Concerned Historians Respond to Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education On History Textbooks

[We are publishing below the full response of Concerned Historians to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education, regarding certain proposed changes.]

RESPONSE OF CONCERNED HISTORIANS On the

CALL FOR REVISIONS IN SCHOOL HISTORY BOOKS IN INDIA

To be shared with the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education pertaining to school history books.

Date: 15th July 2021

We have recently learnt of representations being collected by the Department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education, Women, Children, Youth and Sports with respect to:

a. Removing references to un-historical facts and distortions about our national heroes from the text books.

b. Ensuring equal or proportionate references to all periods of Indian history.

c. Highlighting the role of great historic women heroes, including Gargi, Maitreyi, or rulers like Rani of Jhansi, Rani Channamma, Chand Bibi, Zhalkari Bai etc. in school history books in India.

We place before the Committee certain observations and points of caution.

Textbook revisions: certain cautionary notes

It appears from the notification of the Parliamentary Standing Committee’s proceedings inviting responses that a consensus presumably exists on the presence of “distortions” in existing history school textbooks such as of the NCERT. On this point itself, we wish to draw the attention of the Hon’ble members to the fact that while scholarship grows and propels the corresponding need for periodic revision of textbooks; the use of the word “distortion”, as in this context, appears to be an unsubstantiated allegation that creates roadblocks for the initiation of a serious scholarly exercise. Opinions are being sought regarding “unhistorical facts and distortions about our national heroes” in the existing history textbooks without substantiation, which is unfortunate and also objectionable. 

Our submission is that there exists a body of recognized scholarship which has grown over time by drawing on clear protocols of professional research, peer review, etc. This body of scholarship, such as on Indian history, has been constituted by scholars from across the world, and any new intervention must take into account the insights and arguments of this body of scholarly work. This established protocol which involves constructive engagement with earlier work on the basis of recognized forms and methods of research rather than erasure/dismissal of older work/assessments, is what assigns content revision serious scholarly merit and acceptance.

Historians who have been involved earlier with the writing of NCERT textbooks, from R.S. Sharma, Bipan Chandra, Romila Thapar, Satish Chandra, and many others, have been recognized in the larger global community of historians for their work. It is incumbent therefore that those involved in the writing and rewriting of textbooks belong to this larger community and are historians who are recognized for their scholarship by the scholarly community. As the community of historians have and continue to evaluate and assess the work of earlier scholars, textbooks and syllabi have seen visible changes/enrichment that are backed by sound protocols. Notably, the last round of revisions in NCERT history textbooks was carried out by a completely new body of historians of high repute, and was based on wider consultation within the community of professional historians, which should put to rest circulating allegations that only a particular set of historians have controlled content revision since the first NCERT textbooks appeared. Revisions propelled by the adoption of the National Curriculum Frameworks of 2000 and 2005 are also well-known. The contention of “distortions” and “un-historical facts” prevailing in textbooks, thus, appears highly misplaced.

Our further assertion is that there are certain undeniable features to rational history writing, which in itself is important for the progress of society. The creation of informed youth who come to see their present contexts and the past not as timeless entities, and who can comprehend the elements of diversity in material conditions, social structures, institutions and traditions that have existed in the Indian sub-continent, is essential for the construction of citizens who are critical of unchanging (and therefore un-evolving) and monolithic, singular representations of people in the Indian sub-continent. It is rational, inclusive historical narratives of widely-accepted scholarly merit which must be reflected in the content of school history textbooks. These history textbooks, like that of the NCERT, are a crucial initial window through which young students are acquainted with a sense of historical thinking that can help them distinguish the past, myths, and hearsay from actual history of their surroundings and the world. The exercise of revising the contents of these textbooks has, therefore, to steer clear of propaganda which merely seeks to indulge in rhetoric rather than seriously engage with the existing historical scholarship of wide repute and acceptance within the community of historians. 

In the context of the Parliamentary Standing Committee inviting responses from experts and concerned citizens, certain quarters are derailing the process of serious engagement with the form and content of the history textbooks by spreading canards about the contributions of earlier historians involved in textbook writing. It is unfortunate that the works of reputed historians like R.S. Sharma, Romila Thapar, etc.  are being derided by repeatedly counterposing them to the views of scholars like R.C. Majumdar and Jadunath Sarkar, who are seen as belonging to the “nationalist school of thought” that allegedly portrays the “correct narrative of Indian history” (Public Policy Research Centre, Distortion and Misrepresentation of India’s Past: History Textbooks and Why They Need to Change, p.5). Ironically, what is conveniently lost in such poorly-researched claims are crucial realities, such as the fact that scholars like R.C. Majumdar actually ensured that upcoming historians of the time, like Romila Thapar, were made part of the advisory board of the NCERT. Clearly, textbook writing has involved scholars across ideological hues and has remained an exercise of scholarly merit.

It is clearly more a presumption than a fact that there exist “distortions” in the NCERT history textbooks. Such presumptions reflect a bias, and do not stem from a scholastic scrutiny of the contents of the NCERT textbooks. In this light, we assert that periodic revision of school history textbooks might be a welcome exercise, however, this can only be done in sync with the consensus of existing historical scholarship.

What should NOT be done during textbook revision

We have learnt of some submissions and statements that are being widely circulated in the social media which are, in the name of correcting alleged unhistorical facts and distortions, wrongly asserting political propaganda and undermining the scope of a scholarly exercise. The clamor for revisions from some quarters reflect, among many things, an obsession with ‘proving’ an imbalance in the course material compiled for different historical eras, as well as a disturbing preoccupation with a narrative surrounding kings and the wars they waged; the reduction of state formations, empire-building and appended transformations of the medieval period to an unsubstantiated, perennial contest between an allegedly homogenous ‘Hindu’ society and ‘Islamic’ invaders and rulers; etc.

A serious compromise with factual details and historical analysis is evident in such narratives. The claims about “distortions” about India’s past and the so-called neglect of certain eras and heroic figures are unfounded, which is a fact amply brought out by the Indian History Congress (IHC) in its submission to the Parliamentary Standing Committee. However, misrepresentation about the NCERT history textbooks continues to be widely circulated in the social media. In this light, we deem it fit to caution the Hon’ble members of the following:

  • There are certain assertions which argue that the existing NCERT history textbooks have an “anti-Hindu” agenda because “Left-Liberal” scholars have compiled the material with a presumably minority-appeasement agenda and with an alleged overt focus on caste injustices [see for e.g., Public Policy Research Centre (PPRC), Distortion and Misrepresentation of India’s Past: History Textbooks and Why They Need to Change, p.3-4, p.27]. This is a highly misplaced opinion, given the rigorous process through which historians of varied ideological hues have collaborated to put together course content which draws on pertinent sources, is peer reviewed, and widely considered to be of a high standard.
  • In a similar vein, certain claims for revisions are seeking to expunge from the textbooks the alleged projection of ancient India as a “backward era” (see for e.g., PPRC Report, p.3). Ironically, such allegations are based on colonial constructions about the pervasiveness of the religiosity of the Indian population, as well as the inaccurate periodization of India’s past along the presumption that the religion of the rulers was the dominant religion of the times, and this in turn characterized the very essence of the era – a measure which propagates the deeply problematic idea of a ‘Hindu’ era, ‘Muslim’ era, etc.

In an ironic reproduction of such colonial constructions, retrieving the ‘glory’ of the ‘Hindu era’ (see for e.g., PPRC Report, p.3, p.6, passim) and asserting the ‘darkness’ of the ‘Muslim era’ (see for e.g., PPRC Report, p.30, p.101, passim) is being sought in the supposed bid to rectify the alleged distortions in existing textbooks. The colonial constructions and their contemporaneous reproduction manifest the misconstruing of the Indian civilization as a product of a hegemonic singular tradition, such that categories like ‘Hindu society’ are uncritically imposed on what has historically been a very diverse social fabric.

  • A misrepresentation of India’s past has been circulated with the malicious intent to downsize the component on the sramana/heterodox tradition and the contest between the brahminical and myriad agnostic, materialist and atheistic philosophical traditions of the Indian sub-continent.
  • There exists in circulation a serious misrepresentation that the existing textbooks distort India’s past and create an inferiority complex among the country’s youth. It is correspondingly alleged that the ‘glorious’ past of India and presumably widespread social harmony was disrupted by foreign invaders, who destroyed the given social fabric (see for e.g., PPRC Report, p.30, 101, passim). In sharp contrast to such claims, the existing textbooks have a balanced narrative about state formation in various periods with an acute eye on the exploitation and oppression of the Indian population under different rulers along the axes of gender, caste and labour. 
  • The fact that some who demand revisions in the representation of national heroes in existing history textbooks actually reflect a preoccupation with political eulogies of ‘Hindu’ kings vis-à-vis condemnation and denunciation of ‘Muslim’ rulers (see for e.g., PPRC Report, pp.30-35). Political contestation between different rulers is wrongly portrayed as animosity between different religious communities (see for e.g., PPRC Report, pp.6, 39, 40, 49). Overall, such an approach dangerously contributes to the uncanny undermining of the republican ethos and the secular and democratic principles of present times.
  • The bid to revisit the representation of the ancient era in the textbooks often slides into an uncanny defense of patriliny and glossing over complex gender-based experiences and hierarchies spread across social segments. In one such bid, the presentation in the NCERT textbooks of historical evidence related to elements of gender inequality in earlier times is contested on the grounds that later nationalist iconography has stoutly venerated motherhood (see for e.g., the discussion on images of Bharat Mata in the PPRC Report, p.26).
  • In the name of assigning equal representation of all time periods, some claims slide into the demonization of “non-native Islamic” rulers of the medieval period as serial temple destroyers, religious bigots and power-hungry marauders (see for e.g., PPRC Report, pp.36-40). Such allegations present ideologically tainted accounts of state formation that alienate individual rulers and their actions from their immediate context of social and political processes. The resulting misrepresentation of Indian history can fuel heightened religious sectarianism and communal feelings; thereby endangering the social fabric of Indian society.     
  • Some circulating claims for revision dangerously reduce the trends of the 19th and 20th century social reform movement to a mere propagation of the “greatness” of western ideals (see for e.g., PPRC Report, p.64).
  • In the so-called attempt to draw attention to national heroes, certain claims end up seeking dilution of the information about the marked ideological differences in the political strategies/agendas of various anti-colonial leaders in the bid to gloss over competing ideas of nationalist thought and nation-building (see for e.g., PPRC Report, pp.70-71). The existing textbooks give ample focus to representative personalities from different trends/currents in the anti-colonial struggle. It is important to understand that the attempt at endless exhaustive addition of names to the list of heroic figures is a pedagogic nuisance. This is especially so if these personalities are not situated within the broader trends and trajectories emerging within anti-colonial struggles and within the emerging context of the complex interlinking of different regions with the idea of a ‘nation’. Such an additive exercise overlooks the fact that noteworthy information on over 120 national heroes already exists in the NCERT textbooks, and literally amounts to accusing the existing textbooks of failing to include certain particulars whilst conveniently eliding the accuracy with which they describe the general context of anti-colonial struggles and parallel social movements.

We the undersigned are deeply concerned by the notice regarding ‘Reforms in the contents and designs of Text Books’. The current textbooks of the NCERT can neither be accused of circulating “unhistorical facts and distortions” about heroic figures, nor providing disproportionate information about different time periods. Moreover, we assert that the exercise of textbook revision cannot be pursued with the intent to placate a particular ideological hue, and must instead be based on well-evolved scholarly consensus, and meet the high standards set by earlier scholarship.

S.No.   NAME                                     INSTITUTION OF AFFILIATION

1.Dr. Bharati Jagannathan                               Miranda House College, University of Delhi

2. Dr. Mahesh Gopalan                                    St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi

3. Prof. Prabhu Prasad Mohapatra                   Department of History, University of Delhi

4. Dr. Maya John                                             Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi                       

5. Prof. Romila Thapar                                    Professor (Retd.), Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal

Nehru University

6. Dr. Rahul Govind                                        Department of History, University of Delhi

7. Prof. G. Arunima                                         Director, Kerala Council of Historical Research

8. Dr. Pankaj Jha                                             Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi

9. Dr. Sangeeta Luthra Sharma                        St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi   

10. Prof. Dilip Menon                                      History and Mellon Chair in Indian Studies,

University of the Witwatersrand

11. Dr. PK Yasser Arafath                               Department of History, University of Delhi

12. Prof. Kumkum Roy                                   Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

13. Prof. Charu Gupta                                     Department of History, University of Delhi

14. Prof. Lakshmi Subramaniam                     BITS Pilani, Goa

15. Prof. Uma Chakravarti                               Professor (Retd.), University of Delhi

16. Prof. Shalini Shah                                      Department of History, University of Delhi

17. Dr. Aparna Balachandran                          Department of History, University of Delhi

18. Prof. Krishna Kumar Upadhyay                Central Institute of Education, University of Delhi

19. Prof. Sumit Sarkar                                     Professor (Retd.), Department of History, University of Delhi

20. Prof. Tanika Sarkar                                    Professor (Retd.), CHS, University of Delhi

21. Prof. Sucheta Mahajan                               CHS, Jawaharlal Nehru University

22. Urvashi Butalia                                          Feminist historian and publisher

23. Prof. PK Basant                                         Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia

24. Prof. Mukul Kesavan                                 Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia

25. Prof. Janaki Nair                                        Professor (Retd.), CHS, Jawaharlal Nehru University

26. Prof. Salil Mishra                                       School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi      

27. Dr. Aditya Pratap Deo                               St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi

28. Dr. Vrishti Kanojia                                    Lakshmibai College for Women, University of Delhi

29. Dr. P. Sanal Mohan                                    Professor (Retd.), Kerala

30. Dr. Rana P. Behal                                      Associate Professor (Retd.), University of Delhi

31. Dr. Aditya Pratap Deo                               St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi

32. Srabani Chakraborty                                  PhD Candidate, Jawaharlal Nehru University

33. Dr. Naina Dayal                                         St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi

34. Dr. M V Shobhana Warrier                        Kamla Nehru College, University of Delhi

35. Dr. Ismail Vengasseri                                 Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi

36. Tripti Deo                                                  Lakshmibai College, University of Delhi

37. Dr. Smita Sahgal                                        Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi

38. Dr. Rajesh Kumar                                      Associate Professor, Motilal Nehru College (E),

University of Delhi

39. Dr. D.W. Karuna Miryam                          Azim Premji University

40. Prof. Suchetana Chattopadhyay                 Department of History, Jadavpur University

41. Dr. Prabhat Chandra Choudhary       Associate Professor, Motilal Nehru College (E),

University of Delhi

42. Dr. Puneet Yadav                                      Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi

43. Nishtha Srivastava                                     Associate Professor, Shivaji College, University of Delhi

44. Dr. Namrata Singh                                     Associate Professor, Rajdhani College, University of Delhi

45. Dr. Shubhra Sinha                                     Associate professor, Kamala Nehru College,

University of Delhi

46. Dr. Prabha Rani                                         Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi

47. Ranjan Ghosh                                            Individual researcher

48. Dr Sandhya Sharma                                   Associate Professor, Vivekananda College,

University of Delhi

49. Sneh Jha                                        Miranda House College, University of Delhi

50. Dr Akanksha Narayan Singh                     Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi

51. Dr. Dinesh Chandra Varshney                   Associate Professor, Motilal Nehru College (E),                University of Delhi

52. Dr. Justin Mathew                                      Hansraj College, University of Delhi

53. Dr. Saumya Gupta                                     Janki Devi Memorial College, University of Delhi

54. Dr. Debatri Bhattacharjee                          Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi

55. Dr. Anubhuti Maurya                                Bharati College, University of Delhi

56. Prof. Anindita Mukhopadhyay                        Department of History, University of Hyderabad

57. Dr. Vikas Gupta                                         Department of History, University of Delhi

58. Dr. Sujata Patel                                          Kerstin Hesselgren Visiting Professor, Umea University

59. Dr. Rachna Singh                                       Hindu College, University of Delhi

60. Dr. Sanghamitra Misra                               Department of History, University of Delhi

61. Rupamanjari Hegde                                   History teacher, Gurgaon

62. Pooja Thakur                                             Ramjas College, University of Delhi

63. Dr. Saumya Varghese                                Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi

64. Dr. Tanu Parashar                                      Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi

65. Dr. Shahana Bhattacharya                         Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi

66. Dr. Tara Sheemar                                       Janki Devi Memorial College, University of Delhi

67. Ameen Muhammed                                   Student, CHS, Jawaharlal Nehru University

68. Dr. V.K. Jha                                              Motilal Nehru College (E), University of Delhi

69. Mahesh Kumar Deepak                             Dyal Singh Evening College, University of Delhi

70. Dr. Ranabir Chakravarti                             Professor (Retd.), CHS, Jawaharlal Nehru University

71. Prasanta Dhar                                            Department of History, University of Toronto

72. Taranjot Singh Bala                                   Panjab University, Chandigarh

73. Sh. Sheodutt                                              Shaheed Bhagat Singh (E) College, University of Delhi

74. Mukul Mangalik                                        Associate Professor, Ramjas College, University of Delhi

75. Malavika Kasturi                                       Associate Professor, Department of History

University of Toronto

76. Rahul Kumar                                             Researcher, Panjab University, Chandigarh

77. Dr. Ataullah                                               Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi

78. Sanoj Kumar                                              Shyam Lal College, University of Delhi

79. Dr. Sanjay Verma                                      Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi

80. Dr. Molly                                                   Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi

81. Zeeshan Illahi                                            Researcher, History Dept., Panjab University, Chandigarh

82. Dr. Aparna Vaidik                                     Associate Professor, Ashoka University

83. Jauddin                                                      Researcher, History Dept., University of Delhi

84. Dr. Srimanjari                                            Associate Professor, Miranda House College,                        University of Delhi

85. Shayar Husain                               PhD researcher, IIT-Mandi

86. Dr. Radhika Chadha                                  Associate Professor, Miranda House College,

University of Delhi

87. Dr. BK Chaudhry                                      Maharaja Agrasen College, University of Delhi

88. Dr. Levin NR                                             Bharati College, University of Delhi

89. Dr. Mayank Kumar                                    Satyawati College (E), University of Delhi

90. Monisha Behal                                           Feminist writer and social activist

91. Mirza Ayaz Beg                                         Researcher, Panjab University, Chandigarh

92. Dr. LRS Lakshmi                                       Lakshmibai College, University of Delhi

93. Rashmi Paliwal                                          Former Fellow, Eklavya Institute, Hoshangabad

94. Dr. Sanghamitra Rai Verman                     Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi

95. Dr. Rajshree                                               SGTB Khalsa College, University of Delhi

96. Dr. Shilpi Rajpal                                        AURO University

97. Dr. Shadab Bano                                       Women’s College, Aligarh Muslim University

98. Sidheshwar Shukla                                    Rajdhani College, University of Delhi

99. Dr. Anisha                                                 Aurobindo College, University of Delhi

100. Dr. Paragati Mohapatra                            Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi

101. Dr. Amita Paliwal                                    Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi

102. Dr. Snigdha Singh                                    Miranda House, University of Delhi

103. Bhim Tiwari                                             Researcher, Dept. of History, Punjab University

104. Mohd. Bilal                                              Researcher, Dept. of History, University of Delhi

105. Dr. Chitra Joshi                                        Associate Professor (Retd.), Indraprastha College for

Women, University of Delhi

106. Ajitha Popuri                                           ARSD College, University of Delhi

107. Smarika Nawani                          Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi

108. Ranjan Anand                              Zakir Husain Delhi College (E), University of Delhi

109. Nayana Dasgupta                         Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi

110. Vinita Malik                                 Kamla Nehru College, University of Delhi

111. Prof. Chhaya Datar                                  TISS, Mumbai

112. Purwa Bharadwaj                                     Writer on gender and education, Delhi

113. Shewli Kumar                              Associate Professor, TISS, Mumbai

114. Brinelle D’souza                          TISS, Mumbai

115. Dr. Sharmila                                IIT-Bombay

116. Dr. Simmi Mehta                         Mata Sundari College, University of Delhi

117. Prof. Monica Juneja                     University of Heidelberg, Germany

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