India’s post-independence traditions, liberal and secular, are coming under increasing threat, and education is the latest battleground. Astrology has been introduced as a science subject in universities and there are plans to make Sanskrit teaching compulsory in primary schools. And, in the words of opposition critics, ministers are trying to “Talibanise” the history books.
Behind the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads the country’s coalition government, stands the hard-line Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or national association of volunteers. The RSS wants an inward-looking, Hindu-dominated India.
Founded in the 1920s, the RSS created the BJP rather in the same way that British trade unions spawned the Labour Party. Many BJP ministers, including the prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, are RSS members. They have been forced by their coalition partners to adopt a moderate face since they came to power in 1998. But this has not stopped excesses by youth organisations associated with the RSS, including attacks on Christians and the burning of Valentine’s Day banners.
Now, one of the government’s most committed RSS activists, Murli Manohar Joshi, the human resources develop- ment minister, wants to “saffronise” education (saffron is the colour traditionally associated with Hinduism). For example, ancient high-caste Hindus served beef to their guests; but this is to be cut from school textbooks lest it upset or mislead Hindu children who, for centuries, have been brought up not to eat red meat.
English language and attitudes have dominated Indian education since the 1830s, when Lord (Thomas) Macaulay, the historian and civil servant who believed that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”, shifted schools away from Sanskrit and Persian.
Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, thought dharma (sense of duty) and mazheb (cultural traditions) were “dangerous words” that should be kept out of the “temples of learning”, as he called the technological institutes that he created.
Since then, under a system that gives states the freedom to fashion their own school curricula, there have been gradual changes – for example, communist-run West Bengal’s textbooks extol Marxism. Joshi and his aides talk about waging “an ideological battle” against the “trijut [trinity] of Macaulay, Marx and madrasas“. In their view, Marxists and influential Muslim politicians took over where the British left off and wrote history books in a way that played down the excesses of Muslim conquerors, while painting ancient Hindu history in an unpatriotic light.
No one is disputing the need for history books to be changed periodically, nor for the current overloaded school curriculum to be revised. Nor can it be denied that the country’s leading historians have had a leftist bias for several decades. But the RSS’s agenda is far wider and potentially more socially divisive. Jagmohan Singh Rajput, the physics professor-turned-administrator who is driving the changes on Joshi’s behalf, plans to replace mainstream historians in the new curriculum with 20 or 30 new writers. Rajput refuses to give their names, which has led to suspicions that they will be RSS sympathisers, not established historians.
Joshi has also said that all new school history books will have to be cleared by religious leaders before publication. Rajput’s attempt to placate critics, by assuring them that the new books will give both versions of history, has merely led to a fear that they will give prominence to unsubstantiated Hindu beliefs.
The main aim is to establish India as the world’s oldest civilisation. This is based on the Hindu belief that Aryans are indigenous to India and that mainstream historians are therefore wrong to say they migrated (or arrived as conquerors) from Iran around 2000-1500BC. The new history books will say that the Aryans go back to the fourth millennium BC, before the Indus civilisation of Mohenjodaro and Harappa. Taking this a stage further, RSS school books say that India is the mother country of ancient China and that the ancestors of the Chinese people were Indian kshatriyas (Hindu warriors).
Most of the other changes are being made to appease the sentiments of religious communities, not because the history books are necessarily wrong. Joshi says that strict Hindus – especially the top Brahmin caste – are hurt by suggestions that their ancestors served beef and by the historians’ failure to agree that a controversial Hindu temple at Ayodhya, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, dates back to 2000BC. Sikhs are offended by suggestions that their Guru Tegh Bahadur was executed in the 17th century for plundering and robbing villages. Members of the agricultural-based Jat caste of north India are upset by history books which say that their ancestors, too, plundered villages.
There is a short-term political dimension to all this. The Sikhs and Jats are important vote banks for the BJP, especially in Uttar Pradesh, where state assembly elections are due in two months. Even the Congress party, which strongly opposes the RSS, finds it politically convenient to say that “anything which is objectionable, offensive, which hurts the sentiments of people certainly has no place” in textbooks.
The result is that India’s young people may end up not with a full history of their country, but with a sanitised and stilted version. “The references to beef-eating may or may not be wrong, but do not foul up a child’s mind with controversies – do your historical research at a higher level,” says Prafull Goradia, a BJP activist and former member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament. This is echoed by Rajput, who says he consulted psycho-analysts and was told that stories such as the one about beef-eating “could worry children” – even though we are talking here about students up to the age of 17.
There is little evidence that, before the BJP came to power, there was any groundswell of opinion against the existing history books, which have been used for more than 30 years. “What happened in the past happened, and we should know about it – so leave it in the history books,” says Om Prakash, a poor north Indian villager who was born into a high-caste Brahmin family and educated in the Hindu scriptures. That view is likely to be echoed by most Indians.