To excise history

Print edition : December 08, 2001

The NCERT-mandated censorship of history in certain secondary school textbooks raises disturbing questions.

HISTORICAL scholarship today seemingly faces a piquant choice: history by litigation or history by fiat. Ostensibly troubled by litigation over the contents of history textbooks published under its imprint, the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) recently opted for massive preemptive action. In a mid-October circular, it ordained a purge of sections of the contents of history texts used in secondary schools.

Displaying a meek compliance that stands at variance with its statutory power to set and supervise school syllabi, the autonomous Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) chose within a matter of days to transmit the NCERT fiat to all its affiliated institutions. No explanations were proffered, though when the details of the action emerged to public view late in November, plenty were demanded.

The immediate provocation for the NCERT's extraordinary step was a storm that was raised in the Delhi State Assembly by Congress legislator Arvinder Singh Lovely about the supposed denigration of Tegh Bahadur, revered by Sikhs as a guru of the faith. In an elaborate display of deference towards religious sensibilities, the Assembly adopted a resolution demanding the excision of one sentence from the NCERT text on medieval India authored by the historian Satish Chandra. In seeking to place the execution of Guru Tegh Bahadur in historical context, the offending sentence cited "later Persian sources", which argued 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 whole province of the Punjab".

The legislature's demand was communicated to the NCERT through the Education Department of the Delhi State government, along with a demand that a compliance report be filed. Amidst suggestions from senior political figures that it should be a regular practice to submit history texts to the scrutiny of religious authorities, the NCERT responded with alacrity. It removed not merely the controversial sentence but the entire section on Sikhism in the later medieval period from the text. The consequence could be a gaping hole in the historical understanding, since much of the treatment in the book by Satish Chandra, a former Professor of History at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, is by way of factual narration.

The Persian source is by no means the only text that Satish Chandra relies upon in his interpretation of Guru Tegh Bahadur's execution. After recounting a few other possible explanations, drawn from Sikh tradition as also from regions as far afield as Kashmir, the book cautions that it is "not easy to sift the truth from these conflicting accounts". And it then asserts that irrespective of its true motivations, the action by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb was "unjustified from any point of view and betrayed a narrow approach". This is a value-laden historical judgment over which there has been little discord, for reasons which are not too far to seek.

The section on Sikhs then proceeds to a summary description of subsequent events, including the founding of a "military brotherhood", or khalsa, in 1699 by Guru Gobind Singh. It records a phase of military conflict with the central authority of the Mughal empire, and suggests that the history of Sikhism shows how "an egalitarian religious movement could, under certain circumstances, turn into a political and militaristic movement, and subtly move towards regional independence".

There could be scholarly arguments over various facets of this two-page summary of Sikh history in the later Mughal period, including its relevance and suitability for a Class XI syllabus. Educationists could dispute the summary presentation of complex historical processes and argue for more detailed expositions. Conceivably, informed debate could also make a case for reinterpretation in the light of subsequently discovered textual evidence.

The NCERT, taking its cue from a very narrowly phrased resolution by the Delhi Assembly, instead opted for complete excision. As its circular to the CBSE makes clear, these sections are not to be "taught or discussed in the classrooms and no questions are to be set in any examination or test to evaluate students' understanding of the content of these portions". In its concern for religious sensibilities, the NCERT has decreed a yawning vacuum in students' understanding of a vital part of later medieval Indian history. As Arjun Dev, former Professor in the NCERT's Humanities Department puts it, "it is as if from 1658 onwards, Sikhs have no existence in medieval India".

PERHAPS the grossest variety of censorship has been reserved for R.S. Sharma's book on ancient India which has been used in Class XI for close to two decades. A section seeking to place the Jain tirthankars in a historical context has been deleted since it tries, in accordance with accepted historical methodology, to unravel the mystique that surrounds prophets in narratives of the faith. It is almost as if the NCERT has decreed that mythological time cannot be cast in chronological terms, that received religious legends should be impervious to the inquiring mind.

The same principle seems to be implicitly at work in the removal of Sharma's analysis of the historicity of the ancient Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Sharma's chapter on "modern historians of ancient India", which lays out an extended treatment of the various approaches and methodologies in the study of history, has suffered for its suggestion that "rational" analysis that cut through the fog of religious revivalism has been a vigorous tradition in India. One of the cases that he cites is the 19th century historian Rajendra Lal Mitra, who has now been banished from school curricula - all his deep appreciation for ancient Indian heritage notwithstanding - for suggesting that beef was a common dietary item in ancient India. Also excised is the reference to other historians who in their inquiries into the origins of the caste system argued that it was analogous to the European organisation of society in accordance with the division of labour.

At stake in the NCERT's fiat is a view of history as a complex process driven by a variety of social actors. In its place it is seemingly trying to institute a vision severely distorted by the projection of contemporary interests and biases into the past. It is possible to disagree with Sharma's analysis of the decline of the Maurya empire as a consequence in part of a reaction by the Brahminical elite and their effort to reinstate the Vedic rituals that had lapsed into disuse during Ashoka's reign. But few historians see any merit in the elimination of this thesis from the field of study.

The NCERT's move also seems to sanctify a dangerous view of history as a quarry that can be mined to settle contemporary political scores. Arjun Dev's and Indira Arjun Dev's text on modern India for Class VIII, for instance, deals with the breakdown of central Mughal authority in the 18th century. One of the alternative power centres in this period, they record, was established at Bharatpur by Jats, who then "conducted plundering raids in the regions around and participated in the court intrigues at Delhi".

To an objective historian this description might seem an adequate picture of the manner in which autonomous states emerged and consolidated themselves through various stratagems, including coercive military manoeuvres, in the twilight years of Mughal grandeur. There could be reservations over its over-simplified character, but nothing that cannot be allayed through the rigorous peer review process that the NCERT has followed for years. Yet for the custodians of virtue in the NCERT today, this historical representation seemingly tarnishes the contemporary Jat community, who would need to be appeased by its deletion.

In a written explanation of his decision, NCERT Director J.S. Rajput argued that the organisation had "been fighting court cases against certain communities which have felt hurt by some of the contents in history books". This had led him to accede to the demand "by various groups and sections of people to ensure that there are no biased and hurtful statements in NCERT books".

The record of litigation against the NCERT, according to informed sources, is not as copious as this statement makes out. The case of Guru Tegh Bahadur, before it came to the attention of the Delhi Assembly, had been pursued in the courts for a while by certain individuals, whose mandate to speak for a "community" was uncertain at best. At no stage, however, had the NCERT - prior to Rajput's appointment as Director - made the slightest concession to this litigative tendency. Neither had there been any court injunction against any section of a book published by the body.

WHEN the expected political storm over the NCERT's censorship broke out, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre proved unrelenting. Speaking at a party forum, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee asserted that if history writing had proved "one-sided", then it could well be changed. Other spokesmen for the BJP in Parliament insisted that the main Opposition party - the Congress - had no credible case, since its legislators in Delhi had been instrumental in bringing the demand for rewriting history to the foreground.

In the Rajya Sabha, senior Congressman Arjun Singh accused the BJP-led government of the "Talibanisation" of history writing. With an elaborately simulated display of outrage, the BJP benches insisted that the reference was unbecoming of a parliamentary intervention and insisted on its retraction. An entire day's debate was effectively scuppered over this issue. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan later offered the explanation in the Lok Sabha that only the "obvious biases and errors" in history texts had been removed.

The NCERT is currently engaged in a comprehensive exercise of rewriting all its texts. Rajput is confident that a number of new books will be available for schools before the next academic year. And even if not all the existing texts will be replaced, he asserts, there is a good chance that a substantial number will.

The normal procedure that the NCERT has followed is to assign the task of writing the texts to a number of well-known historians. Once their manuscripts are received, these are put through a rigorous process of peer review at sessions that may last for up to a week. It is not known what precise stage the current exercise is at. What is clear, however, is that there has been an inordinate degree of secrecy over the identities of the authors who have been commissioned by the NCERT.

It could justifiably be asked why the recent exercise of censorship was instituted when a new batch of books is expected to be available soon. This is a question that has not elicited a credible answer yet. But for historians concerned about the integrity and credibility of their craft, the current controversy offers an ominous foretaste of what could be in store for schools next year.

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