Text-Books, Politics and the Practice of History

Tripta Wahi

This article is based upon the author’s opening remarks to an one day seminar organised by the History Society of Hindu College, University of Delhi, on 5th March 2003, on the theme of the revision of the history text-books.

Ever since the Bharatiya Janta Party-led NDA government has come to power at the centre, the issue of the history text-books for schools produced by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has been much in focus and debate. The earlier text-books, written during the Congress regime in the nineteen seventies and the eighties have been under attack by the Hindutva forces. The new government initiated the move to change the text-books as they were seen to represent ‘Marxist distortions’ of Indian History in general and of Hindutva in particular. While the NDA government set in motion the process of producing new text-books, several portions were deleted from the older text-books as hurting the sentiments of several religious communities. These deletions provoked an intense reaction in academic circles. They were viewed as ideologically motivated deletions which also threatened the very basis of History as a discipline. Charges and counter-charges of ideological motivations continue to be traded on both sides. The text-books debate thus takes us to the very fundamentals of the discipline, that is, historical methodology including the role of ideology and objectivity in History.

Ideology is axiomatic to history writing. The very selection of the subject matter of historian’ research, the frameworks of analysis that they use, the evidence that they seek and the questions that they put to their evidence are ideologically driven, shaped and influenced. Yet History as a discipline has objectivity as its cardinal principle. It is not a question of one version against another version. There are divergent, even apparently contradictory points, views and explanations of historical phenomena. These conflicting viewpoints invariably reflect aspects of complexities and contradictions of the past social realities. All history, unless based on distortion and falsification of evidence, contains partial truth. Historian’s views have greater or lesser consonance with objective reality depending upon a complex interplay of their conceptual framework, tools and techniques of their investigation, availability of information and their politics.

Text-book writing has a more apparent and additional political dimension to it since a tremendous amount of selectivity is inherent in its production. This becomes more pronounced in a state-sponsored text-book. In the context of the current debate it is important to know that the very intervention by the state in the text-book writing in the country was politically motivated. That political motivation impacted the form and content of the text-books. Despite school education being a state subject, the central government had been vitally, and rightly so, interested in the quality of school education. The National Council of Educational Research and Training set up as an autonomous body by the Government of India, was preparing school syllabi and model text-books in Languages, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences and Mathematics for the entire school stage when on 31st December 1968 the National Board of School Text-books was established under the Chairmanship of the Union Minister of Education. It came as a consequence of an extensive discussion at the meeting of the National Integration Council held at Srinagar in June 1968. The resolutions of the Government of India stated that the meeting of the National Integration Council attached great significance to the proper use of text-books for the purposes of national integration. It further stated that the meeting was of the view that education from the primary to the post-graduate level should be reoriented, firstly, to serve the purpose of creating a sense of Indianness, unity and solidarity and, secondly, to inculcate faith in the basic postulates of Indian democracy and, thirdly, to help the nation to create a modern society. It was in pursuance of this aim that the first set of history text-books was prepared by NCERT in the nineteen-seventies. These NCERT text-books were adopted with minor modifications by the State Education Boards. The Congress-CPI alliance provided the political underpinning to the writing of these text-books and some of the best historians in the country authored these books.

As a corollary of the political motivation which underlay their production an emphasis on unity, oneness and synthesis came to dominate Indian History text-books. The Congress notions of ‘Indian Nation’ and secularism came to permeate these text-books. There was a policy decision to exclude local and regional histories at the school-stage. It was feared that there was the danger of promoting ‘parochialism and Chauvinism’ (NCERT Guidelines for History, pp. 58-59). This not only made state and large empires the focus of study, but also obliterated the nationality and tribal questions within the Indian state. It may be pertinent to note here that the CPI had already in the nineteen-fifties abandoned its political understanding that India was a multi-national state and therefore, its position was very similar to that of Congress on the ‘Indian Nation’. Further, the concepts of nationalism and secularism themselves had a preponderance of religious content. National integration was deemed to be synonymous with an harmonious Hindu-Muslim relationship in state and society. Secularism was seen as the equal treatment of all religions by the state.

These notions of nationalism and secularism reinforced the communal interpretation of Indian history going back several centuries. The British historiography of India, out of political considerations and conceptual inadequacies had been largely dominated by a religious interpretation. This interpretation is reflected in the periodization of Indian history and historical analysis of the pre-British period. The seventeenth-eighteenth century British, one can even say the same about Abul Fazl’s framework, continued and still continues to dominate Indian historiography. Therefore, despite considerable advances in Indian historiography, the NCERT text-books could not provide a qualitative breakthrough from British historiography. They retained the communal periodization with the ancient, medieval and modern periods being identified with Hindu, Muslim and British rule instead of being defined by the nature of social formation for these periods as was done in Europe. Moreover, the communal interpretation continued to predominate in the period beginning with Turkish rule albeit from a diametrically opposite angle. While the British historical writing of India had underlined conflict and tension between the two religious communities, it is the pan-India homogeneity that got underlined in the first set of the NCERT history text-books. All along a great emphasis was placed on the harmonious relationship between the Hindus and the Muslims and tensions were played down. The representation of Akbar as a ‘national ruler’ with ‘integration’ as the all-pervading theme is a telling illustration of this emphasis. It is significant that this representation of Akbar by Satish Chandra willfully keeps out the tensions and conflicts of the state-building processes as represented in Akbar’s relationship with different religious communities in the formative years of the Mughal state. This representation of Akbar is based on the exclusion of Iqtidar Alam Khan’s pathbreaking work which was available when the text-book was written by Satish Chandra. In so far as Satish Chandra’s representation of Akbar is based on an exclusion of Iqtidar Alam Khan’s work, it almost borders on a distortion of evidence.

The NCERT text-books being written under the new dispensation, have a different political agenda. Despite a lot of talk of the pluralism of Indian society, the common pan-Indian culture is the running theme of the National Curriculum framework policy and this common Indian culture is the culture of the majority community. Religious and political domination and persecution by Islam and the tolerance of Hinduism is the thrust of the current text-books in their inclusions and exclusions.

These two apparently conflicting points of view, in fact, have their fundamentals in common. What is common between the two sets of text-books is their communal interpretation; the first set through its emphasis on Hindu-Muslim harmony and the current one through Hindu-Muslim conflict and Muslim domination. While the ‘communal harmony’ representation has polycommunalism as its base the ‘communal conflict’ interpretation has majority communalism as its basis.

Therefore, the treatment of history in both sets of text-books emanates from the same root, that is, a communal interpretation. In the harmony thesis the communal interpretation is implicit, while in the second, it is more strident and blatant. The second is only a quantum jump from the first one. If the concepts of nationalism and secularism have a preponderance of religious context bereft of their religious base, the position of the majorityism is the logical next step for Hindutva ideology. It is partly the limitations of Indian historiography that is reflected in both sets of text-books, but especially in the first set of the NCERT text-books; the elucidation of the class and material base of communalism continues to be a major desideratum in Indian historiography.

Similar kinds of lacunae exist in political history too. Much of the political history of India has had for its concepts and framework the centralization and decentralization of power within a dynastic framework rather than the study of the political mechanisms of control over the material base of society. The basic Marxist tenet that the superstructure is based on the material base of society has never been seriously applied to the study of political history in India. As a consequence, the limitations of the historiography of political history get reflected in the text-books even in those by the best Indian historians.

Any discussion of the subject would be fundamentally incomplete without a reference to the caste system. Besides the national and tribal questions, the caste question has also been almost obliterated from the text-books with the honourable exception of the text-book on Ancient India by R.S. Sharma. In his ‘Ancient India’, R.S. Sharma points out that the caste system was a device to control the labour of the Vaisyas and Sudras whose position was analogous to the slaves and other producing classes in Ancient Greece and Rome. This was deleted when the Bharatiya Janta Party started the process of Hinduization of the text-books.

That there is an urgent need of getting out of the monolithic and monocausal approach to Indian history is conceded by many an Indian historian to-day. Diverse areas of study related to the politics of gender, caste and environment have broken new ground but they remain disjointed and disparate in the absence of an enabling scientific framework which could piece together and impart coherence to the varied even conflicting information and points of view being put forward. We desperately need to apply the overarching scientific notion of social formation as also the basic Marxist principle of the superstructure being based on the material reality of society, to Indian history. That may have to wait the assertion of a more radical politics, but the need to transcend the eighteenth century notions of nationalism and of the motive force in history and society is loud and clear. It is not that the nationalist historiography has reached its limits but that the pre-Marxist framework of Indian nationalist historiography which subserved the Congress politics had reached its limit. Consistent application of the concept of social formation in Indian history is the need of the hour. It is not a sheer coincidence that despite considerable advances in Indian historiography, any major debate on the mode of production is conspicuous by its absence.

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