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The New York Times, Opinion, December 30, 2002
Hijacking India's History


While some of us lament the repetition of history, the men who run India are busy rewriting it. Their efforts, regrettably, will only be bolstered by the landslide victory earlier this month of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Western India state of Gujarat.

The B.J.P. has led this country's coalition government since 1999. But India's Hindu nationalists have long had a quarrel with history. They are unhappy with the notion that the most ancient texts of Hinduism are associated with the arrival of the Vedic "Aryan" peoples from the Northwest. They don't like the dates of 1500 to 1000 B.C. ascribed by historians to the advent of the Vedic peoples, the forebears of Hinduism, or the idea that the Indus Valley civilization predates Vedic civilization. And they certainly can't stand the implication that Hinduism, like the other religious traditions of India, evolved through a mingling of cultures and peoples from different lands.

Last month the National Council of Educational Research and Training, the central government body that sets the national curriculum and oversees education for students up to the 12th grade, released the first of its new school textbooks for social sciences and history. Teachers and academics protested loudly. The schoolbooks are notable for their elision of many awkward facts, like the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a Hindu nationalist in 1948.

The authors of the textbook have promised to make revisions to the chapter about Gandhi. But what is more remarkable is how they have added several novel chapters to Indian history.

Thus we have a new civilization, the "Indus-Saraswati civilization" in place of the well-known Indus Valley civilization, which is generally agreed to have appeared around 4600 B.C. and to have lasted for about 2,000 years. (The all-important addition of "Saraswati," an ancient river central to Hindu myth, is meant to show that Indus Valley civilization was actually part of Vedic civilization.) We have a chapter on "Vedic civilization" — the earliest recognizable "Hindu culture" in India and generally acknowledged not to have appeared before about 1700 B.C. — that appears without a single date.

The council has also promised to test the "S.Q.," or "Spiritual Quotient," of gifted students in addition to their I.Q. Details of this plan are not elaborated upon; the council's National Curriculum Framework for School Education says only that "a suitable mechanism for locating the talented and the gifted will have to be devised."

More recent history, of course, is not covered in school textbooks. So we will have to wait to see how such books might treat this month's elections in Gujarat. They were held in the wake of the brutal pogrom of last February and March, in which more than 1,000 Muslims were murdered and at least 100,000 more lost their homes and property. The chief minister of Gujarat, who is among the leading lights of the B.J.P., justified this atrocity as a "natural reaction" to an act of arson on a train in the Gujarati town of Godhra, in which 59 Hindu pilgrims lost their lives.

The ruling party's subsequent election campaign was conducted against the rather literal backdrop of the Godhra incident: painted billboards of the burning railway carriage. The murdered Muslims were not accorded the same tragic status, although their pleas for justice created a backlash that played neatly into the campaign theme of Hindu Pride. It was, of course, a great success.

The carefully nurtured sense of Hindu grievance has been nursed rather than sated by acts of mob violence: the destruction of the 15th-century mosque in Ayodhya, for instance, or the persecution of Christians in earlier pogroms in Gujarat's Dangs district. The B.J.P., along with its Hindu-supremacist cohorts, the R.S.S. (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the V.H.P. (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), has a seemingly irresistible will to power. (The R.S.S. and the V.H.P. are not political parties but "social service organizations" that have served as springboards to power for B.J.P. leaders like Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat.)

In vanguard states like Gujarat, thousands of students follow the uncompromisingly chauvinistic R.S.S. textbooks. They will learn that "Aryan culture is the nucleus of Indian culture, and the Aryans were an indigenous race . . . and creators of the Vedas" and that "India itself was the original home of the Aryans." They will learn that Indian Christians and Muslims are "foreigners."

But they still have much to learn. I once visited the bookshop at the R.S.S. headquarters in Nagpur. On sale were books that show humankind originated in the upper reaches of that mythical Indian river, the Saraswati, and pamphlets that explain the mysterious Indus Valley seals, with their indecipherable Harrapan script: they are of Vedic origin.

After I visited the bookshop I stopped to talk to a group of young boys who live together in an R.S.S. hostel. They were a sweet bunch of kids, between 8 and 11 years old. They all wanted to grow up to be either doctors or pilots. Very good, I said. And what did they learn in school? Did they learn about religion? About Hinduism, Christianity?

They were silent for a few seconds — until their teacher nodded. A bespectacled kid spoke up. "Christians burst into houses and make converts of Hindus by bribing them or beating them."

He said it without malice, just a breathless eagerness, as if it were something he had learned in social science class. Perhaps it was.

Kai Friese is a journalist and magazine editor in New Delhi.


Asia Times, October 30, 1999
COMMENT: Rewriting history with a Hindu message

By Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI - Barely two weeks after being sworn in as part of India's new coalition government, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has begun to unfold its Hindu sectarian agenda. Changes are being made in education and pressure is increasing upon other religious groups.

Education Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, a Hindu hardliner, is restructuring educational institutions, rewriting curricula and making major personnel changes.

His latest target is Marxism in political science courses in schools. The education board has dropped Marxism from the curriculum without explanation, leaving only Fascism, Liberalism, Gandhism and Socialism. Many in the BJP are admirers of Fascism and doctrines of ''racial purity''. The change appears to dismiss a major influence on Indian independence movements and the formation of a national intelligentsia.

The BJP is also committed - and Minister Joshi has reiterated this - to rewriting school textbooks so that they reflect the ''glory and greatness'' of ancient Hindu civilization and present Hindus as victims of repeated invasion by outsiders. The BJP and other Hindu fundamentalist organizations like Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have made unsupported claims about Indian achievements - from calculus to nuclear physics and from advanced chemistry to aeronautics.

Says distinguished historian Sumit Sarkar: ''The basic thrust of the BJP is to construct an enemy. Rhetorically, they might have succeeded in achieving this, but it also needs to be concretized. For this, rewriting history, especially school textbooks, becomes very important. The BJP's main fight is more with history than with political parties.''

To accomplish this mission, which has been called the BJP's ''Long March Through the Institutions'', Joshi has filled educational institutions with BJP or RSS sympathizers and activists. These include the University Grants Commission, the secondary school board, the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, and the councils of social sciences and historical research, which run virtually all of India's specialized social science research institutes outside the university system.

Although the BJP might wish to appear to be a relatively ''moderate'' party, its agenda is complex, as reflected in the vitriolic campaign launched by the BJP's affiliates against Pope John Paul II who is due to visit India early next month.

The VHP and RSS are demanding an apology from the Catholic Church for having ''forcibly converted'' a large number of Hindus to Christianity during the colonial period despite little historical evidence of such an event. Many Indian Christians, especially in the south, willingly converted to escape the humiliation of the Hindu caste hierarchy. Other, non-Catholic, Christians trace their churches back to the first century, before Europe was Christian.

Although the VHP and RSS have attacked church properties and personnel and maligned other faiths, Prime Minister Vajpayee has not uttered a word against the anti-Christian campaign. Nor has the government once invoked the principle of secularism, which is part of the unalterable structure of India's Constitution.

(Inter Press Service)


Hindu Fundamentalism Index