A 7th grade book shows Maharana Pratap fighting a Muslim warrior in Haldighati
A detailed, 3,800-word review of the books rewritten under directions of the BJP rulers across India since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014 has suggested that one of aims of the books is to instill a sense of doubt about India’s democratic polity among the country’s young minds. Reviewed in the prestigious US journal, “The New York Review of Books”, in its latest issue (December 6, 2018) by Alex Traub, the scrutiny insists, the effort has also been to paint Indian history from the angle of “Hindu triumphalism”, even as creating “Islamophobia”.
The review, published under the title “India’s Dangerous New Curriculum” by Alex Traub claims that while on the books shows how “Hindu ruler Maharana Pratap fighting a Muslim warrior in the Battle of Haldighati… won and display[ed] his unmatched power”, even though he had to retreat, another, referring to the Sino-Indian conflict, “actually implies that India won”, going so far as to insist, the army ‘proved its might by retaliating the attacks of enemies in 1962’.”
The reviewer points to a Gujarat textbook, which praises Hitler, saying he “made a strong German organization with the help of [the] Nazi party and attained great honour for this”, and, even as “favouring” and “opposing Jews” brought about “new economic policies” which made Germany “a prosperous country”, transforming the lives of the people of Germany “within a very short period by taking strict measures.”
Another book, published in Rajasthan, says the reviewer, explicitly lists “demerits of democracy,” saying, “democracy teaches a person to be selfish, cunning and illusive, adding, “democracies do not produce economic development”, and they are particularly weak “in times of crisis.”
Excerpts from the review:
From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, the Mughal Empire did much to create modern-day India. It consolidated the country into a sovereign political unit, established a secular tradition in law and administration, and built monuments such as the Taj Mahal. The Mughals were originally from Uzbekistan, but over time they became a symbol of the contribution of Muslims to Indian national history.
Their lasting influence is evident in some of India’s most famous dishes, such as biryani, and the settings of several of the most beloved Bollywood movies, including Mughal-e-Azam (1960), by some estimates the highest-grossing film in Indian history. So it was odd, on a visit this spring to a school in the Indian state of Rajasthan, to hear a Muslim teacher, Sana Khan, ask her entirely Muslim eighth-grade social science class, “Was there anything positive about Mughals?”
Khan was teaching at the English-medium Saifee Senior Secondary School, whose students are Dawoodi Bohras, a small Islamic sect that has been based in India since the Mughal era, when its leaders faced persecution in the Middle East. Like Jews, Parsis, and Baha’is, the Bohras are a religious minority that found shelter in India’s unusually tolerant culture.
Since last year, students at the Saifee School have been using new textbooks published by the Rajasthan government, which is run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that dominates India’s parliament and state legislatures. The new textbooks promote the BJP’s political program and ideology. These textbooks are part of the BJP’s ongoing campaign to change how Indian history is taught in middle and high schools. Textbooks issued last year by two other states under BJP rule, Gujarat and Maharashtra, resemble the Rajasthan books in their Hindu triumphalism and Islamophobia.
The fact that these textbooks are essentially political manifestos is made clear by the way they discuss the ruling party. Rajasthan’s seventh-grade book directs students to “prepare a chart of the advertisements published by the Government about its different schemes and with the help of your teacher discuss the benefits of these schemes.” Swachh Bharat (Clean India), a government initiative to improve India’s hygiene with which Modi has closely aligned himself, is mentioned in five of the updated federal textbooks.
Beyond expressing approval for India’s current leader, the textbooks also make implicit suggestions about what the government ought to be concerned with — namely, strength and unity. Rajasthan’s book on modern India emphasizes India’s military excellence with a list of weapons and pictures of a missile launch and a rumbling tank. The equivalent Gujarat book silently passes over India’s loss in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, while the Rajasthan book actually implies that India won, saying that the army “proved its might by retaliating the attacks of enemies in 1962.”
India is infallible; its citizens, however, must be disciplined. Gujarat’s eighth-grade book insists that “awareness regarding co-operating with the security agencies has to be developed.” Social harmony should be pursued even at the expense of individual rights: Rajasthan’s seventh-grade book recommends, “We should refrain from negative acts like strikes.” There is a whiff of authoritarianism in these proposed limits on autonomy and dissent.
Rajasthan’s official ninth- and tenth-grade social science books appear not to be available in English, but a private company has published its own editions that follow the same syllabus as the new textbooks. These books were being used by the Saifee School, and they were the only editions I could find in the bookstores of Udaipur, the city where the school is located.
The tenth-grade book is more explicit in listing the “demerits of democracy,” including that “democracy teaches a person to be selfish, cunning and illusive,” that democracies do not produce economic development, and that they are weak in times of crisis.
One Gujarat textbook points to a troubling alternative. Amid surprisingly frequent criticism of the Treaty of Versailles and an enumeration of Mussolini’s successes, the new twelfth-grade history book praises Hitler at length:
“Hitler made a strong German organization with the help of [the] Nazi party and attained great honour for this. By favouring German civilians and by opposing Jews and by his new economic policies, he made Germany a prosperous country…. He transformed the lives of the people of Germany within a very short period by taking strict measures. He safe guarded [sic] the country from hardships and accomplished many things.”
This is not the first Gujarat textbook to praise fascism: the last one was the ninth-grade social science book of the mid-2000s, when Modi ran the state government. The offending section was not removed until after a visit from the consul general of Israel. The episode became international news and is still frequently referred to, yet the treatment of Nazism in the new textbook seems to have gone unreported.
An illustration from the Rajasthan seventh-grade social science textbook, showing the sixteenth-century Hindu ruler Maharana Pratap fighting a Muslim warrior in the Battle of Haldighati. Though Pratap retreated from the battlefield into a nearby mountain range, the textbook claims he won and ‘display[ed] his unmatched power.’
It is not an accident or eccentricity that the Gujarat books keep exalting Hitler. A positive view of fascism enables a government eager for more power to tell its citizens about the potential of “strict measures” to “transform” society. It provides a model for Hindutva’s emphasis on “honour” as a reward for the “strong.” More importantly, it gives historical precedent to Hindutva’s wish for a homogenous citizenry. The main project of Hindu nationalist history is justifying the claim that Hindutva groups deserve a special status as India’s “one united whole.” Its central premises are that Hindus are India’s indigenous group; that the rule of Hindutva communities was glorious; that the rule of non-Hindutva communities was disastrous; and that Hindu nationalists have been responsible for winning back India’s freedom. Regardless of whether these propositions have anything like the moral implications Hindu nationalists hope for, each of them is factually dubious.
The word “Hindu” is not indigenous to India. It comes from an Old Persian word used by Arabs and Turks to refer to the people who lived around the Indus River. The religious sense of the word “Hindu” does not seem to have existed until the second millennium AD.
Ruins associated with the Harappan civilization suggest that an urban society without any obvious connection to the pastoral world described by the Vedas existed in India as early as the third millennium BC. Not only do the Vedas seem far removed from India’s earliest-known civilization, but they were also probably composed by the descendants of recent migrants to India who dominated other longer-standing groups in the form of the caste system.
All this is inconvenient for an ideology that seeks to make Indian history into Hindu history. The Rajasthan books solve this problem by making the Harappan civilization fully Vedic, renaming it the “Sindhu-Saraswati” civilization after the “Saraswati River” of the Vedas. In this way, the Vedas provide a common origin point for Hinduism, for the diverse castes within Hinduism, and for India writ large. “Vedic culture” is transformed, as the sixth-grade book says, into “the Sanatan (Perennial) culture of India.”
The early Hindu era is depicted in the Rajasthan books as an unrivaled Golden Age. The condition of women was “happy and progressive.” In contrast to the strictures of caste, “as per his needs, a person could change his profession.” Many rulers followed a “democratic and constitutional form of administration” that resembled the “present day Loksabha,” India’s lower house of parliament, since “members were elected by the public.”
At the same time, the Golden Age also boasted religious purity: “nobody except chandals” — members of a traditionally untouchable caste — “ate meat or drank wine,” and rulers were “hardcore followers of Hinduism.”
One crucial question largely absent from Rajasthan’s books is how exactly the dominant power of India came to be Muslim. Rajasthan’s tenth-grade social science textbook observes that the twelfth-century ruler of northwest and central India, Prithviraj Chauhan, defeated Muhammad of Ghor in several battles, but passes over Ghor’s ultimate victory, saying simply that “due to certain circumstances, Muslim rule started in India by 1206 CE.”
In their discussions of the Mughal era, the Nehruvian textbooks emphasized Akbar, who empowered Hindu generals, married Hindu princesses, participated in Hindu ceremonies, abolished religious taxes, and held spiritual discussions with Hindus, Christians, Jews, and even atheists. These details are neglected in the new Rajasthan and Gujarat books, which concentrate instead on Aurangzeb (1618-1707), the emperor who reinstated religious taxes and destroyed some Hindu temples.
The books overstate Aurangzeb’s prejudice — “Aurangzeb used to hate Hindus,” according to Rajasthan’s eighth-grade book — and exaggerate its influence, suggesting, as in Gujarat’s seventh-grade book, that “Aurangzeb’s narrow-minded policies were responsible for the end of the Mughal Empire.” The truth is more complicated: as Audrey Truschke, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, writes in her recent book, Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King, Aurangzeb “employed more Hindus in his administration than any prior Mughal ruler by a substantial margin” and supported Hindu religious practices in numerous ways.
As Muslim rulers are diminished or vilified, so Hindu figures of the same period are inflated to majestic dimensions. The updates to the federal seventh-grade history book include the introduction of Maharana Pratap, a local ruler who “stood his ground” against the Mughals, and an expanded section on the warrior king Shivaji’s “career of conquest.”
The Rajasthan books use the more pungent phrase “foreign invaders” for the Mughals, but there is little evidence that most Indians saw them that way. In fact, during the armed struggle against the British in 1857, Hindu and Muslim rebel soldiers from all over India came to Delhi and proclaimed Bahadur Shah Zafar, the inheritor of the much-weakened Mughal Empire, the leader of their movement and the symbol of home rule.
The same tactics of selection and elision characterize the textbooks’ portrayal of the freedom movement. Mohandas Gandhi and Nehru are generally considered the most consequential figures of this period. Both, however, embody the “ancient palimpsest” view of Indian history that Hindutva seeks to eradicate. The Gujarat and Rajasthan textbooks emphasize instead figures of notable “manliness,” such as Bhagat Singh, whose activities during the independence movement included killing a British policeman and bombing the Central Legislative Assembly of the British Empire. “The revolutionary martyrs wrote the history of Indian independence through their blood,” according to Rajasthan’s tenth-grade book — a rather far cry from Gandhian nonviolence.