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Politics of History: As If Textbooks Matter

Historical turning points, the Emergency, the 1984 and 2002 riots, stand expunged from textbooks, as the powerful continue to pretend books alone control young minds.

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Recently, the Indian Express newspaper published a four-part report detailing the modifications the Narendra Modi government has made to school-level social science textbooks. Over its eight-year rule, this is the third occasion that such changes have been introduced, the earlier ones being in 2017 and 2019. Compared to the previous BJP regime of Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998 to 2004), which also modified textbooks, the two most recent sets of changes involved deletions, not any rewriting.

Besides promoting the party’s Hindutva agenda, the strategy is seemingly also to neutralise the Congress party, which has skeletons in its own cupboard. For example, not only have all references to the 2002 Gujarat riots in which more than a thousand Muslims were killed been expunged but also those relating to the 1984 Delhi riots, in which an almost similar number of Sikhs were massacred. Likewise, exposed to constant allegations that Modi has effectively become a dictator, Indira Gandhi’s Emergency has been expunged, presumably to tell the Congress: let’s be nice to each other, at least on this count.

The purpose of this essay is not to dissect the textbook changes over the years but to view them politically and from the professional angle of history writing. Let us take just three questions. One, is history so important a subject that it must suffer constant interference, leaving the students as mere guinea pigs in the process? Two, is such interference only a BJP project? And three, history or no history, does not the debate help create a powerful political force in favour of Hindu nationalism at the cost of professionalism?

Is history as a subject really that important? Does the choice of school textbooks, history textbooks in particular, really matter? For students, they surely do not. They simply go by what is prescribed, their main focus being to ‘crack’ the exams. As soon as the exams are over, the books are either junked or passed on to younger siblings or acquaintances. That is, of course, so long as they haven’t been “updated” in the meantime.

Neither the students nor the teachers are particularly bothered about what the textbooks contain. I still recall vividly my eight-standard history teacher (in the late 1950s) advising us that the older the publication date of a history book, the greater its authenticity. Why? Because it was closer to actual historical events. I remember I spent an entire afternoon in the sweltering heat of Bihar rummaging through almirahs and chests before I ultimately found a 1936 edition that had once belonged to my eldest sister. I suspect that the level of an average teacher in most schools in India has not changed much in the ensuing decades.

Insofar as the students are concerned, more and more are reading less and less. The system of objective tests has completely killed the idea of critical thinking, something sociologists like Avijit Pathak have been at pains to point out. Outside schools, in society at large, WhatsApp University, a phrase coined by Ravish Kumar, one of India’s most respected TV anchors, continues to impart spurious historical knowledge to millions of Indians. It is this larger community the history textbook controversy is actually targeting, not the students themselves.

This targeting indeed happened during the Janata Party rule (1977-79) when its Bharatiya Jana Sangh component held important ministries. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) connection of these ministers was well known. There were many allegations in those days that ‘history was being rewritten’. Against this background, the 1981 Police Commission Report noted many instances of prejudiced police interventions, the vast majority of which were clearly anti-Muslim in orientation. Also, a survey conducted in the IAS training academy in Mussoorie in the early nineties revealed widespread celebration at the news that the Babri mosque had been torn down. It stands to reason that most of this personnel had learned their history from ‘Nehruvian’ social science textbooks.

To be sure, the controversy is as old as the Indian state, if not older. Broadly, it is about a Hindu nationalistic project. Even during Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s time, there was a powerful Hindu lobby within his party, which championed textbook revisions to give the courses a specific Hindu thrust. The argument then was that Hindu historical greatness was not sufficiently represented in history textbooks, most of which were produced under British rule.

As eminent a Congress politician as Dr Sampurnanand, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh from 1954 to 1960, feared that the emotional integration of Hindus and Muslims would not be possible unless Muslims also took pride in the heroes of “Hindu history”; heroes like Arjuna, Bhim, Ashoka, and Harshvardhan. After all, Hindus and Muslims had “not only a common culture but [also] a common ancestry”. “If this is once admitted, and I really do not see how a right-thinking man can refuse to admit it, seeing that Islam is a proselytising religion, and the overwhelming majority of Indian Muslims is descended from Hindu converts, much of the talk about de-Muslimizing [of textbooks] will cease automatically.” Does this sound any different from what RSS and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been arguing all along?

In the 1950s and 1960s, when the Jana Sangh, the forerunner of the BJP, was not even a distant contender for political power, there were tendencies in many Hindi-speaking states to rewrite school textbooks and rectify their alleged pro-Muslim bias in favour of a pro-Hindu one. This was euphemistically labelled as setting the record straight. But the tendency did not go altogether unchallenged and was criticised for compromising objective historical research.

In 1966, the matter was debated in Parliament, as a result of which a committee was set up consisting of JP Naik (later the Member-Secretary of the Indian Council of Social Science Research or ICSSR), KG Saiyidain, Gopinath Aman and others. The committee found substantive evidence of a Hindu bias in the textbooks of certain states. In those textbooks, certain historical events were “presented in a manner as to arouse and perpetuate prejudice against certain religious groups”.

Note that although the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT, established in 1956) and the 1964 report of the Education Commission endorsed the importance of the Nehruvian scientific temper, for many eminent Congressmen, history and mythology were often indistinguishable.

Let us now turn to the question of professionalism. During the Vajpayee regime, school textbooks written by eminent historians such as Romila Thapar, RS Sharma, Bipan Chandra, Barun De, and others were specifically targeted for their purportedly anti-Hindu prejudice and banned. Instead of banning the books, would it not have been more proper to introduce other books that could present an alternative argument?

At this point, I should confess I would probably not have written on such a hackneyed theme as the politics of history textbooks had I not been provoked by a conversation with a childhood friend. In the course of our chat, my friend made a comment about Romila Thapar that was shocking and amusing.

He had the audacity to tell me that had he been given just fifteen days to visit a library, he would have been able to junk all of Thapar’s research. My friend did not clarify who had prevented him from finding the time. Since I know my friend has millions of takers in India today, I thought I must express my views. The rot has clearly sunk far too deep into our body politic. It is most noticeable in the way Muslims are being targeted all across India.

To conclude, we do not need to hide behind sophisticated theories of historiography. The sad reality of India today is that the most powerful political class mouths the most hateful statements against minorities in general and Muslims in particular, and they do this with the tacit approval of the government. If we want to be historically accurate, let it be said that while Congress promoted ‘spurious secularism’, the BJP promotes (even celebrates) the complete repudiation of secularism.

India has produced three especially powerful prime ministers, Pandit Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Narendra Modi. Each has his or her strengths and flaws. One of Modi’s critically important flaws is that he frequently misleads his audience by quoting incorrect historical facts or stating grossly unfounded scientific theories. His massive popularity makes this most dangerous, for his lies legitimise a culture of falsehood that no “correct” textbooks will ever be able to repair.

Postscript: According to EH Carr, the legendary author of the 1961 book, What is History, history is a continuous dialogue between the past and the present, and an unending interaction between the historian and the facts, so that all facts can be correctly interpreted and recorded. Had Carr been alive today, he would have had regular nightmares trying to sort through facts and “faked facts” (indeed, a contradiction in terms). That the latter often receive massive state patronage and thus widespread popular attention would surely have irritated him no end.

Marty Baron, longtime editor of the Washington Post, who famously recorded 30,573 false or misleading claims made by Donald Trump during his presidency, and whom The Guardian characterised as “the ultimate old-school editor”, said in an interview to the Indian Express in February 2021, “There are such things as facts. It’s not just a matter of opinion, not just a matter of who holds power, it’s not just a matter of who has the biggest megaphone. There is actually something called objective fact and objective reality.”

The author is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. He was an ICSSR National Fellow and professor of South Asian Studies at JNU. The views are personal.

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