India Moves to "Talibanise" History: Children Will Learn That the Chinese Are Descended from Hindu Warriors If Indian Ministers Have Their Way with the School Curriculum

By Elliott, John | New Statesman (1996), December 17, 2001 | Go to article overview

India Moves to "Talibanise" History: Children Will Learn That the Chinese Are Descended from Hindu Warriors If Indian Ministers Have Their Way with the School Curriculum


Elliott, John, New Statesman (1996)


India's post-independence traditions, liberal and secular, are coming under increasing threat, and education is the latest battleground. Astrology has been introduced as a science subject in universities and there are plans to make Sanskrit teaching compulsory in primary schools. And, in the words of opposition critics, ministers are trying to "Talibanise" the history books.

Behind the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads the country's coalition government, stands the hard-line Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or national association of volunteers. The RSS wants an inward-looking, Hindu-dominated India.

Founded in the 1920s, the RSS created the BJP rather in the same way that British trade unions spawned the Labour Party. Many BJP ministers, including the prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, are RSS members. They have been forced by their coalition partners to adopt a moderate face since they came to power in 1998. But this has not stopped excesses by youth organisations associated with the RSS, including attacks on Christians and the burning of Valentine's Day banners.

Now, one of the government's most committed RSS activists, Murli Manohar Joshi, the human resources development minister, wants to "saffronise" education (saffron is the colour traditionally associated with Hinduism). For example, ancient high-caste Hindus served beef to their guests; but this is to be cut from school textbooks lest it upset or mislead Hindu children who, for centuries, have been brought up not to eat red meat.

English language and attitudes have dominated Indian education since the 1830s, when Lord (Thomas) Macaulay, the historian and civil servant who believed that "a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia", shifted schools away from Sanskrit and Persian.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, thought dharma (sense of duty) and mazheb (cultural traditions) were "dangerous words" that should be kept out of the "temples of learning", as he called the technological institutes that he created.

Since then, under a system that gives states the freedom to fashion their own school curricula, there have been gradual changes - for example, communist-run West Bengal's textbooks extol Marxism. Joshi and his aides talk about waging "an ideological battle" against the "trijut [trinity] of Macaulay, Marx and madrasas". In their view, Marxists and influential Muslim politicians took over where the British left off and wrote history books in a way that played down the excesses of Muslim conquerors, while painting ancient Hindu history in an unpatriotic light.

No one is disputing the need for history books to be changed periodically, nor for the current overloaded school curriculum to be revised. Nor can it be denied that the country's leading historians have had a leftist bias for several decades. But the RSS's agenda is far wider and potentially more socially divisive. Jagmohan Singh Rajput, the physics professor-turned-administrator who is driving the changes on Joshi's behalf, plans to replace mainstream historians in the new curriculum with 20 or 30 new writers. Rajput refuses to give their names, which has led to suspicions that they will be RSS sympathisers, not established historians. …

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