[Reader-list] Book review: History in the New NCERT Textbooks Irfan Habib et al

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at mnet.fr
Sat Aug 30 01:29:26 IST 2003

Volume 20 - Issue 18, August 30 - September 12, 2003

Books of bias and errors


History in the New NCERT Textbooks: A Report and an Index of Errors 
by Irfan Habib, Suvira Jaiswal, and Aditya Mukherjee; Indian History 
Congress, Kolkata, 2003; pages 129 Rs.50.

TOWNS and cities in our Neolithic past? Cloth woven on wheels in 
ancient India? 4,600 B.C. as the date when the Indus Civilisation 
took birth? The Mughal emperor Babur deliberately selecting a site 
for a mosque in a place where the "tenth and last avatar of Vishnu 
was to appear at the end of the yuga"? The English East India Company 
established in 1600 in India? India, "a land of free looters"? Lenin 
leading merely a coup in Russia in 1917?

These and many more historical howlers contained in a clutch of 
history books brought out by the National Council of Education 
Training and Research (NCERT) in 2002 could have served simply to 
provide us a hilarious foray into nonsensical history, were it not 
for the fact that they form the stuff of school textbooks that will 
give lakhs of Indian children their only insight into nearly 5,000 
years of their country's past. Carrying the stamp of approval of the 
powerful NCERT, which has a pervasive reach into the school system, 
the new history textbooks of 2002, written in conformity with the 
NCERT's own saffronised National Curriculum Framework of School 
Education, 2000, are shot through with factual errors, falsehoods, 
unreason and bias. They are surely a disgrace to the discipline of 
history writing, and draw nothing from the scholarship and analytical 
sophistication attained by this branch of the social sciences in 

Although there was an outcry against these textbooks from several 
quarters after their appearance, it is the Indian History Congress 
(IHC), through the publication of the book under review, that has 
given the most serious rebuff to this official exercise in the 
falsification of history. The credentials of the IHC to do so are 
impeccable. With a membership of over 7,000, it is a forum that is 
representative of professional historians in the country today. 
Founded in 1935, the IHC has over the years set benchmarks in 
scientific and secular history writing; it has provided a valuable 
forum for peer interaction and review amongst historians; it has 
helped historians from small colleges and less advantaged departments 
of history to publish their work; and it has maintained its 
independence by putting in place a tradition of resistance to 
establishment pressures of one kind or the other. Thus, just as it 
once boldly opposed the Emergency as an attack on democratic and 
intellectual freedoms, it is today fighting another assault on 
scholarship and reason by a communal and divisive state-supported 

When the NCERT published its policy statement on school education in 
2000, the IHC responded almost at once at its session in Kolkata in 
January 2001. A detailed resolution was passed expressing concern at 
the way history was being treated in the school curriculum. In the 
following year at its Amritsar session, the IHC Executive Committee 
set up a committee to scrutinise the history textbooks that had been 
published by the NCERT in 2002.

The committee, comprising Professor Irfan Habib (Aligarh), Professor 
Suvira Jaiswal (Hyderabad) and Professor Aditya Mukherjee (New 
Delhi), produced a report along with an Index of Errors, which was 
released as a publication of the IHC in June 2003. Four textbooks 
published in 2002 were reviewed. These were Makhan Lal, et al: India 
and World, for Class VI (Historical Portion: Unit II); Hari Om, et 
al: Contemporary India, for Class IX (Historical Portion: Unit 1); 
Makhan Lal: Ancient India, for Class XI; and Meenakshi Jain: Medieval 
India, for Class XI.

In the published Index, each error in the textbook is quoted in full 
under the relevant page number. A concise analysis or comment follows 
the error. Note has been taken of the corrections made in the 
reprinted edition. The authors state that the Index is not complete 
and that "... many slips and misstatements of varying degrees of 
seriousness have had to be overlooked to keep our Index within 
manageable limits".

The Index lists 99 errors in Makhan Lal's India and World for Class 
VI, 112 mistakes and 22 spelling errors (of proper nouns) in Ancient 
India for Class XI by the same author, 127 mistakes in Meenakshi 
Jain's Medieval India for Class XI, and 141 errors in Hari Om, et al, 
Contemporary India for Class IX.

A quick categorisation of the errors listed in the Index in just one 
of the four books reviewed, namely, Meenakshi Jain's Medieval India, 
shows their range and incidence. A few errors find place under more 
than one category.

1. Errors of commission. Careless and inexcusable errors of 
historical fact. These account for the largest number in all the 
books. In Medieval India, 79 such errors out of 127 are listed. The 
corrections for these are provided by the compilers of the Index.

Examples: On page 194, the author says that Aurangazeb died at 
Aurangabad. (He died at Ahmadnagar). On page 132 the author says that 
Rana Sanga died in the Battle of Khanua. (In fact, he was not killed 
in battle at all; he fled from the battlefield).

2. Errors of omission. Important facts left out of the narrative, 
conveying thereby an incomplete understanding of the particular 
topic. Twenty-three of the errors listed in the Index in Medieval 
India come under this category.

Examples: In the description of Shivaji's administration (page 
190-91) the author does not mention Shivaji's levy of chauth 
(one-fourth of revenue) and sardeshmukhi (an additional one tenth), 
which he exacted from areas not under his control with the threat of 
sacking those regions that did not pay up. In levying these exactions 
and in the punishment for non-payment, he did not differentiate 
between Hindus and Muslims. Or, the author's total omission of 
Akbar's views and actions on social matters, like his prohibition of 
slave trade, disapproval of sati and prohibition of involuntary sati. 
Or, when the author lists the appalling record of the number of 
Bahmani kings murdered, deposed, and blinded, she fails to mention 
that other ruling dynasties of that period had blood on their hands 
too. For example, the practice amongst the Rajputs and the Vijaynagar 
ruling classes of killing hundreds of wives, concubines and slave 
girls of a ruler when he died. The logic of exclusion suggests that 
the author would like to associate violence and cruelty with Muslims 
rather than with the conventions and practices that were common to 
all medieval ruling classes.

3. Errors deriving from communal bias. There are 14 such examples of 
communally biased assertions of historical fact. These also include 
attempts to Sanskritise names or terminology in a wholly 
inappropriate fashion.

Examples: On page 10, the author has separately classified modern 
historians of medieval India by their religions, that is, as Muslim 
or Hindu. On page 92, she states that Bukka I of the Vijaynagar 
period "freed practically the whole of the south from foreign 
domination". From this the reader must surmise that Muslims are 
equated with foreigners, as the compilers of the Index point out. The 
heading for Chapter 2 is "Struggle for Chakravartitva", an 
inappropriate phrase used obviously to make a point of Sanskritising 
what could, as the authors point out, have simply been titled 
"Political Supremacy".

4. Errors of spelling. There are seven such errors.

Examples: "Fawadul Fawaid" for "Fawaidul Fawad", Bahamani for 
Bahmani, Guru Arjun for Guru Arjan, Suleh-kul for sulh-i kul, and so 

5. Errors of language. Poor English, along with displays of ignorance 
and obfuscation add up to nine examples listed in the Index

For example, on page 162 the author writes of Nur Jahan: "The new 
queen soon became the favourite of the Emperors' wives". What she 
obviously meant was that the new queen became the favourite wife of 
the emperor. On page 26 and page 27, the author writes about 
"Muhammad Ghur" and "Mahmud Ghazni", instead of Muhammad of Ghur, and 
Mahmud of Ghazni. The compilers refer to these errors as "pieces of 
illiteracy". On page 160, there is an illustration titled "Meeting of 
Jahangir with the Persian king Shah Abbas". The reader is not 
informed that it is an imaginary representation and that in reality 
the two never met.

According to the report, all four books reveal a shocking lack of 
awareness of basic historical facts. Secondly, the language is 
riddled with grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and inappropriate 
expressions. Finally, they all present History with a strong 
chauvinist and communal bias. Thus, in respect of the Ancient India 
textbook, the familiar myths abound - India is the original homeland 
of the Aryans; "Vedic civilisation" embraced the Indus civilisation; 
Hinduism is held to be the most advanced of all religions; the caste 
system was fine until some "rigidities" crept in later; women in 
ancient India were held in high esteem and had equal inheritance 
rights as men.

A "neutral or even admiring stance", according to the authors of the 
report, accompanies the accounts of sati and jauhar. The Medieval 
India textbook is imbued with anti-Muslim prejudice. Muslims, or 
"foreigners", brought nothing to India but bloodshed, violence and 
the practice of temple destruction. The substantial evidence of the 
rise of a composite culture in this period is firmly stamped out. 
Thus, there is barely a sentence on Kabir and his teachings, the 
report reveals.

The Contemporary India textbook appears to be in a class by itself in 
respect of the distortions mentioned. According to the authors of the 
report and the Index, this book portrays "Muslim separatism" as the 
beast, while Hindu communalism is ignored and Hindu Mahasabha leaders 
are idolised as patriots. The great Indian social reform movement is 
ignored; the modern values of democracy and secularism that the 
freedom movement stood for are passed over; Jawaharlal Nehru is 
either ignored or presented in an unfavourable light; and the 
Communists are vilified. The prejudice and distortion has, as its 
foundation, a singular ignorance of colonialism and its economic and 
political impact on India.

Indeed, the sheer range and variation of errors, 141 in all, as 
listed by the authors of the Index from Hari Om's Contemporary India, 
qualifies this single textbook as perhaps the most damaging of all. 
Here is an authorial pen that is untroubled by the rules of English 
grammar and usage, that constructs a history of modern India from 
which all modernity has been purposefully cut away, and that 
oftentimes projects Indian history as a theatre of the absurd. For 
example, on page 22, he tells us:

"Lord Curzon even went to the extent of saying that the people of 
India were `the peasants, whose life was not one of political 
aspiration'. This had a tremendous impact on the Indian Freedom 

Or again, on page 23:

"Both of them (Tilak and Aurobindo Ghose) believed in and advocated 
cultural nationalism... They also held the view that the Moderates 
were only playing with "bubbles" like the legislative councils and 
not taking up the issues capable of protecting and promoting the 
Indian culture."

"Bubbles" is Hari Om-speak for "baubles", but on a more serious note 
he has conjured cultural nationalists out of Extremists, as the index 
compilers point out.

The NCERT appears to be undaunted by the criticism and by the 
potential damage such textbooks might cause to young minds. Some 
minor changes have been made in the reprint editions, but more 
textbooks containing material on history for other classes have been 
published this year. For this once prestigious organisation, which 
brought out several splendid History textbooks from the 1970s 
onwards, the rewriting of history commissioned by it now surely 
represents a great leap backwards.

To conclude with this reviewer's favourite error, from Hari Om's 
Contemporary India, pages 59-60, picked out from the Index:

"... leaders and think-tanks like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and V.P. Menon."

The Index authors' tired response: "One has not heard of single 
persons as "think-tanks". But one lives and learns"!

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