Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib Decry Hindutva Attempts To Distort India’s History

Thapar said that a false narrative is being spread, including through the education system, by India’s present authorities, while Habib held that a false history was akin to a disease for the country.

Listen to this article:

Kolkata: Historians need to carefully examine the new curriculum and textbooks for schools to prevent history from being used as political propaganda, eminent historian Romila Thapar said on Thursday evening while attending an online event to celebrate the 90th birthday of another eminent historian, Irfan Habib.

The event, titled ‘In Defence of History’, was attended by Habib, economist Prabhat Patnaik, Indian History Congress (IHC) president Amiya Kumar Bagchi, historian Aditya Mukherjee and CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury.

During her speech, Thapar said that attempts were being made to legitimise “the currently popular, distorted history to defend political ideology” and that it is time for historians to insist that “it is not authority that is at a premium but reliable evidence and the reading of that evidence.”

“This fantasised history is being projected in multiple ways, through social media, TV channels and glossy magazines, all locations where none are bothered to separate fact from fake. They are also being propagated in a much more systematic way, such as through education,” said Thapar, a professor emerita at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

She argued that since those in positions of authority gave considerable attention to the curriculum and the text for schools, these needed to be carefully examined. She added that the biggest fear was that “the freedom to think that education ensures, or should ensure, will be disallowed.”

Her remarks came in the wake of the Union government’s plan to change the history textbooks of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). In notifications issued by the Rajya Sabha secretariat’s committee section in January and June, it was said that the department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on education, women, children, youth and sports had taken up for examination and consideration the subject “reforms in the content and design of school textbooks.”

Their focus will be on the issues of “removing references to un-historical facts and distortions about national heroes from the textbooks; ensuring equal or proportionate references to all periods of Indian history; and highlighting the role of great historic women heroes, including Gargi, Maitreyi, or rulers like Rani of Jhansi, Rani Channamma, Chand Bibi and Zalkari Bai”, the notice said, while inviting suggestions from teachers, students and experts by July 15.

Following this, the Indian History Congress issued a strongly-worded statement saying that it was “much disturbed” at the “misinformation and biased view that is being projected in the name of bringing reforms in the existing NCERT textbooks.”

It said that “the argument about the presentation of ‘unhistorical facts’ is completely incorrect”, that “adequate discussion of over 120 national heroes is available in the existing textbooks” and so is “ample representation of different periods of history” and that there are several references to great women who contributed to different fields – political, religious and social.

The statement also pointed out that the critique of the existing textbooks implicit in the reforms being contemplated was “not emerging from any expert body of nationally and internationally recognised historians but from a political position favoured by non-academic votaries of prejudice” and that the critique on the part of the government was “exactly the same” as argued in a report published by the Public Policy Research Centre, a Delhi-based right-wing think-tank.

Notably, BJP Rajya Sabha MP Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, the chairman of the parliamentary standing committee concerned, is also a member of the board of directors of PPRC.

This current effort by the government was reminiscent of the effort of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government in 2001-2002 to make deletions from existing NCERT textbooks and ultimately replace them with books “written by those with a chauvinistic and communal bias,” the IHC statement said.

Speaking on the issue on Thursday, Thapar, whose books had been dropped by the NCERT during the Vajpayee-regime, said, “If we have to prevent history from being used as political propaganda then we have to insist on the right to critique textbooks as well as the freedom to present alternate explanations where these are required. This cannot be treated as anti-national acts as it often is by those in authority but it is an asset in the discussion on what is being taught.”

Atal Bihari Vajpayee at a public meeting with L.K. Advani. Photo: Reuters/Punit Paranjpe

“The defence of history is, therefore, an imperative and imminent requirement if we are to return to being what we once were in the early years of Independence – a thoughtful, humane and secular society,” said the 89-year-old historian known for her works on ancient history.

Speaking at the end, Habib spoke about the importance of objectivity in Indian history and the need for defence against “the communal offensive in order to present a coloured version of history which would justify their present, so-called majoritarian policies,” which include “painting Muslims as a particularly destructive element in Indian history.”

‘False histories of supremacy and victimhood’

Habib said that a false memory was almost a disease and false history for a country was just a false memory for an individual. “It is a disease for the country. Japan and Germany stand as excellent examples to that,” said Habib, known as one of the leading figures of the Aligarh school of historians specialising in medieval history.

“If you are a normal being, you would like to have a correct memory of yours. Similarly, a country should have a correct memory,” Habib said.

Mukherjee, who recently retired from the JNU, expressed his concerns over “complete violence to the majesty of the discipline of history, to its procedures and to the discourse of proof, total falsification, the invention of facts and substituting facts with faith, beliefs and mythology.”

According to him, the “ideological offensive” had now gone “way beyond the communal interpretation of history in the academic sphere” and was at present “aimed at creating in the public mind, through relentless propaganda, a totally false notion of pride in a mythic past, with which only the majority community is identifying.”

“The great achievements of the past are then contrasted with a false sense of victimhood, the concept of a great threat the majority is supposedly facing from the minority. This is how fascism works, globally,” Mukherjee said.

‘Proving Aryans as indigenous is crucial for Hindutva ideology’

Thapar, an expert in ancient history, said that proving Aryans to be indigenous to India is crucial for the Hindutva forces to defend their ideology but historical findings do not tend to support that notion.

She said that the Hindutva version of Indian history was constructed in the 1930s based on two major colonial theories – that of the Aryan origin of Indian culture and of the Hindus and the other being the two-nation theory of antagonistic Hindu and Muslim nations – both of which have been dismissed by the historical research of the past 50 years.

Also Read: The Nationalists Try – But India Remains Among the World’s Oldest Melting Pots

“Vedic texts remained central to the study but now there are new ways to get fresh information from these texts – geography, archaeology, linguistics and archeo-genetics – and the format of historical investigation has changed,” she said, adding that the new findings show the Harappan culture was far more extensive than the early Vedic civilisation, predated the Vedic-civilisation, and excavations at various post-Harappan sites have revealed a presence of interface of a number of cultures rather than a single culture conforming wholly to Vedic society.

“Attempts are being made to project an Aryan foundation by insisting that the Harappans were also Aryans even though there is no evidence for saying so… The Aryan presence was a subsequent and dissimilar culture from the Harappan,” she said.

The archaeological site of Harappa, of the Indus Valley civilisation. Photo: Sara jilani/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Another finding is that the geographical orientation of the Harappan culture tended to be westward and differs from the orientation of the Vedic, as the migration of Aryan speakers in the subcontinent was eastward.

“Those who insist on the Aryans being indigenous to India, as is basic to Hindutva history, and refute any migrations, they tend to describe the genetic evidence as unreliable and therefore dismiss it. For Hindutva, the Aryans have to be indigenous, as also, indeed, all Hindus,” said Thapar.

According to her, when theories around the superiority of the Aryans first emerged among colonial historians in the 19th century, it was forgotten and, it still is, that the term Aryan identifies language and not a race.

“Any number of racially diverse cultures can pick up the same language in a given historical situation and this has happened repeatedly throughout history,” she said.

Speaking on the Aryan question, Habib said, “The way the Aryan question is being treated, it almost always seems that the RSS view of the Aryans, or the Indian government’s and the UGC’s, is like that of the Nazi Germans. The Germans idolised the Aryans and the RSS feels it’s great to be an Aryan. Why isn’t it great to be a Dravidian? It’s just a Nazi idea transported to India.”