Distorted lessons – Frontline

Controversies continue to stalk the NCERT. The latest one is over errors and distortion of facts in its history textbooks for Class XII.

in New Delhi

AT a media conference in New Delhi on July 4, Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi had to answer a number of questions relating to textbooks issued by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). Responding to one of them, he suggested the need to rise above the NCERT.

However, it seems difficult to take the Minister’s advice, especially since almost every textbook published by the NCERT has got embroiled in some controversy. Since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government came to power at the Centre, several NCERT textbooks in history have drawn flak for distorting history and for a blatant disregard of elementary facts.

The latest controversy came to light when the New Delhi-based Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), with the help of some historians, compiled a list of errors in textbooks released recently by the NCERT – “Modern India” by Satish Chandra Mittal and “Contemporary World History” by Himansu S. Patnaik, Mohammad Anwar ul-Haque and Pratyusa Mandal. Both books, prescribed for Class XII, are not free from the ideological slant of the present government. They also seek to denigrate their favourite bete noire – communists. In fact, one of the three authors of “Contemporary World History”, Himansu Patnaik, is a Professor in Ancient Indian History at Utkal University. It has also been learnt that the manuscript of “Contemporary World History”, written by Saradindu Mukherji, a Reader of History at Delhi University, was rejected by the NCERT because it did not contain sufficient criticism of the communist and socialist regimes (Frontline, July 18). While Mukherji, whose ideological proximity to the Sangh Parivar was one of the considerations behind his selection as the author of the textbook, did not have any particular problems with the inclusion of such criticism, he was alleged to have not given it preference over the more important ideological irritant of “Islamic terrorism”.

The book authored by Satish Chandra Mittal is replete with errors, with some deliberate omissions of facts and also the preferred ideological slant of the government. Among the errors pointed out by SAHMAT is the confusion created over two British officers, Dyer and O’Dwyer. While the former, General Dyer, ordered the firing resulting in the Jallianwalah Bagh tragedy of April 13, 1919, the latter, Michael O’ Dwyer, then Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, was shot dead by Udham Singh in 1940. General Dyer died of cerebral haemorrhage in 1927 and was not killed by Udham Singh in 1940, as the textbook would have us believe.

Another error in the textbook occurs in the reference to Subhas Chandra Bose. He formed the Forward Bloc (now called the All India Forward Bloc) after leaving the presidentship of the Congress. But if the NCERT is to be believed, Bose formed the Forward Bloc when he was Congress president. Similarly, the textbook claims that three arrested officers of the Indian National Army, Shahnawaz Khan, Prem Sehgal and G.S. Dhillon, were acquitted by the court. In fact, the court found them guilty of treason and they were handed down the following sentences – transportation for life, cashiering, and loss of pay and allowances. However, the sentences were remitted; the first one was never carried out, especially as the trial evoked a huge public response. Arjun Dev, former Head of the Department of Education in Social Sciences and Humanities, NCERT, said: “If they had been acquitted, they would have been taken back into the British Indian Army.” They were not imprisoned but were released as the Commander-in-Chief of the British Indian Army, Sir Claude Auchinleck, felt that it would foment unrest, including in the Army, given the general mood of protest among the people.

In a different section of the same chapter, Rash Behari Bose of the Ghadar Party and Subhas Chandra Bose have been referred to as brothers and the text book quotes a scholar-writer, Balshastri Das, as having mentioned that “it was during this phase that he [Subhas Bose] met Veer Savarkar, who suggested to him to escape from the country, like his elder brother Rash Behari Bose, and make efforts for the country’s independence instead of indulging in small-time agitations”.

But one of the more glaring errors occurs in the reference to the “revolutionary activities” of the Chapekar brothers in 1893. The two brothers, Damodar and Balkrishna Chapekar, began their “revolutionary activities” in India by forming the “Hindu Dharma Sangarakshini Sabha” in 1893 (this year has been described as a landmark from the point of view of revolutionary activities) and started celebrating Ganesh Utsavs and the birthday of Shivaji which, in turn, brought about a “sense of nationalism” among the people. Following a reference to the plague epidemic in Pune, the text reads: “In 1896-97, the Chapekar brothers had set up a gymnasium in Pune.” The author does not explain the link between the gymnasium and the revolutionary activities, thereby rendering it a redundant statement deserving mention only because it was related to the Chapekar brothers.

On page 183, the Chapekar brothers are said to have assassinated the “Commissioner of Pune Rand and Lt. Ayrst” on June 22, 1897. But in a preceding chapter on the Indian National Congress (1885-1905), the Chapekar brothers are said to have been caught deceitfully and hanged by two British officials, Rand and Ayrst, for having set up a secret society named the Society for the Removal of Obstacles to the Hindu Religion.

The emphasis on V.D. Savarkar’s role in Indian history does not come as a surprise. For instance, while the textbook refers to the Communist Party of India’s opposition to the Quit India Movement, Savarkar is only supposed to have “directed his followers not to take part in the movement”. While Jinnah and the two-nation theory are repeatedly referred to, there is hardly any mention of Savarkar’s exposition of the two-nation theory.

That nationalism for the author and the NCERT means cultural nationalism (read Hindu nationalism) is evident from the assessment the textbook has made of Madan Lal Dhingra, an associate of Savarkar. Dhingra, who had gone to study in England, shot dead a government administrator, Curzon Wyllie. Sentenced to death on August 16, 1909, he expressed three wishes to Savarkar – that the rituals following his death should be conducted as per the Hindu tradition; no non-Hindu, nor any of his brothers, should be allowed to touch his body; and that his personal belongings should be auctioned and the money thus collected used in nationalistic activities. The author sums up: “From these last wishes, it could be easily gauged as to how much Madanlal Dhingra had helped in creating a nationalistic fervour through his sacrifice in the country.” No one can deny Dhingra his due, but to interpret his last wishes as a display of nationalistic fervour not only will mislead students but also legitimise extant biases towards certain religions.

Elsewhere in the textbook, Ashfaqullah Khan is referred to as perhaps the first Muslim revolutionary of India to be hanged for the sake of the country’s freedom. The inference here is that there were not many of his co-religionists who were willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause of independence.

THE textbook, “Contemporary World History”, revels in anti-communist hysteria. There is an entire section on how Stalin had apparently “told his secret agents all over the world to steal the U.S.’ secrets”. Arjun Dev pointed out that 2003 marked the 50th anniversary of the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were accused of passing the U.S.’ atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. This execution was recognised as a blot on the judicial history of the United States when it was revealed later that the Rosenbergs had been the victims of the anti-Communist hysteria prevalent in the U.S. in that period. It seemed that the NCERT was carrying forward the legacy of the McCarthy period.

In the chapter “Communism, Totalitarianism and the Road to World War II”, referring to the Anti-Comintern Pact signed between Germany and Japan in 1936, the authors observe that this was nothing more than a propaganda trick by which the two countries “hoped to exploit the universal hatred of communism”. It should be realised that this “universal hatred” was confined to the Western world (mainly the U.S.) and Adolf Hitler’s Germany.

The Non Aligned Movement (NAM) has been denigrated as having little relevance in today’s context, especially as it “could not find a role for itself in the Iraq crisis of 2003”. The section on the Bandung Conference (1955) in the chapter “The Cold War Years” is not the least critical of the neo-imperialist designs of the U.S. but devotes much space to berating NAM and highlighting its “irrelevance”.

NCERT director J.S. Rajput denied that the textbooks contained chauvinistic and communal biases. Labelling SAHMAT as a “front organisation of a political party which has been over-reaching itself in defaming the NCERT as an institution and its publications”, he said: “Mistakes which invariably creep into the first print run of any book are being misrepresented to suit the political agenda of SAHMAT’s parent body.” He admitted that “some inaccuracies over dates and names had crept into the first print run” and reiterated that the NCERT was open to professional suggestions but not to politically motivated allegations. He disagreed with SAHMAT’s analysis of Veer Savarkar and stated that the NCERT needed no lessons from it. Rajput also held SAHMAT responsible for “confusing young children and plunging their careers into uncertainty”.

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