A new brand of history

Print edition : February 28, 2003

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

THE recent publication of new textbooks on history by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) marks the completion of an important academic and political chapter in contemporary India. Beginning with a series of government-ordained deletions from the earlier generation of NCERT textbooks, this process has been attended by spirited public discussion and debate. The new history textbooks that the NCERT has now premiered, well in time for the next academic year, have been authored by Professor Makkhan Lal for Class VI (unit II of India and the World: Social Sciences Book for Class VI) and for Class XI (Ancient India), and by Professor Hari Om for Class IX (Contemporary India). 1

The justification for introducing new textbooks was sought on two grounds. First, there was the standard argument about upgradation of the outdated knowledge in old textbooks. And the reason why they needed replacement - and not revision - was their inherent biases, "leftist" and other. These old history textbooks could no longer serve because they suffered, incurably, from a biased and jaundiced view of India's past, which had to give way to a balanced and healthy account. This alleged general "leftist" bias was not demonstrated in any detail. But certain portions of these books were found to be so objectionable on other counts that the NCERT ordered their immediate deletion. Through a circular issued in October 2001, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) banned any discussion of these sections as a part of classroom instruction. The excision of passages continues to be a part of the arsenal of the NCERT and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government - perhaps among its most important weapons.

For this reason, the deletions that were carried out in early 2002 could serve as the starting point for analysing the whole exercise. They give an idea of what the ruling establishment found injurious in the old textbooks, and help us to see what it finds most positive in the new ones.

In Ancient Indian History, the deletions included (i) references to beef-eating and cattle sacrifice; (ii) a critical evaluation of the Puranic and the epic traditions in the light of archaeological and epigraphic testimony, with reference to the antiquity of Ayodhya and the origin of Krishna worship in Mathura; (iii) the exposition of Brahminical hostility towards Ashoka despite his policy of religious tolerance; (iv) the exploitative and ideological aspects of the caste system; and (v) the entire early life of Vardhamana Mahavira. In Medieval Indian History, the target was the allegedly dishonourable discussion on the execution of Guru Tegh Bahadur. In Modern Indian History, a one-line reference to the plundering activities of the Jat rulers of Bharatpur was thought noxious enough to be removed. 2

There were no official explanations for the deletions, which were ordered without prior consultations with the authors concerned. As for unofficial explanations, there was simply no dearth.3 The deletions were defended by invoking the sentiments of the Jat community, the Jain and Sikh faiths, and the piety of Hindus who worship Rama and Krishna and consider beef-eating a heinous sin. The deletion of references to the caste system and Brahminical intolerance were never touched upon, but there was plenty served up on the biases of "leftist" or "Marxist" history-writing. The "leftist" brand of history was thus identified ex-silentio with irreverence towards Brahmins and the caste system.

There are compelling reasons to believe that all this was a clumsy attempt to whip up sentiments, rather than a response to the hurt sentiments of an outraged public of students, teachers, guardians and others. First, whole paragraphs that in no way impinged on community sentiments were expunged; for example, an entire section on Sikh history, rather than merely the portion on the Guru's execution. There was nothing objectionable in the account of the life of Vardhamana Mahavira that was entirely deleted following the instructions of the CBSE circular; the "objectionable" statements that Sangh Parivar ideologues spoke of had already been removed. By an equally clumsy contrast, only one of four consecutive sentences on cattle sacrifice and beef-eating was ordered deleted, not the other three that ostensibly hurt no one. The following are the sentences in question, of which only the second was ordered excised:

"But the Vedic practice of killing cattle indiscriminately in sacrifices stood in the way of the progress of new agriculture. The cattle wealth slowly decimated because the cows and bullocks were killed in numerous Vedic sacrifices. The tribal people living on the southern and eastern fringes of Magadha also killed cattle for food. But if the new agrarian economy had to be stable, this killing had to be stopped."

Second, "sentiments" were hurt only when the statements occurred in the history textbooks of NCERT, not in its other textbooks, or in other prescribed readings for the upper primary and secondary school students all over the country. For example, the first chapter of R.K. Narayan's Swami and Friends has the eponymous hero and his Christian teacher calling each other's gods names. The teacher calls Krishna an "arch-scoundrel" and Swami, for his part, questions the divinity of the meat-eating, wine-drinking Jesus. Similarly, the chapter on Kumbh Mela in Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography still widely used as a school reader is full of pique over the "hypocrisy" of Hindus. And while the section on the exploitative caste system was deleted in the Class XI history textbook, the following was retained in the Class VII civics textbook of the NCERT:

"... the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes have been given some special privileges... In the past, the Scheduled Caste people were badly treated. Their children were denied admission in schools. These people were not allowed to enter any temple. They were treated as untouchables. Due to these past discriminations they remained backward."4

Imagine the students' plight when they will now learn in Class XI in Makkhan Lal's Ancient India that "education was imparted free with clothes, food and lodging" and that "the ancient Indian education system was thought to be unique by foreign travellers because every village had a school and every individual participated in its maintenance. As a result, India had the highest literacy rate in comparison to other countries of the world till the time up to the nineteenth century".5

Union Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi.-K.V. SRINIVASAN

Quite naturally, as some of the deletions ran foul of Dalit sentiments, their leaders were outraged. They insisted that "beef-eating was historically part of Dalit culture".6 And as for Muslims' sentiments, Union Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi claimed in a media interview that he was protecting their sentiments by keeping out of NCERT textbooks any references to the atrocities committed by Muslim rulers. When told that "the imposition of the jaziya", or the tax on non-Muslims, is taught as part of history, he replied: "We do not teach that in any NCERT book. It may be figuring in private books."7

This is wholly incorrect. There are references to jaziya (and other acts of discrimination and oppression by the Muslim rulers) in Satish Chandra's and Romila Thapar's Medieval India, both NCERT textbooks.8 The sentiment game was being played, but selectively, and accompanied by flagrant falsehoods by way of explanations.

The larger question, of course, was the incompatibility of the "sentiments" agenda with the very purpose of education, which became evident as soon as NCERT came out, in the wake of the deletions, with its "guidelines and syllabi". A number of "objectives" were listed therein, which are in fact the fundamental goals of education. These objectives constitute a massive repudiation of the "sentiments" argument.

The objectives of history writing according to the guidelines and syllabi, are to:

* "acquire necessary abilities and skills, both academic and social, which would enable the learner to differentiate between fact and fiction, and would help her/him to think critically and creatively, communicate effectively, cooperate with others and respond to the need of others";

* "develop scientific temper by promoting the spirit of enquiry and following a rational and objective approach in analysing and evaluating data and information as well as views and interpretations";

NCERT Director J.S. Rajput.-M. LAKSHMANAN

* "initiate the pupil into methods of historical enquiry";

* "provide authentic historical knowledge";

* "develop an attitude of studying the past in its context";

* "help develop a spirit of enquiry and critical appreciation of the past so that pupils' personality is free from prejudices and bigotry, parochialism and communalism".9

It will be seen that these objectives not only justify, but in fact call for the inclusion of the portions that were deleted. If, for instance, a student of history is to acquire "authentic historical knowledge" by learning "to differentiate between fact and fiction", there is no getting away for him or her from a critical evaluation of traditions, whether Hindu or Islamic, Jain or Buddhist.

Critical reasoning and rational explanation clearly have the right of way over sentimentality and ignorance. And if the pupil learns, in accordance with another "objective" of the syllabus issued by NCERT during the tenure of the current Director, J.S. Rajput - to "develop an attitude of studying the past in its context" - he or she would also learn not to get sentimental over sundry uncomfortable facts of the past, for example, the Partition.

In line with the deletions introduced into the older ones, the new NCERT textbooks continue to make a mockery of the aforementioned and other "objectives", "rationale" and "learning outcome" of the syllabi that NCERT professes to adhere to. Thus, for the Upper Primary stage, one reads the admirable idea that "it is desirable to emphasise the process of learning and thinking rather than mere acquisition of facts". In keeping with this proposition, it is declared that the "topics" dealt with "are few in number but their depth of treatment is more"10 What the history unit in the Class VI textbook does is just the opposite, covering no less than six ancient non-Indian civilisations - Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, Chinese, and Iranian (sequence as in the book) - in no more than 23 pages, including text, illustrations, and exercises.11

Likewise, for the Higher Secondary level history syllabus, it was stated: "Details of dynastic and administrative history and biographical details have been reduced to the minimum and necessary emphasis has been given to the study of social and economic forces."12 Makkhan Lal's Class XI textbook, Ancient India, has a whole new chapter on "the history of Kamrup" that is distilled dynastic narrative, uncontaminated by any administrative details, let alone socio-economic history. For the Ancient History unit of Class VI, one of the "learning outcomes" is to enable the learners "to understand that no civilisation existed in isolation and that there were interconnections and exchange of ideas".13 Far from apprising the learner of any interconnection or exchange of ideas, Lal's Class VI history textbook would initiate him or her into - and his Class XI Ancient India would confirm the student in - the belief that all that was great and noble in world history, including the Aryans, emanated from India and spread to the rest of the world.

The conclusion is inescapable: the "objectives" and "rationale" of the syllabus were preserved for the sake of form, behind which a Sangh Parivar brand of history was smuggled in. The authors of the new brand of history did try to bring the guidelines partly in line with their agenda. But this, being most obvious from the major changes in content of the syllabi, drew immediate fire. Public pressure forced the NCERT, within weeks, to come out with a revised version of the Ancient and Medieval Indian History syllabi for the Higher Secondary stage. Even the revised version was not without its peculiarities, one of these being the absence, from the two post-Gupta period units, of the topic "political organisation". This is faithfully followed by Lal, whose treatment of political organisation in early India stops with the Guptas. Sometimes he follows his own wisdom, as when he includes, at variance with the syllabus, the discussion of Gupta "polity and administration" in the chapter on "society, economy, and culture".

However, it is the theme of philosophy in Ancient India that undergoes a most interesting evolution through the syllabi to the textbook, in perfect harmony with "Hindu sentiments". The first version of the new syllabus of Ancient Indian History had "Germination of High Philosophy" as Unit VI. This was mainly about the Upanishadic philosophy, and the following unit was "Jainism and Buddhism". There was no reference to the six philosphical systems as a topic in the syllabus.

All of this was sought to be properly reformed in the revised version of the syllabus, which replaces "Germination of High Philosophy" with "Evolution of Upanishadic Philosophy". "Upanishadic" is no doubt more precise than "high", but "germination" implied an absence of philosophy in the preceding phase of the Vedic period, which was now corrected. Further, "Six Schools of Philosophy" was introduced as the last theme in the unit on Jainism and Buddhism, thus claiming a greater antiquity for these philosophical systems than is normally done. Finally, the specific reference to "Christianity" in the Gupta period unit goes missing now.

To Lal, however, even this revision was less than perfect, so we have "Fruition of Indian philosophy" as Chapter XI in his book, where he deals with the six schools. The "fruition" had taken place in his view - and in his view alone - before "the evolution of Jainism and Buddhism", which follows as the next chapter. And in the Gupta period, while Brahminical religions are treated over almost three pages, Buddhism and Jainism are dismissed over just a little more than half a page, completing the process that began with Christianity's elimination.

In many more ways the new books carry on with, both as propaganda and as subtle messages through careful selection and omission, the ideological agenda that was launched through the deletions. To the heady beat of Muslim-baiting, the sentiment cards have again been played, so crudely in some case (the inviolable Vedic cow) as to have invited attention from the first day, so deftly in another ("Sikh sentiment") as to have escaped attention till date. And there is more to the books than these.

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

1. All published by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), New Delhi, 2002. 2. For the circular from the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) on the deletions, specifying the portions to be excised, see Communalisation of Education: The Assault on History , SAHMAT, New Delhi, 2002, pp.26-34. Also, Communalisation of Education: History Textbooks Controversy , Delhi Historians' Group, New Delhi, 2001, pp.54-60. 3. Those that this writer has seen include, besides the media interviews with Murli Manohar Joshi ( The Hindustan Times , December 2, 2001 and The Indian Express , December 9, 2001), essays by Vijay Kumar Malhotra, Tarun Vijay, Shankar Sharan, Mahip Singh, Bhanu Pratap Shukla, J.S. Rajput, M.C. Joshi, Rita Varma, Dinanath Batra, Devendra Swarup and S.P. Gupta, which were published in Rashtriya Sahara (December 8, 2001), Hindustan (December 3, 4 and 7, 2001), Dainik Jagaran (December 4, 5 and 6, 2001), The Hindustan Times (December 14, 2001 and January 4, 2002), and The Times of India (December 2, 2001). (Here and elsewhere, all references are to the New Delhi editions of these publications, unless otherwise specified.) 4. D.S. Muley, A.C. Sharma and Supta Das, How We Govern Ourselves: A Textbook of Civics for Class VII, NCERT, 1997, p.14. 5. Lal, Ancient India, p.232. These statements, which amount to an emphatic denial of discrimination in education against the Dalits in the past, seem to derive their sanction from that novel document, "National Curriculum Framework for School Education" (NCERT, November 2002): "As per the British documents, even the early nineteenth century India had an extensive education system, free from caste and religious discrimination, and almost all the villages had schools" (page 2, emphasis added). "Even" implies the existence of a still happier situation in ancient India. 6. The Indian Express, December 12, 2001. 7. The Hindustan Times, December 2, 2001; The Indian Express, December 9, 2001. 8. For example, Satish Chandra, Medieval India, NCERT, 1990, pp.70-71, 230-33; Romila Thapar, Medieval India, NCERT, 1979, p.141. 9. "Guidelines and Syllabi for Upper Primary Stage", NCERT, New Delhi, November 2001, p.43; "Guidelines and Syllabi for Secondary Stage", NCERT, New Delhi, November 2001, p.40; "Guidelines and Syllabi for Higher Secondary Stage", NCERT, New Delhi, November 2001, p.38. 10. "Guidelines and Syllabi for Upper Primary Stage", p.44. 11. Op.cit., pp.57-79. Professor K.N. Panikkar was provoked into calling it a "telephone directory". That, according to this writer, is not wholly fair. Nothing could be further from the systematic accuracy of a telephone directory as the book in question. For proof see Saffronised and Substandard: A Critique of the New NCERT Books, SAHMAT, New Delhi, 2002. 12. "Guidelines and Syllabi for Higher Secondary Stage", p.37. 13. "Guidelines and Syllabi for Upper Primary Stage", p.46.

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