Do We Want To Teach Our Children Falsehoods Or What Constitutes Knowledge?: Romila Thapar
TC speaks to Romila Thapar on attempts to rewrite India's past and the use of textbooks to do so
Over the last few years, India has seen an increased effort attempt to rewrite her past -- with textbooks in schools being one of the mediums to do so. One such incident is when the Shiv Sena and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS) submitted separate petitions to the Maharashtra government reiterating their longstanding demand for a revision in ‘Our Past – II’. They alleged that this segment had insufficient or no information on Shivaji and Maharana Pratap, but several pages on Mughal rulers. The revision was initiated after Shiv Sena and Hindu Janajagruti Samiti criticised the previous textbook for “glorifying Mughal emperors” and “ignoring Hindu kings.” In its petition, the HJS mentioned that the textbook does not carry a photograph of Shivaji, even as “photos of atrocious, tyrannical Muslim kings, Babar and his descendants are printed.”
This isn’t the first instance of political parties intervening in the education system in the country. Speaking to The Citizen regarding the indoctrination of education, Romila Thapar, well known historian and a former professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, says, “We have to make up our minds as a society whether to teach children falsehoods in school or teach them what we know constitutes knowledge. Textbooks are fundamental in deciding on what to teach. Subjects and disciplines are taught in school and in this process students are also taught how to ask questions about what is being taught. This is more important than the contents of a textbook.”
Thapar added that “Textbooks are not just any books on a particular subject. The legitimacy of a textbook lies in its having been evaluated and accepted by professional scholars in the subject concerned. Professionals that research and write for the purpose of advancing knowledge and making it widely available, as through up-to-date textbooks, also have the responsibility of vetting the contents of textbooks and objecting to falsehoods wherever they are found. Non-professional organizations of a political and religious kind can comment on the contents of textbooks, but these comments have also to be professionally evaluated before they are accepted or rejected. Therefore, every textbook should, as a matter of routine, carry the names of the professionals in the discipline who have cleared the textbooks for use as such.”
“Textbooks should not be under the control of the government but under the control of the committees appointed by professional scholars. This was a demand made by many of us in 2005 but unfortunately all governments and political parties are insistent on controlling textbooks – and will not let go. Much political propaganda can be processed through them. So in India, every time the political party forming the government changes, the contents of the textbooks change. This is nothing but a mockery of the educational system, something that is consciously indulged in by the groups currently in authority. Until those in authority concede that education must receive professional serious attention, this joke about changing textbooks and governments will continue unabated,” Thapar told The Citizen.
“That the contents of textbooks should be dictated by non-scholarly political organizations is unheard of in any modern society. Yet textbooks particularly in history are the victims of such interference. To give the same status to Rana Pratap and Shivaji as to Mughal rulers such as Akbar, can only be called utterly unhistorical – to put it politely. The first was a petty princeling, the second was the ruler of the western Deccan, whereas the Mughals ruled a major part of the sub-continent. If RanaPratapis described as fighting for a national element,because he opposed the Mughals who were Muslims and therefore alien according to the Hindutva view, then why did he take assistance from the forces of the Sher Shah Suri dynasty who were also Muslims ? In any case to imply that Muslims in India are aliens has no validity. To assert that Rana Pratap and Shivaji were as important if not more so than the Mughal rulers, could only be described as laughable, if it were not for the prejudiced historical agenda that determines these statements,” Thapar says.
“Such ill-conceived changes in the historical narrative and incorporated into textbooks, also raise the question of regional perspectives when writing a history of India. There has to be a sensible approach when assessing local heroes. We have to keep in mind that the two referred to above may be much admired in Rajasthan and Maharashtra, as evidenced by everything possible being named after them, but they really don’t cut much ice among the people of the North-East and of south India,” she added.
“Of course, historical interpretations change. With every advance in knowledge (and this includes advances in historical knowledge), new sources and new methods of analyses are familiar to scholars in any subject and across every generation. But if historical evidence is going to be substituted either with falsifications, or with rather absurd exaggerations, then we may as well not have any syllabus, any textbooks or any exams. We can all grow up saying anything we like and claiming to be educated. Given the anti-intellectualism of the present day at virtually every level of society, we are already almost there,” Thapar concludes.
The HJS, which was established in 2002, states in its official website, that its aim is to “reinstate Dharma” and “establish the Hindu Nation”. It has collaborated with Sanatan Sanstha, another Hindu outfit, to produce 367 volumes of dharma satsangs to educate Hindus on Dharma, according to the site.
Demands for alterations of educational textbooks has seen an increase under the rule of the current government. Earlier, the media reported that the recent controversy around Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat has led the Rajasthan Board of Secondary Education (RBSE) to consider removing some controversial references to Padmini, the queen of Chittor, from history textbooks. According to the reports, people familiar with the matter at the board said some changes have been made with regard to content on Padmini, the queen of Rawal Ratan Singh, the 14th-century ruler of Chittor.
Member of Parliament from Agra and Chairman for the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, Ram Shankar Katheria, in 2016, once said, “There will be saffronisation of education and the country” and termed the process as beneficial for the country. The Agra MP also stated, “Some journalists ask if we are we are promoting saffronisation of education. I am saying, yes, there will be saffronisation of education and of the country. Jo acha hoga, woh hoga (Whatever is good for the country will certainly happen) be it saffronisation or sanghwaad (propagation of the RSS ideology).”
This demand for saffronisation of education has received official mandate and support by the setting up of 14 member committee tasked to rewrite India’s history. Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma told Reuters that he will present the committee’s final report to parliament, after which the Ministry of Human Resource Development will be lobbied to write the findings into school textbooks..