India's History Goes More Hindu ; Critics Warn This Month's Decision to Replace Texts Will Push Majority Culture at the Expense of Others

Article excerpt

For years, Romila Thapar's "History of India" was as much a part of the Indian classroom as a chalkboard and a ceiling fan.

It was not only the primary history textbook for most high schools, it was the world's most-recognized guide to understanding India, the second most-populous country, after China, and one of the world's oldest civilizations.

But this month, the government's National Council of Education Research and Training announced that Dr. Thapar's book would be shelved in favor of a history text that would promote "patriotism," "values education," and "India's contribution to the world civilizations."

Thapar's book, along with others brought in under previous governments, is the product of "Marxist and leftist" thinking, government officials argued, and must be replaced.

While supporters of the move say that teaching values and national pride is the key to an ailing society corrupted by movies and television, opponents say teaching values in a society as diverse as India's raises one key question: Whose values do you teach?

There is broad agreement that the curriculum battles today will reverberate beyond the nation's classrooms: At stake is nothing less than India's place in the world and its experiment with secular democratic governance.

"History is an issue that runs across all cultural boundaries, and it is a very major issue for a multicultural society as diverse as India," says Krishna Kumar, professor of education at Delhi University in New Delhi. "In India specifically, this comes from a conflict between those who want to define India as a Hindu society, and those who think it must be a secular society."

The more than 1 billion population is 80 percent Hindu, 14 percent Muslim, and has significant numbers of Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists (Buddhism originated here), and Jains. In a country just over one-third the size of the US, there are 24 languages spoken by a million or more people, with a multitude of less-spoken languages and dialects.

India is not alone in wrestling with the values taught in public schools. In the US, parents, teachers, and plenty of lawyers are tangling with questions of whether to promote prayer in school. The state of Kansas famously attempted to promote Creationism as a Biblical alternative to the Darwinian theory of evolution.

In Japan, nationalist politicians have attempted to rewrite history textbooks to downplay Japan's role in World War II. And in South Africa, education ministers are trying to decide when African history begins: with the arrival of the Dutch, of the British, or with the ascendance of Nelson Mandela.

Hindu-oriented ideology

The driving force behind the moves by India's current government is the ideology of Hindutva, or Hindu-ness. Embraced by nationalists during the struggle for independence from British rule, and rejected by the nation's founder, Mohandas Gandhi, Hindutva teaches that Indians can take possession of their destiny only if they take more pride in their past.

Relying on this ideology, the current government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has urged a raft of proposals for changing the curriculum taught in India's public schools.

In a summary of proposals released last December, the government has suggested:

* Teaching Hindi as the official language, and the ancient language of Sanskrit "as the language of traditional wisdom and culture." (Sanskrit is rarely spoken outside of university study halls these days, but was the language of the Indo-Aryan tribes who invaded India thousands of years ago.)

* Teaching Vedic mathematics (an archaic form of math with few modern applications), herbal and ayurvedic medicine, and astrology, as examples of India's contribution to world thought.

* Giving Indian students a new set of historic role models, or "heroes," from the famed medieval warrior-king Prithviraj Chauhan to the freedom fighter Shankar Dev, who fought against British rule from his base in the state of Assam. …