Hijacking India’s history
In vanguard states like Gujarat, thousands of students follow the uncompromisingly chauvinistic RSS textbooks. They will learn that “Aryan culture is the nucleus of Indian culture, and the Aryans were an indigenous race” and that “India itself was the original home of the Aryans.” They will learn that Indian Christians and Muslims are “foreigners”
While some of us lament the repetition of history, the men who run India are busy rewriting it. Their efforts, regrettably, will only be bolstered by the landslide victory earlier this month of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the western India state of Gujarat.
The BJP has led this country’s coalition government since 1999. But India’s Hindu nationalists have long had a quarrel with history. They are unhappy with the notion that the most ancient texts of Hinduism are associated with the arrival of the Vedic “Aryan” peoples from the Northwest. They don’t like the dates of 1500 to 1000 BC ascribed by historians to the advent of the Vedic peoples, the forebears of Hinduism, or the idea that the Indus Valley civilization predates Vedic civilisation. And they certainly can’t stand the implication that Hinduism, like the other religious traditions of India, evolved through a mingling of cultures and peoples from different lands.
Last month the National Council of Educational Research and Training, the central government body that sets the national curriculum and oversees education for students up to the 12th grade, released the first of its new school textbooks for social sciences and history. Teachers and academics protested loudly. The schoolbooks are notable for their elision of many awkward facts, like the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a Hindu nationalist in 1948.
The authors of the textbook have promised to make revisions to the chapter about Gandhi. But what is more remarkable is how they have added several novel chapters to Indian history.
Thus we have a new civilisation, the “Indus-Saraswati civilisation” in place of the well-known Indus Valley civilisation, which is generally agreed to have appeared around 4600 BC and to have lasted for about 2,000 years. (The all-important addition of “Saraswati,” an ancient river central to Hindu myth, is meant to show that Indus Valley civilisation was actually part of Vedic civilisation.) We have a chapter on “Vedic civilization” – the earliest recognisable “Hindu culture” in India and generally acknowledged not to have appeared before about 1700 BC — that appears without a single date.
The council has also promised to test the “SQ,” or “Spiritual Quotient,” of gifted students in addition to their IQ. Details of this plan are not elaborated upon; the council’s National Curriculum Framework for School Education says only that “a suitable mechanism for locating the talented and the gifted will have to be devised.”
More recent history, of course, is not covered in school textbooks. So we will have to wait to see how such books might treat this month’s elections in Gujarat. They were held in the wake of the brutal pogrom of last February and March, in which more than 1,000 Muslims were murdered and at least 100,000 more lost their homes and property. The chief minister of Gujarat, who is among the leading lights of the BJP, justified this atrocity as a “natural reaction” to an act of arson on a train in the Gujarati town of Godhra, in which 59 Hindu pilgrims lost their lives.
The ruling party’s subsequent election campaign was conducted against the rather literal backdrop of the Godhra incident: painted billboards of the burning railway carriage. The murdered Muslims were not accorded the same tragic status, although their pleas for justice created a backlash that played neatly into the campaign theme of Hindu Pride. It was, of course, a great success.
The carefully nurtured sense of Hindu grievance has been nursed rather than sated by acts of mob violence: the destruction of the 15th-century mosque in Ayodhya, for instance, or the persecution of Christians in earlier pogroms in Gujarat’s Dangs district. The BJP, along with its Hindu-supremacist cohorts, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), has a seemingly irresistible will to power. (The RSS and the VHP are not political parties but “social service organisations” that have served as springboards to power for BJP leaders like Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat.)
In vanguard states like Gujarat, thousands of students follow the uncompromisingly chauvinistic RSS textbooks. They will learn that “Aryan culture is the nucleus of Indian culture, and the Aryans were an indigenous race... and creators of the Vedas” and that “India itself was the original home of the Aryans.” They will learn that Indian Christians and Muslims are “foreigners.”
But they still have much to learn. I once visited the bookshop at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur. On sale were books that show humankind originated in the upper reaches of that mythical Indian river, the Saraswati, and pamphlets that explain the mysterious Indus Valley seals, with their indecipherable Harrapan script: they are of Vedic origin.
After I visited the bookshop I stopped to talk to a group of young boys who live together in an RSS hostel. They were a sweet bunch of kids, between eight and 11 years old. They all wanted to grow up to be either doctors or pilots. Very good, I said. And what did they learn in school? Did they learn about religion? About Hinduism, Christianity?
They were silent for a few seconds – until their teacher nodded. A bespectacled kid spoke up. “Christians burst into houses and make converts of Hindus by bribing them or beating them.”
He said it without malice, just a breathless eagerness, as if it were something he had learned in social science class. Perhaps it was.
Courtesy New York Times. Kai Friese is a journalist and magazine editor in New Delhi