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Changing, challenging the idea of India: The war to control social sciences

The Congress, it seems, is once again relying on the “tried, trusted and failed” yatra politics to recapture Uttar Pradesh in the next year’s assembly elections.

india Updated: Aug 19, 2016 18:55 IST
Zia Haq
RSS wants a muscular, cultural nationalism based on Hindutva to be India’s new ethos.
RSS wants a muscular, cultural nationalism based on Hindutva to be India’s new ethos. (AFP Photo)

Amid controversies and allegations of rule-bending, the Narendra Modi government has replaced key people in almost all prestigious academic and cultural institutions with its own.

Last Friday, it received yet another backlash from a well-known academic.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta quit the high-profile Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. He protested tweaking of rules to help choose a bureaucrat close to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as director of the institution, rather than a candidate with “intellectual scholarship”, as is the convention.

The larger battle is a political one: How to control the social sciences? It’s playing out on a global scale - from California to Rajasthan. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, the ideological headquarters of the BJP, wants a muscular, cultural nationalism based on Hindutva to be India’s new ethos.

In California, the Hindu American Foundation is on the forefront of a mission to reshape how India is portrayed in US textbooks for Class 6 and 7 students. The foundation is pushing for a revision of social science textbooks in which it is resisting changing the word “India” at many places with “South Asia”.

One of its key demands is to delink Hinduism and caste, India’s age-old stratification of society based on discrimination of certain groups. The Ambedkar Association of California is counteracting this, calling it an attempt to “whitewash” history.

Back home, the Modi government has constantly faced criticism for its choice of appointments to key institutions which have a crucial role in education and culture.

When Prof Y Sudershan Rao was named the chairperson of the Indian Council of Historical Research, many professional historians balked. Two of India’s most famous liberal historians, Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib, quit the council. Thapar condemned the appointment of Rao, describing him as “a historian whose work is unfamiliar to most historians”.

Governments routinely appoint their own people to head important centres. “That’s bound to happen in a democracy, I am not worried about that. But procedures, processes and minimum qualifications must be followed,” Prof (retired) Suhas Palshikar, chief editor of the academic journal Studies in Indian Politics, said.

Some of the Modi government’s other top nominations have also triggered outrage. These include a relatively low-profile actor, Gajendra Chauhan, as the chairperson of FTII, India’s premier film institute, and a former cricketer, Chetan Chauhan, as the head of the National Institute of Fashion Technology.

Last year, the chief film censor Pahlaj Nihalani, a self-confessed fan of Prime Minister Modi, ordered cutting in half the span of a kissing scene in the latest James Bond film, Spectre.

“Supposing a person with a certain viewpoint is appointed, he or she would still have the responsibility to protect the autonomy of the institution. The general worry is that a certain agenda is being implemented and this impression goes against institutional autonomy,” Palshikar said.

The BJP government in Rajasthan recently expunged many references to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in school books. The larger goal, writer Ashok Borkar alleges, was to “re-orient education away from Nehruvian secularism towards a Hindu worldview”.

Asked why textbooks were revised in the manner, Rajasthan’s primary education minister had said it was to ensure “no one like Kanhaiya Kumar is born”. Kanhaiya Kumar, the Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader, made headlines when he was charged with sedition for dissenting views.

Scholars like Palshikar say social science will always be a contested arena, but these battles will have to be “fought on merit of arguments”. “Rather than have this play out, some people think they can browbeat and steamroll the social sciences.”

Comments like ‘no Kanhaiya Kumar should be ever born’ is typical of an ignorance about what social science stands for, he said.

“Social science without contestations of ideas would be boring and undemocratic.”

Contested arenas

Nehru Memorial Museum and Library: Shakti Sinha, IAS, former aide to Vajpayee, frontrunner to the post of director. Academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta alleges rules were modified to appoint a technocrat, rather than a scholar as director. Resigns

Indian Council of Historical Research: Many historians balked at the nomination of Prof. Y Sudeshan Rao as chairman, they say he doesn’t fit the bill. He deems Ramayana and Mahabharata as historical texts. Critics like Romilla Thapar say no clear evidence to support this.

Censor Board: Censor chief Pahlaj Nihalini, a self-confessed fan of Modi, has had run-ins with film-makers for his strict moral code.

National Institute of Fashion Design: is headed by Chetan Chauhan, former international cricketer

Film and Television Institute of India: Gajendra Chauhan, actor. Critics say he doesn’t have the right stature

National Archives: Director-general post vacant, search on, last incumbent: Prof. Mushirul Hasan