Twisting History – The Saffron Scheme

THE HRD Minister’s latest move of deleting portions from history textbooks and forbidding students from discussing these portions in classrooms has stirred up a hornet’s nest. The BJP poses the issue as one of ‘nationalist’ history versus ‘leftist’ history, or of ‘Hindu’ history’ versus an ‘anti-Hindu’ history. In its favour the BJP argues that there can be no such thing as an ‘objective’ history; history-writing has always been political, and now it is high time for the ‘Congress-patronised leftist’ monopoly on history to be replaced by the Hindutva viewpoint. Those opposing this move often refer to the hitherto prevalent official histories as ‘objective’, in contrast to the BJP’s communal and biased history.

What, in fact, is the issue? Is the history which the Indian state taught in its schools prior to the BJP, the ‘objective truth’, beyond criticism or challenge? Can any history be completely ‘objective’ and ‘apolitical’? Let us recall that Marxist historians the world over, challenged the official histories which told the stories of dynasties and kings, and insisted that social and material processes, relations of production and distribution, and the lives and struggles of those whose labour sustained society, be brought to centrestage. Let us also recall how feminists challenged the claims of ‘His-story’ to objectivity, and introduced the long-hidden or lost accounts of women’s lives, struggles and writings. Internationally, history as a discipline has no single official version to offer. There are several schools of historians, all of whom write history using different sets of methods and viewpoints. History is based on archival or archaeological findings, on painstakingly researched facts: but historians interpret these facts differently, and with different emphases, based on their political positions. The RSS and the BJP’s project is not simply to introduce a new historical method, a new interpretation of historical facts – it is to blatantly erase and delete facts, and to concoct a whole set of new myths which can provide a convenient historical past for the future Hindu Rashtra!

The portions of history which the BJP has found dangerous enough to delete refer to the fact that Brahmins in ancient times ate beef, and to the fact that Brahmanical indoctrination enslaved shudras. Note that nowhere has the BJP denied the truth of these facts. Who can deny the reality of Brahmanical oppression in India? But the BJP wants to create young minds who are unaware of this oppressive past and present, who do not know or care about oppression of ‘lower’ castes or women (remember the attack on Water). The idea is to create perfect brainwashed citizens for their communal, casteist and anti-woman Hindu Rashtra. It is this dangerous fascist project which we are called upon to resist today.

Resisting the BJP’s project of saffronisation does not mean standing in defence of the official state-sponsored accounts of history doled out by governments prior to the BJP. It means asserting the right of students to know all the facts and debates, so that they can learn to analyse and understand social and historical processes. This means challenging all attempts to present students with a sanitised version of history, or with a glorified account of ‘national heroes’, shorn of all debates, criticisms or questioning. After all, we must remember that the Congress, on several occasions, prepared the ground for the BJP’s saffronisation project, by peddling such sanitised histories. Even recently, it was after all a Congress MLA who attacked Satish Chandra’s textbook for “hurting Sikh sentiments”. Such moves only legitimatise the RSS project, where any fact which challenges Hindutva is being deleted from history.

Students opposing saffronisation are not struggling to preserve a ‘Congress version’ or a ‘Left version’ against a ‘Hindutva version’ of history. They are demanding their freedom to know, research, interpret and analyse their past, using the rigorous tools and methods which History as a discipline offers them. They are rejecting any censorship of academics by religious leaders and Hindutva thought-police. They are challenging – “Why fear history? Why delete facts? If you have new facts, new evidence, new research, prove it and we’ll welcome it. But do not call yourselves historians when your only achievement has been to prepare an elaborate mythical past for a communal, casteist and anti-woman Hindu Rashtra!”

From AISA, we solicited the views of three renowned historians on this controversy. Here is a brief summary of their views.
Kavita Krishnan with Srikant Singh and Radhika Menon

Professor DN Jha

Q: The HRD minister says history textbooks need to be screened by religious leaders, so that they do not hurt religious sentiments. Panchjanya editor Tarun Vijay says only those facts must find mention in history textbooks which are in the interest of “nation-building”. Will the censoring of history by religious leaders be in the interest of the nation?

Prof. DNJ: I entirely disagree with the HRD minister when he says that the history textbooks should be screened by religious leaders, because, religious leaders will allow only those ideas and facts to go in the textbooks, which they would consider to be in the interest of their religious propaganda. In the name of history they will only peddle mythologies, promote superstition and suppress reason. History is a distinct field of knowledge in which scholars trained in historical method and capable of critically handling the original sources have a place. Historical evidence cannot be convenient to all across the board and religious leaders will certainly compete among themselves to prove religions except their own as false and thus create animosity among the followers of different faiths. Priests, sadhus and sants can only churn out myths and fables. But mythology must not be allowed to masquerade as history because faith cannot be a substitute for fact. Religious leaders therefore should keep their hands off history writing.

As regards the question of ‘nation building’, the real issue is: what kind of nation we want to build in future? Do we want to have a nation of religious fanatics and perpetrators of injustice in society? Do we want to have a nation in which poverty, disease, illiteracy and age-old social injustices of various types have to be fought? If we wish to build a nation of the latter type then historians must expose the inequities that we have inherited from the past. People must be told objectively how their ancestors lived, what they ate, what they wore, how their social structure has evolved and changed over a period of time. In telling the students about all these points a historian cannot escape the responsibility of telling them about both positive and negative aspects of our past social life, religious customs and practices. If we wish to build a nation, in which the teeming millions of India should fell safe and happy, religion does not have any role to play.

But when Tarun Vijay talks of nation building he has in mind ‘one nation, one culture and one religion’, which, in fact means ‘a nation of Hindus’. Certainly this is not in keeping with the cultural, and religious pluralism of India. At one level therefore the present battle over the issue of history writing is also a battle between those who stand for cultural diversity and those who are keen to establish the supremacy of the non-existent monolithic ‘Hinduism’.

Q: The BJP says the Congress-sponsored textbooks authored by leftist historians are biased, and the present regime only intends to correct those biases. How would you respond?

Prof. DNJ: I think the textbooks that have been in use are definitely as objective as possible. Objectivity is quite often relative and cent-per-cent objectivity may not be always possible, but these textbooks are as objective as could have been possible. As regards the question of bias, where is the bias in those passages which have been deleted? Take, for example, the question of beef eating. There is no doubt that the ancient Indians ate beef. This is supported not only by the Vedic texts but also by subsequent literature of ancient India. The Dharmasutras, Grihyasuras and the Smritis – all tell us that cattle were killed in ritual contexts. Varahmihira even recommends ceremonial eating of bull’s flesh by the monarch. The practice of beef eating has been referred to by scholars who were not even remotely interested in Marxism – R.L. Mitra, P. V. Kane and so on.

Similarly, look at the passage relating to caste. All that it says is that the Brahmanical indoctrination played a crucial role in perpetuating the caste system and in the subordination of the lower orders – a fact which cannot be contested by any serious scholar of history. Clear evidence of this is provided in many texts, notably in the law book of Manu who unequivocally states that a shudra should serve the brahmins for the sake of attaining heaven and that he should not be permitted to accumulate wealth because he gives pain to them. Where is the bias?

Similarly, the statement made about Mahavira Jain. Isn’t it the responsibility of a historian to tell the students that the mythology woven round the tirthankaras does not fit in with available historical evidence? Questioning the historicity of Rama and Krishna may not be to the liking of believers but is perfectly in order from the point of view of historians who cannot slaughter history for faith. The Puranic evidence, which could be used to date Rama of Ayodhya to around 2000 BC, is not corroborated by archaeology. The excavations conducted by B.B. Lal at Ayodhya do not indicate any settlement there before the 6th/7th century BC. So how could have the historical Rama existed there in 2000 BC? Similarly, the historicity of Krishna is considered doubtful because the inscriptions from Mathura from 200 BC to AD 300 do not mention him at all. In fact, perhaps the earliest artistic representation of the many-faceted Krishna, found at a place called Arra near Varanasi and not Mathura, belongs to around the 5th century AD. This naturally raises questions about the historicity of Rama and Krishna and the Sangh Parivar’s frenzied effort to push back their antiquity according to their fancy. The passage relating to Guru Teg Bahadur in Satish Chandra’s Medireview India has not raised any eyebrows for all these years, not even during the height of the Khalistan terrorism in Punjab. The author cites several sources and then states that sifting “the truth from these conflicting accounts” is not easy. While he thus cautions the reader about the nature of sources he also describes the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s action as “unjustified” from all points of view – an action which “betrayed a narrow approach”. Where is bias in all these statements? In the name of correcting biases, the Sangh Parivar is only replacing rationality by its ignorance and philistinism.

Q: Are you satisfied with the kind of textbook writing sponsored by the state since Independence, even prior to the BJP rule?

Prof. DNJ: Well, so far as the NCERT textbooks are concerned, I do not have much to complain. But it is always desirable to revise textbooks from time to time by consulting the authors and not through administrative fiats. In this context, I would like to point out that there are thousands of “Shishu Mandirs” controlled by the RSS, over which the state has no control and these institutions have been peddling wrong notions about Indian history. These Shishu Mandirs have been in existence for long and the political parties, which were in power before the BJP, have not paid any attention to the kind of history that is being taught in these schools. It will not be correct to say that non-BJP rule has always been conducive to writing and teaching of history on scientific and rational lines.

[Professor DN Jha is teaching history in Delhi University]


Professor Uma Chakravarty

Q: Many historians would agree that no history-writing can be completely ‘objective’, every historian has a politics. Many competing schools of historians, with different ways of writing history, do exist – all of whom enjoy academic legitimacy. If there is no single “correct” history, isn’t it inevitable that history textbooks will be coloured by the politics of the party in power?

Prof. Uma Chakravarty: It is true that one cannot have the position anymore that there would be completely “objective” history; that is now not acceptable. That there would be different interpretations of history is also widely recognised; the factual school of history is no longer enjoying the kind of acceptance as it did, say about a hundred years ago. But having said that it is not acceptable that history should then become completely subjective. History writing certainly has a ‘politics’; that politics or standpoint will inform – and will certainly determine the kind of questions that we are going to ask of our past or any field that we are exploring. So you may decide that you are going to explore the history of the working class, or your politics might decide that you will explore the history of say women or other sections that have been left out of the frame of the history and your politics will then determine what questions you are seeking to answer. Having done that, however, it is incumbent on the historian to actually use the range of sources that are available to build up a credible picture of the field that the historian is exploring; the actual writing of history must flow from the range of sources that one explores. So to my mind the idea that we cannot have objective history which is not somehow shaped by the historians’ political understanding is not to be countered with the idea that all history is totally subjective, that history will fluctuate according to the specific kind of political positions that people in power want to establish. I think that is the difficulty today.

What is happening today is that the Hindutva forces are trying to erase certain histories because these dimensions of history are not convenient for them; they are obsessively trying to supplant the existing understanding of history without actually supporting their position with evidence, with sources, and without exploring the range of sources that exist for a given period. They are therefore writing a clearly biased history.

There is an important difference between writing a history which is informed by politics, in terms of determining the kind of question you are going to ask of your past, but then you have to go on to do the job of a historian which is not to cook up history but to examine it according to the sources that we have; academic legitimacy will only be available to that kind of history writing which is supported by the sources themselves. So there is no doubt you will have different ways of writing history. It is this that makes for the fascinating task of history writing, i.e., you can have the history of the sections that have been left out in the past, you can have a history of women, you can have a history of peasants, you can have a history of tribals even though these were not the traditional focus of history. This is the acceptable way of writing a different history. You can shift from the state-centred history to a people-centred history. But there is a fairly rigorous way in which that would have to be written, otherwise history writing will not enjoy academic legitimacy.

The notion of “correct” is to be examined critically. What do we mean by “correct”? Yes it is true that the history of the working class will not be the history of governments in power – the history of working class will not be the history of the elites or the landlords. But when you explore all such histories you will get the full picture of the historical experiences of human beings in the past. So in that sense I think the idea of “correct” history or the question about a “correct” history is wrongly framed. I don’t think one should say this is a “correct” history. Rather one should recognise that the fields of history are many and diverse and we will have to explore them and certainly the kind of questions the historian is posing to the sources will mean that we will write different histories; there cannot be one single history. But I think the terms used should not be “correct” and “incorrect” histories. On the other hand, I repeat that whatever history is written, it must be rigorously argued otherwise it will certainly not have academic legitimacy.

The argument that the history textbooks will inevitably be coloured by the politics of the party in power is not acceptable at all because then it will mean that we are accepting that the party in power is entitled to writing a biased history on the basis of its own narrow point of view.

Most serious practitioners of history will not accept such an argument. Even in the past, under the Congress regime it was attempted to create a time capsule; there was this plan to put a lot of sources and different pieces of evidence that was going to go into what was called the time capsule, and it was going to be buried under so many feet of the earth because the idea was that if there was going to be some moment in history when all of what we have in existence is ruined then there will be still some evidence that will ultimately be unearthed and that would be used to write history in the future. And there was a big debate on what was going to go into that because the attempt was to fill it with the Congress version of history and that was also strongly resisted. It was not accepted by the historians, by the academic community and they therefore resisted the move which was ultimately given up.

Q: Are you satisfied with the kind of textbook writing sponsored by the state since Independence, even prior to the BJP rule?

Prof. UC: The point I was making earlier actually is amplified by and would be better understood by my discussion of the way in which textbooks were originally written. The advantage of the NCERT books was that they tried to be secular. That was good, because it did consider that India comprises many different religious communities and therefore any one point of view that is reflective of only one single community is not acceptable to a diverse country like ours. But having said that, although the premises of the NCERT textbooks was perhaps to create a sort of “scientific” history there were two problems with NCERT textbooks: one they were too strongly Gangeto-centric, i.e., they were too strongly focussed on the experiences of the culture and the history of the Indo-Gangetic region. I don’t think it included the history of all the regions to the extent they should have if they were meant to be taught across the country. For instance, the history of north-east did not figure there; and, second, the history of other fringe groups were not really reflected in the textbook. So I think there was a problem with NCERT textbooks. They were also too strongly loaded with information; they were not accessible, not friendly to a young person’s way of understanding the world. There were thus a lot of problems with them. But that is a qualitatively different kind of problem. And what is important is that there were alternative textbooks being written. New experiments in democratic syllabus making began to come in the late eighties. This was done for example by Eklavya, an organisation centered in Madhya Pradesh.

It is such experiments that need to be furthered. In fact by now there is even a critique of the Eklavya textbooks. They are not sufficiently inclusive of the women’s history and gender questions are not satisfactorily addressed in the Eklavya textbooks. Also, to some extent, questions like caste and the contradictions between different groups are not addressed in the Eklavya textbooks; they could be further improved if peoples’ history is to be more reflected in the history textbooks. What the BJP is doing is however qualitatively different. Under the guise of a different version of history, they are actually trying to insert a highly distorted understanding of history. In fact, at one level, they are trying to knock out history altogether because they do not want to deal with the complexities of history. They are also trying to erase rather than expand the history of our people. They are doing this because they do not want to admit that the history of India or the subcontinent has been very-very complex, very, very rich and they do not want to accept that change and social processes have a dynamism or that societies are not static. For the Hindu Right history must be completely reduced to a static phenomenon. In a fundamental sense the BJP and its forces are anti-history because they don’t want to recognise that change is an essential element in history, or that diversity of human experience is an essential element in history. The history of the tribals or the history of the labouring classes, or the history of peasants, or the history of workers cannot be the same as history of some small elite groups of people. Also the Hindu right wishes to celebrate the ancient past – the so-called glorious Hindu past; not only is this communal but in the name of glorification we are also being told that we cannot criticise hierarchies of caste or forms of exploitation. In a fundamental way their whole agenda is problematic. And not only problematic but highly offensive and must be resisted at all costs.

[Professor Uma Chakravarty is teaching history in Miranda House, Delhi University]


Professor Satish Chandra

Q: The HRD Minister says history textbooks need to be censored by religious leaders, so that they do not hurt religious sentiments. Panchjanya Editor, Tarun Vijay has been saying only those facts must find mention in history textbooks, which are in the interest of ‘nation building’. Do you think history that is censored by religious leaders is in the interest of the nation?

Prof. Satish Chandra: I find a certain contradiction between them. I would agree that history is part of nation building in the sense that you look at the past from a certain point of view. For instance, we look upon India as a cultural unit despite having different languages, different traditions, and different regions which have their own traditions. When the British were here they emphasized the divisive aspects and denied that India had unity, they were basing themselves on the western tradition of Britain, France, Germany and Italy where they had one language and that was equated to be a nation. And from the beginning they argued that India could not claim to be a nation. We as historians did not accept this approach. Therefore, while recognizing distinctive elements in various regions, even to some extent, in religions, we asserted the fundamental unity of India.

The divisions were not denied but they were placed in the focus of an overall unity.

They say that these historians are leftist, but leftism is not a crime. The BJP spokesman says that communists are anti-Hindu and anti-national. This is also divisive, as they do not accept multiple streams of thought in the country. They have been arguing all the time that we secularists are anti-Hindu because we are not laying separate emphasis on the negative aspects of Muslim rulers. What they want is that the negative activities of Muslim rulers should be emphasized at the cost of everything positive.

Coming to the particular controversy over Guru Teg Bahadur, there is a certain historical methodology. First you put forward the different points of view regarding any issue, then you examine them critically. and then alone you come to a conclusion.

Reversing the process here, the conclusion was that in addition to being a religious leader Guru Teg Bahadur was acting as a spokesperson of the poor, who were being persecuted by the royal officials. Secondly, that he was also representing the anguish of Hindus of the region because Aurangazeb had destroyed the temples of old standing. Now, it was further argued that the action taken by Aurangzeb was because he saw it as a narrow law and order problem whereas Guru Teg Bahadur gave up his life for cherished principles. The premise was according to a Persian source, the earliest one available to us. It has been argued that Guru Teg Bahadur, who had a large following, was carrying out plunder (Rapine, which is causing the controversy, does not mean rape but robbery). The imperial officer Wakia Navis brought this to the notice of the Emperor to take action for insurrection. Another Persian writer who gives further details says Guru had a large following and peasants who were recalcitrant to zamindars, imperial tax officers etc. used to take refuge with Guru and that the Royal officials complained.

Those who have been accusing me say that I have accused Guru Teg Bahadur of plundering. But that is the official charge, my interpretations are the opposite.

The point is representatives of the Congress in the Assembly and the BJP in the Parliament are aware of the facts, as these have been published in newspapers. Yet, they are deliberately distorting history for political advantage. They first incite and then say we are hurting the sentiments of certain people and then censor.

As for asking religious leaders to put down textbooks, question arises – what to put down? Different communities have different interpretations. In the entire medieval period they want to represent only the views of Hindu religious leaders and ignore the views of Muslim religious leaders.

The conflict of Guru Tegh Bahadur is not purely a religious conflict though in the Sikh tradition it would be seen as such. But this is not a viewpoint from which a historian would investigate.

Similarly, it has been said that the Guru had tried to defend the Hindus of Kashmir but no local governor by the name given in the Sikh tradition ever was the Governor of Kashmir. The local Governors of Kashmir in that period Sher Khan and Iftikar Khan have no accusations of religious bigotry against them. In any case, large majority of Kashmiris became Muslims in the 15th century.

Historians have not ignored traditions but have examined them critically and used tradition constructively.

They have been trying to portray tradition differently. In the case of Rani Padmini, they say Khilji went to Chitor to appropriate her because of her beauty. No Rajasthani historian has accepted this story. It was considered a slur for a proud raja to show his queen to anyone. The Padmini story has been mentioned for the first time 100 years later by a poet, Malik Mohd Jaizi (in the book Padmavat) in an allegorical story of flying horses and talking parrots. For Jaizi, Padmini was a category of women and not a name. RSS Sarangchalak Sudarshan, in an address at Nagpur, says by rejecting the story we are insulting the sacrifice of Padmini. That Padmini may have committed jauhar is a different issue. But why do they insist on saying Khilji attacked the fort for Padmini’s sake? It is only to portray Muslim Rulers as lustful and always trying appropriate Hindu women. These are the people who are distorting history and playing one against another and they say it is us who are doing it!

Q: The BJP says textbooks authored by leftist historians are biased and they only intend to correct these biases. How would you respond?

Prof. SC: In a book of 350 pages the only bias they have so far seen is a paragraph and half, which I have already responded to. They have not bothered to communicate any bias to the authors.

Q: Are you satisfied with the kind of textbook writing sponsored by the state since Independence even prior to BJP rule?

Prof. SC: NCERT textbooks were supposed to set a standard and within that limit these textbooks did serve the purpose. The purpose of university teachers writing for school was to bring to the notice of school children new research. The purpose was books of this quality also were to be introduced at the state level. It is not a question so much of bringing leftist ideology but of presenting a broad secular point of view.

[Satish Chandra is a former professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University.]