The National Book Trust’s (NBT) decision not to reprint the Hindi edition of renowned historian Bipan Chandra’s book, Communalism – A Primer, has invited the ire of several academics from India and abroad. In a statement released by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), a cultural group in Delhi comprising artists, academics, and activists, they have seen NBT’s move as ‘a gross violation of freedom of views.’
While implying that such decisions cement a sectarian agenda in autonomous educational bodies, they said the decision to revoke an important book ‘amounts in effect to the assumption that communalism is now the official doctrine of the country and no criticism of it or its practitioners can be permitted.”
Although none of the officials of the NBT have officially clarified its position on the matter, The Hindu quoted a source who said that this was a routine process. “…We routinely analyse the present status of books to take a call as to whether they should be reprinted. Professor Chandra’s book is just one in relation to which we have decided not to order reprinting. The move is independent of ideology. It is also not as if any such book is taken off forever. This is our present assessment and holds true for now.”
However, with academics registering their protest, the NBT’s decision has the potential to spark a debate around the Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempts to purge history textbooks. The BJP has been trying to popularise the Sangh Parivar’s version of history that has been dismissed for being communal and politically-motivated many times by serious academics.
The NBT functions as a state-sponsored autonomous publisher of low-cost educational books. It was started by Jawaharlal Nehru to encourage reading and build scientific thinking in the country. Chandra, a respected economic historian who died in 2014, served as the chairman of the NBT. It is, therefore, academics of all hues, who see the decision as disrespect to the historian. “Professor Bipan Chandra was not only one of India’s foremost historians, but also one of the most uncompromising defenders of the secular and democratic cause in this country. As chairman of the National Book Trust (NBT), he breathed a new life into it,” the statement read.
“…it is also reported that the English and Urdu versions of the book are also being withdrawn,” the statement added.
This is not the first time that Bipan Chandra’s books, which are critical of Hindutva communalism before independence, have run into problems under the Modi government. In April 2016, Delhi University (DU) had also stopped the sale and distribution of the Hindi translation of Chandra’s popular book India’s Struggle for Independence. In its explanation, DU had said that the sale of the book was stopped after the MHRD, then under Smriti Irani, had received a complaint from the freedom fighter Bhagat Singh’s family which raised objections to Singh being referred to as a ‘revolutionary terrorist.’ The term ‘revolutionary terrorist’ is an accepted category among nationalist historians to describe militant freedom fighters like Singh, Chandrasekhar Azad, Rajguru etc. Although the family had only demanded necessary changes in the book, DU’s decision to stop its distribution seemed politically-motivated.
During Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure, the BJP had tried to rewrite history’s curriculum in schools amidst stiff opposition from professional historians. Although the Modi government has not showed any signs of changing history text books, it has been trying to push the Sangh Parivar’s version of history as extra-curricular syllabi in several state-run schools. Many instances of purging text books that mention the history of the Congress and its leaders in BJP-run states like Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have also been reported in the last two years. For intervening in the discipline of history without any academic consultation, the BJP governments have faced much criticisms in the past.
The perception that the BJP governments have often been vindictive against historians has led to an environment where academics look at the Hindutva party with a degree of suspicion. It is in this context, the SAHMAT statement demanded: “As academics and citizens we fear that such actions as that of the NBT in respect of Bipan Chandra’s book portend the imposition of an authoritarian regime. We, therefore, demand that the NBT remove its ban on Communalism-a Primer and continue to reprint and publish it.”