[Reader-list] Hijacking India's History By KAI FRIESE

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at mnet.fr
Tue Dec 31 01:12:54 IST 2002

New York Times
December 30, 2002  

Hijacking India's History

While some of us lament the repetition of history, the men who run India are
busy rewriting it. Their efforts, regrettably, will only be bolstered by the
landslide victory earlier this month of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the
Western India state of Gujarat.

The B.J.P. has led this country's coalition government since 1999. But
India's Hindu nationalists have long had a quarrel with history. They are
unhappy with the notion that the most ancient texts of Hinduism are
associated with the arrival of the Vedic "Aryan" peoples from the Northwest.
They don't like the dates of 1500 to 1000 B.C. ascribed by historians to the
advent of the Vedic peoples, the forebears of Hinduism, or the idea that the
Indus Valley civilization predates Vedic civilization. And they certainly
can't stand the implication that Hinduism, like the other religious
traditions of India, evolved through a mingling of cultures and peoples from
different lands.

Last month the National Council of Educational Research and Training, the
central government body that sets the national curriculum and oversees
education for students up to the 12th grade, released the first of its new
school textbooks for social sciences and history. Teachers and academics
protested loudly. The schoolbooks are notable for their elision of many
awkward facts, like the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a Hindu
nationalist in 1948.

The authors of the textbook have promised to make revisions to the chapter
about Gandhi. But what is more remarkable is how they have added several
novel chapters to Indian history.

Thus we have a new civilization, the "Indus-Saraswati civilization" in place
of the well-known Indus Valley civilization, which is generally agreed to
have appeared around 4600 B.C. and to have lasted for about 2,000 years.
(The all-important addition of "Saraswati," an ancient river central to
Hindu myth, is meant to show that Indus Valley civilization was actually
part of Vedic civilization.) We have a chapter on "Vedic civilization" — the
earliest recognizable "Hindu culture" in India and generally acknowledged
not to have appeared before about 1700 B.C. — that appears without a single

The council has also promised to test the "S.Q.," or "Spiritual Quotient,"
of gifted students in addition to their I.Q. Details of this plan are not
elaborated upon; the council's National Curriculum Framework for School
Education says only that "a suitable mechanism for locating the talented and
the gifted will have to be devised."

More recent history, of course, is not covered in school textbooks. So we
will have to wait to see how such books might treat this month's elections
in Gujarat. They were held in the wake of the brutal pogrom of last February
and March, in which more than 1,000 Muslims were murdered and at least
100,000 more lost their homes and property. The chief minister of Gujarat,
who is among the leading lights of the B.J.P., justified this atrocity as a
"natural reaction" to an act of arson on a train in the Gujarati town of
Godhra, in which 59 Hindu pilgrims lost their lives.

The ruling party's subsequent election campaign was conducted against the
rather literal backdrop of the Godhra incident: painted billboards of the
burning railway carriage. The murdered Muslims were not accorded the same
tragic status, although their pleas for justice created a backlash that
played neatly into the campaign theme of Hindu Pride. It was, of course, a
great success.

The carefully nurtured sense of Hindu grievance has been nursed rather than
sated by acts of mob violence: the destruction of the 15th-century mosque in
Ayodhya, for instance, or the persecution of Christians in earlier pogroms
in Gujarat's Dangs district. The B.J.P., along with its Hindu-supremacist
cohorts, the R.S.S. (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the V.H.P. (Vishwa
Hindu Parishad), has a seemingly irresistible will to power. (The R.S.S. and
the V.H.P. are not political parties but "social service organizations" that
have served as springboards to power for B.J.P. leaders like Narendra Modi,
chief minister of Gujarat.)

In vanguard states like Gujarat, thousands of students follow the
uncompromisingly chauvinistic R.S.S. textbooks. They will learn that "Aryan
culture is the nucleus of Indian culture, and the Aryans were an indigenous
race . . . and creators of the Vedas" and that "India itself was the
original home of the Aryans." They will learn that Indian Christians and
Muslims are "foreigners."

But they still have much to learn. I once visited the bookshop at the R.S.S.
headquarters in Nagpur. On sale were books that show humankind originated in
the upper reaches of that mythical Indian river, the Saraswati, and
pamphlets that explain the mysterious Indus Valley seals, with their
indecipherable Harrapan script: they are of Vedic origin.

After I visited the bookshop I stopped to talk to a group of young boys who
live together in an R.S.S. hostel. They were a sweet bunch of kids, between
8 and 11 years old. They all wanted to grow up to be either doctors or
pilots. Very good, I said. And what did they learn in school? Did they learn
about religion? About Hinduism, Christianity?

They were silent for a few seconds — until their teacher nodded. A
bespectacled kid spoke up. "Christians burst into houses and make converts
of Hindus by bribing them or beating them."

He said it without malice, just a breathless eagerness, as if it were
something he had learned in social science class. Perhaps it was.

Kai Friese is a journalist and magazine editor in New Delhi.

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