Saffron spin on India's past

March 15, 2002

As sectarian violence flares up, Mohan Luthra and Kulbir Natt look at reactions to the plan of India's Hindu-backed ruling party to rewrite school history books with an emphasis on 'religious values'.

As sectarian battles in India hit the world headlines and relations between Pakistan and India show few signs of improving, history is becoming a key battleground. The rightwing BJP government, which is backed by powerful Hindu organisations, is seeking to tailor school textbooks to the aims of its nation-building project.

The National Council for Educational Research and Training, which sets education guidelines and regulations, has ordered the deletion of some paragraphs from textbooks written by leading historians such as Romila Thappar and Satish Chandra. They include references to how Hinduism has fostered a caste system that enslaves millions of people and to passages referring to the absence of evidence to support the belief that Ayodhya, where a decade ago Hindu extremists destroyed a mosque that they claimed had replaced a Hindu temple, is the birthplace of the Hindu god Lord Rama. Hindu extremists are planning a symbolic prayer meeting on Friday to press their demands that a new temple rise from the ashes, despite the Supreme Court's ruling against one being built.

The textbooks, used in the Indian state school system, are the foundation on which the teaching of history is based. The key proponents of the changes are Manohar Joshi, minister for human resource development, and J. S. Rajput, NCERT chairman, who argue that the passages proposed for deletion are upsetting for some communities and create divisions between India's religious communities. Rajput says that although debating differing viewpoints may be relevant in higher education, at school level it is more important to foster cohesion among India's different communities than to observe such "western" niceties.

The liberal educational establishment and leading historians have responded with accusations that the government is "saffronising" the education system - saffron is the colour of Hindu nationalists. Thappar, fellow historian Bipin Chandra and leading commentators such as Khushwant Singh, Vir Singhvi and Talveen Singh condemn what they see as a bogus nation-building project harking back to a mythical Hindu golden age. They accuse the BJP of trying to reinforce its vision of Hindu nationalism, of undermining the contributions of other religions, of fostering the idea of a static culture and of stifling debate. No recognised historian backs the government's position.

This controversy dates back to 1999, when the NCERT published its national framework document on how education needed to be more "Indianised, nationalised and spiritualised". The revised version, published in November 2000, concentrates on school education - the government appears to have steered clear of higher education for the time being - and argues for modernised teaching methods, introducing vocational education and issues such as globalisation to the curriculum. But it also argues that education should foster social cohesion and talks about "an emphasis on religious values".

In October 2001, the government set up a panel to oversee the writing of all school textbooks for children aged six to 14. It has yet to be seen how its recommendations will be implemented by India's many state governments, which control the local education boards. But its membership, which was only recently revealed, does not include a single heavyweight historian.

There has also been some debate about the implications for subjects such as religion. Academics have expressed alarm at suggestions that religious leaders should vet references to religion in textbooks. They worry that what is being suggested is in essence an attack on freedom of expression.

The government says it is just responding to ideas on religious teaching as suggested by a 1999 all-party parliamentary committee. It pointed out that knowledge of the similarities between India's varied religions should be given to all students from an early age.

But the fear is that when the government refers to religious values, it means Hinduism. Joshi, for example, is quoted as saying: "This country has a history going back 10,000 years. Islam is 1,400 years old. The Marxists have kept that great tradition outside the realm of the curriculum. Why should India's contribution to world civilisation not be taught?"

Joshi and Rajput say academics should trust them to ensure continuity and modernisation, but their pleas are undermined by their political fellow travellers. Last year, Joshi's secretary, M. K. Kaw, wrote in the official NCERT journal: "The greatest damage to our intellectual freedom has been caused by traditional religions, especially by those that have a single holy book from which they derive their authority." He later apologised to the Minorities Commission.

Moreover, L. K. Advani, the home minister and the second most senior leader of the BJP after the prime minister, is on record as saying that Indianness and Hinduness are "essentially synonymous". He has also stated the BJP's support for the Rama temple movement in Ayodhya, saying it is "aimed at strengthening the concept of nationalism in the country".

D. N. Batra, general-secretary of the influential Hindu organisation Vidya Bharati Akhil Bhartiya Shiksha Sansthan, is said to be close to Joshi. He has said: "Research should be needs-based and not some mental gymnastics that is of no use to the country." Historians see this as a call to promote a society based on ancient Hindu religious code.

Chandra thinks the BJP will not budge on the issue because it is ideologically committed to creating a Hindu-based Indian society and history is key to achieving that vision. "History is one item of the communal (sectarian) agenda on which they (the BJP) cannot compromise," he says.

The BJP's rise in popularity is seen as a result of growing unease about the breakdown of traditional social structures in India, anxiety about rampant westernisation and the conversion of the Dalits - the lowest caste in Indian society - to Christianity and Buddhism. But in marketing its Hindu package of values, the BJP is up against the Indian constitution, the English media and the problem of a Hindu system of values that has for years excluded the lower castes from power and influence. In addition, it has the world's second largest Muslim population, which may want to press for similar concessions on the curriculum.

More than 50 years after independence, school history textbooks need revising, and it is generally agreed that access to education needs to be improved. But India is a nation in which history is repeatedly used for political advantage and to justify violence. There is disappointment that the government seems to be squandering an opportunity to build a consensus.

Mohan Luthra is author of Britain's Black Population and a consultant on ethnic issues in UK and Indian markets. Kulbir Natt is a freelance writer.

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