Denying generations their history

Written by Teesta Setalvad | Published on: December 1, 2001
The recent history textbook controversy raises issues of political control over historical interpretation, sectarian motives behind history writing and the marginalisation of local and regional histories

Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, India’s union human resources development minister has, in a clever masterstroke, recently announced his intentions to consult religious heads over the content of history books printed by the Central Board for secondary Education (CBSE).

To quote, he has made it known that any historical account that hurts ‘the feelings of people of any caste, religion, region or language’ will be removed summarily from school textbooks. To ensure that this is done, Joshi wants all history books to be first vetted and cleared by religious heads of various communities before they are introduced in schools. In fact, he would like these tomes to be prepared in consultation with the religious heads of various communities. He wants this done, he explains, for the express purpose of sparing the impressionable minds of children, which are unable to digest ugly and controversial facts. (The Indian Express, December 6, 01)

Joshi has positioned his intentions well. Apart from ideologically problematic sections like historically authenticated references to beef–eating in Vedic times in the books authored by historians R.S.Sharma and Romila Thapar in CBSE texts– these two historians, it must be remembered are the proverbial bete noirs of the current political establishment —the list of current ‘deletions’ include references to Guru Tegh Bahadur’s motivations and campaigns and other passages removed following objections raised by the Jain community. (The Sikh protests made to the said sections were, incidentally, in a Congress–dominated Delhi legislature by a Congressman who happens to be a Sikh). By listing a variety of ‘deletions’ that apart from caste (Brahmanical) Hindu ones, which can be ‘sourced’ to the hidden motivations of the votaries of Hindutva, include others that involve the Sikh and Jain minority, Joshi has sent out the required signals to his political rivals.

Would you wish such passages to remain, was the question posed to edgy Congressmen and women in Parliament who, themselves unsure of ‘alienating communities’ and also guilty of political interference in education had nothing left to say.

Interestingly all this discourse about Indian official textbooks has carried on while it is known that outfits like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu parishad (VHP) and the Markaz Maktabi: NCERT Report 1993—see CC October 1999) are running over 20,000 schools all over the country all openly using parallel textbooks that do nothing short of spreading hatred and venom.

Existing, official Gujarat State textbooks call ‘Muslims, Christians and Parsees foreigners’ (Std IX) apart from glorifying Fascism and Nazism. (Following the campaign launched through KHOJ carried in Communalism Combat–Oct 1999, a Parliamentary Committee that investigated the matter had ordered deletions in the objectionable portions. Yet the textbooks are reprinted, without adequate corrective measures being taken.)

Joshi clearly hopes to silence the dissenting voices through the use of the current, buzz terms, ‘religious and linguistic interests and sentiments.’ It is interesting that little has been heard on Joshi or the NCERT moves from India’s otherwise vocal Dalit and tribal communities on what such a mono–coloured history will mean for the depictions of the vast majority of the Indian population and their rich histories and symbols; or from the Muslim minority community or it’s leaders, normally vocal.

Can we therefore assume that the banner of ‘religious and community spokespersons’ as historical censors is a thought that has it’s appeal for many self–styled as such hailing from ‘communities’ across the spectrum? The CBCI (Catholic Bishops Conference of India) and other Christian associations dealing with education have formulated and presented their objections to the NCERT moves, albeit silently.

The issues as debated in large sections of the media relate to the serious consequences of such moves on the calibre, methodology and content of historical inquiry, the question of political control and dominance over history writing and depiction. Specifically, they expose more sharply than before the desire to control the thinking and minds of future generations by both distorting and denying them their history.

History writing and depiction the world over has been influenced by political dispensations and centers of power. With Joshi and his mates the impetus has simply taken the