The vision of history propagated by the school and college textbooks in India is a caricature of the real past, explicitly serving the political goals of Marxism.
Ashish is the co-founder of Pragyata and Upword and the Director of Operations at The Indic Collective Trust.
Let me start on an abrupt note and say that I take an exception to the use of the word ‘science’ to grant the study of human societies and social relationships, popularly called Social Science, an aura of false authority. That is certainly not to say that social studies have no role to play in the intellectual development of an individual. However, let us not delude ourselves that the conjectures derived from an assessment of fragmentary information are anything akin to the scientific models of particular aspects of the physical Universe built through a critical examination of data subject to ruthless reasoning.
One of the fundamental philosophical attributes of ‘science’ is the open admission of the possibility that the most powerful of theories can be proven false, and thus discarded or suitably modified, in the face of non-conforming facts. In reality, this is exactly how science progresses. When a theory is propounded, it is subjected to the test of empirical evidence and it gets accepted only in the sense that it is the best explanation for a physical phenomenon, among all the other explanations that compete with it. There is no finality of conclusion and therefore, science is always careful, tentative and ‘negationistic’ in its approach. Unwittingly, in the Vedantic spirit of ‘neti neti’, science denies much more than it affirms.
In contrast, the cockiness of social studies is jarring, whether we’re talking about the picture of the lives of an ancient people that historians paint for us or the narrative of the religious code of an unfamiliar tribe that anthropologists stitch together. There is an inherent tendency, a barely concealed eagerness, to pass a moral judgement from the pulpit of the researcher’s own social setting. The tone of discourse in social studies is far from tentative, the tenor unabashedly patronizing. Yet this is not the gravest among its flaws.
In a perfect world, social studies would be conducted without any pretensions of being a science. Given their undeniable role in shaping the collective self-image of a society, they would still be regarded as terribly important. The research would anyway wield a great influence on the policies and laws governing the conduct of a nation’s citizenry. It would only be more honest about its limitations and more encouraging of healthy skepticism. Alas, we do not live in a perfect world and therefore, social studies, by appropriating the authority of science, tend to get hijacked for ideological ends. They end up being mere tools in the service of the political ideals that people subscribe to.
Ideologies and Visions
An ideology is a comprehensive set of beliefs that characterizes a social group. It is a belief system that can be coherently articulated and its explanatory power comes from the internal logical structure connecting its constituent ideas. An ideology can be tested by facts even though ideologues are known to be remarkably averse to them. A vision, on the other hand, is the underlying feeling, an intuition about how things are. A vision, consequently, can give birth to multiple ideologies. So, while an ideology has a well-defined semantic element, a vision is often vague and hazy. In academic circles, people debate ideologies, owing to their predisposition toward theorizing but laymen, usually, having neither the time nor the inclination for philosophical speculation, tend to align with visions.
Like so many other cause-and-effect chains, the relationship between vision and ideology is not linear but circular. A vision, as we have noted above, gives rise to ideologies and these ideologies then compete with each other to modify the vision that gave birth to them. Thus, an ideology influences its parent vision and helps it evolve according to the political environment of the times. For example, a vision of equality, which vaguely endorses egalitarian ideals, may give birth to the ideology of feminism, which may go back to influence the vision of equality to disregard the biological differences between the two genders. As a result, ordinary citizens who unconsciously subscribe to the new vision of equality may start feeling strongly that “gender is a social construct”, to the extent that they would feel severely threatened by any evidence to the contrary. This new vision further strengthens the sway of feminism on the population as it finds an ever-increasing number of ready unthinking sympathizers.
From the above, it is easy to see how this mutually reinforcing cycle can be easily misused for political expediency. An ideology is a great asset, a tool to interpret the workings of society from a certain perspective but it can also turn into a liability if it is turned into a medium through which societal knowledge is imparted to students of an impressionable age. For then, we are promoting a skewed vision of humanity, severely constrained by a straitjacket of political compulsions. A vision, as we have noted above, is characterized by vague ideals and an ideology is but a sophisticated defense of these ideals. As Joseph Alois Schumpeter famously remarked, “The first thing a man will do for his ideal is lie.”
Ideologies are formulated not in the din of the crowded street but in the intellectually stimulating environs of the University. A freshman’s traditional family values and vague ideals soon meet the sophisticated vocabulary of the professors and find expression in the student politics of the campus. Many of these students go on to join the academia as lecturers themselves, and as a part of their mentoring role, they cultivate a fresh crop of ideologues from among their students.
It is well known that the Indian academia has been overwhelmingly dominated by Marxist intellectuals. Many of the professors in the field of Humanities are still card-carrying members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). They are also, due to the weight of their academic credentials, invited to be a part of committees that formulate the curriculum for school textbooks. Some of them actually write the books that our children read as a part of their formal school education. It is only expected that an academician of a certain ideological persuasion will further the interests of his own vision. Let us now examine the visions that our school history books implant in the pliable minds of the nation’s future adults. In this article, we will limit our analysis to examining just two broad themes – nationhood and society.
[A middle school history textbook published in 1974; Author: Romila Thapar]
Nationalism is a powerful idea but like any other political concept, it can mean different things to different people. For one, it may convey an allegiance to the constitution, and for another, it may invoke feelings of superiority and chauvinism with respect to other countries. In that sense, nationalism is a vision, and not an ideology, because it is not a product of systematic reasoning. It springs from the hazy impressions people have of the legitimacy of their nationhood. Let us see what kind of impression the NCERT history textbook for Class 7 gives to the students regarding India’s claim to nationhood.
“Take the term ‘Hindustan’, for example, today we understand it as ‘India’, the modern nation state. When the term was used in the thirteenth century by Minhaj-i-siraj, a chronicler who wrote in Persian, he meant the areas of Punjab, Haryana and the lands between the Ganga and the Yamuna. He used the term in a political sense for lands that were a part of the dominions of the Delhi Sultan. The areas included in this term shifted with the extent of the Sultanate but the term never included south lndia. By contrast, in the early sixteenth century Babur used Hindustan to describe the geography, the fauna and the culture of the inhabitants of the subcontinent. As we will see later in the chapter, this was somewhat similar to the way the fourteenth century poet Amir Khusrau used the word Hind. While the idea of a geographical and cultural entity like India did exist, the term Hindustan did not carry the political and national meanings which we associate with it today.” – NCERT, Class 7 p3
An unsuspecting reading of the above reveals nothing that is particularly contentious. It is true that under the Delhi Sultanate, a foreign chronicler visiting the area would restrict his descriptions to the geographical spread of the empire in question, which in this case did not extend to South India. But does that mean that “the term never included South India”? Further, by drawing attention to another foreigner’s description from a few centuries later that included a larger area, the passage seems to suggest that the territory was first consolidated only in the interim. It conveniently brushes aside the fact that large parts of India, from the north to the south, were consolidated under various dynasties like the Mauryas, Guptas and Chalukyas, some going thousands of years before the first Muslim invader set foot on the soil. Finally, the last line stating that “the term Hindustan did not carry the political and national meanings which we associate with it today” is only an exercise of stating the obvious. The question to ask is which modern nation is an exception to this rule and we find that there is none. The essential argument being forwarded here is that India is somewhat a geographical entity that lacked political cohesion till foreigners enforced it upon the natives. As already observed, this is blatantly false.
The vision of society imparted by NCERT textbooks can be gauged from the following excerpts from the Class 7 history books states:
“There were, however, other kinds of societies as well. Many societies in the subcontinent did not follow the social rules and rituals prescribed by the Brahmans. Nor were they divided into numerous unequal classes. Such societies are often called tribes... Sometimes they clashed with the more powerful caste-based societies.”
The word ‘tribe’ comes from a colonial description of certain sections of the Indian society. As I explained in an earlier essay, the British colonial administration faced formidable challenges in controlling the vast territory of the Indian subcontinent, not the least among which was finding potential collaborators among the natives for assisting the government with various administrative tasks. The heterogeneity of Indian society also brought them considerable hostility from certain groups who did not take kindly to the uncalled for intrusion into their affairs, which they were hitherto unaccustomed to under the rule of native kings or chiefs. To the colonialists, these hostile communities did not seem to match the impression they had of some of the more ‘compliant’ groups that they came across. Viewing it from the dominant paradigm of race, they imagined the hostile people to have different origins from the more friendly ones. In order to control these aggressive groups, the infamous criminal tribes act was passed that deemed entire populations such as the Maghyar Doms in Bihar or the Bowries in the Narmada valley as habitually criminal. In keeping with their prejudices, they understood criminality to be an inherited tendency and true to the spirit of ‘European Science’, anthropometry was used in the Police Department as a means of identifying criminals until the introduction of the Berthillon system of finger-printing, at the cusp between the 19th and 20th centuries.
It must be pointed out that even though it was the British who designated certain communities as tribes, many of these so-called tribes existed even before they set foot in India. These ‘hostile’ communities were often comprised of ordinary rural people who were forced to seek shelter in jungles and highlands to escape enslavement by the Islamic invader. Over a few generations, their lifestyle acquired the distinctness that made the Britishers identify them as ‘tribals’.
Clearly, the textbooks don’t just show a lack of nuance but in fact, wholeheartedly endorse the spurious colonial depiction of Indian society. This brings us to the unquestioning acceptance of another colonial term, caste. As indicated above, the colonial definition and categorization of certain exceptional ‘criminal’ communities was wholly arbitrary and was justified by invoking bogus race theories. Therefore, it would be worthwhile to investigate the classificatory scheme used while conducting census surveys of the pliant (non-criminal) part of the population. It turns out that census officials had a really tough time in getting a reliable answer to the question, “What is your caste?” to which the response would vary from one of the four varnas to some endogamous sub-caste to what the officials called “vague and indefinite” entries. Evidently, Hindus were not mindful of their own ‘caste’ and their place in the purported ‘hierarchy’ of varnas.
Similarly, the NCERT history books don’t have a very optimistic view of the place of women in traditional Indian society. Sample this from Class 6, p68:
“Most Upanishadic thinkers were men, especially Brahmins and Rajas. Occasionally, there is mention of women thinkers, such as Gargi, who was famous for her learning, and participated in debates held in royal courts. Poor people rarely took part in these discussions.”
Again from the same book, p55-56:
“Some people such as those who were regarded as Shudras by the priests, were excluded from many rituals. Often women were also grouped with the Shudras. Both women and Shudras were not allowed to study the Vedas.”
Poor people not taking part in intellectual discussions implies that Brahmins were rich, a view that vehemently disagrees with the traditional understanding of the lifestyle of the Brahmins who lived as frugally as humanly possible. Nevertheless, they did enjoy the patronage of the kings in the sense that they were respected for their knowledge. Another thing that is striking in the above-quoted passages is the visible inconsistency between the assertion that women were not “allowed” to study the Vedas and the fact that some of them, grudgingly admitted as “occasional” women thinkers, directly contributed to the Vedic canon. The possibility that women had certain vital functions in society that excluded the necessity of learning the Vedas is not even speculated upon. This is like saying that the near-exclusive representation of men in today’s armed forces is an evil conspiracy by the high priests of democracy. Just the fact that the ancient Indian books own up to having been authored by humans as opposed to the supernatural agency ascribed to scriptures of Abrahamic faiths is reason enough to celebrate the Indic tradition. But the authors of these textbooks will have none of that.
Making sense of the errors
These mildly suggestive excerpts are not a conspiracy by some academicians but a natural outcome of viewing the past through the lens of their preferred ideology. In the Marxist scheme of things, history is not just a study of the past for its own sake but an undertaking for achieving the Marxist ideal of a classless society. Convinced as they are of the nobility of their political goals, they realize that the utopia can only be achieved when a critical mass of population works towards it. Now, people in large numbers will devote their energies to creating such a future only if they see their past as intolerably savage.
Marx writes in his article ‘The British Rule in India’ in June , 1853:
“I share not the opinion of those who believe in a golden age of Hindostan, without recurring, however, like Sir Charles Wood, for the confirmation of my view, to the authority of Khuli-Khan. But take, for example, the times of Aurangzeb; or the epoch, when the Mogul appeared in the North, and the Portuguese in the South; or the age of Mohammedan invasion, and of the Heptarchy in Southern India; or, if you will, go still more back to antiquity, take the mythological chronology of the Brahman himself, who places the commencement of Indian misery in an epoch even more remote than the Christian creation of the world.”
Indian antiquity, when depicted as a scene of eternal conflict and violence, provides an unmistakable luster to the ultimate Marxist purpose of achieving their classless utopia via revolution. Empirical evidence, when it sticks out like a sore thumb on that path, must be duly ignored. Students exposed to this ideologically motivated reading of history are likely to develop a very apologetic view of India’s nationhood and the implications for our territorial integrity are grave. It is no small coincidence that the separatist movements in states like Jammu and Kashmir or Chhatisgarh and the quasi-seditious Dravidian pride politics in Tamil Nadu bank on Marxist scholars for intellectual fire-power.
Remedying the situation
There are no shortcuts in reforms of this order but certain steps need to be taken on an urgent basis to prevent lethal indoctrination of school-going kids. A white supremacist doctor who lets his ideology interfere with his treatment of patients, letting a black man suffer, would be booked for the crime of racism. A Marxist textbook author, who distorts facts to achieve political ends, is capable of causing havoc in the minds of an entire generation, and yet, goes scot-free. Evidently, there is a need to link the professional reputation of the academicians with the quantity of their scholastic output as well as its intellectual durability on the anvil of empirical evidence.
As an immediate curative measure, the government must intervene and appoint a diverse panel of experts, who can facilitate an overhaul of the social studies narrative propagated by the current textbooks. The said overhaul must be carried out on a war footing basis with no political interference of any kind. The aim is not to replace one ideological lens with another but to do away with all ideological influences. While this may not be practically achievable in the absolute sense but if we manage to strip off the cocksure conclusions of these subjects and replace them with multiple perspectives, the biases are likely to cancel each other out. In other words, education must be recalibrated to pursue truth and not a rose-tinted vision of the future.
Author’s note: This article was first published in the Dialogue journal ( April-June 2017, Volume 18 No. 4 ). The excerpts from the NCERT textbooks used in the article have been directly plucked from the book, ‘Brainwashed Republic’ by Neeraj Atri and Munieshwar A Sagar. The author recommends this book to anyone interested in exploring the issue in greater depth.