Long before the terms post-truth and alt-facts gained currency in the west, Indians were getting mass mails and text messages that often mixed myth with half-truths to glorify their past. It could be something as simple and patently false as the United Nations declaring India’s national anthem as the world’s best. Or bizarre achievements of ancient Indians.
Now, with the full blessings of the powers that be, the phenomenon is seeping into Indian school textbooks, especially those used to teach history. For long a hotly-contested field among ideological rivals of the left, right, and centre of Indian politics, these textbooks have begun to peddle outright lies.
It may be still a trickle, but here is a glimpse of the false history that millions of Indian school students will be learning now on.
In the second half of 1962, a brief war with China along the Himalayas left India with a bloody nose. Despite individual acts of valour, India lost 4,000 soldiers. Though the country amply regained its military standing in subsequent standoffs with China, 1962 left a deep scar on the national psyche—a scar it has tried to efface ever since.
A section of Indians may have finally found a solution: Just lie.
A Sanskrit-language textbook meant for Class 8 students in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh (MP) now says India won the war. “What famously came to be known as Sino-India war of 1962 was won by India against China,” The Times of India newspaper quoted the book, Sukritika, volume-3, on Aug. 10.
Published by the Lucknow-based Kriti Prakashan, the textbook is being used in several MP schools affiliated to the Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE) of the government of India. The state itself is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to which Indian prime minister Narendra Modi belongs.
The Mughals have always been a thorn in the side of India’s Hindu extremists. The dynasty, which ruled a major part of India between 1526 and 1857, is viewed as the symbol of “Hindu slavery” and Islamic overlordship. This despite the fact that most of these monarchs were motivated by temporal interests rather than religious ones.
So anything or anyone that stands up to Mughal power naturally becomes a figurehead for Hindutva, or Hindu nationalists. This includes Maratha king Shivaji Bhonsle, better known as Chhatrapati Shivaji, and Lachit Borphukan, a commander of the Assam kings of India’s northeast. The multi-religious nature of their warring armies is but a footnote almost always.
One of the most famous symbols of such resistance was Pratap Singh, a Rajput chieftain from the desert region of India’s west. Popularly referred to as Maharana Pratap, this king was a contemporary of the greatest of Mughal emperors, Akbar. The two were at loggerheads as the Pratap refused to become Akbar’s vassal even as other Rajput princes did.
Following eight failed diplomatic missions, their two forces met in 1576 at the battle of Haldighati in present day Rajasthan. The superior Mughal military roundly defeated the Rajput forces but the legends of Maharana Pratap and the Haldighati battle lived on.
Now for the twist: The Rajasthan government wants us to believe it was Maharana Pratap who won that battle.
“The Rajasthan Board of Secondary Education has approved a change in the history section of the Class X social science books. The revised books will now teach students Maharana Pratap conclusively defeated Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th-century Battle of Haldighati,” India Today reported in July this year.
But then this wasn’t the first time that Rajasthan, also led by the BJP, was at it.
Reports emerged in May 2016 that the new social science textbook for Class 8 in schools of Rajasthan do not mention the assassination of the father of the nation.
While the book, published by Rajasthan Rajya Pathyapustak Mandal, did mention Mahatma Gandhi, along with other top leaders of India’s freedom movement, it did not refer to his murder by Hindu fanatic Nathuram Godse on Jan. 30, 1948.
Godse was a former member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological fountainhead whose goal of Akhand Bharat (undivided India) is clearly Hindu-oriented. And this fact has hung uncomfortably over the BJP’s national image for all these years.
Interestingly, this new Rajasthan textbook also completely ignores India’s first and longest-serving prime minister and a colossus of modern Indian history, Jawaharlal Nehru. “The chapter on post-independence India is again silent on Nehru. It mentions Rajendra Prasad as the first president and describes in detail the contribution of Sardar Patel to the unification of India,” the Indian Express reported. Nehru is another much-reviled figure among the Hindutva circles for, among other things, his staunch secular and socialist outlook. Half-truths and canards about him have been circulating on Indian social media for years.
Such effacing of key figures and portions of history is, by now, normal.
Earlier this month, the Maharashtra government led by the BJP decided that the entire 331-year Mughal history was irrelevant to students of Classes 7 and 9 in the state.
So the revised Maharashtra State Board of Secondary & Higher Secondary Education textbooks for these classes focus on the Maratha empire and Chhatrapati Shivaji. “Earlier, the history textbooks comprised chapters on Mughal emperors and their contribution besides detailed history of events that impacted Western countries, such as the French Revolution, Greek philosophy, American War of Independence etc. All of this have now either been discarded or reduced to a few lines,” The Indian Express reported.
And such wholesale rewriting is nothing new. It has been the goal of India’s Hindu nationalists who want history to be viewed from a purely Hindu perspective. When such attempts under former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee were criticised, he responded in parliament: “If history is one-sided, we should change it.”
This phenomenon of concoction has now begun to affect the credibility of the country, say critics. As million of children grow up thinking Maharana Pratap won Haldighati or India won the 1962 war, historical education will take a blow.
“We are being mocked,” said S Irfan Habib, former Abul Kalam Azad chair at the National University for Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi. “We can only tackle all this by countering it, by making people conscious. But the point is you cannot get into institutions when you are not part of it,” Habib said.
He was referring to the ideological takeover of esteemed institutions like the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library in New Delhi and the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). For instance, ICHR chief Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, a Hindutva proponent, is keen on research on the Hindu epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana, deeming them historical events rather than mythological narratives.
“The only way they want to look at history is through the Hindu-Muslim lens…It is not even Hindu-Muslim, it is Hindu vs Muslim,” said Harbans Mukhia, a former professor of medieval history with New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
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