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The doctoring of history

Textbooks world over have become a cause of perpetuating hate and mis-information, writes Bhaskar Dasgupta.

india Updated: Feb 03, 2006 20:44 IST

School textbooks are meant to educate the young. Mind you, when I was young, I used to hate them. The best time was when the final examinations would be over and I could bid farewell to those textbooks, the bane of my school years.

The thud that greeted the schoolbag being chucked into the corner was ever so satisfying to my soul. Now that I have children who study from textbooks, I have a vested interest in them.

Besides that, there is another concern I have with them. Away from the high profile counter terror effort, there is a slightly less heated discussion going around about how textbooks are, by themselves, a cause of perpetuating hate, intolerance, terror, mis-information and the like.

Over the past six months, I have read about controversies regarding textbooks in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, USA, India, China, Japan, Israel, Palestine and Pakistan, just to speak of a few countries. Let us explore, shall we?

I could personally attest to the differences between what I was taught as a callow youth and what I learnt once I grew older. For example, 1857 was taught to us as the first war of Indian independence, but in the UK, it is called as the Great Mutiny of 1957. The Black Hole of Kolkata was a complete mystery to me growing up in India, but I came to know about it when I arrived to the UK.

On speaking with my friends and colleagues from Pakistan, I realised that the very same war was looked upon not as the first war of independence, but the time that the Muslims in British India lost their political and social power (mainly because the Mughal emperor was overthrown and the British crown took direct responsibility for India as its dominion).

Mind you, I cannot really blame the textbooks, I was best described as an indifferent student - how can one concentrate on musty old history when one has suddenly discovered that strange, mysteriously enchanting new species called as females.

Textbooks, in the post-colonial framework, are the most important measure of establishing the national myth/ideology or framework of the national founders. The students accept what is in the textbooks and the impact of the contents lasts for generations. For decades before independence in 1947, the British Indian education system was oriented on the Macaulay model (I strongly suggest you read this Minute on Indian Education at (http://piquancy.blogspot.com/2006/01/macaulays-minute-on-indian-education.html), fit to churn out clerks and basic administrators, fitting into the British Empire model of governance and administration.

Post independence, we clearly saw the difference between the educational systems implemented in Pakistan and India. While the commonality was that both countries tried to make a clean break from the past, India went down the secular, nationalistic, engineering, scientific inclusive (and dare I say, socialist based upon Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's personal proclivities) model.

Pakistan, on the other hand, went down the religiously oriented, ideologically specific route. Sixty years on, the results are there to see. India's graduates are the storm troopers of the IT, outsourcing, engineering, medical and financial world, confident in their national outlook, historical background and educational foundation. On the other hand, (and I have to admit this is my personal opinion and there are very many exceptions), I frequently find Pakistani graduates as being defensive, unable to reconcile national Pakistani history with its perennial search for its identity/ideology and frequently hung up on religion.

However, history in both countries is a tough one indeed. We find major quarrels over the Indian textbooks. The treatment of minorities, the treatment of the Muslim invasions, treatment of the origins of Indians, conversions, language, the treatment of Hindu religion and other religions are all very contentious.

When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, it attempted to re-write the national curriculum and textbooks. The Boston Globe wrote on June 1, 2003 in an article titled 'Textbook Troubles: India's Hindu Nationalists Rewrite Their Country's Past-Conveniently': "In 1998, the BJP won national elections and began taking control of the country's leading scholarly bodies. A national
curriculum for schools run by the central government was proposed the same year, with the objective of replacing history textbooks by the country's most reputed scholars, many of whom have a secular or left wing orientation.

In May 2002, the education ministers of 16 states walked out of a conference to protest the right-wing bias of the new curriculum, while three leading scholar-activists filed a petition with the Supreme Court challenging the publication of new textbooks. The petition was turned down, however, and ''India and the World'' and ''Contemporary India'' made their appearance...."

When the BJP was turfed out of power, the opposition tried to undo the changes.

It is not only in India that this fight is currently being fought. In a strange leap of geography, a huge brouhaha is currently brewing in California, USA over the treatment of Hinduism, with protagonists of change alleging wrongful treatment of Hinduism and with antagonists in turn accusing them of pandering to an exclusionary, propagandist and a cleansed Hindu only viewpoint.

The case is still under discussion, but it just shows how divisive textbooks can be. In a few weeks, I hope to return to this topic. Mind you, I do still think that we are still under the influence of the Macaulay orientation, the pride and knowledge that should really come from such a long and rich civilisation is not really portrayed in the current Indian education system.

Where is the emphasis on Aryabhatta? Bhaskaracharya? Panini? Where is the concentration on Sanskrit? Why are we not more open in our history and give examples of inter-faith harmony?

Why are we not a bit clearer about regions that seem to have been forgotten like the North East region? Why this underlying assumption that only the Greco Roman epistemological framework is the best or the only one? However, enough now of my personal moaning!

On the other side of the equation, we have a report authored by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute of Pakistan (www.sdpi.org), which notes that the Pakistani school textbooks have the following issues (and I quote), "Inaccuracies of fact and omissions that serve to substantially distort the nature and significance of actual events in our history; Insensitivity to the existing religious diversity of the nation; Incitement to militancy and violence, including encouragement of Jihad and Shahadat; Perspectives that encourage prejudice, bigotry and discrimination towards fellow citizens, especially women and religious minorities, and other towards nations; A glorification of war and the use of force; Omission of concepts, events and material that could encourage critical self-awareness among students...".

First Published: Feb 03, 2006 20:44 IST