College draft syllabus: Messing with history

The UGC’s new draft of college-level history syllabus is a continuation of the Sangh Parivar’s attempts at saffronisation of Indian history.

Published : Jun 18, 2021 06:00 IST

The historians Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib at a seminar, a file photograph. The new draft college-level syllabus of the University Grant Commission gives short shrift to the “Marxist” hstorians.

The historians Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib at a seminar, a file photograph. The new draft college-level syllabus of the University Grant Commission gives short shrift to the “Marxist” hstorians.

The new history syllabus drafted by the University Grants Commission (UGC) for undergraduate students is old wine in an old bottle, with a clear ideological slant towards “Bhartiyakaran” or Indianisation of history. In other words, there is glorification of ancient Indian history, reduction of the Mughals to mere invaders, and a simplified and erroneous classification of history into Hindu, Muslim and British periods.

Even as it is said to be aimed at ‘restoration of balance’, and freeing history from the stranglehold of Marxist historians, it is just another reiteration of the colonial division of history, propounded by James Mill. The draft walks the tried and tested lane of 1977 when the first such overhaul of history was attempted, and that of 1999 when Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, attempted a similar saffronisation in the garb of Indianisation. Joshi had attempted to bring in the changes at the school level through the National Council of Educational Research & Training (NCERT). Now it is being attempted at the undergraduate level.

The UGC is silent on when and how the new syllabus will be implemented, having confined itself to going public with the new draft on its website. Yet the academic community has been quick to understand which way the wind is likely to blow. Not that many second guesses are required. The syllabus devotes considerable space and energy to ancient India, taking the Aryan period way farther into the past than the generally agreed upon date of 1500 B.C., and reiterating the oft-repeated claim of the indigenous origin of Aryans. The ancient period is projected as one of all-round glory with considerable economic progress, scientific advancement and lasting peace. The Gupta dynasty is given pride of place, its period hailed as the golden period of Indian history. This is in stark contrast to the views of the doyen of ancient history, D.N. Jha, who believed that there was never a golden age in Indian history.

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Medieval history is underplayed, with Babur and his successors reduced to mere invaders and without acknowledgement of their contribution to scientific advancement, economic prosperity and creation of architectural wonders like the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. The new syllabus does away with the works of illustrious historians R.S. Sharma and Irfan Habib from the reference list for students. Prof. Romila Thapar, whose books on ancient India have been like a primer for generations of students, is confined to two books. These historians, it may be recalled, have been frequently facing the ire of the new dispensation for their supposed Marxist leanings. This is much like it was when Joshi made his saffronisation bid. Back then, the Delhi Historians Group had come up with a publication, Communalisation of Education—The History Textbooks Controversy . Counting historians Bipan Chandra, Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar, Arjun Dev, Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee and Sumit Sarkar among the contributors, the project laid bare all claims of all-round depiction of Indian history. Prof. Chandra had then written: “The communal interpretation of history forms the core communal ideology in India. Take this away and little would be left of the ideology. Why has a serious and continuous attack been launched by the BJP on scientific and secular history? Why has history writing suddenly become a battleground between communal and secular political and ideological forces? In the 1930s and the 1940s, the Muslim communalists used history to validate the two-nation theory, though they relied much more on arousing fear in the minority of being dominated by the majority. But the Hindu communalists suffered from a handicap in this regard. How could the Hindus, who constituted nearly 70 per cent of the population before 1947 and constitute over 80 per cent after 1947, be made to feel the fear of being dominated and suppressed by Muslims, or Muslims being a threat to them? The answer was and is found in an unhistorical and communal depiction of the medieval period of history.” His words remain pertinent today.

Any attempt to question this “communal” depiction is met with outrage. For instance, when the historian Audrey Truschke of the United States projected the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb as being much more than a destroyer of temples or an Islamic tyrant, she was trolled. She referred to the grants he gave to temples, or employment to Hindus. Her attempt to revisit Aurangzeb fell on deaf ears. As did her attempt to locate a temple attack against the politics of the time. Similarly, when she sought to remind readers of Rajendra Chola attacking and plundering temples, she found few takers beyond the academic circles.

Maligning historians

Even as the government embarked upon the project of revising history, historians like Thapar, Habib and Chandra were dubbed as “Marxist historians” who had, as Tarun Vijay, editor of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) publication Panchjanya , claimed, got “Paisa, Power and Prestige” for their exertions. Never mind that Prof. Thapar got a measly Rs.650 for one of the books she had authored for the NCERT; and the book had sold tens of thousands of copies. Prof. Habib had once aptly said: “In India communal historiography has virtually died out in the last 40 years. Now we only have communalists, not communal historians. One could have argued with R.C. Majumdar, but how does one argue with those who do not know any history?”

Also read: Politics of history

Incidentally, the perceived Marxist slant which the new draft is keen to eliminate stems from selective amnesia. While the views of many of these distinguished historians are well known, what is not as well-known is the fact that they were not thrust upon the nation nor did they invite themselves. The All-India Panel for History, which entrusted Prof. Thapar and Prof. Chandra with the responsibility of writing the textbooks in the early 1960s, comprised great historians like Mohammed Habib, Nilakant Shastri, Tara Chand and S. Gopal, none of whom could be classified as Marxist. They were chosen on merit. Interestingly, even world-renowned historians like Eric Hobsbawm and E.H. Carr were influenced by Marxism without having their academic credentials called into question.

Says Prof. Mridula Mukherjee: “Though they call others the children of Macaulay, they are the direct descendants of James Mill, who first divided the history of India into Hindu period, Muslim period and British period. The notion that Hindus in the medieval period were suffering under Muslim tyranny is also a colonial construct, as the British rule could then be projected as having freed the Hindus from this tyranny. Further, depicting the Hindus and Muslims as warring communities created the justification for the British presence in India. This communal interpretation of history is based on colonial interpretation, it merely adds a few more elements to it.” Interestingly, Prof. Mukherjee, and others have not been consulted in the framing of the new draft. “Forget arriving at a consensus after academic deliberation and dialogue, we were not even consulted. We got to know through a mail,” said Prof. Mukherjee. “The new syllabus is a continuation of what Joshi tried in 1999. But we do not know what the purpose of the syllabus is. Whether it would be sent to universities and they would be asked to follow it. Or they would make it mandatory for everybody. There is total lack of transparency. So nobody knows what is happening after the UGC put it up on their website,” she added.

In the 1970s, too, Habib was excluded from the reading list. In 1999 too, the so-called Marxist historians’ role was diminished. The students had suffered then as they were denied the opportunity to learn from these distinguished historians. Not so today. Students do not necessarily go by the reference lists. They have access to online lectures, e-books. “Students are not interested in printed books. They have e-books, PDF, online lectures. What is the government trying to do? I find it foolhardy. You cannot stop a thought,” Prof. Mukherjee said.

Also read: Roots of Hindutva

The academics, meanwhile, are not sitting idle. The Kerala History Congress condemned the new syllabus, calling it “an attempt at saffronisation”. “In the preamble of the UGC’s draft history syllabus they said its objectives are having a totally historical approach, focus on micro and macro aspects of Indian history and openness to recent historiographical engagements, etc. But it will fail in accomplishing any of these as the draft is the culmination of efforts by the BJP government in excluding critical histories of people and social formations,” it said.

Habib’s words written some 20 years ago for One India, One People remain valid. He wrote: “It is important to realise that what the Central government agencies and the Sangh Parivar are now projecting as history of India is not anything that historians like R.G. Bhandarkar, Jadunath Sarkar or D.C. Sircar, to take a few names from amongst the great historians of the past, or professional historians of any repute today, of whatever persuasion, could conceivably regard as legitimate. It is absurd to claim that the Rightist historians have now simply been given the official resources to prevail over the Leftist historians, as if what the Union government and its agencies, like the UGC, NCERT, ICHR, etc., today tend to recognise as the history of India, represents any important academic trend among Indian historians.”

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