On the New NCERT Textbook of Medieval India

Atishi Marlena

The deletions from the old NCERT history textbooks and the release of the new books have been accompanied with the oft-repeated rhetoric of ‘promoting communal harmony’. Whether this is a true attempt at removing communalism from the minds of young children or an endeavour to mask a larger communal agenda, can be determined by looking at the nature of the portrayal of the Muslim community. The umbrella of the protection of the ‘sentiments of religious communities’ should theoretically be extended to the Muslims as well; however, pre-eminent in the discourse of Hindutva is the image of Muslims as foreigners, destructive barbarians and immoral degenerates. The ‘temple-destruction orgies’ by Muslims are a major component of the RSS’s view of the medieval period in Indian history. It remains to be seen how the new books deal with medieval Indian history, as this (more than anything else) would reflect the ideology the books wish to portray.

While the earlier textbooks made numerous attempts to reflect the ‘composite culture’ of medieval times, these words are not to be found even once in the new books. The older books were accused of ‘white-washing’ the misdeeds of Muslim rulers,1 but the new books do far more than just ‘correct’ this. The emphasis laid on the destruction by the Islamic rulers is quite tremendous. Far from trying to present the Islamic minority in a positive light, they dwell excessively upon the devastation caused by Muslim rulers. The section devoted to Mahmud Ghazni is two pages long of which about two-thirds is devoted to discussing the ‘vandalism’ he committed. It is also worth noting is the graphic language used to describe the destruction, especially that of temples:

‘Kanauj, long revered as the sacred capital of North India, was the next to suffer Mahmud’s onslaught… the defenceless residents fled to the temple for refuge. The city was taken in just one day, its temples destroyed and denuded of their treasures and great numbers of the fleeing inhabitants slain.'2

This is followed by a half-page description of his attack on the temple of Somnath. It is said that the fall of Somnath ‘was publicised by the contemporary and later authors as the greatest victory of Islam over idolatry. It instantly elevated Mahmud to the rank of a hero.’3 The implicit assumption is that the temple was destroyed for religious reasons rather than economic gain. An attempt to contextualise the nature of Mahmud’s raids shows that he was motivated by a desire for the loot and a consequent consolidation of power in central Asia. While using the rhetoric of jihad, his career reflected a politico-economic motor and therefore his career tells us nothing about the nature of Islam. The new textbooks, however, seem to imply the reverse. The student reading the textbook is likely to draw immediate linkages between Islam and brutal destruction. Is that the intention of the textbook?

In popular accounts of history (which are often very communal), there are certain rulers whose brutalities, barbarism and persecution of the Hindus are constantly emphasised; these usually include Mahmud Ghazni, Allauddin Khilji and Aurangzeb. The new textbook actually goes much further and does not refrain from labelling several rulers as religious zealots. Jalaluddin Khilji is also presented as a religious bigot, a man who ‘regretted his inability to enforce the full gamut of Islamic laws and regulations in the country.’4 This is backed up by an account of the desecration and demolitions by him or under his supervision by Alauddin Khilji. The author writes that Jalaluddin gave permission in 1292 for Alauddin to lead a raiding party to Allahabad, via Chanderi and Bhilsa. The author then goes on to quote a ‘modern historian’ that the ‘idols were inevitably trampled under the zealot’s feet.’5

How do we explain these detailed and graphic descriptions of the ‘temple destruction’ presented to 16-year-olds? They clearly go beyond being a corrective of the supposed ‘white-washing’ by the erstwhile textbooks. A look at the account of Mahmud Ghazni presented in the earlier book, makes clear that the new texts are carefully delineating an image of Muslims as brutal, destructive and intolerant. The old books presented a balanced account of the destruction, in its politico-economic context:

‘The subsequent raids of Mahmud into India were aimed at plundering rich temples and cities of northern India in order to continue his struggle against his enemies in Central Asia… [his] most daring raids, however against Kanauj in 1018, and against Somnath in Gujarat in1025… he sacked and plundered both Mathura and Kanauj. He was able to do this with impunity due to the fact that no strong state existed in north India at the time. No attempt was made by Mahmud to annex any of these states.’6

A simultaneous examination of both the accounts of Mahmud’s incursions into the Indian subcontinent shows how the same information can be crafted in two completely different manners and hence convey remarkably different impressions to their readers. While the old textbook attempts to place Mahmud’s plundering raids into a larger picture, the new book lays before the students a picture of religious conflict and strife, initiated and perpetuated by the Islamic community.

What we witness is a constant juxtaposition of the ‘Hindu’ and the ‘Muslim’ identities. There is a constant attempt to underline the indigenous nature of the Hindu community, and the alien and foreign nature of the Muslims. There is an assertion that the terms ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ are not inappropriate for understanding identity formation in this period (as was the position of the older textbook). The religious identities are the ones seen as predominant in determining the history of the period, and not as ‘insufficiently crystallised’.7 The Hindu community, as representing ‘Indian’ interests is present from the first discussion of the entry of Muslim rulers in the 12th century. The conclusion left for the student to reach is of the Islamic rulers as foreigners and the Rajputs as glorious and patriotic defenders of ‘India’. Muhammad Ghur is shown as having been confronted by ‘… Rajput powers determined to stall his advance into India.’8 That the concept of India in the 12th century is remarkably anachronistic is clearly something that the author does not indicate to her readers. The Hindu and the ‘homeland’ are inextricably linked from the beginning of the narrative of medieval Indian history. In fact the textbook echoes the work of Golwalkar, since it presents Muslims as foreigners whom the patriotic Hindus tried to resist from entering their ‘nation’.

One of the most apparent means by which the old textbooks sought to remove bigotry and communal prejudice was to present a picture of an enriched, assimilative culture – one that incorporated elements of Islamic and pre-existing beliefs and practises. The watchwords of the older textbooks were ‘composite culture’ and ‘cultural synthesis’. In an endeavour to counter the assimilative attempts by the earlier textbooks the new 11th standard textbook emphasises the intrusive nature of Islam in all societies in which it was propagated. Islam is seen as wiping out all traces of pre-Islamic civilization in all the regions where it spread. The author writes, ‘pyramids, wonders of the ancient world…ceased to evoke pride in Egyptian converts, who even forgot their Pharaohs.’9 Imposition, rather than assimilation, is seen as the mainstay of Islamic culture.

The devotional cults of Sufis and the Bhakti movement were virtually the ‘mascots’ of the older books, which repeatedly drew on their traditions to put forth a case for cultural assimilation. Satish Chandra devoted much space in the textbook to a discussion of the Bhakti movement and Sufism. There is a complete reversal of this trend in the new textbook. Kabir, one of the most significant Bhakti poets of the medieval period gets all of two sentences devoted to him. This is in stark contrast to the earlier textbook where the discussion on him occupied three-quarters of a page. The earlier focus derived from the emphasis on his work on the devotion to one God and Hindu-Muslim unity (a concept those books stressed repeatedly). The new section on Sufism explicitly denies its links with and inspiration from Hinduism. The non-assimilative aspect of Sufism is further underscored in the questions at the end of the chapter, which ask the students to explain the Islamic roots of the movement.10 It is made clear that in the Indian context the Sufis had resolved their difference with the ulema and emphasised the need to follow the shariya. In the entire portrayal of Islam in India, there is a constant refrain to the conflict between Islam and previously existing socio-cultural life. There is also a persistent denial of any forms of assimilation between Islam and Hinduism, be it in the form of Kabir’s poetry or Sufism.

The Muslim ‘other’ is clearly being alienated by the nature of the textbook’s portrayal. The nature of Islam that the textbooks portray can often be seen in the polarity between the treatments of the ecumenical, syncretistic Mughal emperor Akbar and his orthodox grandson Aurangzeb. The Mughal Emperor Akbar, in the older NCERT textbooks, is portrayed as a just and truly ‘Indian’ ruler, the father of national integration. Indian textbooks represent him as the first truly ‘Indian’ ruler, who along with the Emperor Ashoka Maurya before him in the 2nd century B.C. personified liberal, pan-Indian leadership. In her textbook, Medieval India, Romila Thapar states, ‘Akbar’s great dream was that India should be united as one country. People should forget their differences of region and religion and think of themselves only as the people of India.’11 Akbar and his ideology are essentially the personification of all the values these books wanted the students to imbibe. What is underlined is his ‘friendship’ with the Rajputs, the multi-religious nature of his close advisors and his ‘non-affiliation’ with Islam. However, these books were ready to exclude sections of Akbar’s life if they did not fit into the picture of him, that they chose to create.

The Battle of Mewar, whereby Akbar managed to gain control of the Rajput kingdom of Chittor after six months of siege, was probably one of the toughest battles fought by the Mughal rulers. After gaining control of the fort Akbar issued a fatahnama (‘victory proclamation’) hailing the success of the holy war against the infidels. This presents a very interesting example of the ideological conflict between the nature of events and the narrative of Akbar’s reign that is sought to be created. Because the earlier textbooks glorified the tolerant nature of Akbar’s religious policy, the fatahnama, with its clearly religious character, was omitted as an aberration. The new book not only mentions the fatahnama but also goes on to give graphic details of the violence perpetuated by Akbar on the Rajputs who had engaged in months of ‘heroic struggle’.12 This is a part of the larger narrative in which the book seeks to undermine the ‘secular’ image of Akbar created by the earlier books; this incident and the details of the violence involved, helps in placing Akbar within the ‘Islamic image’ the books have created so far.

What is significantly novel in the new book is the differing emphases on the nature of Akbar’s religious policy. While the earlier books would steadfastly refer to those aspects of Akbar’s actions that fall into the image of Hindu-Muslim unity (or multi-religious unity) they wished to construct, the narrative of the new books wants to tell a different story. And in this new story the inclusions and exclusions are of a style dissimilar to the earlier one. Carrying with it a contrary ideological agenda, the book chooses to discuss the Islamic nature of Akbar’s actions. In a section devoted to the period Akbar spent in Fatehpur Sikri, the author tells us of how Shaikh Salim Chisti was Akbar’s spiritual guide, how the king used to take keen interest in the affairs of the mosque, at times even sweeping its floor and how he sponsored pilgrimages to Mecca.13 And while none of these facts are untrue, their inclusion is to dent the well-established image of Akbar as the ‘secular’ king, an image that was unquestioningly built by the older NCERT textbook.

In the context of this religious polarisation, the portrayal of Aurangzeb as a zealot and bigot is unsurprising. What one needs to understand is that the centrality given to the religious policy of the Mughal rulers is not a falsification, but a misinterpretation, or a deliberate reading of the sources at their face value. Written within an Islamic framework and constantly seeking religious legitimacy, the official accounts need to be contextualised before being used as evidence. Religious terminology is often used to justify and legitimise politically motivated actions. In the case of Aurangzeb, it is very easy to pass off most of his deeds and actions as those of a religious bigot; this however, is a rather un-nuanced perspective. While one cannot deny his strong religious beliefs, and their impact, there is a need to see the political and economic context of his policies. It is precisely this, which the new textbook refuses to do. In the three pages devoted to his ‘political ideology’, there is a detailed discussion of how Aurangzeb sought to ‘cast his regime in a strictly Islamic mould.’14

The final sentence of the section on his ‘political ideology’ tells us that ‘Aurangzeb’s religious intervention provoked widespread revolts in the empire.’15 While the next section on the revolts in the period of Aurangzeb, states that ‘some modern scholars have… suggested that economic considerations played a motivating role in these revolts’,16 there is a clear indication that this is not what the author thinks. What this section successfully does is to present the alternative view, but completely undermines its legitimacy. By rhetorically asking its readers whether the fact that these were all non-Islamic communities ‘naturally’ seems to indicate that these can be described as ‘Hindu resistance movements’, it successfully portrays religion as the mainstay of Aurangzeb’s reign and the source of all grievances of the populace.

The portrayal has a rather apparent ideological agenda and the rhetoric of ‘protecting religious sentiments’ holds very thin when one studies the Medieval India textbook. What the books seem to be doing is to interpret the evidence through a religious lens and often at the cost of critical historical analysis. The portrayal of the Islamic community is that of one headed by brutal temple destroyers and killers of innocent civilians. Islamic culture is seen as an intrusive and non-assimilative entity, that imposed itself on all pre-existing indigenous cultures. The ideology of these books is that of Hindutva. Though presented in a subtle manner it successfully incorporates within itself religions seen as indigenous to India, and presents Islam as the brutal and barbaric ‘foreigner’.


1. Organiser, Vol. LIII: No. 27, January 20, 2002, p. 9.

2. Meenakshi Jain et al: Medieval India: A Textbook for Class IX (New Delhi 2002), p. 27.

3. Ibid., p. 28.

4. Ibid., p. 72.

5. Ibid., p.73.

6. Satish Chandra, Medieval India: A Textbook for Class XI (New Delhi 2000), p. 37.

7. Meenakshi Jain, Medieval India, p. 115.

8. Ibid., p. 29.

9. Ibid., p. 121.

10. Ibid., p. 128.

11. Romila Thapar, Medieval India: Textbook for Class VII (New Delhi, 1988), pp. 94.

12. Meenakshi Jain. Medieval India, p. 142.

13. Ibid., pp. 143-144.

14. Ibid., pp. 172-174.

15. Ibid., pp. 175.

16. This is the line of argument that the previous textbook puts forward. For a detailed discussion see Satish Chandra, Medieval India, pp.235-238.

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