Row over a manuscript – Frontline

The controversy over the rejection by the NCERT of a manuscript for the history textbook for Class XII deals yet another blow to the credibility of the institution.

in New Delhi

Professor Saradindu Mukherji with his manuscript of “Contemporary World”.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

IN recent times, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has figured in several controversies, all for the wrong reasons. Having removed all the Left-leaning historians from the list of authors of NCERT history textbooks, the institution now faces a peculiar problem. One of its hand-picked historians, Saradindu Mukherji, Reader in History at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, has criticised the NCERT and its Director J.S. Rajput for rejecting his manuscript of “Contemporary World”, a textbook prescribed for Class XII. An NCERT press release said that Mukherji’s manuscript had a “fixation with polemics… these if carried in the final version would have hurt the sentiments of certain communities”. It explained: “Mukherji betrayed a strong bias against a certain religion because several times in the manuscript he drew parallels between its teachings and terrorism. No reputed institution could publish such a work”. The release cited as an example his views on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). On page 226, the manuscript says: “The much publicised LTTE is primarily a Tamil Hindu organisation, but their movement is basically ethnic and not religious. The alleged assassin of Rajiv Gandhi happened to be a Tamil Christian. Hence the tendency of some to impute the label of Hindu terrorism does not stick.” The NCERT alleged that the whole manuscript was “found deficient in content and presentation”. Replying to this point, Mukherji said: “What is wrong in saying that Rajiv Gandhi’s assassin was a Tamil Christian? Is not Nathuram Godse always referred to as a Hindu fanatic?”

However, there is more to the issue than meets the eye, especially since Mukherji is closely identified with the Sangh Parivar and its brand of history and historiography. He was instrumental in leading a campaign against M.L. Sondhi, former chairperson of the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), and in ousting him from the post. Mukherji, quit the ICSSR but was subsequently reinducted into it when the Council was reconstituted in April 2002. Mukherji wrote articles in newspapers defending the BJP while it was charged with distorting history, and defended the 1992 Ekta Yatra that Murli Manohar Joshi, who is now the Union Human Resource Development Minister, led. He has written for the English and Hindi organs of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Organiser and Panchajanya respectively; was part of the RSS historians’ forum on Ayodhya; authored the BJP’s perspective on foreign policy on the eve of the 1998 elections for the party’s website; and has vociferously attacked Left-leaning historians and defended the views of the right wing on history. He is a member of the National Democratic Teachers’ Front (NDTF), the teachers’ wing of the BJP.

Apparently the real reason for rejecting Mukherji’s manuscript is his description of religious fundamentalism and terrorism. A comparison of Mukherji’s introductory chapter with the amended version reveals the bias against the minority community in the former. Mukherji said he could not understand why all the references to jehad in the sub-section on religious fundamentalism and terrorism had been deleted and a section on the birth of Israel included. In fact, the amended version starts off with references to the twin menaces of Zionism and Islamic fundamentalism. Asks Mukherji: “Why not Pakistan, whose birth predates the creation of Israel?” While the amended text has references to terrorism without mentioning Islam, Mukherji’s manuscript is more explicit and vitriolic. Apparently, the NCERT does not want to get into another controversy regarding “Islamic terrorism”, especially in the context of approaching rounds of Lok Sabha and Assembly elections and the government’s peace initiatives with Pakistan.

Mukherji said that in the section on the demographic factor and migration in the context of the reconstruction of post-Second World War Europe, while racial violence faced by Indians was mentioned, attacks on the religious minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh were not. He added that he failed to understand why references to foeticide and the imbalance in the sex-ratio in the section had been deleted and why a section on post-modernism was dropped. Perhaps the only area of agreement is reflected in a long passage on the “Collapse of the Soviet Union and failure of communism”, where the revised manuscript almost revels in giving “details” of the “terrifying face” of communism. While agreeing with the overall assessment of communism, Mukherji is aggrieved that the lines quoted are not his. An interesting inclusion in the revised manuscript is a critique of the United States in the context of its recent invasion of Iraq. The manuscript states: “In pursuit of its political and economic objectives, the USA even rejects the collective will of the United Nations as it did when it made up its mind to attack Iraq in 2003.”

Interestingly, the accusation of “hurting the religious sentiments” of certain communities was first made against Left-leaning historians R.S. Sharma and Satish Chandra. The least that one would have expected of a historian hand-picked by the NCERT, which comes under the Human Resource Development Ministry, was not to commit the same errors. Evidently, Mukherji’s ideology was not a problem for the NCERT. But his scholarship is in question if the reasons it has proffered are to be accepted. His refusal to comply with the changes that were sought to be made in his manuscript further irked the NCERT Director. Clearly, the decision to reject the fruits of Mukherji’s almost one-year-long effort has not been prompted by deficiencies in content, presentation or even distorted inferences. The book is to be taught in the coming semester, and it is a matter of wonder that following the rejection of Mukherji’s manuscript after March, three new authors have managed to put together a nearly 250-page book in such a short period.

WHY has nobody from the BJP or the RSS spoken in favour of Mukherji? Why did the NCERT decide to drop Mukherji’s manuscript and opt for three authors, two of whom are not even historians of modern India? Mukherji claimed that the manuscript was more or less approved at the review workshop held in January. He said that every sentence was discussed and “everything was very cordial”. He denied Rajput’s assertion that his manuscript was not approved at the workshop. (Frontline contacted some of the review committee members to verify the NCERT’s claim that Mukherji had rejected the suggestions made by the council’s representative in the review workshop. Two of the senior academics contacted said that at no stage did they find Mukherji recalcitrant or unyielding to the suggestions made by the members. Rajput was not available for comment.)

Mukherji claimed that he was told that the final manuscript was to be ready by March 31. On February 16, Dr. Pratyusa Mandal, Reader in History, NCERT, and one of the authors of the new book, came to Mukherji’s home and collected the manuscript. (The other two authors are Mohammad Anwar-ul-Haque, Reader in History at the Regional Institute of Education, Bhubaneshwar and Dr. Himansu S. Patnaik, Professor of History at Utkal University.) On February 26, it was returned to him with the NCERT seal on it. Some additions were suggested, and on March 7 Mukherji handed over the corrected manuscript to the editor. Mukherji claimed that it was the last time he saw the manuscript in the form that he had written it. The NCERT did not get back to him on the matter for some time. Finally, the first seven chapters of his “massacred manuscript” were sent to him. It contained glaring errors – a point which the NCERT is now accusing him of – apart from having the indentation marking out quotations removed and entire sections deleted.

NCERT Chairperson J.S. Rajput.-M. LAKSHMANAN

Mukherji wrote a four-page note to Rajput stating that there were major problems with the “edited” or “corrected” manuscript. He pointed out some grammatical errors, the inclusion of Zionism along with Islamic fundamentalism and the omission of indentation for quotations, which could result in his being accused of plagiarism. Mukherji wrote that the expert who had made the changes seemed to be “soft on Pakistan”, or was “deliberately suppressing facts” and seemed to be “in a hurry to flaunt his loyalty to the destructive and jehadi forces and could be told that history writing is a serious academic affair, and it is not writing a pamphlet for Sahmat”.

As there was no response from the NCERT, on April 29 he wrote to Rajput again. This time, Mukherji accused the NCERT of sabotaging his manuscript. He wrote that unless he approved the text, with each page carrying his signatures, it should not be published. Mukherji said that till date he had not received any official letter intimating him about the rejection of his manuscript.

The NCERT’s press release rejected Mukherji’s allegations and accused him of reacting negatively and of refusing to cooperate with the NCERT in reworking the manuscript. It alleged that he made objectionable remarks in a letter to the Director. The press release quoted Rajput as saying that in spite of all attempts by a section of intellectuals and the media, the NCERT’s books had found greater acceptance than in the past. He claimed that even State governments that had initially expressed reservations about the National Curriculum Framework – 2000, had begun to implement it. He appealed to students, parents and teachers to ignore the latest attempt to denigrate the NCERT and to continue to repose their faith in the institution.

In a rejoinder to the NCERT, Mukherji noted: “I further state that in case my manuscript was found deficient in content and presentation, the NCERT should have pointed out the same when the first draft of the manuscript was presented to them on 26.12.2002 and subsequently after the review workshop meeting concluded on 10.01.2003 and not through a press release as late as 16.06.2003 which was issued only after the matter was leaked to the press through which I came to learn that the book which I was commissioned to write was actually being clandestinely written by three authors without terminating the commission which had been issued to me. I had never received any communication to the effect that my manuscript was found deficient in content and presentation by the NCERT before the matter was taken up by the press and have not received any communication in the matter till date. Such conduct on the part of the NCERT is very reprehensible, illegal and is highly condemnable.”

Devendra Swaroop, former editor of Panchajanya and a senior RSS ideologue, did not wish to comment on the matter but said that he was pained by what had happened. While those in the RSS and the BJP preferred not to comment on the controversy, there is reason to believe a section in the RSS resents the manner in which Mukherji was treated. They increasingly feel that the BJP-led government is patronising those who are not “fully” committed to the Hindutva ideology and isolating those who have given themselves for the “cause”. One academic close to the Sangh Parivar said: “If you look at the agendas of the ICHR [Indian Council of Historical Research] and the ICSSR, there is nothing pro-BJP or RSS in them anymore. Some of the appointments in leading universities such as the JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University] and Delhi University only indicate that our people are getting sidelined and the leftists are coming back.”

These developments have dealt yet another blow to an institution that has been steadily losing its credibility ever since the BJP-led government came to power.

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