NCERT History Texts: hopelessly degraded
by Saurav Basu on 08 Jul 2009 4 Comments

The progressive writer Mark Twain admitted that “Prejudice is the ink with which history is written.” Post-modernism, in order to contest this defect, appreciated the subjectivity of historical interpretation which is often mediated by ideological baggage, thereby conditioning the ideological historian’s perception of truth, rendering it susceptible to subjectivity. This denial of objectivity has incensed many historians like Keith Winschuttle, who object to this “killing of history” and whose exaggerated reactions have been collectively summed as ‘pomophobia.’

In India, the historical conflict is not between post-modernists and ideologists of the obsolete school of “Marxist scientific socialism.” Instead, a curious alliance exists between these two naturally antagonistic thought processes against a common enemy represented by Hindu Nationalist historiography. Post-modernists charge Hindutva with ‘selective historical memory’ and ‘xenophobia’ every time the question of Islamic tyranny in medieval India is raised academically.

They make preposterous protests against the labelling of “Islamic invaders” as foreigners. Authors like Koenraad Elst, Arun Shourie and Sita Ram Goel view these scholars as “Nehruvian Stalinists.” Previously, the older generation of nationalist historians like R C Majumdar had expressed grave concern at the hijacking of Indian History by a peculiar breed of historians who did everything to eradicate the presence, if not idea, of “Hindu civilization” from History textbooks.

Naturally, such extreme views across the ideological spectrum take the debate into the writing of social science textbooks, especially those on History. The world over, history education is beset by continued controversy as historians, politicians, educators and the public at large argue about what should be taught to the nation’s children and how it should be presented.  No one likes the way history is taught.

Conservatives think it’s too multicultural, and multiculturalists think it’s too conservative. Politicians say it doesn’t promote patriotism, and social reformers say it doesn’t promote critical reflection (Teaching History for the common good, Keith C Barton, Linda S Levstik, Taylor and Francis, London, 2008). Unfortunately in India, parents, teachers and the general public remain largely oblivious to historical curriculum as the subject suffers from the popular perception of being the last refuge of the mediocre.

Yet the controversy has assumed exceptionally significant dimensions. For over four decades, history textbooks were written in a particular sophistical tradition which belittled Hindu traditions, culture, myths and rulers, for the ‘great cause’ of promoting Jawaharlal Nehru’s “rational and scientific temper” amongst the ignorant and superstitious Hindu masses. This pretense at ‘scientific history’ was wholly belied in an old Class VI NCERT history book which claimed the Inquistionary Saint Xavier’s body in a Goan church oozed fresh blood in the true spirit of a “Christian miracle.” 

Ideological countercheck

This ideological indoctrination received its first institutional check under the NDA regime, when the HRD ministry under Murli Manohar Joshi commissioned new textbooks. But these good intentions were subverted by poor management and the phobia of appearing “communal” in the eyes of Muslims and media. This is despite the landmark Supreme Court judgment which gave the green signal to the new textbooks. However, adoption of unproven hypothesis like the association of urban Harappan and pastoral Rig Vedic civilizations undermined the academic legitimacy of the textbooks.

Still, there was an exceptionally well authored text like that on Medieval India by Meenakshi Jain (educationalist Yvette Rosser in a recent paper contrasted Jain’s book with its predecessor authored by Satish Chandra and concluded that Jain’s was a superior book in writing style, content, historical authenticity, lack of ideological baggage and  school textbook material).

The return of the UPA in 2004 with Arjun Singh as HRD minister meant scrapping the old textbooks. One expected the new textbooks to adopt a more balanced approach and be rid of mindless ideological drivel. The new textbooks are definitely easier on the eye, heavily illustrated, and contain overall less content to make the subject less taxing and more interesting for young readers.  

However, a review of the new NCERT textbooks shows fundamentally little has changed. The hand of the subaltern school (an illegitimate copy of Gramsci to Indian conditions) is so heavy that dynasties, barring the Mughals, remain largely untouched! Instead, you find pitiable pictures of coal miners of Bihar in the British period! In the name of anti-elitism, history has been robbed of its grandeur and inspiration and reduced to a tale of eternal woe and class struggle. Historical accuracy has become the first casualty in the naked desire to propel history as a vehicle for social change (in the Marxist vein).

Marxists complain about the communal compartmentalization of history into Hindu, Muslim and British periods by colonial and nationalist historians (even though the British period was not presented as Christian). Yet it remains true that every Muslim historian of medieval India including Amir Khusro, darling of the champions of ‘composite culture,’ apart from rulers like Firuz and Sikandar Lodi, interpreted their reign as “Islamic” and India as an Islamic nation [dar ul Islam] or an infidel nation in the process of Islamization [dar ul harb]. And what evil designs can be assigned to Rhys Davis who wrote the famous “Buddhistic India?” 

The Aryan Invasion theory today stands thoroughly negated, yet the new textbooks do not comprehensively assert the significance of the situation. How much friction and bad blood this corrupt theme caused between Tamilians and North Indians is well known, but not a note reminds the reader of the colonial origins and ugly consequences of this theory. The Vedic religion is called ‘animist,’ reminiscent of outdated Eurocentric scholarship; alternative interpretations from the viewpoint of believers is wholly absent. 

The Class XII book on Ancient India claims that only upper caste Hindu women had access to resources. Manu supposedly did not allow women claim to a share of resources. Daughters had no claim to the resources of a household. Not a single primary source is quoted in support of the dismal picture presented.

A scrutiny of texts shows that nothing could be further from the truth. Manu unequivocally enjoined the daughter to be equal the son (MS 10.131) Stridhan exclusively belonged to the wife. Manu’s honourable sentiments for the wife as the source of all happiness and bliss (MS 9.28, 9.45) and as a supreme gift of the gods (MS 9.95) are concealed. Not a single female Rishi or Vedic scholar like Gargi finds mention in the pages of NCERT texts. Gupta and post-Gupta era inscriptions, especially from the South, show women having sufficient agency to make gifts to Brahmins, Buddhists and Jainas even when their husbands patronized different sects (History and Culture of Tamil Nadu Vol. 1, Chhitra Madhvanan, DK 2008).

Women’s property rights were upgraded by Yajnavalkya and Kautilya, proving the evolution of women rights in the Indian context, but these facts remain missing. The NCERT text wonders whether “mothers were important in India?” while discussing the matrilineal pedigree of Satavahana rulers, keenly forgetting that the mother was regarded as ten times as important as the father by Manu himself!

Scant respect is shown for the epics. The Mahabharata war is described as a mere “feud over land and power.” A fictitious conversation involving an outcaste Nishada (by Mahasweta Devi) is used to demonize Kunti, mother of the Pandavas. Eklavya is painted as a hapless victim of “caste tyranny,” but conspicuously absent is the fact that his offering was voluntary and Dronacharya’s conduct motivated more by subjective bias for Arjuna rather than caste consciousness. A balanced reading should have mentioned the story of Satyakama Jabala, the boy who knew no father and yet was accepted as a Brahmin for sticking to the truth.

The Delhi Historians group had raised a storm when a previous author considered the Upanishads the grandest philosophy of the world while ignoring its speculative genre. But the new NCERT texts almost dismiss the Upanishads by quoting just two obscure complicated passages, meaningless to the non-expert. Adi Sankara is written off in just one para which neither explains his spiritual nor intellectual accomplishments; Nanak and Kabir fill two pages! Ramanujan’s compassion for the downtrodden is nowhere mentioned, but there is a lengthy extract on Basavanna’s Virashaivism and his critique of caste and idol worship. In fact, Hindu religion, culture and philosophy rarely receive even a passing mention.

Hinduism is known as the most tolerant and inclusive of world religions; Arnold Toynbee saw the Hindu ethos as a bulwark against violent Semitic agendas of world domination. But the NCERT text alleges that “Relations with others such as Buddhism and Jainism were fraught with tension, if not open conflict.” The writers seem unaware that communal self-conscious religious identities did not exist in pre-Islamic India (David Lorezen, Who invented Hinduism, 1999). Hindu rulers patronized Buddhist and Jaina institutions on a scale equal to their Hindu counterparts (The rise and decline of Buddhism in India, Kanai Lal Hazra, MRML, 1995). Samudragupta patronised several Buddhist scholars like Vasubandhu. Hindu rulers often had wives who practiced and sponsored rival sects.

D D Kosambi had pictured a “process of syncretism” in the absorption of “primitive deities,” a “mechanism of acculturation, a clear give and take,” which allowed “Indian society to be formed out of many diverse and even discordant elements” (Kosambi and the discourse on civilization, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya). But the Marxist historiography dominating NCERT insists “tribals rejected caste and orthodox Hinduism.” That is not true for segmentalization exists as a single hierarchy amongst tribals (Interrogating Caste, Dipankar Gupta, Penguin, 2000).

Medieval India 

Medieval India has been reduced to an exercise in legitimizing foreign rule. Al Beruni is quoted once to establish his own skewed perception of Islamic egalitarianism vis-à-vis Hindu inequality. But there is no mention of Beruni’s stringent indictment of Mahmud of Ghazni - “Mahmud utterly ruined the prosperity of the country, and performed there wonderful exploits, by which the Hindus became like atoms of dust scattered in all directions, and like a tale of old in the mouth of the people. Their scattered remains cherish, of course, the most inveterate aversion towards all Muslims.”

Instead, we are told “Ghazni raided rich temples” and “Much of the wealth looted was used to create a splendid capital at Ghazni,” as if that justifies his heinous deeds. Mahmud’s overnight transformation into the “star of the Islamic world” and his elevation as Sultan by the Islamic Caliph is glossed over. The massacre of thousands of Hindus who died defending their land and temples is conveniently suppressed.

Islamic fanaticism, anti-pluralism and the concept of Jihad are considered too controversial to be discussed, so a syncretic hymn of Rumi is deemed representative of Islamic tradition. Jizya (protection tax paid by non Muslims) and the concept of Dhimmi (second class subjects in an Islamic country) are interpreted by the Class XII NCERT text in an attitude of glorification and purely from an Islamic perspective which deems them acts of benevolence, as under normal Islamic law the rule is to ‘convert or perish.’

Temple destruction is justified on grounds of political exigencies, based on Richard Eaton’s perverted and long discredited theory. But NCERT allots quarter page to the rationalization of temple destruction (Why temples were destroyed?) The message is conveyed that Hindu rulers also destroyed temples, though as Koenraad Elst has shown, barring two of the dozen-odd instances cited by Eaton, the stolen statue was respectfully restored in the invader’s kingdom.

Hindu rulers patronized temples but did not uproot existing modes of worship or impose their favoured gods on the people. Sita Ram Goel has cited 2000 specific instances of temples and their Gods which were not only ground to dust, but converted into mosques. Eaton’s theory that temples were destroyed because they legitimized political authority is dismissed on the ground that temples even in realms of defeated Hindu kings were often destroyed. This also begs the question why mosques and dargahs were left unmolested when they were absolute sites of secular, political and military authority. A complete page is spent discussing mosque architecture but there is no adequate corresponding discussion of Hindu temple architecture apart from their socio-eco-educational roles.

The Class VII textbook praises Alauddin Khalji’s markets; the fact is that while the “capital was fed, the country at large bled” (R C Majumdar). “Mughals did not like to be called Mongols because they had killed innumerable people”, says the same text. The argument is preposterous for Timur boasted of spilling the blood of tens of thousands including that of 100,000 Hindus in a single day in Delhi, all in the cause of Jihad, as testified by him in his autobiography. Mughals identified with Timur because he was a Jihadi Muslim, while the Mongols in their heydays were staunch enemies of their faith.

The same text vividly describes a rare instance of forced Sati in a child bride, but makes no mention of the much more frequent Jauhars (mass immolations by Hindu women when besieged by Islamic armies). Some Muslims are described as great patrons of education; no mention is made of the burning of the libraries at Nalanda and elsewhere by Bakhtiyar Khalji.

Akbar is extolled as a ‘secular’ ruler; purged is his despicable 1568 Fatwa-i-Chittor which reads like a televised address of a modern day Mullah Omar. What is lost is an appreciation of the transformation of Akbar, the religious fanatic, into the universalist monarch.

No facts of Aurangzeb’s bigotry are divulged in any of the texts. Ludicrous comparisons are sometimes drawn between Akbar and Aurangzeb.

Vijayanagar receives scant attention and Shivaji, the great Maratha, is wound up in a single para. One may wonder why no primary source is quoted regarding medieval history. Perhaps Ziauddin Barani or Badauni would have defeated the ‘secularist’ project. The horrors of the Goa Inquisition are similarly excised.

Modern era

Modern India fares no better. 1857 is crudely described as a “War of independence.” The Class VII text claims all petty rulers accepted the suzerainty of Bahadur Shah Zafar, logically implausible as he did not even have a standing army. The puppet Mughal, his relatives, chief queen, sons and principal advisor Hakim Ahsanulla engaged in treacherous conspiracy with the English even while the sepoys were involved in grim struggle (History and Culture of the Indian People, Volume IX, British Paramountcy and Indian Renaissance Part 1, p.566).

Factual inaccuracies abound. The Class VII text alleges that Rani Lakshmi Bai joined the rebels when the fact is she did not share the convictions of the rebel sepoys and acted under duress. The rebels massacred the entire British contingent at Jhansi, and the Rani bribed the sepoys to leave. Yet the NCERT text raises unreasonable questions on the reasons for her joining the revolt because of the obsession of neo-Marxist historiography to classify 1857 as a “people’s movement.” The authors suggest the Rani joined the war with ‘personal motives’ when actually she had the overarching well-being of her subjects at heart. It was she who transformed the half-militant, half-feudal revolt as far as was historically possible into India’s first war of independence (The Ranee of Jhansi, D V Tahmankar, 1958).

As an aside, why is it that those who complain of nationalistic history do not mention the Jhansi massacres by rebel sepoys and at Satichaura Ghat and Bibligarh by Azimullah Khan, right hand man of Nana Saheb?

Freedom movement

While discussing Birsa Munda’s revolt against Christian missionaries, the Class XI reader is reminded that the tribal movement was also anti-Hindu as violent action was taken against “Hindu” moneylenders. This suggests a permanent Hindu-tribal schism where none existed, and tries to draw a parallel between a tribal uprising against evangelists and resentment against moneylenders involved in economic exploitation of tribals.

The freedom movement begins with Gandhi and ends with Nehru. Tilak, Lajpat Rai, Sardar Patel, Savarkar, Syama Prasad Mookerji, Aurobindo Ghosh are blamed for alienating Muslims. But when were they together in the first place? Bengal’s Swadeshi and Boycott movement is defined as communal, upper caste and divisive. Aurobindo saw in it “a new conception of the nation not merely as a country, but a soul, a psychological, almost a spiritual being even when acting from economical and political motives, it sought to dynamise them by this subjective conception and to them instruments of self-expression rather than objects in themselves” (The Human Cycle, p. 32-33).

The hegemonic aspiration of writing “history from below” means that the freedom movement has become a fractured playground of unsuccessful tribal, worker and peasant uprisings. Instead of appraising them amidst a larger framework of nationalist collective consciousness, these smaller movements are being seen as separate, parochial and alienated from the nationalist mainstream which is claimed to be restricted to the bourgeoisie. 

All for the grand task of condoning Muslim separatists who made the Congress eat humble pie when they secured 99% of the Muslim vote in the 1946 elections and secured their Islamic homeland. It is incredible that while Pakistani textbooks falsely attribute Partition riots to Hindus, Indian textbooks surrender its reasoning to the hands of fate. No mention is made of the prolonged massacre of lakhs of Hindus in East Pakistan (Bangladesh), aided by the Nehru-Liaquat pact, so as to spare the sensitivities of Indian Muslims.

All in all, the NCERT texts are an exercise in deception. It is not historical truth but ‘secular’ political agendas which have dictated their writing. The entire syllabus has been canalized towards devaluing Hindu civilisation, while denying, if not condoning, Islamic tyranny. It is obvious these books provide few answers for questions and obfuscate facts for the cause of ‘secularism’ will continue to make history the “dull and boring subject” school students assume it to be. History will be the end loser in the process.

The author is researching a book on Swami Vivekananda

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