India's history goes more Hindu

Critics warn this month's decision to replace texts will push majority culture at the expense of others.

For years, Romila Thapar's "History of India" was as much a part of the Indian classroom as a chalkboard and a ceiling fan.

It was not only the primary history textbook for most high schools, it was the world's most-recognized guide to understanding India, the second most-populous country, after China, and one of the world's oldest civilizations.

But this month, the government's National Council of Education Research and Training announced that Dr. Thapar's book would be shelved in favor of a history text that would promote "patriotism," "values education," and "India's contribution to the world civilizations."

Thapar's book, along with others brought in under previous governments, is the product of "Marxist and leftist" thinking, government officials argued, and must be replaced.

While supporters of the move say that teaching values and national pride is the key to an ailing society corrupted by movies and television, opponents say teaching values in a society as diverse as India's raises one key question: Whose values do you teach?

There is broad agreement that the curriculum battles today will reverberate beyond the nation's classrooms: At stake is nothing less than India's place in the world and its experiment with secular democratic governance.

"History is an issue that runs across all cultural boundaries, and it is a very major issue for a multicultural society as diverse as India," says Krishna Kumar, professor of education at Delhi University in New Delhi. "In India specifically, this comes from a conflict between those who want to define India as a Hindu society, and those who think it must be a secular society."

The more than 1 billion population is 80 percent Hindu, 14 percent Muslim, and has significant numbers of Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists (Buddhism originated here), and Jains. In a country just over one-third the size of the US, there are 24 languages spoken by a million or more people, with a multitude of less-spoken languages and dialects.

India is not alone in wrestling with the values taught in public schools. In the US, parents, teachers, and plenty of lawyers are tangling with questions of whether to promote prayer in school. The state of Kansas famously attempted to promote Creationism as a Biblical alternative to the Darwinian theory of evolution.

In Japan, nationalist politicians have attempted to rewrite history textbooks to downplay Japan's role in World War II. And in South Africa, education ministers are trying to decide when African history begins: with the arrival of the Dutch, of the British, or with the ascendance of Nelson Mandela.

Hindu-oriented ideology

The driving force behind the moves by India's current government is the ideology of Hindutva, or Hindu-ness. Embraced by nationalists during the struggle for independence from British rule, and rejected by the nation's founder, Mohandas Gandhi, Hindutva teaches that Indians can take possession of their destiny only if they take more pride in their past.

Relying on this ideology, the current government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has urged a raft of proposals for changing the curriculum taught in India's public schools.

In a summary of proposals released last December, the government has suggested:

* Teaching Hindi as the official language, and the ancient language of Sanskrit "as the language of traditional wisdom and culture." (Sanskrit is rarely spoken outside of university study halls these days, but was the language of the Indo-Aryan tribes who invaded India thousands of years ago.)

* Teaching Vedic mathematics (an archaic form of math with few modern applications), herbal and ayurvedic medicine, and astrology, as examples of India's contribution to world thought.

* Giving Indian students a new set of historic role models, or "heroes," from the famed medieval warrior-king Prithviraj Chauhan to the freedom fighter Shankar Dev, who fought against British rule from his base in the state of Assam.

In the history books, specifically, government officials say they hope to cut down on the "quantum" of information taught in history classes.

Critics say that initial drafts of the government's recommendations indicate they would diminish the importance of India's famed Moghul period, which spanned about 300 years after the arrival of the Persian conqueror Akbar, a Muslim, in the 1500s. It was a time of architectural feats and the fusion of Hindu and Islamic thought.

Some historians argue that Moghuls were the first rulers to unify India in nearly its present form.

Use facts to teach values

For Murli Mohan Joshi, India's minister for Human Resources Development, it was long past time to give India's public-school students an education that emphasizes not only facts but also values.

"We thought that it's about time the curriculum should be rewritten with a view toward recent developments in human knowledge, such as more emphasis on information technology, or biotechnology, and Indian contributions to world civilizations," says Mr. Joshi. "We want Indian students in Kerala and Assam and Delhi to feel that Indian history is their history. Nobody should be excluded."

A vital part of teaching that history, he adds, is inculcating Indian values, rooted in India's deep spiritual traditions. "What are we teaching? To speak the truth. Don't steal. Be compassionate. Respect your elders. Have tolerance for other religions," he says. "These are not religious values. They are human values, the relationship of one human to another."

But for Thapar, the historian, the government's curricular changes are just one more act of a government that she says intends to saffronize, or Hinduize, Indian society.

"They're not academics, so you don't get to meet them and discuss these issues in public," says Thapar, speaking of her detractors. "In the old days, one used to laugh at this sort of thinking. Now one despairs, because they have become very, very popular."

Changes reflect religious bias

The problem is not so much that her own book is about to be replaced, Thapar says, but that the values the government wants taught are meant to uplift India's religious majority - and push down everyone else.

"The real target of attack are the Muslims," she says, seated in a living room surrounded by books and Asian art. "In the old days, these people used to say that [the Muslim conqueror] Akbar was allright but Aurangzeb [a later Muslim ruler] was terrible. Now they're saying they're all demons."

Boiling history down to a list of national heroes and villains, and compiling a list of India's "contributions," takes away all opportunity for teachers to explore the grayer areas of each society, she says.

"There is no doubt that they are making sure that the next generation of Indians are going to be morons," Thapar adds. "What you will get are two levels of society. Those who go to private schools and go off to Europe and America for college. And then you'll have the others who are left here."

Sayeed Shahabuddin, a prominent Muslim voice on national issues, says that the government's attempt to promote "values" is "nothing but a facade to promote cultural nationalism.

"Their objective is the Hinduization of Indian culture, and the brainwashing of the youth," says the publisher of Muslim India, a cultural and political magazine based in New Delhi. "Their entire ideology is one country, one culture, one system, which is almost fascistic."

Ashish Nandy, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, agrees that following the government's version of history is "a sure way to create an Indian state in the European model of the 1930s." But still, he views India's sudden passion as an antidote to an even greater evil: apathy.

"I personally think this is a healthy development for Indian society," he says. "During the Scopes trial [on whether to teach Darwinism in US public schools], I would have supported Darwin. But I think we need to create some space for a diversity of views in society."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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