Tuesday, Mar 26, 2002
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By R. Champakalakshmi
THE NATIONAL Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) unilaterally deleted passages from the books of Romila Thapar, Satish Chandra, R.S. Sharma and Arjun Dev without consulting the authors or taking their permission before the changes were made. No recognised committee of historians recommended the changes. Having trouble finding willing authors from among historians, the NCERT chooses to keep the names of the new authors a closely guarded secret. Interestingly, such passages were identified as "distortions" by one who is a regular columnist for the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser. It would be worthwhile for secularists to examine books from Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh and ensure those distortions denigrating minorities and women are removed from textbooks.
The claim that these passages (like ``beef eating in ancient India'' and questioning the historicity of Rama, a mythical deity) hurt the religious sentiments of the minorities and the objections emanated from religious bodies that are claiming to speak for an entire religious community hides the real motive, which is to replace mainstream secular history with the "Hindutva" version of history and to make the new curriculum conform to the curriculum of the RSS' Shiksha Mandirs. More disconcerting is the NCERT Director's assertion that he "would consult religious experts before including reference to any religion in the textbooks, to avoid hurting the sentiments of the community concerned". This is the justification for an "official history". For a historian, as neatly put by Satish Chandra, author of the textbook on "Medieval India" with objectionable passages on a Sikh Guru (subsequently deleted), "official accounts are generally full of evasion and distortion to justify official action".
The state-sponsored communal history revives the periodisation of Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British, long abandoned by serious historians. This treatment of history tries to draw legitimacy from the 19th century colonial ideas on Indian history. Examples of the two-nation theory, deriving from James Mill's periodisation of Indian history supporting Hindu and Muslim nations; the colonial construction of Vedic culture as foundational to Indian civilisation. The latter is being propagated with the additional recent attempt to argue that the Vedic Aryans were the authors of the Harappa culture, a theory that has little evidence to sustain it. To "strengthen" the belief that India was the home of the Vedic Aryans and that they are the fountainhead of world civilisation, further attempts are being made to trace the Saraswati-Sindhu civilisation (as the Harappa culture is now officially renamed using a Vedic nomenclature), back to an earlier period (7500 BC). This is done by promptly appropriating a chance discovery off the bay of Kambhat, of the remains of a ``settlement'' reported in all good faith by scientists of the National Institute of Ocean Technology, Chennai, even before any proper exploration was carried out by Marine Archaeologists. There is also a deliberate attempt to ignore the case for a Proto-Elamite- Dravidian association to the language of the Harappan people, which has been put forth more forcefully in recent researches, although not proven. A Dravidian authorship to this culture would be unacceptable, just as much as the presence of Dravidian loan words in Vedic Sanskrit would be, for those who believe that Dravidian languages are rooted in Sanskrit. There is least respect for historical methodology and, more importantly, to the rigour of the sister discipline of archaeology and to the science of linguistics in these claims. Either the existing evidence is overlooked or recreated by computer manipulation as in the case of the Harappan horse or new evidence is fabricated as in the case of the Babri Masjid. Undue glorification of the ancient period and undue denigration or neglect of the achievements of the medieval period (a whole lot of religious, philosophical, technological, literary and fine arts of the medieval period neglected in school textbooks) are characteristic of the new history which glorifies the "Hindu" period and decries the "Muslim" period, even to the point of representing all well-known monuments of the Indo-Islamic style such as the Taj Mahal as originally built by Hindu rulers.
Communal history is not an interpretation. It is not motivated by genuine concerns of the progress of the discipline through changing interpretations which are integral to the advance in the discipline. It is a religious approach based on falsification and fabrication of evidence. It is in fact a negation of history as it evades those aspects of history which are inconvenient e.g., caste system or eating beef. What is at stake is not the mere distortion of a historical event or the deletion or addition of a "fact" of history. It is the discipline itself. The historians are understandably concerned about the discipline and its scientific practice. The point of debate today is whether the officially sponsored history conforms to the rigours of the discipline. The communal view of history adopts a religious sectarian approach and establishes a direct link between the history of a religious community and the nation giving a mono-cultural character and single identity to the nation for its own legitimacy. Both Hindu and Muslim communalism is guilty of such an approach. The central question in the present controversy is the relationship between history and the nation. All historiographies have addressed this question. History is implicated in the way the nation is imagined. If the past is reordered on communal lines the nation can hardly remain secular.
Communal history is being disseminated through several "right wing" organisations which are today the most influential organisations in the field of education, courtesy Government patronage. They are no longer fringe right wing organisations but a forum which has wangled respectability, with their proximity to the Human Resource Development Ministry although they have failed to evolve their own school of history. They spread the communal view of history and are engaged in constructing the origin myth of the Hindu Rashtra through seminars, pamphlets and other publications. They are largely run through public funding and by the involvement of NRIs and right wing activists.
One way of countering these ahistorical tendencies, particularly in the field of popular historical consciousness, is through the construction and dissemination of local histories which are backed up by research for which independent research organisations and regional councils such as the KCHR are essential. But more important is the need for the committed scholars and historians of India to uphold their academic freedom of teaching and research with a critical approach to the writing of history.
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