Saffronising textbooks: Where myth and dogma replace history

  • Danish Raza, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Dec 08, 2014 07:17 IST

In 'We or Our Nationhood Defined,' published in 1939, MS Golwalkar, second chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) argued that the Aryan race originated in India. Interestingly, the argument does not challenge the other theory which states that the Aryans migrated into India. This was, according to Golwalkar, because the North Pole was originally in India, somewhere around today's Odisha and Bihar, and eventually shifted to its present location. "It was not the Hindus who migrated to that land but the arctic which emigrated and left the Hindus and Hindustan."

While this may be viewed as doing considerable damage to both history and geography, the Sangh believes it is the correct version of one of the many nationalist themes which should find space in history text books in India. With the union Human Resource Development (HRD) minister Smriti Irani saying that the new education policy will be announced early next year, right wing bodies and ideologues are on an overdrive to suggest changes to the government in order to rectify what they believe is the flawed history narrative taught to students across the country.

"Our children have been reading history, which makes them feel humiliated of their past. We want a history which makes them feel proud as Indians," said Bal Mukund Pandey, general secretary of Akhil Bhartiya Itihas Sankalan Yojna (ABISY), a history research organisation affiliated with the RSS. With 500 professors on its side, Pandey claims that his 30-year-old organisation has attempted to bring out the vastavik itihaas (real history) of India through the 350 books that it has published since it was established in 1984.

Certain themes, they believe, militate against their 'Indianised' version of history: Muslims leaders like Akbar deliberately being shown in a positive light; the revolt of 1857 being wrongly projected as the First War of Independence; the glorification of Gandhi and Nehru over Patel and Tilak.

In early October, ABISY conducted a symposium in Delhi's national museum to pay tribute to Hemchandra Vikramaditya or Hemu, whose defeat by Akbar's army ended the short-lived rule of a Hindu emperor in Delhi and resurrected the Mughal power. Members of ABISY, Vishva Hindu Parishad and the BJP attended the event whose chief guest was union minister of culture, Shripad Naik. "Henceforth, every time you talk of Akbar, you have to mention Hemu," said Pandey, adding that national warriors Maharana Pratap and Shivaji are among those who are not given adequate space in history texts. "Instead, they teach students about cricket and about the Monalisa in world civilization," he said. At the core of this enthusiasm to rewrite history lies the long-standing belief that the government, since independence, has been promoting Marxist historians and suppressing the alternate nationalist stream. Irfan Habib, RS Sharma, Bipan Chandra and Romila Thapar belong to the former category.

"It got institutionalised with the appointment of Noorul Hasan as the union education minister in 1972. He filled all the prominent higher education institutions with historians of Leftist ideology," said Rakesh Sinha, honorary director of India Policy Foundation, an RSS think tank. "It is a colonial project. They wanted us to read a communal interpretation of India. And Marxist historians did the academically criminal act of projecting communal history as the national history," added Sinha, who is currently working on a book on the role of the RSS in India's freedom movement, another theme that the Sangh is keen to highlight.

Left-liberal historians refute the charge. "This charge is primarily political," said Dr Aditya Mukherjee, professor of contemporary Indian history at Jawaharlal Nehru University and co- author of the book 'RSS, School Text Books and the Murder of Mahatma Gandhi', adding, "Their problem is with three Ms in Indian history: Marxism, Macaulay and Madrasa."

Mukherjee believes there's a real danger of dogma replacing history. "Can a doctor argue with the prime minister when he says that plastic surgery and genetic science helped in the creation of Lord Ganesha and Karna? This is not history. This is the lowest level of imagination," he said. BP Sahu, professor at Delhi University's history department thinks the right wing's vision of history is episodic and not chronological and aims to play up certain themes related to questions of identity. This, he said, fits perfectly into their perception of Hindu India. "Larger issues of causation, periodisation and transition, which would be of concern to a practising historian are things which are outside their vision," he said, adding that the right wing is more interested in an Indianised history than in the history of India.

In this intellectual tussle, historians on the Right insist those on the Left under-valued the cultural and civilisational component of India's past and gave primacy to class and economic factors. Right wing historian Meenakshi Jain, whose book on medieval India was included in the school syllabus during the National Democratic Alliance government (1998-2004), cites an example of the imbalance in the history taught at that time. "When Islam came as a political power for the first time to India, the encounter between two evolved civilisations, with wholly different worldviews, was a complex affair. I felt this was missing in the earlier NCERT textbooks, which exhibited a tendency to elevate one side to the detriment of the other."

Jain's is also a classic example of the politicisation of education. With the UPA coming to power in 2005, her book was withdrawn as part of the new government's larger plan to de-saffronise text books. "The committee set up by the government to examine the issue met just one group of academics and recommended its dismissal. I was not even given a hearing. There should have been an open debate," she said.

Dr Saradindu Mukherjee, former associate professor at DU, said history text books, which are being taught at schools, should be replaced as they were written by a set of people who toed the government (Congress) line. "Look at the history of the Indian freedom movement. It appears that Gandhi and Nehru were the only two heroes. Important revolutionaries such as Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, Aurobindo Ghose and Lala Lajpat Rai get sidelined," said Mukherjee, who served as a member of the Indian Council of Social Research during the NDA regime. He traces the rift between nationalist and Leftist historians to the publication of 'The Sepoy Mutiny and Revolt of 1857' by RC Majumdar (1957), which argued that 1857 was a sepoy mutiny and not a war of independence. "Subsequently, many historians said the same and were discouraged," he said. It had become unwise to hold views that didn't match the official line of the Congress government in newly independent India.

The times have changed but the vexed issue of how our history is interpreted remains. Today, the right wing can push its version of history but is facing some difficulty as it lacks credible historians to back its claims. RC Majumdar, who did respectable work on ancient India and edited the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan series on Indian history, is the single historian of repute who is held in high regard by the right wing. The only other name that pops up is Sir William Jones, British scholar and founder of the Asiatic Society (1784)! Rakesh Sinha said scholarly historians who professed the alternate stream were all demoralised on realising that their work would not be accepted by the government. "Those who have conviction in this paradigm that Left-liberal history writers were promoted by the government lack an army of researchers," said Sinha, adding that Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan founded by KM Munshi was the last attempt to make an intervention in the writing of history. One weakness of the movement that is dissatisfied with the current state of history writing, according to Meenakshi Jain, is its inability to produce a counter body of historical works. "Mere dissatisfaction with current historical writing cannot suffice. A credible academic counter narrative should be offered," she said.

In that case, how successful will the Sangh Parivar be in rewriting Indian history? The coming year could provide the answers. The National Curriculum Framework, an NCERT document, based on which educational institutes formulate syllabi, is up for revision in 2015. Bal Mukund Pandey of ABISY is confident that, this time, Marxist historians will not have the last word in meetings conducted to revise the NCF. "The meetings will not be dominated by historians who refute the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as myth," said Pandey.

Liberal historians say that the appointment of Smriti Irani, someone with no previous experience of any administration, as the education minister, indicates that the Prime Minister's Office will monitor the broad education and cultural policy. "The PM knows that in areas such as development and economy, he cannot allow Sangh affiliates to interfere. Education and culture are easy areas which can be left to the Nagpur people and their extension here at Jhandewalan," said BP Sahu.

The appointments of Ram Shankar Katheria, a former RSS paracharak, as minister of state, HRD, and of RSS ideologue Dinanath Batra as advisor on education to the Haryana government are also seen as steps in this direction. Batra was behind the litigation which resulted in the recall of Wendy Doniger's 'The Hindus: An Alternative History'.

Change is already visible in the Indian Council of Historical Research of which Sahu is a member. Its new head Dr YS Rao is on record saying the Ramayana and Mahabharata are not myths. "In the latest council meeting, we got three or four proposals from bodies affiliated to the Sangh Parivar wanting money for projects on the Mahabharata, Draupadi and the Puranas. All of a sudden, why do we have such applications coming up?" asked Sahu.

About two dozen members of the ABISY and other RSS outfits working on education met the HRD minister on October 30th in Delhi. In September, RSS affiliated bodies held a seminar in Jaipur to discuss issues related to higher education. Similar conclaves are planned in mid-December and January in other states. The 2014 World Hindu Congress, which took place in Delhi in November, conducted a two-day Hindu educational conference. Recommendations emerging from these meetings will be submitted to the HRD ministry. Rakesh Sinha believes the current government will take note of inputs from right wing think tanks because of the ideological commonality. "The HRD minister and the prime minister have a similar perspective of history. They feel that this history is not the Indian historiography," he said. For the moment, at least, the Right seems set to rewrite Indian history.

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