as a subject is going to be considerably reduced. The latest target is the Class XI textbook on ancient India, written by Sharma. The author has questioned the historicity of the tirthankaras, which is considered offensive to the sensibilities of the Jain community.

The first version of the textbook, which was prepared under a competent editorial board, was published in 1977 and a revised edition in 1980. A new version was prepared in 1990 in accordance with new syllabi under the National Policy on Education, 1986. Several reprints of this edition were brought out subsequently. However, neither NCERT Director J.S. Rajput nor R.K. Dixit, the new Head of the Department of Social Sciences and Humanities, seemed to be satisfied with the new edition. They objected to the contents of Chapter 10 on Jainism and Buddhism. Under the section, titled "Vardhamana Mahavira and Jainism", it is stated: "The Jainas believed that their most important religious leader, Mahavira, had twenty-three predecessors who were called tirthankaras. If Mahavira is taken as the last or the twenty-fourth tirthankara, the origin of Jainism would be taken back to the 9th century B.C. But since most of the earliest teachers, up to the fifteenth one, were supposed to have been born in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, their historicity is extremely doubtful. No part of the middle Ganga plains was settled on any scale until the sixth century B.C. Obviously, the mythology of the tirthankaras, most of whom were born in the middle Ganga basin and attained nirvana in Bihar, seems to have been created to give antiquity to Jainism. The earliest important teachings of Jainism are attributed to Parshvanatha, the twenty-third tirthankara, who belonged to Banaras. He gave up royal life and became an ascetic. But his spiritual successor Vardhamana Mahavira was the real founder of Jainism."

The sentences that doubted the antiquity of Jainism were unpalatable to some people. Letters poured in and the faculty, in consultation with Sharma, decided to modify some statements without altering the historicity of the facts. The altered version reads thus: "According to the Jainas, the origin of Jainism goes back to very ancient times. They believe in twenty-four tirthankaras or great teachers or leaders of their religion. The first tirthankara is believed to be Rishabhadev who was born in Ayodhya. He is said to have laid the foundations for orderly human society. The last and twenty-fourth tirthankara was Vardhamana Mahavira, who was a contemporary of Gautama Buddha. According to the Jaina tradition, most of the early tirthankaras were born in the middle Ganga basin and attained nirvana in Bihar. However, according to the available archaeological evidence, no part of the middle Ganga plains was settled on any scale and the towns and other settlements which are referred to in Jaina tradition had not come into existence until the sixth century B.C. Because of this, it has not been possible to determine the historicity and chronology of the early tirthankaras. The twenty-third tirthankara was Parshvanath, who was born in Varanasi. He gave up royal life and became an ascetic. Many teachings of Jainism are attributed to him. According to Jaina tradition, he lived two hundred years before Mahavira. Historians generally believe that Mahavira, the twenty-fourth tirthankara, was the greatest teacher of Jainism and its real founder. The Jainas, however, do not believe in any founder."

The altered version was to be inserted in the February 2001 reprint but what appeared in it was something quite different. The parts relating to the archaeological evidence and the question of Mahavira being considered the real founder were deleted. The last three sentences have been replaced by the sentence: "Mahavira is said to be the twenty-fourth tirthankara."

Frontline has in its possession a copy of the revised text that indicates the portions that both Rajput and Dixit wanted deleted.

Another portion, which was revised in consultation with the author, was one relating to Mahavira's quest for truth. It read: "He kept on wandering for 12 years from place to place... During the course of his long journey, it is said, he never changed his clothes for 12 years and abandoned them altogether at the age of 42 when he attained omniscience (kaivalya)." In the Hindi version, the reference to Mahavir "wandering" was considered disparaging. It was revised in consultation with Sharma. The revised version read as follows: "He kept on wandering for 12 years from place to place... during the course of his wandering, he meditated, practised austerities of various kinds and endured many hardships..." The reference to clothes was omitted. But in the February 2001 print, the entire reference to his "wandering for 12 years from place to place" was deleted. The words "during the course of his wandering" were substituted with "during this period". Sharma was not consulted on these changes.

Pritish Acharya objected to the changes that were made without consulting the author. Acharya was asked to make further deletions from the revised portions but he refused to do so. Dixit and Rawat reportedly went to the publication department and ensured that the portions were deleted. Acharya was transferred to the Regional Institute of Education in Bhubaneswar, which already has four persons on the social sciences faculty. Moreover, the regional institutes (five in all) focus more on science education.

Sharma told Frontline over the phone from his home in Patna that he had signed an agreement with the NCERT in 1980 regarding the textbook and that it clearly stated that any changes would be made only in consultation with the author. According to it, the NCERT reserves the right to bring out a new publication based on the material contained in the book entitled "Ancient India" and to publish it in any language. In any new publication, it says, due acknowledgement will be made to the original book and the NCERT will obtain the author's approval for the modification or adaptation of the original text. Sharma said that he had not seen the reprint but was told that certain portions had been omitted. The changes, he said, were in violation of the agreement. "The form can be changed but not the substance. I don't know of any publisher who changes the substance," he said.

IT was on similar grounds that the NCERT objected to a Class VII textbook on Medieval India, authored by Romila Thapar, and a Class XI textbook on the same period, written by Satish Chandra. In an article, "Why revising history textbooks is a right move for NCERT" (The Times of India, May 25), J.S. Rajput raised objections to these books. Romila Thapar's narrative has a section that deals with the Mughal emperor Akbar marrying a number of Rajput princesses for maintaining friendly relations with the community. This was apparently perceived as a one-sided policy that caused humiliation to the Rajputs. The NCERT Director also objected to Romila Thapar's reference to the "execution" of Guru Tegh Bahadur Singh. "Execution," he said, was an offensive word. "Will any child develop respect for the great Guru after reading the above sentence (containing the word 'execution')?"

Certain organisations, Rajput claimed, had filed a case against the NCERT for hurting the sentiments of the Sikh community. But in reality only one organisation had petitioned the Punjab and Haryana High Court against Satish Chandra's textbook and sought a stay on its publication. A two-member Bench of the court declined to grant a stay. The NCERT had filed a detailed reply, defending the books. It is argued that the legal dispute has caused inconvenience to the NCERT. Hence the need for drastic corrections. In his article, Rajput says: "Should biased history be allowed to continue at the cost of national interests?" He also laments that in the context of the revision of NCERT books, "history is the area that has resisted moderation, revision and modification".