'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Indoctrinations - 1

During the recent BJP regime, there was plenty talk among the Indian Intelligentia about how History textbooks were being rewritten to propagate a narrow 'Hindutwa' perspective of our culture and identity. I have heard from very reliable sources that the NCERT textbooks of those days were indeed severaly biased. But, I am not really outraged - this manipulative rewriting of history is nothing new and BJP can be blamed only for continuing or at most aggravating a very old trend. Here I wish to talk about some older personal experiences with 'doctored' histories.


I need to begin with the Amar Chitra Kathas. One finds very few serious studies online on how these illustrated comic-format fortnightly volumes, for all their undeniable merits, have, over a span of nearly 40 years, propagated a very warped picture of Indian culture. In the earlier issues of these comics, The Mughals and all other Muslim rulers of Delhi (and other Muslims who ruled other parts of the country, like the Deccan Sultans or the Bengal Nawabs) were shown as simply foreign invaders and oppressors and anyone from Hindu or Sikh background (from Shivaji and Rana Pratap and Guru Gobind Singh to comparatively less significant characters like Chhatrasal and Veer Hamir and Banda Bahadur and the fictional Sadhus of Anand Math) who fought any Muslim ruler was a patriot and freedom fighter. The only Muslim ruler who was 'acceptable' in ACK's reading of history was Sher Shah - more because he drove out the Mughal Humayun (shown in this volume as a bungling fool) than for his far-reaching fiscal and other reforms. Moreover, some of these early volumes (first published in the early 1970s) were quite communal (sometimes rabidly so) in their dialog and illustrations - the volume on the Maratha hero Tanaji in which Muslim rulers complain bitterly about "Maratha rats!" and "crafty Kafirs!" comes to the mind. And some volumes were so regressive that they just about stopped short of glorifying the custom of Sati!

To ACK's credit, their ideological base did evolve over the years and individual volumes on all prominent Mughals (except Aurangzeb, I guess) did come out (as did volumes on Sultana Raziya, Balban and Tipu Sultan). An illustration of this evolution is the case of Akbar. For 10 years - and thru half a dozen volumes - Akbar the Great appeared purely as the benign but rather daft boss to 'chatur' Birbal (a very marginal figure in most serious renderings of Mughal history) before finally getting a 'proper' volume for himself. Interestingly, In the volume on Humayun, Sher Shah appears as a somewhat shady guy, thus providing a telling illustration of the sheer subjectivity that permeates historical narratives.

And here, let me note that the volume on Kabir was fairly even-handed in its depiction of the Master's criticism of Hindu and Muslim orthodoxies; and the volume on Ambedkar *does not* whitewash the ill-treatment suffered by the great man from 'high-born' Hindus. But the overall 'contribution' of Amar Chitra towards perpetuating a strongly Hindu-biased (their definition of Hindu conveniently included the Sikhs and even Buddha) view of Indian history and identity was very real and very massive and I myself took several years to grow out of such a view.

To give a some more subtle and sometimes devious examples, ACK refers to Vishnu Sharma, the legendary author of the (justifiably famous) Panchatantra as a 'great Hindu scholar' and buys into the 'Akhand Bharat' picture of India by locating Jamrud, which just inside Pakistan from Afghanistan, in 'at northwestern border of this country'. In 'Ram Shastri', the ruthless killers of Peshwa Narayan Rao are drawn to look very Muslim (they were really mercenaries led by one 'Sumer Singh' according to most accounts). In 'Tipu Sultan', someone reports to the hero that the Sarada temple at Sringeri has been "ransacked by some miscreants" and he expresses some lofty sentiments on religious harmony - the hint there is that that the villains were Muslims and the noble Sultan was lamenting that. In reality, the 'miscreants' were Marathas and that was totally camouflaged! And to this day, they have not bothered to 'tone down' the earlier volumes (I would suggest some of them to be entirely rewritten, if not withdrawn altogether) which continue to sell strongly for their highly impressive artwork and patriotic flavor, laced with (and sometimes steeped in) communalism.


On the other hand, I also feel that allegations of 'pseudo-secularism' levelled against the 'mainstream' writings on Indian history do have some substance. I could pick out several examples from textbooks which I got to study as a schooler in Kerala. These textbooks were quite detailed about the flaws in Hindu society - caste practices, untouchability ... While talking about the great social reform movements of Kerala, genuinely morbid traditional Kerala Hindu practices such as 'Pulappedi', 'Sambandham' and 'Smarta Vicharam' were not merely mentioned but *described*; indeed, the graphic descriptions in texts of these (long extinct)caste practices often used to lead to abusive arguments and even fist-fights among students of the late 20th century.

But the same texts were silent on similar ills that could well have possibly plagued the Muslim and Christian sections of the population. The one and only mention (in my memory) of a Muslim social dysfunction was when Sir Syed Ahmed Khan objected to 'evil practices'(sic) such as 'Pardah'. The bias of these textbooks was such that even 'morally neutral' Hindu practices such as idol-worship and polytheism(*) were projected as serious limitations - indeed, their content was often sufficient to make one feel rather awkward about being from a Hindu background.

A most telling instance of such selective historiography was a biography of Dr. Ambedkar which we studied in 10th class. After decades of trying to make 'Savarnas' see reason, Ambedkar gives up ("but despite all his efforts, Hindus (sic) did not want to change, their minds had been totally corrupted by caste") and declares his decision to leave Hinduism. Representatives of all major faiths - Islam, Christianity,...- meet him and invite him to their respective folds. And here is Ambedkar's decision: "Ambedkar kept Islam and Christianity aside because they were not of Indian origin. He decided against joining Sikhism because Sikhs were a forward community and his followers would lose the benefits of reservation. That left Buddhism. Buddha preached compassion and equality of all men; and Buddhism is also Indian."

As far as I know, Ambedkar decided against joining Islam or Christianity *not* because of their (very dubious) 'foreign' nature but because of the less than exemplary Human Rights record of practitioners of these faiths (White Christians were arguably the worst practitioners of slavery and imperialism; and Arab Muslims were among the biggest slave traders). Our textbook probably did not *dare* to quote Ambedkar fully.

And to conclude this post, here are some extracts from a Junior College (Pre Degree) 'Indian History' Textbook published by Kerala Bhasha Institute, a State Government run agency, in around 1980, long before BJP became a serious force. These are near literal translations from the original Malayalam. I find these sentences interesting not for the information content therein but for the choice of words and general tone:

1. "Over the next few years, *he* acquired a large chunk of territory and several strategic hill-forts - by brute force, bribery and deceit"

2. "Although *his* policies are difficult to fully justify, it is but a simple fact that he is being abused undeservedly. There are several historians who totally ignore his abundant qualities and highlight only what they perceive as his flaws.... To sum up, one could say, he possessed several attributes worthy of high admiration; and a few weaknesses"

(Quote 1 is on Shivaji and quote 2, on Aurangzeb).

Tailpiece: Another aspect of the doctored history in textbooks of our times (an aspect they shared with Amar Chitra Kathas!) was hyper-nationalism. For example, we had to study a play based on the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar - more specifically, the 'trial' he was subjected to after the failure of the 1857 rising. The Brit prosecution officer demands the deposed Emperor to be "summarily hanged at the Red Fort gate for daring to rise against the Honorable East India company". In his defence, an ageing but fiery Zafar refers to the Company as "a pack of blood thirsty wolves" and "a mob of white savages" and reminds the prosecution officer how just a century previously, his (the prosecutor's) ancestors would grovel before his own ancestors (the then Mughal emperors), begging for minor trade concessions, "rubbing to a shine the emperor's shoes with their brown hair."

And here is a gem: "Soon after we became a free nation (1947), India was in the forefront of countries supporting China's bid to join the UN Security Council.... ... in 1962, China invaded our North-Eastern states and Ladakh... Our foreign policy has always been a principled one and always formulated with the larger picture in mind. As we noted above, even when China committed aggression against us, we supported its bid to obtain a Security Council membership."

(*) I am not too sure if polytheism is morally neutral; it has serious claims to being an improvement over exclusive monotheism.


  • At 10:20 PM, Blogger aandthirtyeights said…

    Sometimes, the teachers add to all this - we had a teacher who used to go on and on about how the Hindu texts had the quantum theory in them, and how this makes us superior to the other religions.

  • At 10:58 PM, Blogger Nero said…

    that bit about growing up thinking all these ills described are confined to one's own religion is totally true. I grew up thinking the caste system was characteristic only of hinduism and that all other religions were ideologically nobler than mine.

    I still have a soft corner for my ACKs, though. :)

  • At 1:04 AM, Blogger Vinayak said…

    It was a nice read. Reminds me of these lines:
    “At different times in their political history, a people choose to remember different features of their past and to emphasize different elements of their culture. One characteristic of a protean civilization such as India’s is that it has many pasts; depending on the needs of the age, the nation brings a particular past into its consciousness.”
    ~Ashis Nandy, The Making and Unmaking of Political Cultures in India

  • At 6:51 AM, Blogger pippala leaf said…

    As Romila Thapar said: "there is no absolute objective history".

  • At 3:01 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    thanks aandthirtyeights.
    yes, i have heard such claims made by adherents of most religions, including, of course, hinduism.

    thanks nero,
    yes, i too love ACKs, although i am now a bit wary about their flaws and strongly feel they should tone down those offensive volumes.

    thanks vinayak,
    i do not know if there is any real need in this age for learning any of the kinds of histories at least i got exposed to. i sometimes feel being totally ignorant of history is better than being exposed to a warped view of history; and most textbooks i have seen are emphatically warped.

    thanks pippala leaf.
    why only history? i often feel the 'rashomon effect' applies to all spheres of human activity, including even mathematics.


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