Ranjona Banerji: Make history by changing it

Jul 26, 2017, 06:08 IST | Ranjona Banerji

School books have long been fair game for politicians to tinker with as they try to gain political mileage. The cost India has to bear is ignored

A file picture from the Millat Nagar district in Ahmedabad during the 2002 riots. RSS scholar Dina Nath Batra wants a reference to nearly 2,000 Muslims being killed in the riots in Gujarat to be removed from textbooks. File pic/AFPA file picture from the Millat Nagar district in Ahmedabad during the 2002 riots. RSS scholar Dina Nath Batra wants a reference to nearly 2,000 Muslims being killed in the riots in Gujarat to be removed from textbooks. File pic/AFP

After a welcome break, RSS scholar Dina Nath Batra raises his voice again. His target is the same - school textbooks. As a former school teacher and former head of the Vidya Bharati, the RSS's education wing, Batra understands the importance of early inculcation of bogus facts very well indeed. You only have to check your WhatsApp messages, email forwards and social media to know the amount of rubbish that floats to the top and, even worse, the number of people who believe that rubbish.

The last time we met him in 2014, Batra had written 'supplementary' textbooks for Gujarat schools which included the usual bleats of the insecure - that cars, stem cell research and television were all invented in ancient India. Added to this, the bizarre stories about Swami Vivekananda and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.

Now, as head of the Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas - of the RSS - Batra wants several people, words and facts removed from NCERT text books. The names include thoughts of Rabindranath Tagore, a couplet by Mirza Ghalib and an extract from MF Husain's autobiography. The words include stanza (English) and poshaak (Urdu). All highly offensive stuff, as is clear to the naked eye.

Also to be removed, a passage from 19th-century feminist Tarabai Shinde on patriarchy, all references to Mughals that show them in a slightly normal light, anything that shows the RSS and Hindutva in a bad light, a reference to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's apology for the 1984 killing of Sikhs and a sentence that says that nearly 2,000 Muslims were killed in the 2002 riots in Gujarat.

Batra's earlier triumphs against education were getting academic and mythologist Wendy Doninger's book on Hinduism off the shelves and indeed pulped by the publishers, and an essay by poet and literary scholar AK Ramanujan off the Delhi University syllabus.

We talk a lot about education in India but we rarely bother about what goes into primary and secondary schooling and focus almost exclusively on higher education, on job-related skills and on marks. This 'practical' approach is perhaps understandable when you look at the enormity of the Indian population. But it is self-defeating, because our foundations are so weak.

School textbooks have long been fair game for politicians to tinker with as they try to gain political mileage. The cost that India has to bear is ignored or, more likely, no one cares. But this environment of 'alternative facts' (or in other words, lies and ignorance) in which we live - in spite of all the access to accrued human knowledge at our fingertips - points straight to weak or tampered with foundations. And that, of course, starts with schools.

The RSS objective is clear - build up some idea of India as a superpower from a million years ago to now, remove all traces of argument or reason or questioning, only showcase Hindu achievements, portray Muslims as unworthy, deny all evidence of discrimination by upper castes Hindus towards everyone else, downplay the freedom struggle in which the RSS played no part, blank out references to riots in which the RSS or its affiliates played a role. In the words of Anil Kothari, secretary of the Nyas, "Several things are baseless, biased. There is an attempt to insult members of a community, there is also appeasement... We have found these things objectionable."

The intent is not couched or hidden - it is there in plain sight.

The problem with history is that there are many versions - of the victor and the defeated, of the rulers and the oppressed, of men and of women and so on. No one version can be correct, which is why as many aspects as possible have to be taught and presented. Not knowing provides no benefits.

Many years ago, I met a historian from Pakistan who was banned from teaching in his own country because he did not agree with the policy to exclude vast swathes of history connected to India from Pakistani textbooks. The glory of Pakistan was more important than the story of Pakistan.

Is that the sort of nation we want to become? Partial facts masquerading as inspiration and creating a society of ignorant bigots who live their lives on Whatsapp forwards? It is a choice only we can make for ourselves.

I offer little hope that we will make the right one. History is against us.

mid-day's group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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