Subscribe to South Asia Citizens Wire | feeds from | @sacw

Hate as a history lesson

by Shobhan Saxena, 27 October 2008

print version of this article print version

The Times of India, 26 October 2008

When bands of lumpen goons, armed with knives, guns, kerosene cans and shouts of "Jai Sri Ram" rule the streets, hunting those who belong to
other faiths, they strut like warriors re-living a historical role. Serial bombers, who maim and kill anyone and everyone within the range of the pellets packed in their crude bombs, celebrate death and destruction in the belief that Islamic history is on their side.

The anatomy of religious hate, which is becoming stronger by the day across the country, has a core - our past. It is this that gives the hooligan a sense of purpose and a place in, what he believes to be, the larger scheme of things. But where does the religious-minded goon learn the "history" that fills his mind with enough hate to commit irreligious acts of violence? Perhaps, the answer lies in our educational system, or lack of it. The history textbooks, used by thousands of schools across the country, mix myth and legend with facts in a way that makes it difficult for students to distinguish between them. Often enough, schoolteachers present myth as history and debunk history as myth.

The Sunday Times spoke to students at a Saraswati Shishu Mandir in west Delhi, run by the RSS, and found that they perceived Indian history to be nothing but a conflict between Hindus and Muslims. A casual conversation with students at a Saraswati Bal Mandir in south Delhi unveiled an image of India as the oldest civilization in the world and the source of all knowledge and culture. Meanwhile, the young children studying at a madrassa in Delhi’s Okhla area don’t recognize names such as Ashoka, Buddha and Chandragupta. These historical figures are alien to them. It’s almost the same story in many of the more than 1,000 madrassas operating in the national capital.

But, the madrassas are changing. It is getting harder to get into college and secure a job, so madrassas are increasingly opting for courses in English
, computer science and the natural sciences. But these Muslim religious schools still remain allergic to the social sciences, particularly history. Years in a madrassa classroom may leave a student with barely any knowledge of some of the most important events in Indian and world history. A former student of Varanasi’s Jamia Salafia, a leading madrassa run by the socio-cultural organization, Ahl-i Hadith, says, "We are so cut off from the external world that students have no idea of the important trends and events in other parts of the world. When you step out of the madrassa and go into the real world, you are lost." The young man, now enrolled in a history course in a Delhi college, adds, "I don’t have much of a problem with what they teach, but I have a problem with what they don’t teach, particularly history and political science."

But the teaching of history is not enough to create a balanced picture of our multi-religious and multi-cultural country and our changing world.
At Saraswati Bal Mandir in Nehru Nagar in Delhi, children are taught history from NCERT books. The school is affiliated to the CBSE, but its
small campus is also filled with religious symbols and imagery - Bharat Mata in the principal’s office and Rama, the warrior, by the blackboard.

Most class XII students believe Rama was a historical figure. "The scientific investigation of the old bridge between India and Sri Lanka has proved that it was built by Rama," says a student, who is unaware of details of the Sethusamudram project case currently in the Supreme Court. Many of the school’s students present the Ayodhya temple as proof that Rama existed. Their history teacher offers the final bit of evidence: "The Ramacharitmanas proves that Rama was a historical figure. What further proof do you want?" When asked to state when exactly Rama walked the earth, the teacher retorts: "It’s a matter of people’s faith and belief."

Therein lies the problem. Schools run by religious bodies - be they Hindu or Muslim - teach "matters of faith and belief" as historical fact. It could end very badly, says Aditya Mukherjee, professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "We will end up producing morons," says the professor, who has written a book on the issue along with colleagues Mridula Mukherjee and Sucheta Mahajan. Their book, The RSS, School Texts and the Murder of Mahatma Gandhi, analyzes history textbooks used by schools in the cow belt. Mukherjee says, "They are putting poison into young minds by distorting the truth." The book lists some of the more bizarre ‘facts’ taught as history, including bitter condemnation of Ashoka’s philosophy of ahimsa or non-violence, which is alleged to "make cowards of Indians". The textbooks also eulogise Hitler for his nationalism, cast Muslims as invaders and nothing else and claim that Iran and China’s first settlers were Indian kshatriyas.

These ’facts’, which do not withstand independent scrutiny, are taught in an estimated 30,000 schools run by the Vidya Bharti, an apex all-India organization of the RSS. More than 80,000 teachers convey these ’truths’ to three million children every year. It is hardly better in thousands of madrassas across the country, where the syllabus remains virtually unchanged from the original prepared during the Mughal period and modified in the late 19th century. "Students of these institutions are developing a world view that’s narrow and sectarian. We have so much religion in the country that they don’t see anything odd with it," says an official of the ministry of human resources development. He adds that "political reasons" meant "we have failed to detoxify the curriculum of these schools. It’s really dangerous. We will pay a heavy price for ignoring primary education."

Historians such as Aditya Mukherjee rue the fact that "nobody is bothered about the state of primary education in the country". With government schools either non-existent or not functioning, poor people in rural areas and urban pockets depend on these schools to educate their children. Religious groups, pushing narrow agendas, have grabbed the space left vacant by the state.

Historical fact explains why. In Nehru’s time, India was focused on creating and sustaining centres of higher education, such as the IITs, IIMs and central universities. For all that Nehru believed that words such as dharma and mazheb were "dangerous" and should be kept out of the "temples of learning", primary education was ignored during his tenure. Now, it has become worse. Today, with the Right to Education Bill (2005), which guarantees free and compulsory education to every child in the 6-14 age group, stuck as the UPA government has failed to introduce a new draft in Parliament, primary education seems destined still to suffer at the hands of hate politics.

Hate and history are related. Each time history repeats itself, the level of hate goes up.