HISTORY RETOLD

Print edition : June 06, 2003

Human Resource Development Minister Murali Manohar Joshi. - ANU PUSHKARNA

Fascist future of the past.

THE history of India is being retold. And with the support of the government. There is nothing extraordinary in either of them. For history, like any other discipline, undergoes continuous revision. That is when historians gain access to hitherto unused sources or employ new analytical tools. The historian's work is also contingent upon the infrastructure generated and controlled by the government, particularly the archival and the archaeological. On many occasions, research projects are undertaken with the financial support proffered by the agencies of the government. Yet, the historian in independent India has enjoyed enough intellectual freedom to pursue his work without external interference. It is arguable that the advances made by Indian historiography during the post-Independence period would not have been possible without this independence. The situation has rapidly changed during the last few years. The government is now a key player in the writing of history, deciding and dictating what constitutes authentic history and disseminating it through its agencies such as the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) and the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT).

The past is a matter of interest to all governments as it often serves as a source of legitimacy for their politics and as a justification for the society and polity they seek to construct. The involvement of succeeding governments in India in matters historical can be traced to these reasons. Both Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi had taken keen interest in the writing of history; the latter even embedded at the Red Fort in Delhi an official version of history in a time capsule. Their engagement was integral to the nature of their politics: the creation of a secular nation out of the diverse religious communities into which the people were organisationally, ideologically and emotionally divided. The attempt, therefore, was to retrieve the past from the colonial distortions and thus construct a nationalist history, which would reinforce the sense of commonness that the anti-colonial struggle had proffered. More important, to call attention to the fact that the secular character of the nation is not a contemporary construction but a part and continuation of its historical experience. Nehru had already laid the foundation for such a view in The Discovery of India, which was subsequently elaborated by many.

The government of independent India had initiated several projects, primarily to underline the historical processes that contributed to the making of the nation. One of the earliest efforts was to commission a history of the Revolt of 1857, which was initially entrusted to R.C. Majumdar who, however, withdrew owing to some differences of opinion. It was subsequently undertaken by Tarachand, Majumdar publishing his version independent of the government. Tarachand also wrote a multi-volume history of the freedom movement, which was sponsored by the government. Majumdar's withdrawal underlined the tension inherent in government sponsorship, which was sought to be overcome by setting up independent and autonomous institutions.

It was in this context that the NCERT and the ICHR came into being. These institutions, like other such bodies as the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR), were envisaged as autonomous organisations with full control over their academic activities without any interference from the government. The question of autonomy was seriously debated in the ICSSR during the chairmanship of Sukhamoy Chakravarty when the government tried to control its activities. Although financial dependence and academic autonomy are difficult to reconcile, eventually the government recognised the significance of such organisations functioning within an autonomous sphere. Unfortunately, such ideas have no sanctity in the new dispensation and these institutions have been relegated to the position of loyal appendages of the government. Yet, it is necessary to recall that both the NCERT and the ICHR, by their constitution, are independent and autonomous organisations.

THE NCERT's main brief was to prepare standard textbooks for use in schools all over India. In the field of history, the NCERT had managed to persuade some of the outstanding historians of India most of whom are in the list of `eminent historians' derisively described so by Arun Shourie, now Disinvestment Minister to write books for school children from Class VI onwards. Although these textbooks had several limitations in both content and pedagogy as recently pointed out by Krishna Kumar about the modern history textbook, they marked a healthy departure from the books then in use in schools. In a country where scholars hardly wrote textbooks the participation of some of the well-recognised names in the project was itself an achievement. It was clear that their involvement was part of an effort to bring about a paradigm shift in the teaching of history. Understandably, these textbooks earned near-universal acclaim at that time. Apart from the professional competence, they helped students envision the nation as a secular entity.

These textbooks came under adverse comments during the Janata regime after the Emergency. Reportedly at the instance of some leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the government contemplated the withdrawal of these books on the plea that they injured the religious sentiments of Hindus. In the face of nation-wide protests, the government decided to refer them to some historians, an overwhelming majority of who found nothing wrong with these books. The government, therefore, dropped the idea of withdrawing them.

These are the same books that have recently attracted the ire of the Sangh Parivar on the same grounds that they either injure the religious feelings of the people or insult the historical memory of certain communities. Initially, the government decided to expunge all such facts from the text and later decided to suppress them altogether and replace them with new books. Unlike in 1977, there was no consultation with historians, at least not known to the public, and the decision was reportedly taken by the Human Resource Development Minister who, if his public pronouncements are to be believed, has emerged as an `acknowledged' authority on history! He has, however, announced that in future all textbooks would be vetted by religious leaders to ensure that they are properly sanitised of all objectionable material. This change of procedure is perhaps a reflection of the erosion of the commitment of the government to democratic values. About the practice of history, however, the government censure raises an important question. What part of history should the people know? It needs no reiteration that all facts of history can never be incorporated in any work, let alone in a textbook. But can deletions be made on the ground that they are likely to be uncomfortable to some? For instance, should the textbooks contain the changing food habits of the people, influenced as they were by the nature of social organisation and the system of economic production? That the consumption of beef was not a taboo during the Vedic period is a significant marker of the social organisation at that time. So was its prohibition at a later time. Both help explain the patterns of social change. Similarly should the iniquities of the caste system, practised even today, be kept under wraps? Should we shroud the fact that Gandhiji was killed by a Hindu fanatic? If we accept the principle of selective presentation based on political convenience, quite a bit of our known history would be lost to the coming generations.

The NCERT has published four textbooks to replace the old ones: India and the World for Class VI, Contemporary India for Class IX, Medieval India and Ancient India for Class XI. In the foreword to these books, NCERT Director states: "The new techniques and technologies, new excavations and explorations have resulted in fresh interpretations of several situations in history... . The new NCERT textbooks in history have been prepared adhering strictly to the principle of giving an objective account of historical events. The latest researches and interpretations in the field have been incorporated." This indeed is a laudable sentiment, as the fruits of recent research should necessarily find a place in the textbooks. The earlier textbooks were written about 30 years ago, and much has happened since in Indian historiography by way of empirical advance and conceptual innovation. Unfortunately, the new textbooks, despite the Director's claim, hardly contain anything new, either empirically or analytically, except assertions of certain unsubstantiated claims about the antiquity of Indian civilisation and its achievements and the indigenous origins of the Aryans. In fact, these textbooks, replete with factual errors and unacknowledged reproductions from the works of other scholars, are much poorer in knowledge and unprofessional in pedagogic methods. They have depended more on imagination than on historian's craft.

NCERT Director J.S. Rajput inaugurating the national conference of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, in Kozhikode, Kerala, in December 2002.-

THE objection to these books, however much the critics have harped on factual errors and anachronisms, is much more fundamental. The errors, as NCERT Director has repeatedly stated, can be corrected, even if they are a poor commentary on the knowledge of the `specialists' who have authored these books. But then several of them are not simple errors unwittingly committed; there appears to be some method in the madness. For, some facts are deliberately suppressed, others are underplayed and some others are blown out of proportion. They seek to establish the unmatched antiquity of Indian civilisation and its unparalleled achievements. For instance, Indian civilisation is credited with an "unbroken history of 8,000 years i.e. from Neolithic times" and the Upanishads are described as the "greatest work on philosophy in the history of humankind". Hinduism, "the eternal spiritual tradition of India," is traced to the Harappan civilisation, which coincides with the Vedic. The religious and political practices of the ancient civilisation are still in vogue, which suggests continuity from the ancient past. The pipal tree, the linga, fire, sun, wind and sky, which were the objects of worship during the `Harappan-Vedic' civilisation continue to be so even today. Similarity also exists in political practices and institutions. The rules which "governed the debate and behaviour of the members in Sabha and Samiti were like in our Parliament". The king was assisted by a council of ministers, which was "called mantriparshad as today". The rulers were "chosen by the people of the kingdom like we choose our government today".

The achievements of Indian civilisation in science and technology receive particular attention. India is projected as the original home of knowledge in many a field. The Class XI textbook states: "In the field of mathematics, astronomy and medicine India had much advanced knowledge during this period in comparison to any other country in the world. These developments in science and technology in India were first borrowed by Arabs and then by the Western world." The narrative that follows does not say how the Indian knowledge in these fields was advanced than others or how the Arabs and the West incorporated it. Surprisingly, what is said about Vedic science is exactly the same in both Class VI and Class XI books! Surely, Class XI students should know more about the scientific achievements of the Vedic Aryans.

In contrast to the repeated references to science and technology in ancient India, the textbook on medieval India is remarkably silent about them. It gives the impression that there were no scientific pursuits or technological innovations worth mentioning in this period. The chapters on culture focus mainly on architecture, painting and religious movements. But in all of them the syncretic tendencies that emerged as a result of the coming together of two different streams, which produced a new cultural ambience, are scrupulously overlooked. The changes in the architectural style as a result of the mutual influence of the Islamic and the Hindu traditions do not find a mention, even if some of the finest structures of medieval India were the result of this interaction. At the same time architecture is used to underline religious division. Shajahan, it is stated, forbade the construction of Hindu temples and destroyed others. The number of mosques repaired or constructed and temples destroyed by Aurangazeb form the only content of the section on the decline of Mughal architecture!

The plural religious context and influence as a factor in the emergence of medieval religious movements such as the Bhakti and the Sufi movements and in their philosophical outlook have been unambiguously rejected. The Bakhti movement, it is asserted, was "not a Hindu response to the egalitarian message of Islam and its spread among the lower classes," but only the continuation of the tradition from the times of the Upanishads and the Bhagvat Gita. Similarly, Sufism is described as "a movement that arose independently within the Muslim world and not as a consequence of its interface with Hinduism". Apart from a passing reference to Dadu, none of the Nirguna Bhaktas like Kabir, and Raidas find a place in the text. The caste system and religious practices such as idolatry, which the Nirguna Bhaktas criticised and rejected have been completely overlooked. The attitude of the Sufi saints towards Hinduism and their attempts to promote cultural synthesis do not figure at all in the discussion. Such silence is perhaps not accidental, but part of a design to foreground religious exclusion and difference as the characteristic of Indian society.

The suppression, distortion and invention of historical facts, which are aplenty, have undermined the quality of these new textbooks and have made them unworthy of use in the schools. More importantly, the sense of history that it seeks to convey tends to weaken the unity of the nation and endanger social harmony. For almost everything that happened in history an undercurrent of religious identity is either directly or indirectly suggested and the cultural and philosophical dynamism that the presence of different religious streams had entailed, has been scrupulously avoided. Added to that is a pro-Hindu slant; the defence of Hindu social institutions running through the entire narrative. For instance, the section on conversions does not give any information about the causes and the process of conversion. It only tries to prove that the "so-called tyranny of the caste system" has nothing to do with conversions and that the social condition of the converts did not improve thereafter.

A close reading of all the four textbooks leaves the impression that the history of India is being projected in religious terms, privileging the Hindu as the embodiment of the nation. This is a departure from the secular-scientific outlook of the earlier textbooks. This change is symptomatic of the political project of the present government, namely to redefine the Indian nation as Hindu, euphemistically claimed as the realisation of cultural nationalism. What the NCERT has done is to reshape the Indian past in order to provide historical justification for this political project and to mould communally the historical consciousness of the coming generations. In the process, it has neither respected the norms of historical discipline nor followed its generally accepted methods. The imprecise and unsubstantiated statements and totally unconnected digressions, which are far too many to recount, make these books professionally unacceptable.

The present revision of history, academically bizarre but politically well-crafted, becomes intelligible only in the context of the communalisation of the public discourse during the last few years. The communal view of history presented by the textbooks used in the schools run by the Sangh-controlled Vidya Bharati, has considerably contributed to this process. So has the Hinduised notion of the past popularised by the Itihas Sankalan Samiti, entrusted with the task of rewriting history. So far, this interpretation had no credibility or acceptance in academia. By providing the stamp of its governmental authority, the NCERT has brought it to the mainstream. The `new' history that it propounds, reminiscent of what the fascist regimes did, is likely to contribute to the creation of a sense of popular ultra nationalism. For, it seeks to inculcate a false sense of pride in a community with a dismal present by associating it with a past where it had unparalleled achievements to its credit. Such a view can serve the `nation' well, by providing an ideology for organising the politics of identity, exclusion and hatred. The example of fascism in Europe has demonstrated the lure of aggression for the defeated and the sense of hatred that it could generate. The NCERT textbooks invoke the past to create a similar psychology of pride and aggression. Hindu communalism has thus made yet another advance in moulding the future generations in a communal way.

K.N. Panikkar is Vice-Chancellor of the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady, Kerala.

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