In this timely volume entitled Our History, Their History, Whose History? (London: Seagull Books, 2023), historian Romila Thapar delves into the complex world of different types of nationalism, their impact on the interpretations of the past, and on the discipline of history itself. Recognizing nationalism as a powerful force which gives rise to various narratives that provide ancestry to communities and shape the direction of societies, the author explores how, in India, two conflicting notions of nationalism have evolved and shaped our idea of the nation.
Today, one such nationalistic theory claims the victimization of one religious community by another through centuries of ‘misrule’. Such a claim wilfully ignores ample evidence to the contrary in order to suit a particular political and ideological purpose. Thapar counters such attempts at misrepresentation by citing several historical instances of the nuanced interface and intermingling of cultures as well as by showing how today’s conflicts have their roots in the British colonial construction of India’s history.
In the extract below, the author addresses the recent controversy surrounding the deletions of sections of Indian history textbooks published by the NCERT. She suggests that the intention is more likely to be the promotion of a particular reading of history that conforms to the ideology of those in power.
The recent controversy over the deletions of sections of the textbooks in Indian history written for Classes VI to XII and published by the NCERT raises a multitude of questions. Some of these have been discussed in the recent justified anger over the dismissive treatment of important historical statements and segments in the history textbooks, currently facing a hatchet job as part of our present system of education. I would like to comment on three facets of this controversy: Why are textbooks crucial to education? What is the significance of the seemingly arbitrary hacking of earlier versions of Indian history in these textbooks? What is the immediate purpose of doing so?
Textbooks serve at least three functions. One is that they bring together the basic information required to understand a discipline. Ideally, this is updated every decade. Updating does not mean deleting, whether this be just a sentence or a paragraph or an entire section or chapter. Updating means the infusion of new knowledge or arguments and readings on the basis of new knowledge. The books are graded in a hierarchy from the simple ones used in junior classes to the more complex ones used in senior classes. This cannot be treated as merely a repetition of the lower at the higher level, as it is a deliberate change in the level of comprehension and upgrading of information. There is therefore a difference in how history is treated in the books used in the two classes at two different levels.
Secondly, good textbooks teach and encourage students to ask relevant questions that enhance their knowledge of the subject they are studying. Asking questions and, preferably, probing questions in any discipline is essential to enhancing knowledge. This is ideally what education is meant to encourage. Thirdly, the textbook is an aid to the teacher in teaching a subject and explaining why that subject has significance in our society and culture. What and how children are taught is the key to the kind of citizens they will become, as is the claim of the Jesuits, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and many other organizations.
Textbooks therefore deserve to be taken seriously and be given the kind of attention they received when the NCERT books, Sets I and II, were being written. Set I was written in the 1960s and 70s and, subsequently, Set II consisted of the ones that replaced the earlier ones in 2006. But when textbooks have been hacked, then one knows that education is not the primary purpose of this action. The actual concern is to nurture citizens that are content with what they are taught by those in authority, without in any way questioning it. It is important to reiterate that education should not be just learning the alphabet and being able to read primers. It has to encourage thinking beyond the obvious, which requires a far larger financial slice of the budget than is currently given, and there is a need to train school teachers to encourage school children to ask relevant questions in order to understand the world in which we live. In this, the teacher-training programmes need considerable improvement as also the availability of books in school libraries. The study of history plays a central role in normal pedagogy.
History is based on a continuity of events. It makes little sense to delete large sections of it, as such deletions inevitably confuse both teachers and students. Thus, to jump from the early to the late second millennium AD, and to preferably avoid teaching ‘Muslim history’ can only result in immense confusion. What happened in all these centuries is a question that has to be answered, followed by why this history is not being taught. Discussion of the impact of events gets stymied if there are breaks that create huge blanks in the narrative, or else deletions that annul the centrality of discussing an event in order to understand it or observing connections between various actions. Can one really discuss the assassination of a major political leader—in this case, Mahatma Gandhi—without mentioning who exactly the assassin was, what were his possible motives and what was the political aftermath of the event?
History is not a string of events with dates attached. Discussing the context of an event is crucial to its historical understanding. This is equally applicable when discussing why a particular community was targeted and killed in large numbers on a particular occasion. Such actions cannot just be blanked out by removing mention of them in textbooks, as has been done in the NCERT textbook with the Gujarat killings of 2002. These events survive as a part of social memory and are spoken of both publicly and in quietude. They become the subject of other books and debates and are not forgotten. This has been the fate of the Holocaust, the Gulag, some would say even the Partition of India in 1947, and similar historical happenings.
Predictably the pronouncements of the changes made by the NCERT in the all-India school textbooks come within a cloud of confusion. Two aspects, among others, of what has been said are puzzling as their purpose is unclear. One is what is meant by what the NCERT calls ‘rationalizing’. The other is that the justification for deleting the sentences, passages and chapters from the school textbooks, especially those for Class XI and XII, has not been explained in each case as it should have been. How does it ease the burden of post-Covid studies if the sentence referring to the assassin of Gandhi being a brahmana is removed?
To rationalize what has been written means that the choice of how and why a text is written is determined by rational and logical explanations of the data. The reason for what is deleted from an existing text has to be explained and from the same perspective. The choice should not be arbitrary or casual or unconcerned with the subject of the text, nor a subjective whim conforming to an obvious ideology. Rationalization means giving a logically justifiable explanation for the changes being made. The mere deletion of sentences, paragraphs, sections or chapters in a text is not in itself a rationalization, but is rather a rationing of what is being presented. Has the NCERT confused ‘rationalizing’ with ‘rationing’ and has simply axed large portions of the textbooks in order to claim that the students now have less to study? Rationing means to cut down, to prune, to delete—which is precisely what the NCERT has done.
The more sensible way of doing this—if the weight of the Covid disturbance has to be met—would be to leave the textbook as is and simply state which sections would not be examined, although they could be read by the students. It would not, of course, have let the NCERT off the hook, but it would have made some sense at least in accommodating the syllabus to students suffering from the after effects of Covid. It would have left the history intact and of much interest to the brighter students who use Book XII as the starting point for asking questions. But this was obviously not treated in a logical and rational way, so it is clear that Covid was not the reason for making the changes. The changes appear to have been made to suit the ideology of those in control of the content of textbooks, who were determined that the history taught officially should be in conformity with this ideology. Deletions have to be justified with rational explanations pertaining to the text itself, namely, why particular sentences or sections of the text were chosen for deletion and not others. When looked at closely, there is a deliberate plan in what has been deleted—as many commentators have pointed out—and to which the NCERT has no coherent answer. No doubt the plan will be explicit when Set III of the NCERT textbooks, written by their own team of experts, will be published.
If an event that happened in the past is worthy of being referred to in a history textbook for Class XII, then what matters is not just a mention of the event but also a discussion of what happened, when it happened, how it happened and why it happened. In a period of 600 years, from AD 1200 to 1800, the Medieval Period as it is called, if the contents have to be reduced, then the solution is not to just erase three hundred years of history—a major chunk of history—but to select fewer major events from the larger span of time and discuss those, whilst decreasing the space given to the less important. In other words, the historian has to select what are thought to be the more significant historical events.
Deleting pages and chapters can only be described as an unthinking way of reducing content. Given that the NCERT has not convincingly explained the reasons behind the choice of the deletions and the viability of such actions in historical study, we can only assume that the intention was not to improve the quality of the textbook but to push a particular reading of history, as demanded by those who dictated the choice of deletions. So much for the intellectual independence of the educational system in our country.