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Caught In Historical Cliches

By Praful Bidwai

15 September, 2004

The current debate on school textbooks, especially history textbooks, has generated a rather odd response from some commentators. They present it as a contest between two rival ideologies or sets of ideas, both extreme or intolerant: one Hindu nationalist and communal, and the other "ultra-secular", or biased in favour of "Communists" and "Leftists". While Murli Manohar Joshi's Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) patronised the first set of ideas, his successor Arjun Singh in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is rooting for the second set.

Similarly, the search committee for a new director of the NCERT was composed of highly reputed academics, and the eventual selection of Krishna Kumar was commendable. Kumar is one of our foremost educationists, with remarkable work on pedagogy and the use of history and of concepts of nationalism to narrow political ends. (Prejudice and Pride, Viking, New Delhi, 2001.) "Detoxification" and reform of many other MHRD institutions is equally in order. The BJP eroded or undermined their integrity by suborning them to partisan, sectarian Hindutva agendas. On this view, one group of sloganeers, not scholars, has taken over education from another group. The game's goal posts have been shifted, but the rules have not changed. Everybody plays foul. The worst sufferers from this rivalry will be poor schoolchildren and, to a lesser extent, teachers. The "advisory" note being issued by the HRD Ministry in respect of the textbooks of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) commissioned during Joshi's tenure, under J.S. Rajput's stewardship, may only confuse matters further. Innocent children are in danger of losing a sense of continuity in their syllabi.

In reality, as we see below, the real contest is not between the Right and the Left, between two extreme and intolerant positions, but between an obsessively nationalistic, narrowly chauvinistic view of Indian culture and society, on the one hand, and on the other, a set of many plural, liberal, tolerant, often conflicting, premises which recognise the ordinariness of all cultures and the contributions to Indian society from multiple sources all over the world. The first orientation links history-writing to kindling "national pride" and defending the honour of India's "timeless civilisation", and obsessively attacks the "Marx-Macaulay-Muslim mafia". The second does not have such agendas.

An auxiliary premise of some commentators is that the "ideological rivalry" imported into our education has had a generally corrosive effect, especially through a link being forcibly established between history (or one's view of history) and one's political identity. As one writer puts it: "Your secularism is judged by your views on medieval India, your commitment to social justice by your fidelity to Ambedkar, your liberalism by your obeisance to Nehru, your nationalism by your allegiance to Savarkar... [T]here is literally no ground for anyone to stand on without being accused of something. If you admire some aspects of Hinduism you are a closet Hindu nationalist; if you criticise Hinduism you become a closet Marxist. If you admire the contributions of Islam, you might be a traitor; if you criticise Islam you become a communalist... "

It is legitimate to ask if this is not a bit of a caricature of the present debate and whether such analysis would not lead to a kind of relativism in respect of the core values of history as a discipline, which robs history-writing of any worth. Are intellectual allegiances among Indian scholars really so rigid that they cannot be separated from ascriptions of identities? Has a dialogue become virtually impossible between holders of different views, say, on the origins of the Aryans, on Islam in medieval India, or the Hindu caste hierarchy?

It is hard to be persuaded of this. Again, there is no symmetry between the Joshi agenda and the Arjun Singh agenda so far as the NCERT or their education plans are concerned. Joshi appointed, almost to the last man/woman, poor, or at best mediocre, scholars, known for blatantly communal views, to write textbooks or head institutions and committees. Among them were people like Makhan Lal, whose mission was to minimise the worth and contribution of non-Indian civilisations to the world, and Hari Om, whose view of one of the seminal events of the last century, the Bolshevik Revolution, was that it was "a coup led by Lenin". (This view, like his seriously distorted account of the Quit India Movement, was presented as an article of faith.)

Arjun Singh, by contrast, appointed a three-person committee, with well-known and credible scholars - none of them a "Communist", as Joshi alleges - to review the old NCERT textbooks. The purpose of this was not to settle scores. Countless social scientists, including a broad-based committee appointed by the Indian History Congress (which produced a critique, Index of Errors), have over the years raised serious questions about these books and their brazen prejudices. This Column has taken up the issue on numerous occasions. (Frontline, October 11, 2002, December 21, 2001 and December 24, 1999).

Joshi refused even to constitute the Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE) - which represents the sole interface between the Central and State governments on this Concurrent List subject, and which also includes educational officers, scholars, and citizens' representatives from different walks of life. Arjun Singh constituted the CABE within weeks of assuming office. There were wide consultations before it was formed.

As far as textbooks go, Joshi was led neither by pedagogic considerations nor by a view of history as critical-realistic analysis and rendering of the past, based on data, evidence and hypotheses. Rather, as he himself put it during the recent Rajya Sabha debate, history must be written so that it "does not project India as a country of the weak, supplicant and useless". If we do so, "we can never be a great nation". He also pontificated: "When a nation forgets its history, gets cut off from its past and fails to connect with its historic personalities, it fails to move forward."

Earlier, on countless occasions, he had made his preference for Hindutva amply clear. For instance, in January 1993, he said: "There is an increasing realisation in this country that all religious dispensations should accept Hinduism as a geo-cultural (sic) concept and not just as a way of worship or a purely ritualistic religion. The basic question now is of Hindutva."

Large numbers of people, including historians, other social scientists, educationists, teachers, as well as public-spirited citizens, would take a radically different view of India's past - one which emphasises the plurality and syncretic nature of Indian society, the rich interactions within it of different cultures and traditions, its multi-ethnic, multi-religious character, its non-religious, as well as religious fault-lines, and its scientific-rational as well as spiritual and religious traditions. Such an approach does not have to be "Leftist" or partisan to socialism.

Tagore, Nehru (and in some respects, Gandhi) too advocated it. Nehru certainly followed it in The Discovery of India. Many distinguished historians of ancient or modern India are not Marxists or left-wingers at all. The Subaltern School, for instance, cannot be termed Marxist, although, for the most part, it is anti-communal and refuses to glorify India's past. The use of labels like "Marxist" and "Leftist" is merely a means of branding and maligning people - a typically McCarthyite tactic.

The essential point is, there exists in India a large body of historical scholarship, comprised of different schools, including some high-quality oeuvre that has given our social scientists an excellent international reputation. This body relates closely to the values of the Enlightenment, such as liberty, rationality, equality and separation of faith from public life. It represents a continuum between liberalism and the Left and many other currents rooted in similar modernist ideas. It is tolerant and inclusive, subjects shibboleths to critical scrutiny, is frank when constructing hypotheses, and has scrupulous regard for the truth. (The truth must not be confused with facts. To paraphrase E.H. Carr, contrary to what is often said, facts do not speak for themselves. They "speak only when the historian calls on them".)

To ask that this body of work should form the reference-frame of textbook-writing does not argue for a narrow ideology. But it certainly entails rejecting chauvinistic, "India-alone-was-great" views that dress up and glamorise the past by covering up its warts. The Sangh cannot countenance this. For it, every acknowledgement of plurality, of the value of "Other" cultures, of the non-Hindu aspects of life in ancient India, is a retreat from its agenda of subordinating history to a specific, contested, concept of militant nationalism. This nationalism is a prisoner of the deadweight of hostility to "Others" - whether Chinese, Arabic or Hellenic cultures in Antiquity, or Pakistan and Islam today.

For the Sangh, the unique greatness of India derives from its Hinduness - its true and eternal essence. This is the core of the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) "cultural nationalism" ideology, itself a euphemism for rank communalism and the political privileging of one community while denying the legitimate rights and citizenship claims of all others.

THE Sangh Parivar's attempts to exploit the Savarkar issue politically must be understood in this context. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP have been trying to appropriate the legacy of Savarkar and elevate him to the status of a great icon of the freedom struggle, of the same rank as Gandhi and Nehru. This pernicious attempt necessarily entails distorting the nature of the freedom struggle, and obscuring Savarkar's own role as a compromised Hindu Mahasabhite, as a collaborator of the British and a major conspirator in Gandhiji's assassination. A.G. Noorani has superbly documented Savarkar's abject apologies and pledges of loyalty to the colonial state (since his very first year in the Andaman Islands' Cellular Jail), as well as his mentorship of Godse and his role in Gandhiji's assassination. (Savarkar and Hindutva: The Godse Connection, LeftWord, New Delhi, 2002).

Savarkar was a deeply contradictory figure. In the normal, banal, sense of the term, he was of course a patriot, in that he loved his country. (Did not Hitler love his?) But the object of Savarkar's admiration was the Hindu nation, not the syncretic, multi-cultural entity that India was and remains. Even in their early, militant, phase, Savarkar's activities were driven by hatred of "foreigners" and "outsiders". One Savarkar disciple V.G. Gogate, for instance, made an attempt on the life of Ernest Hotson, acting Governor of Bombay, out of "personal hatred" - because Hotson was given that post "in preference to an Indian"!

This bears sharp contrast to the mainstream freedom movement that was anti-imperialist, not anti-foreigner.

AT any rate, Savarkar's love for the "sacred motherland" never stopped him from making deals with the Raj. He had his differences with the RSS, and disdain for some of its ideas and practices. But these were eclipsed by their shared devotion to Hindu rashtra and Hindu-padpatshahi (Hindu overlordship or hegemony). More important, Savarkar pioneered the Two-Nation Theory. And he honed Hindutva into a sharp, vicious ideology, which the RSS carried forward through the Jana Sangh and the BJP. Savarkar opposed superstition, cow worship and yajnas. But that did not prevent him from joining hands with rank obscurantists.

Savarkar was fanatically devoted to "political" Hinduism, as distinct from "religious" Hinduness. Yet, in his Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, he advocated that Hindu conquerors should have ordered the rape of Muslim women. He admonishes Shivaji for not doing so. Savarkar also contemptuously describes Tipu Sultan as a "savage". For him, Akbar was "foreign, cruel, intolerant ... "

Like many militant nationalists of the early 20th century, Savarkar was obsessed with violence, retribution and bloodshed. He regarded them as "instruments created by nature". He wrote: "So long as [a] divine age has not arrived... bloodshed and revenge cannot be purely sinful... " So, ethnic cleansing can be natural! Underlying this was his thesis that Hindus alone can be India's legitimate citizens by virtue of convergence between their pitrabhu (fatherland) and punyabhu (holy land). "Muslims and Christians cannot be incorporated... because their holy land is in far-off Arabia or Palestine... " Logically, they must be disenfranchised.

Such views are totally incompatible with, and represent a horrible regression from, the core values of inclusiveness, democracy and constitutional rights. The BJP-RSS attempt to elevate Savarkar to a national icon is utterly despicable and repugnant. It must be categorically rejected. Savarkar was no "Veer" (hero) and must not be glorified. His name does not deserve to adorn Port Blair Airport or the Central Hall of Parliament.






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