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Sacred texts

Sacred texts

Author: Chandan Mitra
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: August 21, 2006

Probably because politicians rarely read history - leave alone learn from it - they are obsessed with revising it. At least since the mid-70s, India's history is being tossed around by Governments of different hues because they aspire to condition impressionable minds to their version of our past. With equal zeal, successor Governments have spent much of their time "righting the wrongs" only to have one version supplanted by another a few years down the line.

The latest outrage over existing and proposed history textbooks that the UPA regime is bent on teaching schoolchildren follows this now familiar pattern. As a result of an uproar in the Rajya Sabha last Friday, a reluctant Government conceded an inquiry into the alleged defiling of heroes of India, although I am extremely sceptical about the outcome of any such probe.

The origin of the latest fracas is a politically motivated plan to bring contemporary history up to date in NCERT textbooks. According to a well known self-publicist who is purportedly in charge of the Arjun Singh sponsored project to inject "political correctness" (read Marxist venom), NCERT books will soon be updated to include chapters on recent developments like the assassination of Indira Gandhi, Punjab terrorism, the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984, the Ayodhya Movement and more importantly the Gujarat riots of 2002, which the worthy in-charge asserted "targeted a particular community".

As a student of history, I strongly object to the move to include such recent events as part of the school history curriculum. There is a recognised convention that only those events that occurred approximately 50 years before the present should qualify as history. There is a very good reason for this. The 50-year gap virtually ensures that the protagonists of those events are no longer in our midst and are, therefore, neither extolled nor maligned. This is important, for history revolves around political personalities and they should not be able to benefit from, or be disadvantaged by, the discourse around their actions.

It is too early, for instance, to make a historical assessment of the role of the legendary DGP of Punjab Police KPS Gill who almost single-handedly combated the terrorist scourge in the State. He has his staunch admirers, among whom I am proud to be classified. Equally, he has strong detractors in the jholawala, human rights lobby. Besides, the relevant official documents pertaining to Punjab terrorism will not be declassified at least till 2043, the year that marks the 50th anniversary of the end of sustained terror in the State, although sporadic incidents, including the murder of Chief Minister Beant Singh, happened even later. In the absence of documents that are declassified only after 50 years (it's 30 years in a less volatile society like Britain) and released to the National Archives for scholars to see, no dispassionate judgement is possible. In other words, no authoritative historical manuscripts will roll out before, say, 2050, on Punjab terrorism, including its victims such as Indira Gandhi. Textbooks for schoolchildren must follow rather than precede scholarly works. It's preposterous to prejudice the minds of tomorrow's historians, who are studying in school today, through judgmental, essentially journalistic, accounts of events of the recent past.

Arjun Singh's secular fundamentalist spin doctors have given the game away by including the Gujarat riots in the ambit of their project to tamper with the past. There can be no guesses as to what they have in mind in their sanctimonious reference to the "targeting of a particular community". Given the antecedents of the spokesman of the project, it can safely be assumed that the "particular community" that was targeted by a mob of murderous hoodlums at Godhra railway station on February 27, 2002 is not on the radar. The aim, obviously, is to gun for those allegedly involved in the post-Godhra riots. The bull's eye is clearly the incumbent Chief Minister of the State.

I am astonished that the Government proposes to teach children about what happened in Gujarat even before the report of the official Commission of Inquiry has been submitted. The Nanavati-Shah Commission is still haggling with Rashtrapati Bhawan, seeking access to former President KR Narayanan's correspondence with the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Obviously, the Commission has not even started writing its report. So what will the textbooks rely on by way of "authoritative" information? The findings of the UC Banerjee panel propped up by Lalu Yadav, which concluded that the kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya were suddenly possessed by an urge for collective suicide and set themselves on fire inside two coaches of the Sabarmati Express after securely bolting them from outside? I am afraid this is the only reference that is likely to be found in the proposed NCERT textbook to the Godhra incident that sparked a reaction in the rest of the State. It is not my intention to justify what happened in Gujarat subsequently. The only question is whether an event barely four years old should be formally taught to children for they will be examined on their knowledge of it. And given the conflicting passions that the Gujarat events, or similar communally tainted issues such as the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement, arouse in people including probable examiners, is this fair to children?

The pseudo-secularist high priests also propose to include the Ayodhya Movement in the list of school textbook subjects with the evident aim of denouncing the BJP, particularly LK Advani. Again, we know how violently India is divided on this issue. Existing scholarship, for whatever it is worth in the absence of declassified documents, is equally conflicting in its conclusions. Will the inclusion of the Ayodhya Movement, that too, a patently one-sided version, be in the best interests of fostering communal unity? Or will it result in further disharmony?

It can be argued that in the age of information, 24-hour news channels, a growing number of newspapers and unlimited, easily accessible material on the Internet, old-fashioned ideas about guarding the contentious present from the inquisitive minds of children makes sense no more. But the crucial difference is that information about complex issues is one thing, to be tested in examinations about their "correct" interpretation quite another.

I may be accused of having no faith in the impartiality of the crop of scholars who have been entrusted this job by the Government. Indeed, I don't. To begin with, they are brazen. They have refused to pull out even the derogatory references to Vedic Hindu customs, the role of a nationalist martyr like Guru Tegh Bahadur and deried the entire Jat community. Their old books have been re-issued by the NCERT in place of the more appropriate, non-controversial versions published during Murli Manohar Joshi's stewardship of the HRD Ministry.

Worse, they have described icons like Rishi Aurobindo as a terrorist. Can we trust our history in the hands of those who blaspheme the nation and its beliefs?


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