India considers historic rewrite

Allies of the new Congress government call for revisions of school textbooks currently oriented toward Hindu values.

In the past five years, Indian schoolchildren of all faiths have learned quite a bit about the culture of the Hindu majority.

With the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party in charge, history textbooks were rewritten to extol the virtues of Indian kings like Shivaji and the Mauriyan and Vijayanagar empires. Hindu values were openly promoted in school, and ancient subjects like Hindu astrology, Ayurvedic medicine, and even the system of mental calculations known as Vedic mathematics were taught alongside more modern subjects such as astronomy, chemistry, and accounting.

Last week, the allies of the newly elected Congress government, the Communist Party of India, called for yet another rewrite of Indian history, this time with a broader view of India's many cultures instead of focusing on the religion of the majority.

The root of this historical conflict runs deep into the very definition of India itself. Is India essentially a secular country, where many religions and cultures coexist and blend? Or is India a nation formed on Hindu values, where non-Hindu religions must conform to Hindu values and traditions? It is this core question has unwittingly turned Indian schoolrooms into a cultural battleground.

"If these academics did things in a quiet manner, it would be better so that you don't arouse latent emotions," says Dipankar Gupta, an anthropologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "Most people in India believe in what the RSS (a militant pro-Hindu group) wanted to put into the textbooks, so if you say that is wrong, it wouldn't go down so well."

"From an educational point of view, it's pointless" to change textbooks in the middle of the year, Mr. Gupta adds. "Students basically learn these things to pass the exams. They won't be confused by a change in curriculum," he says, and they won't bother thinking much about it after the exams, either.

But most historians welcome these changes - indeed some change was almost inevitable. The BJP-promoted textbooks were full of factual errors, according to a panel of historians, and they diminished the impact of nearly a millennium of Islamic and British conquerors.

"The old textbooks were full of errors of fact, which children don't deserve to be made to read," says Barun De, a historian from the Maulana Azad Institute of Asian Studies in Calcutta, who wrote a scathing report of the BJP's textbooks in 2000. "No government ideology should be imposed on children."

What Mr. De and other historians found in the BJP's textbooks was a narrative that relied heavily on "traditional thought and mythology up to the first millennium, and then the second millennium was a retrogression and a perversion because of foreign conquests from the West."

While he has no desire to diminish the merits of Indian history before the arrival of Western conquerors, he adds, "I would like to see a multiplex character of India to be represented, as it used to be in our history. But that multiplicity was whittled down and the Hindu side emphasized. This is an attempt to bring in chauvinism, and one of the more fundamentalist elements of religion."

Not so, says Devenanda Swarup, a former professor of history at Delhi University. Mr. Swarup says that it is the Congress Party that is taking an ideological view of history, promoting a Marxist view that diminishes the importance of India's founding culture, Hinduism.

"This is an exercise which may launch a struggle for the national ethos of the country, and Marxist ideology, which has been outdated, cannot withstand it," says Swarup. "Every country tries to inculcate its values to children, a spirit of patriotism, a concept of unity, and higher moral values. But these people," he says, speaking of left-leaning historians, "they want to talk about the struggle of revolution."

Unless the Congress bucks the pressure of its Communist allies, Swarup warns, "there is a possibility of this becoming a major campaign of struggle." The leftist academics "have no following, their whole influence is the news media. All organized forces will participate, from parents, from students, from different groups that are dedicated to the Indian nation."

Meanwhile, the new government is sending mixed signals on whether it wants to take on this fight so early in its reign. Communist Party officials, who support the Congress government within parliament but are not members of the governing coalition, are pushing for immediate removal of BJP-sponsored textbooks. But Congress government spokesman Salman Khursheed told journalists last week that the Congress Party is working on a different time frame.

"If the Left agrees with some of the steps we take, that's wonderful," he told the Kerala-based magazine The Week. "But it should be remembered that we are believers, while they are not. Our ideal is Mahatma Gandhi, who was into religion; theirs is Karl Marx."

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