How new history textbooks fail to educate students about communal politics

A historian’s critique of new NCERT textbooks says that a misleading picture is painted about freedom fighters and their role in the fight for Independence.

Published : Mar 14, 2003 00:00 IST

A historian’s critique of the new history textbooks introduced by the National Council of Educational Research and Training.

Contemporary India

As is well known, there were many voices of anti-colonial movements, including those which were nationalist in consciousness. The struggle for freedom had many trajectories, and there were contradictory pulls and differing opinions at any point of time. ‘Hari Om’ emphasises how Subhas Chandra Bose did not agree with “some of the Congress leaders... (who) never wanted him to seek the Japanese support in favour of the Indian freedom struggle”,1 but does not mention, while discussing the Ghadr movement, that Tilak would have none of the Ghadhrites’ idea of exploiting the First World War for their revolutionary ends.2

In fact, a stated purpose of the syllabus is not to go into these differences at all at this stage, nor to discuss the degree to which different sections of Indian society participated in the freedom struggle, still less the non-participation of any section. Its only purpose is to “enable the learners to appreciate the fact that people of India irrespective of religion, caste, gender, and region participated in the struggle for freedom.”3 The new NCERT textbook, however, makes no attempt to bring out the common element of anti-colonialism among the various sections of the Indian people. On the contrary, it succeeds in conveying an impression that freedom was obtained despite the presence of Dalits, Christians, Communists, and, above all, Muslims.

To be sure, as freedom came with Partition, communalism is an essential part of the story. The progress of the freedom struggle cannot be told without reference to communalists who targeted fellow Indians of other religions instead of agitating against colonialism. But all that the new book dwells on is Muslim communalism and not its Hindu counterpart; there is no reference even to the principle of secularism in the unit. Reading this book, students will have a fairly graphic idea of how Muslim communalists stayed away from the freedom movement all through and remained loyal to the British. They will get to know the antecedents of the formation of the Muslim League on December 30, 1906, which included the ideas of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who “tried to establish friendship between the British and the Muslims” and was “opposed to the Congress and Muslim participation in it”. What they will not learn at all is that a fortnight before the founding of the Muslim League, the Punjab Hindu Sabha had been founded at Lahore, with Lala Lajpat Rai as one of its leading members. Just as some “Muslim leaders viewed the Congress as a party of the Hindus”,4 some of the Sabha leaders argued that the Congress was not a party of the Hindus and therefore Hindu Sabhas be substituted for Congress Committees.5 

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Even as people were sinking their differences and coming together for a great anti-colonial upsurge, the Punjab Hindu Sabha not only kept away from the satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act, but also remained unmoved by the Jallianwala Bagh massacre “on the contrary, the Sabha `deplored’ the `disturbances’ of 1919, and, on behalf of the Hindu community, expressed a deep sense of loyalty to the Raj”.6 The Aga Khan, Hari Om writes, “announced... that the Muslims were a nation within a nation”7; the Sabha ideologues blessed the British rule for having finally united Hindus with their long-lost Aryan brethren, that is, the British: “We firmly believe that a benign Providence has brought together the two important branches of the Aryan race, separated in the remote past, placing one under the political guidance and protection of the other. We are proud to be citizens of an Empire on which the sun never sets, and have given clear proof of our solicitude to maintain that privilege.”8

In sum, reading Contemporary India, students will learn nothing of how Hindu communalism marched in step with Muslim communalism (not just in Punjab), and how both had systematically been fostered by the British rulers who had in fact introduced separate electorates for the Muslims in Punjab much earlier than the Morley-Minto reforms.9 In fact, the Hindu agenda of promoting the Hindi language in the Devnagari script and the cow protection movement which hardly ever targeted the British beef-eaters kept Muslims on the defensive during the 19th century across North India.

In the 20th century too, there is a suppression, patently deliberate, of the communalist politics of the Hindu Mahasabha. Hari Om sets great store by the divisive potential of separate electorates for Muslims, so much so that the Congress conceding it in the Lucknow Pact is regarded by him as having “unwittingly... (begun) the constitutional process leading to the partition of India”.10 In his detailed discussion on the Nehru Report, too, he does not fail to mention how in March 1929, in his “Fourteen Points”, Mohammad Ali Jinnah “reiterated the demands for separate electorates for the Muslims”.11 It is, therefore, significant that Hari Om should be silent on the fact that in 1927 Muslim political groups under Jinnah’s leadership had agreed to abandon separate electorates in return for constitutional reforms in the Muslim-majority areas and assured representation in the central legislature. These had been accepted by the Congress leadership, and only fell through owing largely to the obduracy of the Hindu Mahasabha leaders.12

It is not just that Muslim communalism alone (with some British abetment) is held responsible for Partition.13 There is so much on Muslim separatism and so little else on Muslims that only the most obtuse would miss the underlying message, that is, Muslims were what Muslim separatism was. The roots are taken right back to 1857, when Muslims participated in “the first war of Indian independence”14 for a partisan end, namely to restore Muslim rule in India.15 When “Indian Muslims” draw close to Congress-led nationalist politics towards the end of the First World War, they do so over the issues of Turkey and the Khilafat movement. Of course, they promptly sever their links with Congress-led nationalism when these issues die a natural death. One paragraph in the textbook begins with the following sentence, which seeks to emphasise the extra-territorial loyalty of the Muslim population: “Wedded to the ideology of Pan-Islamism, the Muslim opinion in India felt very much concerned about the fate of defeated Turkey.” The paragraph immediately following opens with an unsubtle attempt to distinguish “nationalist” from “Muslim” opinion: “The story of the nationalist opinion in India was also one of dejection.”16

In the same measure, as he highlights Muslim separatism, Hari Om plays down the role of Muslims in the freedom struggle. Ashfaqullah Khan and the Pathans under Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan come out as exceptions that prove the rule of Muslim separatism. There is no reference in the textbook to the great nationalist leaders who liked to call themselves Nationalist Muslims. A photograph of a lonely Abul Kalam Azad with Nehru faces, quite tellingly, the photograph of a whole throng of separatist Muslim League leaders.17

The bias is carried into the section on the States’ Peoples Movement. Hari Om has a few kind words for the rulers of Travancore, Baroda, and Mysore all Hindus while making specific references to the noble deeds of Raja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir. Appropriately enough, while as many as seven leaders of the movement are mentioned by name, that of Sheikh Abdullah, a regular feature in the textbook so far (and with tremendous justification), is deleted. So are the Travancore Christian leaders, such as Annie Mascrene, as well as the Communists, such as A.K. Gopalan.18

Along with the Muslim League, a number of other political and social groups are also named whenever they did not support the Congress-led nationalist movement. Thus, “the Punjab Unionists led by Sikandar Hayat Khan, the Justice Party (which claimed to represent non-Brahmins)... and the Muslim League of Mohammad Shafi” decided not to oppose the Simon Commission; the Muslim League rejected the Nehru Report; “the Muslim League leaders and their followers did not take part in the (Civil Disobedience) movement”; at the Second Round Table conference, “the Muslims, the Anglo-Indians, the Europeans, the Indian Christians and the depressed castes” (with Dr. B.R. Ambedkar colluding as “a signatory to the `minority pact’”) refused to give up their sectarian demands and paid no attention to the requests of Mahatma Gandhi, who was there as the only representative of the Congress; and “the Indian Communists and followers of Jinnah were perhaps the only political elements who did not support... (the Quit India) movement.”19

This is practically all we have on the specific roles of the Indian Christians, non-Brahmins, Dalits and Communists in the national movement. The point here is not merely that this is a tendentiously selective account of the roles of these groups in modern Indian history, but that it is even contrary to the syllabus guideline and makes the following solemn promise of the National Curriculum Framework (p. 66) seem like a cruel joke or, worse, an attempt to hoodwink the Indian people: “Major developments in the recent past including India’s struggle for freedom and the contributions of various sections/regions/groups especially the role of women and weaker sections in the movement... will also be covered.”

Hari Om’s account is, above all, a dishonestly selective account. While subtly stigmatising groups other than upper-caste Hindus for their alleged indifference to the nationalist movement, Hari Om takes care not to name Sikhs even once, though several groups from this community are known to have cooperated with the Simon Commission as indeed all elected members of the legislature did. Likewise, prominent Sikh groups rejected the Nehru Report and sided with the Muslims and the untouchables at the Round Table Conference. So too, did some of them keep away from the Quit India Movement.20

In this Hindutva mode of history-writing, the grace shown towards Sikhs is of course temporary merely an indication that their turn has not yet come. This should serve to alert all to the majoritarian bias and unitarian framework that continue to pervade historiography problems that have been identified and extensively worked upon in recent decades. For instance, a major reason for the mutual alienation of the communities during the colonial period is now seen to be the majoritarian cultural assertion of Hinduism, which even in its most benevolent forms, threatened to smother the identities of the minorities. Thus in 1921, a depiction of Mahatma Gandhi as Krishna poised above a Muslim flag caused deep disquiet among certain Muslims of Bengal, for reasons that a local newspaper explained:

“The manner in which Mr Gandhi is being worshipped in the country makes it impossible for the Moslem community to pull on with him. We are ready to work with the Hindus as their brethren; we can even forego korbani (cow sacrifice) for their satisfaction, but we will never allow the holy crescent to lie low at the feet of Sri Krishna.”21

In blatant defiance of all recent research, however, Contemporary India lays the blame for the communal polarisation of the colonial period wholly on the machinations of Jinnah and his associates. The inherent “aggressiveness” of the Muslim community was supposedly solely responsible for riots “with large-scale conversions and murder of the Hindus”.22

For the same ideological end, the book also seeks to peddle Cold War propaganda and dress up dubious claims as authentic historical facts. One is the insistence that the Russian Revolution was little more than a coup by Lenin and a small circle of plotters. This was, as the great British historian Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out, standard stuff in “Cold war mythology”, which omits the vital historical fact that Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power on a surge of popular power, since they alone knew “to lead by knowing how to follow” peoples’ yearning for “bread, peace, (and) land”.23

Another myth that Hari Om seeks to propagate is the claim that Subhas Chandra Bose was advised by V.D. Savarkar “on June 22, 1940, ... to leave India, organise the Indian forces in Europe and invade British India as soon as possible”.24 This has however been sharply contested, for very cogent reasons, by most authoritative scholars. Newspaper and other reports from the period indicate that there was between Bose and Savarkar, none of the cordiality and mutual trust that such an exchange of advice would suggest. It is also known that Bose had been in touch with the Axis powers “right from 1933”, and the only basis for the claim that he had depended on the Hindu Mahasabha leader for advice is Savarkar’s own claim, made 12 years later, when he badly needed to get the Hindu Mahasabha some legitimacy in the wake of Gandhi’s assassination.25

This belated claim by Savarkar is made all the more tenuous by the fact that when, in August 1942, Gandhi was exhorting Indians to “do or die”, Savarkar in September 1942 admonished all the members of the Hindu Mahasabha “in municipalities and other local bodies, legislatures, councils, committees serving in the army, navy, airforce or... holding any post or position of vantage in the Government services” to “stick to them and continue to perform their regular duties in their various capacities”. The message was entitled “Stick to your post”.26 This kind of “preparation” for anti-colonial revolution is unlikely to have enthused Subhas Bose.

Many of the gross errors in the textbooks were pointed out soon after they were published, prompting NCERT to come out with a revised version in quick time. Factual errors continue to abound in the reprinted edition. For example, it notes (on p. 57) that “nearly 500 Indians” were killed in communal riots in “Calcutta and other places in East Bengal, Bihar and Punjab” in late-1946 and early-1947. In fact, people perished by the thousands. Second, Curzon is rightly credited (on p. 24) with the creation of the North-West Frontier Province in 1901. Yet a few pages later (on p. 41), we have Jinnah demanding, in the late 1920s, the “creation of... North-West Frontier Province”.

Ancient India for Class XI

The first impression that strikes the reader on going through Makkhan Lal’s new textbook on ancient India for Class XI is that he has, contrary to usual form, produced a work with certain well-written, even elegant passages. Soon, however, the reader is likely to be assailed by a sense of deja vu, of having seen it all somewhere before. A comparison with Romila Thapar’s standard History of India, for long a mainstay of college and university instruction, would reveal that whole sentences and paragraphs have been lifted without attribution or acknowledgment. A detailed consideration of one chapter (chapter 22) from Makkhan Lal’s book would uncover that more than three-quarters of it is lifted from a variety of sources. And the disease is not confined to this chapter alone.

These sources include the earlier NCERT textbooks by Romila Thapar for Class VII and by Satish Chandra for Class XI (much of pages 10 to 11 of the latter was found to have been lifted and scattered also over Lal’s chapter 20). It is seldom that Lal paraphrases or discusses in his own words the contents of these works, and when he does so, he almost always distorts or misrepresents their considered judgments. For the rest, it is plagiarism from end to end, broken only by interventions, which betray that characteristic mix of slant, shoddiness, and plain ignorance for which the new NCERT books have come to be so deservedly notorious (see box, `The Sources’).

There is a certain pattern to the plagiarism, which may be seen in the following comparison of Makkhan Lal’s text with the unacknowledged original:

In Makkhan Lal’s Ancient India, one finds on page 223, the following passages: “The tendency of working out the intricate patterns of double, triple or even more meanings reflect ample leisure combined with wealth and excessive love of embellishment. The climax of this style may be found in the Shatarthakavya of Somprabhacharya in which every verse was meant to be interpreted in a hundred ways. A large number of Jaina narratives dealing with the lives of Jain teachers were composed.” In the original, Yadava, 1973, we find the following description on page 411: “The tendency of working out the intricate patterns of double, triple or even more meanings reflect ample leisure combined with wealth, excessive love of embellishment, and above all the artificiality of life among the ruling aristocracy. The climax of this style may be found in the Shatarthakavya (c.1177 A.D.) of Somprabhacharya in which every verse was meant for being interpreted in a hundred ways... A large numbers of Jaina narratives dealing with the lives of Jain teachers and heroes were composed in Prakrit during the twelfth century.”

As relevant as the fact of plagiarism are the sections of the original that have not been copied (shown in italics) pointing as they do to the hallmark blunders and biases of the new NCERT textbook.

This cut-and-paste story has, in effect, given us a patchwork of disjointed information. Equally obvious, the idea of updating the earlier textbooks, endlessly repeated by the Sangh Parivar and its hangers-on turns out to be little more than a farcical pretence in Lal’s “updating” exercise, Romila Thapar’s and Satish Chandra’s textbooks (published in 1979 and 1990 respectively) happen to be the most up-to-date references.

As to the differences between Lal’s Ancient India and his sources, these may be classified under several heads. The first set of the differences pertains to Lal’s attempts to have his own phraseology, for example “principle” (p. 224) in place of Yadava’s “idea” and “examples” (p. 234) in place of Tripathi’s “specimens”. These attempts to be original progress almost effortlessly into the second set of differences, which consist of pure errors, a whole slew of them. For example, the Kathasaritsagara is included “in the field of prose literature” (p. 224), though the original source (Romila Thapar) has pointed out that it was “written in poetic form”. In a rather pathetic instance, lexicons are included in the list of dramas (p. 224) through a ham-handed conflation of Yadava’s two lists. For “Ranku deer’s hair”, the well-known rankava of ancient India, we have “deer’s hair” (p. 226) a more concise expression, though imprecise and careless. And as for “South Arcot district”, we have “Arcot district” (p. 235), which has the merit of being more concise and more inclusive at once never mind if no such district exists.

The most basic of the errors, however, are chronological, a cardinal sin in the profession. It is clear from chapter 20 that “the post-Harsha period” in the book refers to the period from about mid-seventh century to about the end of the tenth century. Yet, without batting an eyelid, Lal incorporates, in his chapter on the post-Harsha period, numerous works written from the 11th century to the turn of the 14th, omitting the specific dates mentioned in his sources. To top it all, what R.S. Tripathi termed “temples that are extant”, with reference to a discussion that covered 12th and 13th century temples (for example, the Dilwara Jain temples), Lal terms as “temples that are standing for the (sic) 1,200 years” (p. 232), with reference to the same post-Harsha period in his discussion. As all specific dates for the temples given by Tripathi are omitted in the textbook, the students would naturally think that they all had come up 1,200 years ago, that is by about 800 C.E.

The third set of differences brings out, in clear and sharp relief, a variety of biases. There is chauvinism, as when “the most marvellous architectural freak in India” is turned into “the architectural marvel in the world” (p. 234). An appreciative statement by Romila Thapar that was meant only for the plays of Bhavabhuti is extended to all the “drama[s] of this period” (p. 224). Accordingly, the statement in Romila Thapar’s work, about the well-known thesis of the decline of subsequent Sanskrit drama, is dropped. In this very chapter are the tall claims made by Lal for the education system, in deference to the National Curriculum Framework and in defiance of his sources, one of whom (Satish Chandra, 1990, p. 30) says “there was no idea of mass education at that time” and another (U.N. Ghoshal, HCIP, 1955, p 367; HCIP, 1957 p. 509, 513) refers to brahminical discrimination against shudras in education and narrates details which should “serve as a corrective to those who fondly believe that everything in ancient India was good and glorious”.

Roughly on the same wavelength as these chauvinism-inspired changes to the original, are the distortions related to the history of women. For instance, in an attempt to elevate the widow’s position beyond what it was, a misleading view of her right to her late husband’s estate is projected (p. 226) through the deletion of the limiting stipulations that the source (Ghoshal) was careful to point out: “provided she is chaste and the property was divided at the time of death” (HCIP, 1957, p. 483). And the provision was for a “sonless” widow, which Lal replaces with “issueless”, thus erasing the critical legal distinction between the two.

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The other biases include a lurking sympathy for (i) the ruling classes, (ii) Brahminism per se, (iii) Brahminism as against Jainism and Buddhism, and (iv) the caste system. Of the three reasons that Yadava gives in the extract above for explaining a certain literary trend, Lal omits the most important (“the artificiality of life among the ruling aristocracy”). B.P. Mazumdar’s reference to Brahmins selling meat and Brahmin thieves and robbers is likewise expunged (p. 225), as are all the details on the anti-Brahminism of the Virashaivas (p. 229) that R.C. Majumdar considered, so very correctly, vital to their belief system.

Lal also cannot countenance Jain monks and Buddhists taking the credit for the origins of miniature paintings in their manuscripts. So he adds, with singular scorn for facts (and syntax), the Shaivas and the Vaishnavas of South India to the list of the forerunners (p. 235). As for the caste system, its social divisive and hence exploitative character is sought to be camouflaged. Satish Chandra’s statement on Ramanuja trying to “build a bridge between the popular movement based on bhakti and the upper caste movement based on the Vedas” is sanitised thus: “Ramanuja tried to build a bridge between the bhakti (sic) and the knowledge of the Vedas” (p. 231). One would not have an inkling of the drain beneath the bridge, it has been so ably covered.

To reject the new NCERT textbooks as appropriate instructional material is not to make a case for the retention of the older textbooks without revision or modification. The case for their revision or replacement will indeed grow with every passing year, with every important gain or shift in knowledge. But this job cannot be left to the motivated individual with little scholarship and less scruple, who reduces all history to the political convenience of the moment.

It is, moreover, a shame that these bungling purveyors of untruth should claim the mantle of such formidable practitioners of the discipline as R.C. Majumdar and K.A. Nilakanta Sastri. It is worth recalling in this context, what the latter had said in 1932, in the thick of our national movement: “... to cast a doubt on the democratic nature of ancient Indian society and government is no longer a mortal sin against patriotism.”27 Seventy years later, in the post-colonial context of growing democratic movements enlivened by people-centred nationalism and global humanism, those who think otherwise can be anything but genuine nationalists.


1. Contemporary India, p. 55.

2. Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, Vol 2: 1839-1988, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999 rpt, p.183.

3. “Guidelines and Syllabi for Secondary Stage”, p. 43.

4. Contemporary India, p. 28.

5. K.L. Tuteja, “The Punjab Hindu Sabha and Communal Politics, 1906-1923”, in Indu Banga, ed, Five Punjabi Centuries: Polity, Economy, Society and Culture, c 1500-1990. Essays for J.S. Grewal, Manohar, New Delhi, 1997, p. 131.

6. Ibid, pp. 133-34.

7. Op.cit, p. 28.

8. Cited in Tuteja, op.cit., p. 134. Outside the communalist discourse too, there is no dearth of such loyalist utterances, each to be understood in its own context. For the Brahminical expressions of such loyalty, in one of which George V and Queen Mary are called the incarnations of Vishnu and Lakshmi, see Dev Raj Chanana, “The Sanskritist and Indian Society”, Enquiry, New Series, Vol. II, no. 2, 1965, pp. 49-67 (p. 62 and n 58).

9. N.G. Barrier, “The Punjab Government and Communal Politics, 1870-1908”, Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 27, no. 3, 1968, pp. 537.

10 Contemporary India, p. 33.

11. Ibid, p. 41 (emphasis added).

12. Peter Hardy, The Muslims of British India, Cambridge, 1972; Mushirul Hasan, “Communalism in Indian Politics: A Study of the Nehru Report”, The Indian Historical Review, Vol. IV, no. 2, 1978, p. 380 ff.

13. Going by the textbook, students will feel certain that modern Indians did not have any other problems to deal with than Muslim separatism and colonial domination (with the attendant menace of Christianity), for which they drew inspiration solely from “a wave of spiritual and cultural awakening” (p. 22 ff) that was entirely Hindu and entirely religious in character. There is room neither for the evils of Hindu society nor, of course, for Islamic and other intellectual and religious trends.

14. Contemporary India, p. 16.

15. Ibid, pp. 26-27.

16. Ibid, p. 34.

17 Ibid, pp. 50-51.

18. Ibid, p. 46. There are several other occasions in the book, for example, when the great working class agitations of 1929 are mentioned (p. 41), when Hari Om stops just short of mentioning the contribution of Communists to the anti-colonial struggle.

19. Ibid, pp. 39, 40-41, 43, 44, 54.

20. Khushwant Singh, op.cit., pp. 226-31, 251; Judith M. Brown, Modern India: The Origins of an Asian Democracy, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1985, pp. 256, 263, 279, 312-13.

21. Cited in Brown, op.cit, p. 223.

22. Contemporary India, p. 36. There are altogether two references to Hindu-Muslim riots in the book (the second one on p. 57), both engineered by the Muslims.

23. Eric J. Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, Viking, 1995, p. 61. Blotting out the significance of the Russian Revolution negates the first avowed purpose (“learning outcome”) of the syllabus, which is to enable the learners “to understand contemporary India in the light of world developments” (“Guidelines and Syllabi for Secondary Stage”, p. 43). The Russian Revolution must rate as it has always done in all scholarly hands as a world development, without reference to which some of the most salient aspects of contemporary India, from the visions of great nationalists like Bhagat Singh to the Five Year Plans, cannot be understood.

24. Contemporary India, p. 55.

25. Marzia Casolori, The Italian Connection: Hindutva’s Foreign Tie-up in the 1930s: Archival Evidence, Footnotes, Sanam, New Delhi, May 2000, pp. 27-9. For Bose’s regular attempts to cultivate the Japanese before 1940, see A.C. Bose, “Japan and the Indian Nationalists, 1940-41”, The Indian Historical Review, Volume XII, 1985-86, pp. 336-7.

26. V.D. Savarkar, Historic Sentiments, ed., S.S. Savarkar and G.M. Joshi, pp. 78-79, cited in Sumit Sarkar, Beyond Nationalist Frames, Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2002, p. 248 and n 4.

27. K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, Studies in Cola History and Administration, Madras, 1932, p 98.

Vishwa Mohan Jha is Reader in History at the Atma Ram Sanatan Dharma College, University of Delhi.
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