Saffron Infusion: Hindutva, History, and Education


On 5 January, 2004, the renowned Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune was vandalized by some 150 thugs. Priceless manuscripts and artefacts were destroyed. Those responsible declared themselves to be members of the ‘Sambhaji Brigade’, linked to the Maratha Seva Sangh, a regional organization with anti-Brahmin sentiments. They apparently chose this method to protest against allegedly insulting remarks made against their hero, Shivaji, in a recently published book by the American historian James W. Laine.

The link with the Institute was somewhat indirect: Laine had acknowledged the help of several academics at Bhandarkar with the translation of certain manuscripts. The book concerned, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, has been withdrawn by Oxford University Press, and the author has apologized for any offence caused, stressing that it was wholly unintentional. The Bhandarkar Institute is the repository of many manuscripts of great historical significance and an important source of information on the life and times of Shivaji. It was responsible for the preparation of a critical edition of the Mahabharata in 19 volumes, completed in 1966. News of the attack caused widespread shock, and many students and other concerned individuals rushed to the Institute to help with salvaging what they could and clearing up the devastation the vandals had left behind.

Appalling though it was, this attack does not appear to be part of any political plan of national dimensions. It would seem, at least in part, to be an embodiment of regional tensions between the Maratha and Brahmin communities (the scholarly Institute being perceived as a Brahmin entity). But it serves as a reminder of several points relating to history, historiography, and the current Indian situation.

First, it is a reminder of the fundamental role of irreplaceable material evidence in history. This is a situation broadly shared by historical sciences such as geology and astronomy, which cannot resort to experiment, though the nature of evidence in history, given its human provenance, is rather more complex, intractable to general laws, and in some forms particularly vulnerable to multiple interpretations. Hence history’s unique position as a ‘protean discipline’. Nevertheless, evidence remains its bedrock. Some of what was destroyed at Bhandarkar is destroyed forever, access to it now being limited to the frozen interpretations of previous historians, the original no longer available for consultation and re-analysis.

A second point highlighted by this episode is the special significance of history to the concerns of the present, and especially to identity – the sense of heritage. Indian newspaper reports mourn not only the loss of historical records precious in themselves but of important parts of ‘our heritage’. Heritage is a source of pride (and of tourist revenue) to all nations. To those for whom colonial rule is within living memory, elements of heritage, particularly those perceived as part of a freedom struggle against past invaders, have a strong resonance. Shivaji was a Hindu who successfully fought the forces of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, declaring himself king and establishing the powerful Maratha Confederacy. His story has become legendary.

And therein lies another point. The story of the Hindu Maratha hero’s defiance and success against a Muslim king has captured the imagination. It has taken on its own part-mythical life. Perhaps so much so that the actual historical evidence is somewhat troublesome and inconvenient. It can be treated in a cavalier manner because it must be subservient to the myth. The past is dead and can be manipulated or, if necessary, obliterated; the myth must live.

This brings me to my final point concerning Bhandarkar – the extreme, whipped up response against a Western historian. The history of India has for too long been interpreted, written, and thus, as Said pointed out, in some way owned and controlled, by the colonialists. ‘They’, now widened to all modern Westerners, cannot possibly be trusted to understand or interpret ‘our’ history. There is no doubt that the Orientalists of the 19th century framed and periodized Indian history in accordance with certain assumptions concerning the ‘other’, which coloured and constrained their otherwise impressive achievement in building a vast corpus of knowledge about aspects of Indian history and culture. But Indology has moved on since then. The approach of leading Western scholars of Indian history today is far more self-aware and sensitive to such assumptions, while remaining appropriately rigorous and critical in its analysis. Yet in the intensely Hindu nationalist climate currently pervading India and flourishing in sections of the Indian diaspora, even distinguished Indologists such as Wendy Doniger are attacked in a knee-jerk response for daring to critically evaluate Hindu texts. Those Indian historians who question the agenda of Hindutva or ‘Hindu-ness’ fare even worse. Eminent, internationally respected historians such as Romila Thapar have been threatened and vilified. But these courageous individuals refuse to be silenced.

The origins of Hindutva go back to the early part of the 20th century. The term refers to the Hindu chauvinistic nationalist agenda of a number of interconnected organizations, collectively known as the Sangh Parivar, that range from the paramilitary to the ostensibly cultural (even sometimes appropriating the terms ‘secular’ and ‘humanist’). The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) forms the broad political front. In addition to being the leading party of the ruling coalition, the BJP is in power in several states, including Gujarat, where they were voted back to power in the climate of fear lingering in the wake of the horrific communal massacres of 2002. The other two major bodies are the cultural arm of the movement, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the openly militaristic Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The Sangh Parivar has taken to itself the colour saffron. Once associated with renunciation, it is flaunted now as a symbol of Hindu pride and power.

Within the past 12 years or so, as the hold of Congress has declined, the growth and spread of Hindutva has been remarkable. Aided by a powerful propaganda machine and the wealth pouring in from Indians abroad, especially in the US and UK [1], the ‘saffron brigade’ have sought to replace the secular, pluralist vision of Nehru and other earlier nationalists with their own Hindu chauvinist concept of the nation and its past, and to indoctrinate the young with this conception.

I would suggest that as the Nehruvian dream began to fade, as Congress regimes moved away from the project for independent development and some kind of social justice – notably during the Emergency of course – we get the substitution of those commitments with rhetoric. More and more we are taught to look at the nation as something of a myth, as just a map, a cult or a flag. –Sumit Sarkar [2]

Who Owns the Past?

[The] past needs to make the present unfamiliar to itself. History must acquire the power to surprise the present with its differences. –Pradip Kumar Datta [3]

History is deeply interpretive. The immense richness of any human society, the various facets of any culture, the changes wrought upon it by the operation of socio-economic, political, and religious forces, the impact of interaction with other cultures, forms such a complex tapestry that it is unlikely that we will ever have a full picture of any period in the past, especially the remote past. There is plenty of room for interpretation. But does that then mean that the door is wide open for any interpretation, constrained, as the postmodernists would have it, only by intertextuality? Hardly.

The anchoring role of material evidence becomes particularly important in the case of history because of the way in which present political groups seek to legitimize their agenda by taking control of the past. To argue that this is inevitable, that the past cannot be seen in any objective light, that it is a mere battleground of present ideologies in which the most persistent will win, is not only unwarranted but constitutes a dangerous concession to the extreme right. In a climate of postmodernism, of discourses floating free, Holocaust deniers can thrive with impunity, as Richard Evans has pointed out [4].

History, as conducted by professional historians, is a rigorous and objective field, a social science in which knowledge accumulates over time. Both the evidences and techniques used in the modern discipline justify this statement. Historical evidence, it need hardly be said, continues to grow with time, as more materials come to light. But in addition, the forms of evidence used by the modern historian are far wider ranging than in the past, and frequently involve collaboration with experts from other disciplines. As well as from texts, inscriptions, and artefacts, there is evidence available from archaeology, from linguistics, from indications of climate change and alterations to water courses, and nowadays sometimes from population genetics too. Further, certain elements of supportive evidence may be obtained from the study of myths (used, for example by the late distinguished Marxist historian D. D. Kosambi [5] in the interpretation of aspects of early Indian society), and from anthropological work. Techniques of textual analysis have become more rigorous and faster, with much use of computers, while dating methods too have improved. [6]

This is the nature of the historian’s work today. It is an exercise involving interdisciplinary teams of academics from all over the world. It relies on critical evaluation of evidence, and the tradition of open debate. While interpretations continue to be presented and discussed, they will simply not pass muster if they are not grounded in reason and evidence. History, by the nature of its materials and processes (a non-Markovian system, Peter Atkins once remarked to me) may not be conducive to the vigorous honing by experiment and explanatory structures available to science, but it is nevertheless a progressive and rational discipline.

And what has Hindutva to offer in its place? Little more than assertions and poor scholarship, infused with a lavish helping of mythology. The Sangh’s ‘indigenism’ lacks the fundamental characteristics of any reasoned approach to history:

[Indigenism] attempts to invent a “tradition” and retain it as something essentially different from other cultures and societies, and to build an ideology on such a tradition. But it fails to provide a theory of historical explanation or a method of historical analysis. –Romila Thapar [7]

Ironically for a movement anxious to remove all trace of colonialist perceptions, the vision they espouse is one anchored in the simplistic periodization of the 19th century Orientalists: that of an ancient and glorious Hindu ‘golden age’, followed by a ‘dark’ period of crushingly oppressive Muslim rule, and a modern period of less oppressive British rule. They continue the old British colonial view of India as constituted by two essentially antagonistic religious communities, the Hindus and Muslims, a view that, abetted by both the RSS and the Muslim League, led to partition. Of course one of these communities is seen as forever the outsiders.

The real history of Hindu-Muslim relations in the history of the subcontinent is more complex. As Asghar Ali Engineer has pointed out [8], the relationship of the two has varied not only with ruler, but with the social groups being considered, the particular sects (the Sufis, in particular, became considerably Indianized), and the way in which Islam entered the area. In Kerala, for example, with its strong and ancient trade links with the Mediterranean, the Muslim community grew from Arab traders, and was primarily assimilationist, compared to the undoubted confrontations and military conquest in the north. Yet here, too, cooperation existed, both among the elites, and among the poor of both religions. The situation cannot adequately be described in terms of any simple polarization between two monolithic religions. This is true even during the rule of the notoriously intolerant Aurangzeb, as has been noted in the studies of various Indian historians. K. N. Panikkar has remarked, “Aurangzeb’s chiefs and courtiers were more Hindus than Muslims. And the person who fought against Shivaji was Raja Jaisingh, a Hindu.” [9]

The current sensitivity over this period of Indian history is of course linked to the Sangh’s highly effective campaign to mobilize Hindus under the banner of Ram Janmabhoomi (birthplace of the god Ram). In the words of the President of Maharashtra VHP, Ashok Chowgule, “The Ram Janmabhoomi issue has revolutionised the politics of the country. A fragmented Hindu samaj has been united to an extent unheard of in recent times.” [10] More than a decade after the Sangh incited mobs to demolish the Babri Masjid, built by Babur over, as they claim, a Hindu temple at the supposed birthplace of Ram, the pressure to allow the building of a temple on the site continues. So far, the courts have not relented.

The way in which Hindutva has been able to exploit and promote the image of the god Ram is interesting in itself. By effectively focusing on a single god, and transforming him into a warrior god, they have given the polytheistic Hinduism the sleekness and muscle of a monotheistic faith. India becomes the land of Ram.

The historicization of Ram, his presumed epiphany in historical as opposed to mythical time, has been the mainstay of the Hindutva project. This brazen mixing of history and mythology to suit political ends runs throughout Sangh ideology. To the masses, the mythological elements are simply asserted as history. To the intellectuals, this unholy ‘interpenetration’ is presented with a suitably postmodern flourish: “The fact is that there is often more history in myths and more myth in history.” [11]

Hinduism is, of course, far from the monolithic belief system projected by Hindtuva as enduring through time immemorial. With no founder, no single canonical text, and no ecclesiastical structure (though it has priests), its historical development has been distinct in pattern from that of Semitic religions:

The evolution of Hinduism is not a linear progression from a founder through an organizational system, with sects branching off. It is rather the mosaic of distinct cults, deities, sects, and ideas and the adjusting, juxtaposing or distancing of these to existing ones, the placement drawing not only on belief and ideas but also on the socio-economic reality. –Romila Thapar [12]

This brings us to the other historical period of high sensitivity to Hindutva: the nature of ancient India and the Hindutva assertion of an indigenous ‘Aryan race’. Where does one even begin? The philologist William Jones identified the connections between Sanskrit and Latin and Greek, and first proposed that they all derived from a single language, Indo-European. What should have remained a linguistic category was altered to that of a race in the obsessively race-conscious late 19th century. European scholars, including even Max Müller for a time, built up the idea of an ‘Aryan race’ that swept into India as invaders from the north-west, bringing their language with them, and establishing superiority over, and hermetic separation from, the indigenous ‘Dravidian race’ through the caste system.

With the growth of archaeological evidence, and supporting evidence from linguistics, the story that is emerging is not one of invasion but of gradual migration and settlement of peoples speaking an Indo-European language, following the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization. The subsequent growth of a caste system is also now regarded as having been a rather more complex process than previously thought.

In contrast to this carefully evaluated and maturing view, constantly sensitive to archaeological finds and the implications of detailed linguistic analysis, the assertion of Hindutva is simple: the Sanskrit-speaking Aryans were neither migrants nor invaders, but were indigenous to India. The ancient Harappan civilization is regarded as part of a great Vedic Age, and the dates of the Vedic texts set so far back in time (up to 9000 BCE) as to confirm that India must have been the first centre of human civilization (and even of human origins), with subsequent migration of Aryan peoples into Iran. To stress the Vedic connection, the term ‘Harappan’ is now increasingly replaced with ‘Sarasvati-Sindhu’, a name with a distinctly Vedic flavour. The claim that the Sarasvati, a dried up tributary of the Indus around which many Harappan settlements have been found, was once a mighty river finds no support from the topography and geology of the region.

Needless to say, during this glorious Vedic Age, India was a land of wisdom, peace, and knowledge; a time of the profoundest discoveries in mathematics and science, and boasting a well-knit and harmonious society, with no oppression of women or of lower castes. Irfan Habib comments that

since all later texts are being given exorbitantly earlier dates, and every intellectual and technological achievement pushed to an obscure, sacred past, the later times begin to appear more and more as sheer dark ages. We are being asked to believe that not only did the alleged inventors of writing in the 4th millennium BC forget to write up the Vedic texts, but their descendants too simply forgot writing altogether for a period of 1500 years or so, before the Mauryas came around. We Indians also coolly forgot the great scientific secrets embedded in our texts… [13]

It seems scarcely worth taking the effort to repeat Hindutva’s nonsensical claims, but for the fact that they have been so widely and effectively propagated as Hindu history and culture by the saffron brigade. Astonishing as it may seem, this is the interpretation of the nation’s history that is being perpetrated through the Sangh’s network of sectarian schools and that has even infiltrated in part into the fabric of the country’s national curriculum and textbooks.

The Great RSS Education Project

Modern sectarian Hindu schooling may be said to have begun in 1946, when the RSS leader M. S. Golwalkar set up the Gita Junior Secondary School in Kurukshetra, Haryana. After something of a gap, resulting from the banning of the RSS following Gandhi’s assassination, a Saraswati Shishu Mandir was established in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, in 1952. Since then, RSS schools, run by their education wing, Vidya Bharati, have multiplied and spread into many states. One recent estimate puts the number of RSS-run schools in the country at over 18,000 and further and higher education institutions at over 60. [14] At least several thousand of these are endorsed by state governments in states where the BJP is in power.

The aim of these schools is to ‘evolve an integrated system of education in conformity with the aims of Indian culture and its ideals of life’. [15] For Indian here, read Hindu: the two are used interchangeably in Hindutva-speak. This is apparent from Vidya Bharati’s further stated educational aim to bring up a new generation of Indians ‘fully saturated with the feelings of Hindutva and patriotism’.

What, then, is the educational ethos in these schools, and what do they teach? At first sight, things may not seem so bad. They generally use standard textbooks and cover the standard curriculum. They have to, in order to compete with other schools. No, the Hindutva agenda is spread through aspects of school regimen, through the slant given to the content of the standard curriculum, through the overall ethos and, most explicitly, through a special examined course which forms part of the core curriculum: Sanskriti Gyan (study of culture). An RSS centre and VHP-controlled temple are frequently nearby, and sometimes even directly linked.

The ethos of such schools has been described by Tanika Sarkar:

the walls displayed maps of undivided India as the true shape of the nation, imparting in students a refusal of the historical reality of the Partition and visualising the country as inclusive of the states of Pakistan and Bangladesh… [They] are also festooned with pictures of Hindu heroes like Shivaji and Rana Pratap, visually invoking legends of Muslim tyranny and Hindu royal-heroic resistance.

In school assemblies, principals address students frequently on themes of Hindu patriotism, Babur and his mosque that allegedly destroyed Ram’s temple, the saga of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement and its martyrs. [16]

This is aptly complemented by the chanting of the Sarasvati Vandana (a Sanskrit prayer to Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of learning) and the singing of Vande Mataram, a nationalist song that has become the de facto national anthem in these times. With emphasis placed on the study of Sanskrit (the ‘Hindu language’), and yoga a compulsory part of the curriculum, parents are pleased to send their children to these schools, confident in their ability to inculcate Indian culture and values, and maintain discipline and standards. This may sound familiar: equivalent reasons are given by parents in the West for sending children to religious schools, including creationist academies.

And what of the Sanskriti Gyan textbooks? These special textbooks explicitly set out the Hindutva conception of Indian history described above. ‘Facts’ taught for examination include Aryans as an indigenous people, who subsequently spread to Iran, the position of the destroyed Babri Masjid as the birthplace of Ram, and the claim that Homer adapted the Ramayana to create the Iliad. [17] Ancient India, in short, is the origin of all great things, and the invaders – Muslims, Christians – were responsible for the decline from this utopian Ramarajya. The implications for present-day minority communities are clear:

Muslims and Christians are not simply invaders and conquerors of the past, they are fixed in eternal postures of aggression which, today, translates as insidious and covert gestures of hidden expansionism and conquest, carried on through conversion and terrorism. Histories of communities are not just unchanging and repetitive, they are, moreover, singular. History becomes emblematic, congealed into an array of postures, each summing up a whole community across the ages. The past is a museum of a few signs. –Tanika Sarkar [18]

The RSS is a militaristic, cadre-based organization. It is disciplined, focused, ruthless, and pragmatic. It has systematically politicized education and widened its hold across the country, through regular training camps with campaigners sent out especially to rural areas to organize new cadres. Angana Chatterji describes their approach in Orissa:

The RSS holds month long training sessions across Orissa during summer vacations to attract students and young children. From these sessions, the RSS recruits for the Officers Training Camps (OTC). Held twice a year, the OTC provides schooling in self-defense and leadership. Around 500 people attend each year. On completion, approximately100 join the organisation as campaigners. Graduates take an oath, “I will devote my body, mind, and money (tana, mana, bhana) to the motherland.” For about 10 recruits, this develops into a lifelong, intense and full time commitment. Each December, the RSS organises the Sita Shibir, a 7-10 day winter camp. The families of attendees finance the camps. The growth of the RSS testifies to the success of these camps. [19]

The spreading of their message to tribal areas is a particularly cynical ploy. The RSS argues that it is trying to counter missionary activity. The level of missionary activity in many of these districts scarcely fits with such a position, even had it been justified. This reaching out to the ‘vanvasis’ (forest dwellers – the Hindutva version of history does not allow them to use the usual term ‘adivasis’, or indigenous peoples) is trumpeted as social work in uplifting the poor. In reality, the children are provided with limited education (unlike that in regular RSS schools). The prime purpose is not education but indoctrination. A similar approach is used towards slum dwellers. Some commentators have remarked on the unusual involvement of adivasis in the Gujarat massacres of Muslims in 2002, suggesting that this was directly due to the communal hatred perpetrated by Hindutva-driven organizations.

Thus far, we have only considered private RSS-run schools. Where the BJP is in power, elements of the Hindutva agenda have been adopted into the state education system. Even more alarming have been attempts in the past five years to subvert academic and educational bodies and smuggle Hindutva ideology into the national curriculum itself.

Infiltration of Hindutva Elements into National Education

While the British promoted the Macaulay model for a small minority, for the vast majority, they continued to emphasise traditional models like Toles and Madrasas [religious schools]. In fact, it was our Renaissance leaders like Phule, Rammohan Roy and Vidyasagar who led the battle for abolition of religious and obscurantist education and promotion of English, logic, science, humanities and Western philosophy. Inspired by the ideas of liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy as found in the French, American and Italian Revolutions, they sought to lay a new foundation for democratic and secular education in India. The classical definition of secularism was not the product of fanciful imagination, but emerged from the historical need to unite a people divided by regional, religious and caste barriers. –Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer [20]

A national system of education which the colonial intellectuals and nationalist leaders tried to evolve was based on a possible synthesis of all that is advanced in the West with all that was abiding in the traditional. In other words the national policy was not lodged in a dichotomy between the indigenous and the western. The impact of such a policy was the internalization of a universal outlook and the location of the indigenous in the wider matrix of human history. The educational policy adumbrated by independent India, even if it faltered on many a count, was informed by an open-ended view… The modern system of education, which they tried to perpetuate, is anathema to the Sangh Parivar, as it is not sufficiently “national” in content. The alternative proposed by the Parivar and now being implemented by the government is an indigenous system, which M.S. Golwalkar had earlier conceived as religious in character, with emphasis on tradition, discipline and military training. Romanticisation of traditional knowledge, celebration of religious beliefs and emphasis on conformism are its chief characteristics. –K. N. Panikkar [21]

Since the late 1990s, national education has become a battleground, drawing in many distinguished historians, scientists, and other academics who have refused to tolerate any move away from a strictly secular education system; who have protested against the mingling of myth alongside history, and pseudoscience alongside science. India has too robust a secular intellectual community to take such measures without a fight. In this, they have been betrayed by postmodernists such as Ashish Nandy [22] and Partha Chatterjee, whose fashionable criticisms of secularism as an elite western conception inflicted on India have helped pave the way for the takeover of academia by the extreme right. “Subalternism,” wrote Aijaz Ahmad, “has had a curious career, starting with invocations of Gramsci and finally coming into its own as an accomplice of the anti-Communist Right.” [23]

The architect of the saffronising of national education has been the BJP Union Human Resource Development Minister Dr Murli Manohar Joshi. A former professor of physics who sees science within a mystical framework, and a fierce nationalist, he has been associated with the RSS from 1944. Since his arrival at the head of the Ministry in 1998, he has spearheaded the takeover of academic institutions and committees by those sympathetic to Hindutva. He himself is a believer in an extremely ancient indigenous civilization, and justifies any points he makes with what he declares to be scientific evidence: “We have proved by our ocean development scientists that there is enough proof of the existence of human activity in the region of Bay of Cambay in 7500 BC. We have proved it. I am saying let us know whether Indian civilisation is 2,000 years old, 7,000 years old, 10,000 years old. These are the results my scientists have shown, this is the result of carbon dating.” [24] Imagine the excitement in the international archaeological community if the results of ‘his scientists’ were shown to be true! But Joshi’s perception of science as well as history is grossly coloured by his Hindutva beliefs. To quote from one of his speeches:

The question is how can science and spiritually reconcile and contribute to make this planet peaceful. Indian philosophy answered this question centuries ago and it would be my endeavour to place before you how modern science is converging on the philosophy of Gita. [25]

It is not difficult to see how a minister with such a worldview and a supportive government might operate to alter the direction of education at every level across the country. While institutions may be nominally autonomous, their reliance on government funding makes them hostages to political change. The University Grants Commission has dismayed many academics in its new-found insistence on giving equal importance in universities to the study of such ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ as Vedic astrology:

The UGC for its part is promoting certificate courses in Vedic rituals, Vedic astrology and Sanskrit. Its Chairman has said that these courses will serve to promote Hindu culture among NRIs and will improve foreign exchange earnings. This is happening in the context of declining grants to universities for science and humanities courses. In short, bigoted, communal and obscurantist ideas which have nothing to do even with Hindu culture and philosophy are finding their way into education. –Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer [26]

Joshi’s particular concern has been to hound out ‘Marxists’ (a term he seems to apply to any anti-Hindutva historian) and to have their textbooks reviewed by committees appointed by his reshaped institutions. He persistently refers to these scholars as being educated along European lines and therefore unable to grasp Indian realities. The best of Indian historical scholarship has certainly drawn from elements of Marxist theory and in recent decades from the Annales School, applying these broader approaches in the Indian context. The result has been an understanding of the social, cultural, economic, and other aspects of Indian history that has vastly enriched the limited histories of an earlier, colonial period which focused primarily on a narrow reading of the Brahminical texts and on the history of the dynasties (a change in the understanding of history that has occurred everywhere). Ironically, it is the Hindutva movement that has followed colonial tradition by emphasizing Sanskrit, the language of the Brahmin elite, and the great Sanskrit texts such as the Vedas, while ignoring other aspects of Indian history and culture. But the relevant underlying point must be this: both science and history are seeking objective knowledge and understanding. As such, they are fundamentally international efforts. Practitioners, whatever their country of origin, must be open to ideas and approaches from other parts of the world. They must then apply these approaches as appropriate to their particular topic of study. There is no special Indian mindset that sees what others well equipped in the necessary analytical techniques and background cannot see. For the saffron brigade, any inconvenient facts concerning Indian history are the product of Western colonial ‘constructs’. Indian scholars engaged in an objective evaluation of the past thus become labelled ‘traitors’. As in the case of secularism, what began as legitimate postcolonial questioning has been extended beyond all reasonable bounds, to the very nature of objective enquiry itself, a point that has been eloquently argued by Meera Nanda. [27]

Soon after Joshi’s arrival at the Ministry, Sangh sympathisers were quickly appointed to the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) and the Indian Council of Social Science Research. An almost immediate casualty was the ‘Towards Freedom’ project sponsored by the unreconstituted ICHR – a compilation of archival documents from the final period of the freedom struggle, 1937-1947. The General Editor of the volumes was a distinguished historian of international standing, the late Sarvepalli Gopal. The volumes for 1940 and 1946, edited by historians K. N. Panikkar and Sumit Sarkar respectively, had been approved by the General Editor before his death, and even sent to the publishers, Oxford University Press. But they were declared to be ‘temporarily withheld from publication’ in 2002, and a committee set up to review the supposedly controversial volumes. The move was regarded as unacceptable by the volumes’ editors, who have yet to be told what the problems are, but Sarkar has remarked on the sensitivity of this period for the RSS:

Part of the logic of the volumes, which Prof. Gopal has expounded very well in his general introduction, is that we should bring out the diversities. And the significance of the anti-colonial movement lies not only in the struggle against the British, but in the progressive broadening of the movement – how, in other words, democratic, secular and some kind of federal and social justice aspirations enter the canvas – the background, in short, to the Constitution. [28]

This was a broadening of the independence movement, Sarkar says, in which the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha (a precursor of the BJP) were conspicuous by their absence. The project remains stalled at present.

What, then, of school education? A first attempt to bring elements of the RSS agenda into national education in 1998 was successfully halted under strong protest from a number of State Education Ministers. Joshi’s next move was to appoint J. S. Rajput, his former student and a Hindutva sympathizer, as chairman of the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT). He did not tarry long in getting to grips with the task of altering the ethos of national education in the country. A new National Curriculum Framework for School Education was drawn up in 2000 to replace the existing 1988 Framework. Secular academics studied its wording with a growing sense of outrage.

Littered among the generalities and lofty pedagogical aspirations that characterize such documents are some disturbing elements. It has been remarked that these portions seem disconnected, as though added later. Whatever their provenance, the overall result is that despite professing recognition of diversity and a commitment to the cultivation of a ‘scientific temper’, the flavour of Hindutva bursts through. Nationalism takes precedence over reason and objectivity; national duty over human rights. In a framework document which establishes the guiding principles for teaching in the state sector (and, in effect, in much of the private sector), this is serious cause for concern.

The second paragraph of the preamble to the document makes explicit that it is framed within the context of belief in a glorious, very ancient Indian (Hindu) tradition and heritage:

India had an advanced system of education and the world’s first universities which presented a consummate example of education based on philosophy and religion and at the same time stressed the study of mathematics, history, astronomy, maritime and even the laws of economics and public administration. The Chandogya Upanishad (Chapter VII, Section 1) mentions eighteen different subjects of study including areas such as natural disaster management, mineralogy, linguistics, science of elements, and science of defence. [29]

Certainly this is not to deny that there were vibrant centres of education in early India, in the form of Jain and Buddhist centres (most famously Nalanda in the north-east) as well as numerous centres of Brahminical learning, ghatikas and later mathas. But the points to note are the selective promotion of positive aspects of ancient India, intended to evoke the sense of a ‘golden age’, and the exaggerated impression given of the knowledge of the ancient Indians. Chauvinism and indigenism are woven throughout the document.

There are many sections worth quoting from the Curriculum Framework, but I shall confine myself to just two or three particular examples. Discussion of history itself is limited in the document, very general, and subsumed under ‘social sciences’. But references to ancient traditions and achievements abound. Under ‘Integrating India’s Indigenous Knowledge and India’s Contribution to Mankind’, we have the following:

Today, even more than ever before, there is a world-wide recognition of India’s indigenous knowledge systems. Ayurveda is being increasingly recognised as a holistic system of health and Indian psychology as a more complete discipline than the western. In this context it may be relevant to point out that there are domains of knowledge which could be called ‘parallel’, ‘indigenous’, ‘traditional’ or ‘civilisational’ knowledge systems. These belong to societies in the developing world that have nurtured and defined the systems of knowledge of their own, relating to such diverse domains as geology, ecology, agriculture, health and the like.
…Paradoxical as it may sound, while our children know about Newton, they do not know about Aryabhatta, they do know about computers but do not know about the advent of the concept of zero or the decimal system. Mention may also have to be made, for instance, of Yoga and Yogic practices as well as the Indian Systems of Medicine (ISM) like the Ayurvedic and Unani systems which are now being recognised and practised all over the world. The country’s curriculum shall have to correct such imbalances.
…Equally importantly we need an indepth analysis of the parallelism of insights between the indigenous knowledge systems, on the one hand, and certain areas of modern science and thought concerned with the basics of life, on the other. Indigenousness, obviously, is not opposed to being receptive to new ideas from different peoples, cultures and cultural contexts.

The whole treatment of science in the document shows an awkward effort to combine ancient, unscientific practices with those arising from modern science in a bid to promote the indigenous while retaining the semblance of a modern outlook:

School curriculum has therefore, to help to generate and promote among the learners: …scientific temper characterised by the spirit of enquiry, problem- solving, courage to question and objectivity leading to elimination of obscurantism, superstition and fatalism, while at the same time, sustaining and emphasising the indigenous knowledge ingrained in the Indian tradition.

Spirituality and ‘value education’ form another significant feature. A number of academics have strongly criticized the approach to value education which, while paying lip service to the possibility that religion may not be the only source of values, proceeds to give religions an important role throughout the taught curriculum (the document is careful to use religions in the plural). For Indian state education, formerly secular in tone, this is a serious retrograde step. It leaves the door open for presenting scientific subjects within a mystical framework. It will also potentially lead to the compromising of factual accounts, for fear of upsetting religious sensibilities (the impact it has already had on textbooks is shown below). Overall, this injection of spirituality will only serve to weaken intellectual rigour and independence of mind.

Sanskrit, as would be expected, is given great importance at secondary level, and should apparently be treated as a living language ‘which is still relevant to the general life needs of the people of India, and which has caught international attention because of the global interest in subjects like yoga, vedic mathematics, astronomy and ayurveda’. And finally, what of mathematics, a field in which there have been many eminent Indians? The section on mathematics identifies study of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and the wider applications of mathematics (there is a heavy weighting given throughout to technology – another Hindutva feature [30]), but ends once again with the admixture of pseudoscience:

The history of mathematics with special reference to India and the nature of mathematical thinking should find an important place. The students may be encouraged to enhance their computational skill by the use of Vedic Mathematics.

Meetings, protests, and articles expressed the anger of secular academics and educationalists at this hijacking of educational policy, though NCERT denied any political pressure or the existence of a hidden agenda. The matter was widely reported and discussed by the Indian media. The Hindu newspaper and its associated magazine Frontline have been particularly notable in their consistent, enlightened reporting of threats to secularism. A 3-day National Convention Against the Communalization of Education in India was organized by SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) in August 2001 to discuss the Framework document and related educational issues. Drawing more than 500 delegates from across the country, including a number of state education ministers and their representatives, and addressed by leading academics from various disciplines, the Convention was a powerful statement of dissent. At its conclusion, a number of state education ministers endorsed a formal statement against the Centre’s education policy. [31]

At the same time, over a hundred leading scientists and mathematicians led by S. G. Dani, Professor of Mathematics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, signed a statement in protest against the efforts to include ‘Vedic mathematics’ in the school curriculum. Entitled ‘Neither Vedic Nor Mathematics’, it points out that the idea of ‘Vedic mathematics’ comes from a book by a swami (religious teacher) published posthumously in 1965 and containing ‘a set of tricks in elementary arithmetic and algebra to be applied in performing computations with numbers and polynomials’, written in the form of cryptic Sanskrit aphorisms (true ancient Indian mathematics, they note, was anything but cryptic). There is no connection with the Vedas, and virtually no mathematical usefulness in these aphorisms. It is worth quoting sections of the statement in full:

In an era when the content of mathematics teaching has to be carefully designed to keep pace with the general explosion of knowledge and the needs of other modern professions that use mathematical techniques, the imposition of “Vedic mathematics” will be nothing short of calamitous.
Nowhere in the world does any school system teach “Vedic mathematics” or any form of ancient mathematics for that matter as an adjunct to modern mathematical teaching. The bulk of such teaching belongs properly to the teaching of history and in particular the teaching of the history of the sciences.
We are concerned that the essential thrust behind the campaign to introduce the so-called `Vedic mathematics’ has more to do with promoting a particular brand of religious majoritarianism and associated obscurantist ideas rather than any serious and meaningful development of mathematics teaching in India. We note that similar concerns have been expressed about other aspects too of the National Curricular Framework for School Education. We re-iterate our firm conviction that all teaching and pedagogy, not just the teaching of mathematics, must be founded on rational, scientific and secular principles.[32]

These efforts make inspiring reading, which is why I have mentioned them in some detail here. But the political climate has not changed, and efforts to declare the Framework legally invalid, through filing a public interest litigation case over communal bias and lack of consultation with the Central Advisory Board of Education, has failed in the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, several history textbooks published by NCERT have been altered (‘corrected’) without consulting their authors and schools told that they should not even discuss the deleted elements. This too has caused consternation among progressive academics, being a move that effectively censors aspects of history, and presents a selective view of the facts.

The elements removed are relatively small, but they are significant. References to the eating of beef by Brahmins in ancient India occurring in textbooks by Romila Thapar and Ram Sharan Sharma have been removed. (The RSS, following Brahminical tradition, gives high status to the cow, describing it in their educational literature as ‘the mother of us all and the abode of gods’.) Another deleted passage from Sharma’s book dealt directly with the historicising of Rama and Krishna:

Archaeological evidence should be considered far more important than long family trees given in the Puranas. The Puranic tradition could be used to date Rama of Ayodhya around 2000 BC but diggings and extensive explorations in Ayodhya do not show any settlement around that date. Similarly, although Krishna plays an important part in the Mahabharata, the earliest inscriptions and sculptural pieces found in Madhura between 200 BC and AD 900 do not attest his presence. Because of such difficulties, the idea of an epic age based on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have to be discarded, although in the past it formed a chapter in most survey books on ancient India. Of course several stages in social evolution in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata can be detected. This is so because the epics do not belong to a single phase of social evolution: they have undergone several editions, as has been shown earlier in the present chapter. [33]

Further deletions include a paragraph pointing out that the antiquity claimed for the tirthankaras of Jainism does not appear to fit archaeological evidence of settlement in the middle Gangetic plain, and passages discussing Brahmin antipathy towards the Buddhist king Ashoka, and the use of the caste system to oppress and control peasants and servants through inculcating fear of breaking the divine law.

Deletions in Satish Chandra’s book on Medieval India relate to Sikh history, and in particular the reasons for the killing, under Aurangzeb, of Guru Tegh Bahadur, whom Sikhs regard as a martyr. Various reasons given for his killing are mentioned, including the Persian version, in which the execution was to end a plunder spree across Punjab, the Sikh tradition that it was the result of intrigue by members of the family opposed to his succession as Guru, and a third version in which the Guru had angered Aurangzeb by converting some Muslims to Sikhism. Of these, only the third escaped deletion.

A final deletion, from the book on Modern India by Arjun Dev and Indira Arjun Dev, removes a paragraph describing the Jats as being involved in plundering raids and court intrigues in Delhi in the 18th century.

The reason given for the deletions, at least in the case of the material concerning Sikh, Jain, and Jat history, was that they upset the feelings of the communities concerned. (The RSS, it should be noted, has sought to draw in Sikhs and Jains under its Hindu nationalist banner, the better to create a monolithic chauvinistic force ranged in opposition to the Muslim minority.) Curiously, the feelings of Muslims are never mentioned. When religions make truth claims that fall in the realm of science or of history, they can and should be contested. Once begin to compromise on this point, and there is no need to spell out the consequences for subjects grounded in empirical knowledge.

The deletion of these passages was intended as a gagging measure for the NCERT books in circulation until new textbooks could be drawn up that were based on the new Framework. The first new textbooks were released in the autumn of 2002, when the Supreme Court stay on their publication was lifted following the failure of the court case against the Framework. Almost immediately, reports spread of elements of bias in the new texts. Soon after their publication, a meeting of Opposition party leaders was called by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI (M)), at which the leaders rejected both the Curriculum Framework and the new texts, and declared that they would not be adopted in states in which their parties were in power. They would not tolerate a change in educational policy driven by the Centre without state consultation and demanded that the Central Advisory Board for Education be reconvened.

The strong stance of Opposition parties leant vital political support to the consistently firm position that has been taken on this issue by the professional body of Indian historians, the Indian History Congress (IHC). The IHC is a very prestigious body. Founded in 1935, and with over 9,000 members, making it the largest professional forum of its kind in South Asia, its primary aim, as defined by its constitution, is the ‘promotion and encouragement of the scientific study of Indian history’.

The IHC set up a committee to review the new official history texts. Its report was published as History in the New NCERT Textbooks: Report and An Index of Errors in 2003. Among the errors noted by the authors, Professors Irfan Habib, Suvira Jaiswal and Aditya Mukherjee, are the assertion that the Indus Valley Civilization was established as early as 4,600 BC. It is also placed under the section on Vedic Civilization. The text on Medieval India portrays the Mughal rulers as exceptionally cruel and violent, without either putting their actions into the context of common practice of other rulers of the period within India, or mentioning positive aspects such as Akbar’s enlightened policies on the slave trade and on the practice of sati. They found the textbook on modern India and the freedom struggle particularly riddled with misleading emphases and omissions. Again, partition is blamed on Muslim separatists without any mention of Hindu communalist activities. The whole independence struggle is described in narrow terms, without emphasizing its underpinning principles of democracy and secularism, or the central role of Nehru, and the early Hindutva leaders are presented as great patriots. The fact that Gandhi was assassinated by Nadhuram Godse, closely associated with the RSS and a friend and admirer of the Hindu Mahasabha leader V. D. Savarkar (whose portrait was unveiled in the Indian parliament last year) is conveniently forgotten. As the report stressed, the problem is not so much factual error, though key errors exist. It is more the overall impression and slant put on Indian history that is of concern.

Despite the efforts of NCERT and Joshi to present this whole issue as ’hystrionics’ by leftist historians, the controversy has refused to die down and in any case, the firm stance of the IHC, representing a wide spectrum of professional historians, gives the lie to such an interpretation. Moreover, in spite of continuing government moves to manipulate research and education bodies (the chairman of the ICHR was recently dismissed for no stated reason), the IHC raises hope and confidence for the continuance of sound historical study in India.

The 64th session of the IHC was held in Mysore, Karnataka, on 28-30 December 2003. With over 1200 delegates, and the presentation of more than 600 papers, it was one of the biggest sessions ever conducted by the body. The official report declares that it was ‘an assertion of academic vigour and rational approach to Indian history’ [34]. The address of the General President, Professor S. Settar, illustrated well the nature of modern historical research. Entitled ‘Footprints of Artisans in History’, it used evidence from epigraphic sources, linguistics, and palaeography to reconstruct the life of artisans and their role in intercultural exchange at the regional level. This is a far cry from history as merely wanton extrapolation from selected Sanskrit texts of a Brahmin religious elite. The session included a special panel discussion on ‘History in School Education’, attended by a number of schoolteachers as well as academics. The IHC report notes that in secret ballot elections for the 20 Executive Committee members for the next year, the RSS put forward 12 candidates, all of whom were ‘soundly defeated’. This news brings a glimmer of hope to an otherwise darkening scene.


It is in this context of whipped up communal feelings and the encroaching hold on the public of narrow, chauvinistic perceptions of history that we must see the wider implications of the raid on the Bhandarkar Institute. The whole curriculum and textbook controversy is not a battle between ‘leftist’ and ‘rightist’ historians. It is a battle in defence of reason and objectivity, the very basis of all scientific enquiry. It is a battle whose consequences spill out far beyond libraries and classrooms. The ultimate cost of Hindutva’s success is measured in lives. Nearly 2000 Muslims, including children and babies, were hacked and burned to death in Gujarat in the riots of 2002. This is what happens when Golwalkar’s ‘children of the soil’ go on the rampage. And it originates in a mindset moulded in the saffron-infused classroom.

Latha Menon is a freelance writer and editor.


1 See for example

2 Interview in Frontline, Vol 17, Issue 5, March 4-17, 2000.

3 Hindutva and its Mhystory, Rewriting History Seminar, 2001.

4 In Defence of History. Granta, 1997.

5 See for example, D. D. Kosambi, Myth and Reality: Studies in the Formation of Indian Culture. Sangam, 1984.

6 A sense of the varieties of evidence used in the piecing together of the history of the subcontinent can be obtained from the Introduction to the newly revised edition of Romila Thapar’s Early India, Penguin, 2002.

7 Interview with Parvathi Menon in Frontline, 1998.

8 Asghar Ali Engineer, Hindu-Muslim Relations Before and After 1947, in Anatomy of a Confrontation, S. Gopal (ed.), Penguin India, 1990.

9 From interview with Indian portal Rediff, 1999.

10 History and Politics of Ram Janmabhoomi, Hindu Vivek Kendra.

11 K. R. Malkani, quoted in Pradip Kumar Datta, Hindutva and its Mhystory, Rewriting History Seminar, 200.

12 Imagined Religious Communities?, Interpreting Early India, Oxford University Press, 1992.

13 The Rewriting of History by the Sangh Parivar.

14 Angana Chatterji, Learning in Saffron: RSS Schools in Orissa, Asian Age, Nov 11, 2003. Available at various places on the net, see e.g.

15 Vidya Bharati official site:

16 Historical Pedagogy of the Sangh Parivar, Rewriting History Seminar, February 2003.

17 A range of such examples are provided by Akhbar magazine under ‘In the Name of History: Examples from Hindutva-Inspired School Textbooks in India’.

18 Tanika Sarkar, op. cit.

19 Angana Chatterji, op. cit.

20 Letter from Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer, President, All India Save Education Committee, to the Prime Minister, 24 November 2000, in response to proposed changes to the curriculum. Text available in full on

21 Whither Indian History? Speech delivered at National Convention Against Communalisation of Education in India, New Delhi, August 2001. Text available at

22 The role of Nandy in easing the takeover of academia by RSS ideologues has been highlighted by many. See for example the comment of social anthropologist Andre Beteille quoted in an article by Neena Vyas in The Hindu, 29 April, 2001: ‘To a large extent, the “ground work had already been prepared by intemperate criticism of modern social theory” by men such as Dr. Ashish Nandy who sought to emphasise indigenous methodologies, rubbishing modern social theory as “western”, Prof. Beteille pointed out. From that emphasis on the indigenous and rubbishing of modern theory, (and thereby identifying all modern theory and thought as of western origin) the next step of eulogising all that was understood or articulated in “ancient India” was an easy step.’

23 Right-Wing Politics and the Cultures of Cruelty, Ved Gupta Memorial Lecture 1998.

24 Rediff interview, 3 November, 2003.

25 Speech at Bharatiya Vichar Kendra function. The full text of the speech is available on Joshi’s official website, which is at any rate worth a look:

26Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer, Op. Cit.

27 Prophets Facing Backwards: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India, Rutgers University Press, 2003.

28 Sumit Sarkar, Op. Cit.


30 For a discussion of Hindutva’s devotion to technology, see Meera Nanda, op. cit.

31 The full text of the statement is available online at the CPI(M)’s People’s Democracy site:

32 The full statement is available at

33 All the deleted passages can be found on NCERT’s website,


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