Handling of the Communal Question in School History Textbooks

C.N. Subramaniam

The bourgeoisie turns everything into a commodity, hence also the writing of history. It is part of its being, of its condition of existence, to falsify all goods; it falsified the writing of history. And the best-paid historiography is that which is best falsified for the purposes of the bourgeoisie (Friedrich Engels).


For some strange reason the teaching of history in schools has always served the goals of putting across to children a particular sectarian view of the world. While political viewpoints get conveyed incidentally in other subjects like sciences or mathematics or even languages, history books are replete with overtly political messages. While it is questionable if this was the best way to instil among the people at large confidence in a political trend it definitely results in poor history and poorer pedagogy.

The RSS in India uses school level indoctrination quite consciously. It remains to be seen if the efficacy of the RSS among the middle classes owes to such indoctrination or its multifaceted organizational work. Several historians convinced of the importance of their professions argue that the histories which the British produced of the medieval period of Indian history paved the way for the partition of 1947 and the communal holocaust that accompanied it. The fact remains that nearly quarter of a century after these textbooks were replaced with ostensibly secular books we still face an unprecedented wave of communal violence.

It has been a matter of debate among curriculum designers and textbook writers for middle schools whether the emphasis on history teaching should be on providing processed information or upon developing a critical attitude among children. While the two are not necessarily contradictory to each other and even can be complementary, one goal when pursued in isolation can lead to the denial of the other. The problem with most of the politically motivated information giving (whether from the left or the right) has been that little attention is paid to develop the critical faculties of children, to train them to evaluate the information they receive. For example with regard to communalism is it important to inform children ad nauseam that communalism is a bad thing promoted by imperialism for its selfish needs and that the real issue before the masses should be class struggle? Could their approach to the question be conditioned more subtly, through providing them with an alternative understanding of social history which through the weight of data reject a communal interpretation of history? In other words what indeed is a better way to combat a communal perception of history - is it by telling them that it is wrong or by building in them a method and understanding that will enable them to question and reject a communal understanding even if it were to be authoritatively stated?

And then there are several approaches to the communal question. There is the Congress variant of 'secularism' which seeks to push under the carpet elements of communal discord, the use of religion by the ruling classes to maintain themselves in power, and explain away all acts of communal violence by attributing them to an external agency. This helps the Congress to mobilise its support on communal grounds without seeming to be communal and enables the subservient CPIs and CPMs to certify it to be secular and ally with it against the BJP and of course get access to political power in the process! There exists a close relation between the Congress approach to communalism and the CPI-CPM approach. There is a commonality in so far as there is a refusal to go into the social roots of communalism and reduce it to its overt and violent manifestations like riots (ignoring the various other manifestations less violent or non-violent). The cause of communalism is usually attributed to lack of 'development' and to subjective factors as false consciousness. The only difference lies in their view that communalism can be countered through building class-based movements of the oppressed.

The present article seeks to explore some of these issues.


A crucial feature of modern nation states has been the emergence of a common citizenry dissolving feudal ties of dependence and particularism and tribal exclusiveness. This is necessary for the free movement of capital and labour which is a prerequisite and a hallmark of developed capitalist production. In the Indian context communalism and casteism have been the major barriers in the process of the formation of a common citizenry and hence in the way of developed capitalism and bourgeois democracy.

It is perhaps incorrect to separate the two issues of caste and communalism as they spring from a common source: the fact that access to resources and livelihood remains determined by membership of a caste or kin group or community. Conversely, exclusion from these groups is tantamount to a loss of livelihood. Since these groups are asymmetrically placed they also imply access to cheap and underpaid labour for the superior groups.

Caste functions as the underlying organising principle of the majority community, namely, the Hindus. Minority communalism provides a counterpoint as it seeks to provide access to resources and labour outside the parameters set by the caste system but still through membership of groups determined by birth. Majority communalism is thus both a response of this challenge of a counterpoint to caste hierarchies and also an attempt to cement the ties between high and low castes while at the same time providing some degree of mobility within the majority community. The problem in pursuing the communal divide is the emergence of strong movements of the oppressed castes and tribes and working classes, the landless and the industrial workers. The oppressed castes and tribes call off the bluff of communal homogeneity and the working class movement unites the proletariat across communal lines.


The textbooks used in Indian schools are prepared under the supervision of the government: by the state governments in the various states and by the central government in the union territories and schools run by the central government. The central government set up the National Council of Educational Research and Training in the 1960s to act as the central academic institution for school education. The Council was charged with the responsibility of preparing text books which were to be prescribed in the schools run by the central government and were to act as a model for the textbooks to be prepared by the state governments.

Since the sixties the social science department of the NCERT has been under the influence of the liberal and left-wing intelligentsia represented by scholars like Romila Thapar, S. Gopal, Satish Chandra, R.S. Sharma and Bipan Chandra. Each of these scholars, with an impressive record of path-breaking research in Indian history in the post-Independence era, were the very best Indian academics could offer. At the same time they were also close to the Congress regime which at that time had a tacit alliance with Communist Party of India. It may be recalled that the Congress embarked upon a radical phase to renew its mass support and nationalised banks, abolished the privileges granted to the feudal princes in 1947, etc. This phase effectively ended with the great strike wave which peaked with the Railway General Strike of 1973. Indeed this was also the period of intensive polarization within the Indian Communist Movement and the right-wing CPI and the liberal intelligentsia veered towards the Congress. This enabled them to gain access to much patronage and build institutions of research to promote their line of historical research. The writing of the school textbooks which to this day constitute the basic corpus of history textbooks took place in this context.

Prior to this turn of events history writing including textbook writing was in the hands of reactionary nationalist and colonial scholars. Either they were writing apologies for imperialism or building their 'nationalism' upon the foundations built by imperialist historiography. This consisted in glorifying the supposed Hindu past, treating the period of Turkish and Mughal rule as a dark period and seeking the roots of contemporary communal divide in the policies of the medieval Muslim rulers and the Muslim community. While being overtly nationalist this trend in history writing was not consistent with the platform through which the post-independence Congress regime was seeking legitimacy to rule. The Congress platform was one of ostensibly balancing the interests of various social groups and classes with a special tilt towards the toiling people. This required a degree of articulation of the interests and viewpoints of the depressed classes and groups without at the same time pursuing the elements of conflict to their logical conclusion. Likewise, it required to portray the Congress as the custodian and protector of minority culture and identity in continuation with the 'liberal' imperial rulers of the past (Ashoka or Akbar) without engaging in a scientific critique of their policies or the policies and practices of the Congress itself. It hardly needs to be stated that the liberal status of such kings seldom stand the scrutiny of critical historiography and the Congress's own track is deeply embedded in the mire of communalism and casteism.


The experience of the communal holocaust of 1947 and the partition of the country always help to remind the ruling classes of the country of the fragility of the social fabric that they seek to rule over. Hence the effort to exorcise the spirit of communalism became important to the Congress-led sections of the body politic. However, any deeper probe into the question that will link the communal consciousness to the foundations of the society and the economy could not be welcome. The congress after all mobilized its electoral support using communal and caste blocks and the power of the rural elites. Hence the overwhelming trend was to dismiss communalism as a false consciousness or something that was confined to the mental world of the people. If communalism was merely an ideological phenomenon, it could be fought at the ideological level alone, and as such could be found in any period of history as an ideological trend. Thus Ashoka or Akbar could become secular kings and Aurangzeb could become communal. To be 'secular' or communal' was thus their sweet choice just as the people and leaders of the day could choose to become secular or communal. Much pains were taken to assert that the MedievaL states were 'secular' rather than 'theocratic' states, and to show that a composite national culture was being evolved by the joint efforts of all communities. Thus it was the diabolical minds of the Jinnahs or the Malaviyas that conjured the partition of the country along communal lines. The structure of the society and economy in which the Congress was rooted had nothing to do with these ideas. Of course it was even better to blame the British imperialists, an entirely alien agency, for the communal consciousness of the people. How they managed to plant their ideas into the minds of the people required some explanation and the history written by them came in handy. The Britishers used communal and religious categories to explain Indian history and Indians who imbibed these categories from the text books became communal too. Of course no one asked the question - how many people read these books? How many of the rioting peasants of Punjab or Bengal would have read these books?

It would be rewarding to look into the textbook prepared by Bipan Chandra way back in 1971 for class XI under the editorship of S Gop al, Nurul Hasan, Romila Thapar and Satish Chandra. Even allowing for the undeniable merits of the book in breaking imperialist and right-wing historiography, its treatment of the communal question can be best be characterized as reactionary. A few quotes may be sufficient to illustrate the point:

'...how could the communal and separatist trend to thinking grow among the Muslims?'

'This was to some extent due to the relative backwardneSs of the Muslims in education and trade and industry. Muslim upper classes consisted mostly of zamindars and aristocrats. Because the upper class Muslims during the first 70 years of the 19th century were very anti-British, conservative and hostile to modern education, the number of educated Muslims in the country remained very small. Consequently, modern western thought with its emphasis on science, democracy, and nationalism did not spread among Muslim intellectuals, who remained traditional and backward. ...among the Hindus, the modern intellectuals and the rising commercial and industrialist class had pushed out the landlords from leadership. Unfortunately, the opposite remained the case with the Muslims.' (p. 250)

By implication the Hindu leadership emerged as progressive and nationalist and the Muslim leadership was reactionary. Hence the communal separatist thinking among the Muslims. Bipan Chandra of course gives other causes which tended to reinforce this tendency, like the action of the Hindu communal organisations like the Hindu Mahasabha or the religious symbols and slogans of the militant Hindu Nationalists or the occasional insensitivity of the Congress to allay the fears of the minorities that their interests would not be taken care of by the 'nationalists' and so on. But the fundamental reason lay with Muslims themselves. In other words the Muslims as a community were responsible for the communalism and the partition of the country. Indeed there is little to distinguish this line of thinking from the one peddled by the RSS! It may be noticed that there is a subtle equation between Hindu = progressive = nationalist = Congress and Muslim = reactionary = communal = League. The exceptions are always bandied about as if to say that this was not always the role but that does seldom detract from the main argument.

One may wonder at the ease with which all the evidence for the communal mobilisation and communal politics and even communal violence by the Congress has been ignored. Likewise the fact that the reactionary landowners and commercial collaborators of the British constituted a substantial section of the constituency of the Congress is ignored. It can hardly be forgotten that the Congress could never be unambiguously anti-imperialist or anti-feudal or anti-communal because of the nature of its support base and hence was incapable of carrying out any radical policy.

The text book on Modern history published by the NCERT for class VIII in 1989 shows interesting shifts. The 1991 book, far inferior in conception as a textbook to the earlier book is less brazen and happily throws the blame on the Britishers. In addition there are long moral sermons on the need for a non-communal approach, on why religion should be a private and not a political matter (why there should not be any political organization on religious lines).


One does not imply therefore that children of middle schools should be fed with a correct understanding of the communal issue in their history books. That should be determined independently with reference of the objectives of history teaching and the development of the understanding of children. Probably it is not advisable to enter into such intricate, complex and volatile questions in the middle school level. Usually in order not to burden the children with unnecessary details a simplistic version is peddled which invariably presents a version convenient to the powers that be. It may not be possible to do proper justice to such complex and sensitive themes within the framework of middle school curriculum. Probably it may be more meaningful to treat the problem in a broader manner. This poses some problems. The traditional textbooks of the Congress variety try to build a broad non-communal view by emphasising the so-called composite culture of India which incorporates the good of all religions etc. This of course provided us with a heavily whitewashed understanding of history. No attempt is made to question what constitutes the composite culture, who built the composite culture, whose culture it was, etc. There was the composite culture represented by Kabir who was unequivocal in his opposition to the orthodoxies and priesthood of all religions and the composite culture of the Mughal emperors. Would one include the caste system and the oppression of women in the 'composite culture' of India or not? In fact the peddling of composite culture is a convenient way of passing off a non-critical goody goody view history. Probably the need is to build in children a view of history that is critical and empowers them to question such whitewashed versions. It is necessary therefore that children are taught history that always goes beyond the surface, into the contradictions that constitute the social phenomena.

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