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The rewriting of history - The Hindu

Partha S. Ghosh ()
July 15, 1998

Title: The rewriting of history
Author: Partha S. Ghosh
Publication: The Hindu
Date: July 15, 1998

THE controversy over rewriting history has once again
surfaced. While the Sangh Parivar is alleged to be using
the state machinery to interpret history as per its definition
of the nation, most of the professional historians are up in
arms to thwart this endeavour. In this duel (the Arun
Shourie-K. N. Panikkar debate in the Asian Age), the
casualty is a balanced and healthy academic discourse.

The controversy over the nexus between the state and
history is as old as the nation-state itself. In the framework
of the ideology of the state, it is one of its primary tasks to
teach history in tune with its professed ideology. The
fundamental question is why national history is a
compulsory subject in school curriculum in all countries
today when it was not so till as late as the 18th century.
The reason is it is the result of the crystallisation of the
concept of nation-state jointly achieved by European
imperialism and third-world nationalism. So much so that
it is now tantamount to blasphemy to question this wisdom.
With the redemarcation of the European national
boundaries, the contagion is spreading fast. With the
dismemberment of the Soviet Union, there is every
likelihood that the Muslim states of Central Asia which
once prided in Marxist ideology would soon pride in the
glory of Islam. The mosques of Bukhara, Samarkand and
Tashkand would become national symbols and the past
Azeiri, Cossack, Mongol and Tartar heroes would once
again be deified.

India's post-Independence experience provides an
interesting case study. The programme of teaching history
was moulded, keeping in view the ethos of the nationalist
struggle. But since the freedom struggle represented all
kinds of forces, the task was not easy. Although freedom
was attained under the leadership of the Congress, whose
central ideology was composite Indian nationalism, there
were powerful Hindu nationalistic forces both within that
party and in the country at large. At the supra level,
therefore, the victory of the Congress was the victory of
secularism but below the surface elements of communalism
continued to thrive. At the provincial and district levels,
particularly in Uttar Pradesh and the other Hindi-speaking
States, it was quite noticeable as reflected in the
contemporary history textbooks.

In the Fifties and Sixties, when the Jan Sangh was nowhere
in the vicinity of power, school textbooks in the Hindi-
speaking states and in Gujarat and Maharasthra were
loaded in favour of India's Hindu past and against the
Muslim rule. When there were complaints against this bias,
a committee consisting of K. G. Saiyidin, J. P. Naik,
Gopinath Aman and others was appointed by Parliament
in 1966 to look into it. The committee found substantive
truth in the charges and said that historical events were
``presented in a manner as to arouse and perpetuate
prejudice against certain religious groups.'' Besides, ``the
books were overweighed with Hindu mythology,'' the
literary texts were full of ``prayers to Hindu deities,'' and
``Hindu beliefs are presented in a manner as if they were
universally held by all Indians.'' Even earlier, the
Education Commission of 1964 invited attention to this
problem.

In spite of this awareness, many textbooks remained in
circulation openly preaching the glories of India's Hindu
past, disproportionate to the reality. When the question
was raised in Uttar Pradesh by the Dini Talimi Council, a
Muslim organisation, the Chairman of the Emotional
Integration Committee of the U.P. Government, Dr.
Sampurnanand (formerly Minister of Education), argued
that ``if Hindus, Muslims, Christians and others are to
come together they should know one another's beliefs,
mythological or otherwise. In this way, they can learn not
to tread on each other's toes.'' He argued that the emotional
integration of the Hindus and Muslims would not be
possible unless the Muslims also took pride in the heroes
of ``Hindu history'' like Arjun, Bhim, Ashoka and
Harshavardhan for, after all, Hindus and Muslims had ``not
only a common culture but a common ancestry.''

In the late Sixties and early Seventies, historical research
got entangled in the larger politics of the state in which the
Congress under Indira Gandhi and the Communist Party of
India found themselves on the same wave length. The
establishment of the Indian Council of Historical Research
(ICHR) in 1969 under the chairmanship of Prof. R. S.
Sharma was largely the result of this politics. Besides being
an eminent scholar, Prof. Sharma's sympathy for the Left
ideology in general and for the CPI in particular was well-
known. His close association with the then Education
Minister and CPI sympathiser, Nurul Hasan, was common
knowledge. During his chairmanship, there were allegation
>from many historians that ICHR was being used for
propagating history from a Marxist standpoint. The nexus
between ICHR and NCERT was also mentioned in the
same vein.

During the Emergency, people watched with dismay the
camaraderie between the Congress and the CPI and in that
context the role played by the Left historians was not
overlooked. It is against this background that one should
analyse the subsequent developments during the Janata
period when the history controversy once more surfaced.
There were allegations that the Janata Government under
the influence of the erstwhile Jan Sangh indulged in
manipulation to give a Hindu-oriented twist to the history
textbooks. Some of these textbooks were sought to be
withdrawn by the Government on the ground that they
``presented a completely different view of the image of the
country far removed from traditional, cultural and
scientific values.'' Prof. R. S. Sharma's Ancient India was
withdrawn from the list of recommended readings by the
Central Board of Secondary Education. Criticism was also
levelled against the Government for subverting the Indian
History Congress by floating the Indian History and
Culture Society with direct and indirect state patronage.
The battle apparently looked like one between ``secular''
and ``communal'' historians but behind the facade was the
realpolitik of the Congress and the CPI, on the one hand,
and the Janata bandwagon, on the other.

At the micro-level, it was the Left-oriented historians
versus the rest. All those who failed to defeat the Leftists in
the organisational elections of the Indian History Congress
in previous years joined the Indian History and Culture
Society. Incidentally, the Ministry of Education which
patronised the Society was not headed by any erstwhile Jan
Sangh member or RSS sympathiser but by an old-time
Congressman from West Bengal, Mr. P. C. Chunder, a
leader of the Congress(O). From his experience of West
Bengal politics, the threat to the Janata rule was not from
the communalists but from the Leftists and the Indira
Congress.

After the fall of the Janata Government and the return of
the Congress to power at the Centre in 1980, there was a
lull in the controversy for a few years till the whole issue
got once again charged with the rise of the Hindutva wave
towards the end of the Eighties. With the BJP's victory in
four Hindi-speaking States in the elections of 1991, the
issue resurfaced in practical terms. The BJP Governments
of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh started rewriting
Indian history to promote the political ideology of
Hindutva, inviting widespread criticism from secular and
liberal forces. The BJP Governments in some of these
States advised college libraries to buy certain titles like
Why Hindu Rashtra?, Hum Mandir Wohin Banayenge (We
Would Build the Temple There Only), Shilanyas se
Shikhar ki Ore (From Laying the Foundation Stone to
Attaining the Peak), etc., which had clear communal
overtones. There were also instances of clever deletions
and additions in the existing texts to drive home the
message of Hindutva. The amount of changes that the BJP
had brought in the textbooks was revealed by a sample
survey conducted by NCERT.

While the BJP is indeed responsible for advancing a Hindu
chauvinistic policy to the detriment of the emotional
integration of India, some of our ``secular'' historians have,
in their enthusiasm to show that the Muslim rulers were
secular-minded, bent over backwards to prove that those
rulers were not communal. Satish Chandra's Medieval
India (NCERT), meant for Class XI and XII, has this to
say about Babar. Though he declared the battle against
Sanga a jihad and assumed the title of ghazi after the
victory, the reasons were clearly political. Though it was a
period of war, only a few instances can be found of the
destruction of temples.'' About Aurangzeb also, there is a
tendency to prove that his destruction of the Hindu temples
was politically motivated. But if these acts are condoned as
political, should not the same logic then hold good for the
Hindutva Parivar's demolition of the Babri mosque for that
act was also politically motivated?

In the ultimate analysis, the need of the hour is a balanced
historiography and not one which is ideologically coloured
- a tall order no doubt considering the structure of
relationship between the state and history.

(The writer is Director, Indian Council of Social Sciences
Research, New Delhi)