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A Brief Analysis of the Politics around History Textbooks

By Arya Pathak

Despite its pivotal role in learning, the production and dissemination of textbooks has become a political matter over decades. This article tries to explain how the contents of textbooks are subject to changes as per the convenience of different regimes, by focusing upon the changes that were brought about in history textbooks right from the colonial period to the recent controversies around them.

· Introduction
·
Beginning of a Textbook-Centered Culture
·
Textbooks Carrying Colonial Narratives
·
Conflict of Ideologies and the Influence on Textbooks
·
Exclusion As A Tool For Muddling With History
·
Reshaping History- A Political Game?
·
Conclusion

Introduction

The occurrence of propaganda in history textbooks has never been a new phenomenon since history is often seen as a source of legitimacy of the past. Moreover, there can be no better way other than textbooks to influence and hegemonize young minds. More concerns have been raised in recent times about the contents of textbooks being doctored to reflect political ideologies and serve narrow political aims. It is of no doubt that textbooks play a pivotal role in the process of learning and imparting ideas but when self-interests set in, legitimacy and righteousness disappears. Despite the textbook’s central role in learning, the influence of political power determines much of the content in the textbooks. This article tries to explain how the contents of textbooks are revised as per the convenience of the rulers. Further, it focuses on the changes that were brought about in the textbooks during the colonial period and examines the influence of different regimes in history textbooks right from the colonial rule while also delving into the ongoing controversies.

Beginning of a Textbook-Centered Culture

To analyze the ever going politics surrounding history textbooks in the school curriculums, it is crucial to understand the origin of this bureaucracy and its social impacts on the vast diversity of India. The roots of textbook culture can be traced to the early nineteenth century when the East-India company took the definite system for establishing an education system where Sir Charles Wood’s dispatch paved the way for the final format of the new system in 1854.

Education in ancient India was imparted to children by Gurus who were independent to decide the curriculum based upon local resources and contexts. Gradually, colonial rule took away this independent status of the teacher by by confined their roles to imparting the curriculum prescribed by the department. Colonial education was then centralized with stringent bureaucratic norms which had a prescribed curriculum and textbooks with centralized examinations.

The imposition of this officially controlled system of education had a dramatic impact on the old way of teaching. Textbooks became the new sources of knowledge and teachers no longer remained the sole provider of information. Memorization of facts became a necessary part of the new textbook-centered culture since the new curriculum often remained alien to the student’s milieu. W.D Arnold, the director of Public Intrusion in Punjab in 1857–58, said,

The textbook culture was the joint product of the soil as it existed and the conditions created by the colonial bureaucracy. The soil was composed of archaic pedagogical practices that treated memorization as a mode of achievement.”

Not only this, the new textbooks also started serving the purpose of legitimizing colonial rule in India which became evident through the narratives they carried within them.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Textbooks Carrying Colonial Narratives

The colonial rulers took a keen interest in shaping the textbooks according to their interests by promoting narratives like ‘the ancient system of education lacked progressiveness’ and such narratives were contrary to the erstwhile system of education. The East-India company’s motive in developing modern education in India was a lot more than just imparting knowledge and instilling values in Indians. They wanted to train a few Indians who were capable of occupying subordinate offices under the English government. Employing Indians reduced the cost of recruiting people in the administration. This was evident from the fact that the education of upper and middle classes was focused primarily to create a class of citizens who were, “Indian in blood and colour but English in taste.”

Moreover, the development of historiography in the last two centuries carried within them the influence of changing contours of power, politics, and vested self-interests. Most of the writings on India by the colonial writers and ideologues were mixed with the interests and narratives that promoted the legitimization of colonial rule. These texts not just indirectly idealized the British ideologies of military and political achievements, but also justified malicious exposition of the contemporary state of Indian civilization.

The despotism of Indian rulers, characterization of the pre-colonial era as a dark age; a stagnant society dominated by barbaric practices and impaired by caste system have been some of the very familiar themes of colonial historiography. One such narrative motivated by colonial interpretation is the historical division of India’s time period as Hindu, Muslim, and British by James Mill. Such a division fulfills the colonial narrative of describing India as a society where religion/caste has been the primary force before the arrival of Britishers. The works of colonial officials like Alfred Lyall and Vinston Smith described the debilities of Indian character in conquest and the defeat of Indians by the Europeans. These descriptions were not because of the technical superiority of the latter but because of the racial inferiority of Indians. This doctored version of colonial textbooks started influencing the intellectual makeup of the Indian students. Hence after independence, decolonization of such texts was the first thing to be focused upon in the 1960s.

In furtherance of the same, the Secondary Education Commission was set up by the government to review the state of education for professionalization and standardization. It is to be noted that the new textbooks after the establishment of NCERT in 1961 were the decolonized texts that portrayed the pre-colonial past as a history of change and dynamism reflecting colonialism as a tragic period of destruction. However, despite the academic quality, the production of textbooks soon became the site of political battles.

Conflict of Ideologies and the Influence on Textbooks

From the 1960s to the 1970s, a series of textbooks produced by NCERT introduced a new way to be adopted by schools which condemned the colonial and communal stereotypes and offered new ideas of secular and national identity. But soon after, when demands of different states for textbooks representing local culture and community were accepted, local history became an additional chapter in the textbooks. However, these additional texts carried with them some ideas which were dissimilar to the original texts. These dissimilarities attracted contradictions as even original authors were unaware of the same. For example, the Aryan migration to India and their beef-eating habits were particularly contentious as such claims undermined the Hindu nationalist assertions and attracted the ire of the Hindu fundamentalist forces. As a result, an attempt was made to withdraw these textbooks in 1997 when they became partners in government. Similarly, the textbooks carrying such claims also had biased interpretation. While the Hindu fundamentalists tried representing Muslim rulers as intolerant and oppressive, the secular forces represented them as tolerant and open-minded. Thus, debates around textbooks for the years that followed independence were purely ideological.

On one hand, historians claimed their right to overwrite the past and on the other, fundamentalist forces tried to recast the textbooks according to their beliefs. Individuals, communities, and different groups soon started expressing their ideas in public and asserting the sanctity of what they believed to have happened in the past, according to their ideologies. Successive governments undertook the preparation and revision of textbooks as a part of their larger educational and political vision. For instance, the educational system under the post-independent government led by the Indian National Congress tried to showcase its commitment to a secular-democratic polity and society while the advocates of Hindu fundamentalism wanted the existing system to be dismantled in favor of the traditional and the indigenous. They believed that a national system of education should be anchored on religious ethos and indigenous knowledge. Many of the leaders and ideologues of the Rashtriya Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh such as M.S. Golwalkar advocated a system that emphasizes tradition and discipline.

Exclusion As A Tool For Muddling With History

Exclusion also became a strategy for the denial of history, specifically in architecture and religion. The textbooks on medieval history turned a blind eye to the blending of Islamic and Hindu traditions. For example, Man Mandir built by Man Singh, the ruler of Gwalior, in the sixteenth century has been such a magnificent building that carries the syncretic tendencies of these two traditions. What is emphasized in the texts is the Islamic character of medieval architecture. However, the syncretic tendency which developed during this period between Hindu and Islam did not find any mention. In the midst of all such ideological conflicts, exclusion strategies, and revision of texts time and again, the question of who could interpret the past, remains unanswered.

Photo by Joran Quinten on Unsplash

Reshaping History- A Political Game?

Recent controversies around history textbooks are holding right-wing politics responsible for reshaping history in India. Respective governments try to mould the contents of textbooks in ways that deem fit to fulfil their political agendas. For example, the Rajasthan Board of Secondary Education (RBSE), under the political regime of the NDA tried to glorify the decisions taken during their rule such as Demonetization. Subsequently, contents got revised when the state was under Congress led government. Moreover, the omission of the word “Veer from the introductory paragraph on one of the prominent revolutionary leaders Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, has also been controversial and symbolic of different ideological conflicts in the way history is represented.

Conclusion

While it cannot be denied that ideologies have largely influenced politics, a neutral approach becomes necessary to analyze historical incidents as they were, so that it does not lead to a biased point of view. There is no doubt that textbooks must be periodically updated and changes must be made to facilitate improvement, but the kind of changes made assume significance. They should be free from all ideological biases and in a way that no facts remain distorted. Political regimes need to focus on an unbiased nature of school pedagogy to facilitate learning and take the nation to greater heights. For this to happen, political and self-motivated interests need to be dropped from textbooks considering their importance as the center of learning.

(The story has been written by Arya Pathak, BA.LLB Student, NLU Patiala. Find them on Instagram)

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The Opinion is a publication based on Medium. We publish short articles on social and legal subjects, providing an opportunity to the early writers who face trouble in finding people who can review, enhance, publish, and promote their pieces.

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