Are history textbooks lined up for re-writing?

Ever since the new government took over the reins at the Centre, there is a lurking fear among the academicians and the general public as to whether the history textbooks at the secondary school level would be subjected to a fresh revision. If we go by what happened earlier in 2002 when the coalition government led by the BJP changed the then existing history textbooks such fears appear to be justifiable. 

The recent initiatives of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) pertaining to the Central Universities, the sanskrit language issue in Kendriya Vidyalayas, the concept of Gurutsav, making the Four Year Degree Course (FYDC) in some universities to roll back etc., among others, amply add credence to such fears.

During the  earlier stint of the NDA government, the history textbooks published by the National Council for Educational Research and Training, (NCERT) for higher secondary classes written by reputed  historians were summarily withdrawn at the behest of the then HRD minister. Those books were well written as their contents were comprehensive, the presentation was lucid, the approach was strictly secular and scientific and more importantly, they were completely free from any bias  in matters of ideological issues.

Though meant for secondary school children, the books were popular and they were made use of by the aspirants of Civil Services, the Services Selection Board (SSB), Railway Recruiting Board (RRB) and similar other examinations, besides the reading public.

The authors of those textbooks like Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra, Satish Chandra, Arjun Dev and others were all accomplished scholars in their respective chosen areas of specialisation and possessed national reputation for their  scholarship. They were the scholars who genuinely felt that the writing of textbooks was a national mission and a commitment on the part of every senior professor. However, the partisan nature of the government in the entire episode was exposed though.

School textbooks, in general, play a decisive role in moulding the young minds in their formative years. History texts, in particular, attract every attention for the reason that history as a subject, has inherent scope for multiplicity of interpretations. If the government has a sectarian agenda in its working, it is but natural that it will try to see the nation’s past projected in the same vein so as to unduly justify its current stand. It is also a clear strategy to capture the imagination of the young minds by trying to replace mainstream history with a sectarian version. History textbooks therefore, with the ushering of a new government, become more often, the victims of rewriting.

It must be remembered that rewriting   of history is different from the rewriting of history textbooks. Rewriting of history is desirable as it is a healthy ground for contestation and thus is the way to avoid the danger of establishing a uniform and single version of history. For constant updating and for a healthy growth of the discipline, rewriting of history becomes essential. But the purpose of school textbooks is not for contesting but for learning/ knowing. Therefore, the writing of history textbooks particularly at the school level should be viewed with altogether different parameters.

Warring ideological groups.  
Indian history is replete with issues which are complex and unique by its nature. The multiplicity of races, languages and religions, the interplay of regional powers as against the imperial ones, the periodic incursions from across the borders and the resultant consequences – all provide a rich tapestry for conflicting views, divergent ideologies and varied interpretations. This inherent scope that history provides, unfortunately, has become the chessboard for warring ideological groups. 

However, the general acceptability of the  contents by the academic community, the spirit of the constitutional liberties envisaging the secular nature of the state  and  the prevalent contemporary societal aspirations, among other  aspects, should  be the decisive factors in writing of the history  textbooks. Replacing the existing ones for the mere pleasure of replacement or with a view to push through a parochial view of our past, will only be counter productive. 

The students at school level need to be  given a fair and cohesive account of the broad  spectrum of the nation’s factual history through  the textbooks without loosing sight of defining India as a cultural nation. For this, one need not resort to a narrow sectarian approach to our nation’s history for the simple reason that India’s hoary past itself has witnessed the interplay of multiplicity of forces.

A number of myths and legends that  are generally passed on as history for promoting fissiparous tendencies and narratives that inflict communal divide among the sections in society should necessarily be kept away from the ambit of textbooks   meant for students. The universities and  other research bodies have been constantly engaged in systematic research in furtherance of our knowledge on crucial aspects of our nation’s past.

The fruits of such research and new findings are to be invariably incorporated in the school textbooks that are being published. If rewriting of history textbooks becomes imperative, the factors in shaping  an unbiased narration of our past imbibing secular and scientific values, avoiding contentious issues that warrant seamless debates and dilation of the contents sans ideological bearings, should be the decisive causes for such rewritings and not the mere changed philosophy of any government.

(The writer is retired professor of history, University of Hyderabad)

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