Caught In Historical
By Praful Bidwai
15 September, 2004
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
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,
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.