The wrong lessons

Print edition : November 08, 2002

The new social science textbooks of the NCERT for Classes Six and Nine are flawed in terms of factual details, content and historical interpretation.

NEVER before in recent history has any national educational body been embroiled in successive controversies of the kind that the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has. Most of the credit for this goes to the current dispensation in the Ministry of Human Resource Development and those in positions of authority in the Council. Now, once again, the Council is the centre of attention in educational circles, for all the wrong reasons. This time, the new social science textbooks prescribed for Classes Six and Nine have been found flawed in terms of factual details, interpretation, content and historical understanding. The books were brought out after a Supreme Court stay on the implementation of the National Curriculum Framework for Secondary Education (NCFSE) in the areas of "Social Sciences, History and Hindi" was lifted on September 12.

What is surprising is that despite apprehensions of alleged distortion of history and misrepresentation of facts in these textbooks, the NCERT has not done much to mollify its critics. If anything, the books contain any number of bloomers and apparent instances of political bias. Another embarrassing dimension is that with only a few months left for the end of the academic session, the books have come rather late and therefore constitute a fait acccompli.

Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government took charge at the Centre three years ago, the HRD Ministry under Murli Manohar Joshi and allied departments have made intense efforts to alter the trajectory and interpretation of historical knowledge at any cost. Obsessed with the notion that the existing history textbooks for schools contained the Leftist interpretation of history, the BJP-led government the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) constituents on the whole have had little to do with this ideologically motivated exercise set about purging individuals from institutions and material from textbooks. The material removed, according to it, did not portray historical facts correctly and sometimes even hurt the sentiments of certain communities. The NCFSE 2000 became the blueprint for preparing new syllabi and textbooks with a view to reducing the burden on children. Textbooks authored by prominent historians such as Romila Thapar, Satish Chandra, Bipan Chandra and NCERT historians Arjun Dev and Indira Dev became the casualties.

The content and language of the new books sadly lack the basic intellectual appeal that earlier books had. Topics have been dealt with cursorily. It appears that the new authors have taken extra pains to highlight certain ideas of the present government at the Centre, as for instance, those in the arena of foreign policy, the relations with the United States in particular. But what is more serious is the preoccupation with projecting a civilisational (and cultural) antiquity and drawing seemingly endless parallels between the Harappan and Vedic civilisations.

To begin with, in the textbook "India and the World", prescribed for Class Six, Chapter Ten entitled `Indian Civilisation-Harappan Civilisation', betrays a deliberate effort to imply that contemporary religious beliefs and practices of Hindus, such as worshipping the Siva linga or the pipal tree prevailed in that period as well. Some terracotta figurines and seals of the Harappan period have been depicted as the kamandala, Siva linga and the swastika, icons of present-day Hindu worship. A terracotta figurine is shown with vermilion in the parting of the hair to further emphasise the religion of the Harappans, but at no point is it categorically stated. The inference throughout this section is that the Vedic and Harappan civilisations were one and the same, a theory being propounded by a select group of historians and archaeologists.

Therefore, right from the beginning, the civilisation is referred to as the Harappan, Indus or Indus-Saraswati civilisation. Even while elaborating the geographical spread of the civilisation, nowhere is it mentioned that its two most important sites, Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, are located in Pakistan. On the possible reasons for the decline of this civilization, nowhere is it mentioned that the advent of the Aryans could have been a factor. Some ideas mooted in this chapter are laughable. The presence of an elaborate drainage system was one of the most impressive features of the Harappan period, but the NCERT would like one to believe that this was because the Harappans gave importance to sanitation and not because some sort of a municipal structure existed. The possibility of a municipal structure having existed was pointed out by historian D.N. Jha in his book Ancient India - An Introductory Outline (People's Publishing House, New Delhi, 1977).

Chapter 11, titled `The Vedic Civilisation', introduces a new concept of Vedic geography, perhaps to drive home the fact during the Rig Vedic times people were settled in the same area that was the centre of the Harappan civilisation. Readers are also informed that "the largest number of Harappan settlements are found on the Saraswati river."

There are some obvious omissions in this chapter, especially in the sections on economic and social life and food habits of the Harappan-Vedic times. Though cattle rearing was the chief occupation, as was pointed out by Jha, the cow was not held sacred then. Beef was a delicacy offered to the guest. The cow was an important economic resource, a fact that has been conceded by all groups of historians. But the NCERT historians make the cow a sacred animal in the Vedic period itself, probably to drive home the fact that contemporary Hindu beliefs and practices were an offshoot of Vedic systems. The subsequent deterioration in the status of women, the strong patriarchal order, the rigidity of the Varna order and the dominance of certain castes over others do not find mention anywhere in the book.

In Chapter 16 of the same book, which deals with India's cultural contacts with the outside world, there is a picture of the Buddha statue at Bamiyan, with the caption: "The Buddha statue at Bamiyan was destroyed in 2001 by religious fanatics headed by the Taliban. They destroyed all the relics kept in Kabul Museum." If the handiwork of religious fanatics was to be described at all, the authors need not have gone as far as Afghanistan but looked for equally recent examples in India. It would have been easier for students to relate to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya to understand what religious fanaticism is all about.

Chapter 17, on `Major Religions', reminds the reader that some scholars believe that the Harappan and Vedic civilisations are the same. One is also informed that Hinduism, apart from being a Sanatana Dharma (that which is eternal), "does not believe that there is only one way of achieving salvation like other monotheistic religions." But there have been sects, the Arya Samaj for instance, that are opposed to the idea of Sanatana Dharma, writes a historian.

To highlight the distinct identity of Hinduism vis-a-vis other "monotheistic religions" smacks of nothing but pure bias. It is also not a coincidence that while disagreements in Christianity and the formation of sects in it find mention, Hinduism is portrayed as a relatively conflict-free religion. That several sects emerged on account of the conflict with various Vedic religious practices does not find any reference in the textbook.

No distinction is being made between theology and philosophy in the new books, says Arjun Dev. No basic historical perspective of Hinduism is given especially to explain the process of change over a period of time. Also flawed is the explanation about the emergence of Jainism and Buddhism. According to the new textbook, these two religions simply emerged out of a quest for salvation through knowledge which had already been initiated by the philosophical tradition and six philosophies of the Upanishads. That these two religions denied the authority of the Vedas and opposed animal sacrifice, thus bringing them into conflict with the brahmanical orthodoxy, does not find mention.

THE social science textbook prescribed for Class Nine is equally deficient in terms of facts and understanding. Entitled "Contemporary India", the book has three units. In Unit I, which is the history component of the textbook and which deals with India in the 20th century, the reader is informed that one of the most noteworthy developments of the century was the "coup" in Russia. To write off the October 1917 Revolution as a coup is only to undermine its historical importance and its significance for the working class struggle. Fascism and Nazism are described as dictatorial tendencies. Communism is also described in the same vein, to have "represented a similar trend in the sense that it stood for the dictatorship of a particular class". Regarding the former two, there is no mention of the Holocaust, the responsibility for the World War and the systematic persecution of certain people in Nazi Germany, including social democrats, trade unionists and socialist and Communist leaders.

AS for bloomers, on Page 4 of the textbook, Madagascar, which is an island in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of South Africa, is mentioned as being in the Arabian Sea. The editor of the book is a retired Professor of Geography. There are more serious errors, such as the one suggesting that Stalin was the first European leader to enter into a peace agreement with Hitler, to buy temporary peace. It is amazing that the authors should conveniently forget the Munich Pact where one of the most shameful acts of appeasement and betrayal was enacted, says Arjun Dev.

From Chapter Two to Six, beginning with British policies and ending with the Independence struggle in India, there are innumerable references to the Muslim League and to Muslim communalism, such as: "In short, the Muslim League communalised the country's political situation which, in turn, produced disastrous results." There is no mention of Hindu communalism with particular reference to the Hindu Mahasabha or the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. But statements like the "only political elements who did not support the Quit India Movement were the Indian communists and the followers of Jinnah" abound. The RSS is not perceived as a "political element" here. Interestingly, there is no reference at all to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a Hindu fanatic.

If certain exclusions appear odd, then certain inclusions are even stranger. In Chapter Seven, entitled `Democratic Republic, Integration and International Relations', there is a reference to Osama bin Laden and "similar other persons" who are said to have changed the world. The current hegemony of the U.S. and its support of repressive regimes in a unipolar world do not seem to merit mention. In fact, Indo-U.S. relations finds a prominent place in the chapter; the relations are described rather nostalgically as a "tale of some kind of mistrust as against the story of a natural friendship that should have existed between the world's two most celebrated democracies".

In a statement, the NCERT has challenged historians to a debate on the historical veracity of the facts given in the textbooks. It has justified the antiquity of zero, the sindoor on terracotta figurines and the sacredness of the cow as "findings of contemporary historical research". While the meat of the buffalo, the bull and the calf were eaten, the cow was held sacred throughout, stated Makhan Lal, a retired Professor of History and one of the authors of the Class Six textbook. The NCERT director, J.S. Rajput, has defended the use of the word "coup" in the context of the Russian Revolution. "It is a surprise that students were taught otherwise because this fact is recorded in contemporary reports and almost every history textbook published in the free world," Rajput stated. He said that the Council would respond positively when genuine mistakes are brought to its notice.

The debate took a new turn on October 16, when in a show of unanimity, leaders from eight Opposition parties rejected the NCFSE and the new textbooks on Social Science published by the NCERT. The initiative for the meeting was taken by the Communist Party of India (CPI), and the parties who were present included the Congress (I), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Lok Jan Shakti, the All India Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party. They demanded that the Central government immediately constitute the Central Advisory Board on Education and hold a conference of State Education Ministers as education was a subject under the Concurrent list. A.B. Bardhan, general secretary of the CPI said that the new textbooks needed to be reviewed and withdrawn as a good part of the current academic session had elapsed and schools continued to use the old books. The meeting exhorted political parties, including the allies of the NDA, not to implement the NCFSE and to reject the use of the textbooks.

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