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Erasure, Dumbing & Collapse of a Nation: India 2022

Teesta Setalvad 18 Jun 2022

Gujarat Riots

The really good professor of history and the social sciences tells us that the partisan or selective narrative underlying communalism – manipulation of religion towards political ends involves not just an incorrect or perverted history telling but deliberate erasure.[1] Such erasure and exclusion buttressed by an overwhelmingly vicious construct of a state that is both exclusivist and discriminatory is tantamount to criminality. It assumes an attack on democracy itself as the cultural rights of every section to find their cultures and histories reflected in the collective narrative of nation-building is deliberately snatched away.

No wonder then that the project of the re-fashioning of India’s texts by the Modi 2.0 regime involves the erasure of social ruptures like the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim carnage as also narratives around ‘Struggles for Equality’ (how Tawa Matsya Sangh fought for the rights of displaced forest dwellers of Satpura forest of Madhya Pradesh) and explorations into ‘Democratic Politics’ (wherein people’s movements and pressure groups influence politics) itself. Among the other erasures are significant mentions of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru and his appraisal of India’s first “engineering feat” (Bhakra Nangal dam), the Cold War and Mughal Courts.

And remember, these are the third set of erasures since 2017 as a detailed investigation by The Indian Express (Ritika Chopra, June 18, 2022) informs us, with a staggering total of 1,334 changes in 182 textbooks being made. The changes have been made in India’s premier textbook writing governmental agency, the National Council for Educational Research & Training (NCERT) and effected in its history, political science and sociology text books for Classes 6-XII.

Serious students of both history and political science are both informed and aware of how silencing and erasure are precursors to physical exclusion and extermination from societies and nations. Decades, close to centuries after a rapacious white population grabbed material resources and cultural validation from native, American Indian, Inca, Maori, Adivasi populations, serious acknowledgement and rectification, while happening in parts, remains a pipe dream. Propagandist, fascist regimes feel comfortable with re-fashioning historical contexts and understanding by removing any possibility of knowledge systems that buffet against propaganda working. The first step is cleansing the history, political science and social sciences text with content that explores and deepens these explorations with nuance.

Independent India’s tryst with textbook writing and history telling has reflected the evolution of a state as we have experienced it, a flawed democracy, acknowledging some exclusions, attempting periodic inclusions and corrections. Even as that experiment was afoot, and subaltern populations organised and grappled with getting their struggles read as a wider Indian people’s history –the struggles over land and agriculture by Adivasis and peasants under British colonial rule were barely recognised by post-Independent India’s history-telling, neither were the depressed caste child’s historical experience with caste exclusion—India was hurtled backwards by an ideology that sought to re-fashion the fundamentals on which we stood.

Post 1998-1999 we witnessed the first attempts to convert the Indian republic into a hegemonistic, mono-cultural theist state (NDA I under Atal Behari Vajpayee,1999-2004). Then, in 2000, this author had, in a long research paper recounted how “the votaries of hegemonised history had violently disrupt the Dussehra celebrations in Tamil Nadu (October 1998) that have always burnt effigies of Ram, not Ravana, as part of “their” glorious past and tradition… The project launched to ‘Hinduise’/Brahmanise history is also a project aimed to stifle democracy, variations and dissent in the rich area of culture and tradition and impose, in its stead,  a set of “moral and religio-cultural dos and don’ts” on a land and culture that had, hitherto defied such strait-lacing  nomenclatures.”[2]

The post-2017 cultural project of the same ideological orientation takes earlier efforts aggressively further. The changes in the texts are justified once again, in the name of un-burdening of the young mind, disturbed by two years of the pandemic. The NCERT has also claimed that the rationalisation was required to prune “overlapping or similar content” or “content which is irrelevant in the present context.” The subjectivity behind this assessment is there for all to see. Since when are the ruptures that have erupted in our recent history irrelevant? Is not the very purpose behind the study of History and Political Science as a discipline is to be informed about all aspects, even the violent ruptures of the past?

The portions that have been erased tell a bald and sordid tale, the crude desire of the rulers to ensure that an unthinking, unquestioning, population, un-enriched by accounts of the Indian people’s struggles with power, exclusion and injustice remains just that: khaki shorts and saffron shirts of a hollowed out regime.

But first, the details of the passages in the NCERT texts that were clearly pinching a falsified narrative sought to be built by the present regime. The latest passages to go include references to the Gujarat 2002 carnage where, in the Std 12 text there is detailed referencing of the reprisal killings of Muslims in the state under the then government’s watch after the mass arson of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra.

A former chief justice of India, Justice JS Verma’s scathing criticism of the Gujarat government’s failure to control the violence has now been relegated to the dustbin of history! The second page (now removed) carries a collage of three newspaper reports along with an excerpt of the NHRC’s annual report (2001-2002) on the Gujarat government’s (mis)handling of the riots.

Unsurprisingly, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s famous “raj dharma” remark in this section has also been removed: “My one message to the Chief Minister (of Gujarat) is that he should follow ‘raj dharma’. A ruler should not make any discrimination between his subjects on the basis of caste, creed and religion.” Vajpayee had said this at a press conference in Ahmedabad in March 2002 with Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, sitting by his side. The two had been visiting the 12,000-populated Shah-e-Alam camp in Ahmedabad.[i]

The passages in the NCERT texts that have been deleted, existed as attempts to educate young populations of ruptures that threaten the Republic, to learn from those that affect marginalized sections in the past. The bald desire to erase any references to serious flaws in the young Indian nation’s past is nothing short of a political project to prevent pining of accountability and the deepening of democracy. Few youth born over the past decades recall the horrors of 2002 or 1984, much like Partition related violence which has been relegated to selective community memory.

What we are seeing now is the re-fashioning of the Republic into a crude structure of a brute state, armed by an excitable mob, fed on propaganda not the rational discipline of history. Future textbooks will further this project. Any modern or cohesive identity of the nation or its people, secular and egalitarian as our Constitution outlines, has been fractured and dismembered to rubble, where narrow, chauvinist, misogynist identities have been encouraged to come to the fore.

This project to de-historicise history is not happening in isolation, it is accompanied by a destructive, violent present. It is the publicised images of the bulldozer leitmotif from MP’s Khargone to Delhi’s Jahangirpuri to UP’s Sahranpur, Kanpur and Prayagraj (Allahabad) that capture the period of history that we in India are living through. While television channels and sections of social media have recorded these as they selectively target the Indian Muslim, the narrative of the ruler seeks to erase even this brute exclusion and re-fashioning.

India 2022 is witnessing the ripping through, or ripping apart of the Indian nation as it was once constructed. The re-writing of history and political science texts is matched by the brutal violent ruptures of so many parts of north and central India, on the ground. Lynchings of minorities, criminalizing of their protests and dissent, socio-economic boycotts of their businesses, stigmatizing and demonizing of food and culture, selective demolishing of homes and properties.

Between the erasure post-Independent social ruptures of a violent kind (that targeted lives of marginalized minorities) and present day active violent, re-fashioning, there is a sordid connection.

The attempt to build a false narrative of modern Indian history and the birth of the nation that has little or no connection with reality. ‘The collapse of education is the collapse of the nation.’  India as we have known it truly stands on the brink.

 

[1] KN Panikkar,  A Concerned Indian’s Guide to Communalism and the ICHR volume on Towards Freedom, 1940: A Documentary History of the Freedom Struggle.

[2] Cultural Identities and Education Located in the Learning of History, Teesta Setalvad (presented at the CBCI seminar, Mumbai in November 2000)

[i] Incidentally the supposedly independent statutory body, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has also removed its own 2002 report and follow up reports from its website: https://nhrc.nic.in/press-release/nhrc-makes-preliminary-comments-and-recommendations-government-gujarat-and-government

Erasure, Dumbing & Collapse of a Nation: India 2022

Gujarat Riots

The really good professor of history and the social sciences tells us that the partisan or selective narrative underlying communalism – manipulation of religion towards political ends involves not just an incorrect or perverted history telling but deliberate erasure.[1] Such erasure and exclusion buttressed by an overwhelmingly vicious construct of a state that is both exclusivist and discriminatory is tantamount to criminality. It assumes an attack on democracy itself as the cultural rights of every section to find their cultures and histories reflected in the collective narrative of nation-building is deliberately snatched away.

No wonder then that the project of the re-fashioning of India’s texts by the Modi 2.0 regime involves the erasure of social ruptures like the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim carnage as also narratives around ‘Struggles for Equality’ (how Tawa Matsya Sangh fought for the rights of displaced forest dwellers of Satpura forest of Madhya Pradesh) and explorations into ‘Democratic Politics’ (wherein people’s movements and pressure groups influence politics) itself. Among the other erasures are significant mentions of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru and his appraisal of India’s first “engineering feat” (Bhakra Nangal dam), the Cold War and Mughal Courts.

And remember, these are the third set of erasures since 2017 as a detailed investigation by The Indian Express (Ritika Chopra, June 18, 2022) informs us, with a staggering total of 1,334 changes in 182 textbooks being made. The changes have been made in India’s premier textbook writing governmental agency, the National Council for Educational Research & Training (NCERT) and effected in its history, political science and sociology text books for Classes 6-XII.

Serious students of both history and political science are both informed and aware of how silencing and erasure are precursors to physical exclusion and extermination from societies and nations. Decades, close to centuries after a rapacious white population grabbed material resources and cultural validation from native, American Indian, Inca, Maori, Adivasi populations, serious acknowledgement and rectification, while happening in parts, remains a pipe dream. Propagandist, fascist regimes feel comfortable with re-fashioning historical contexts and understanding by removing any possibility of knowledge systems that buffet against propaganda working. The first step is cleansing the history, political science and social sciences text with content that explores and deepens these explorations with nuance.

Independent India’s tryst with textbook writing and history telling has reflected the evolution of a state as we have experienced it, a flawed democracy, acknowledging some exclusions, attempting periodic inclusions and corrections. Even as that experiment was afoot, and subaltern populations organised and grappled with getting their struggles read as a wider Indian people’s history –the struggles over land and agriculture by Adivasis and peasants under British colonial rule were barely recognised by post-Independent India’s history-telling, neither were the depressed caste child’s historical experience with caste exclusion—India was hurtled backwards by an ideology that sought to re-fashion the fundamentals on which we stood.

Post 1998-1999 we witnessed the first attempts to convert the Indian republic into a hegemonistic, mono-cultural theist state (NDA I under Atal Behari Vajpayee,1999-2004). Then, in 2000, this author had, in a long research paper recounted how “the votaries of hegemonised history had violently disrupt the Dussehra celebrations in Tamil Nadu (October 1998) that have always burnt effigies of Ram, not Ravana, as part of “their” glorious past and tradition… The project launched to ‘Hinduise’/Brahmanise history is also a project aimed to stifle democracy, variations and dissent in the rich area of culture and tradition and impose, in its stead,  a set of “moral and religio-cultural dos and don’ts” on a land and culture that had, hitherto defied such strait-lacing  nomenclatures.”[2]

The post-2017 cultural project of the same ideological orientation takes earlier efforts aggressively further. The changes in the texts are justified once again, in the name of un-burdening of the young mind, disturbed by two years of the pandemic. The NCERT has also claimed that the rationalisation was required to prune “overlapping or similar content” or “content which is irrelevant in the present context.” The subjectivity behind this assessment is there for all to see. Since when are the ruptures that have erupted in our recent history irrelevant? Is not the very purpose behind the study of History and Political Science as a discipline is to be informed about all aspects, even the violent ruptures of the past?

The portions that have been erased tell a bald and sordid tale, the crude desire of the rulers to ensure that an unthinking, unquestioning, population, un-enriched by accounts of the Indian people’s struggles with power, exclusion and injustice remains just that: khaki shorts and saffron shirts of a hollowed out regime.

But first, the details of the passages in the NCERT texts that were clearly pinching a falsified narrative sought to be built by the present regime. The latest passages to go include references to the Gujarat 2002 carnage where, in the Std 12 text there is detailed referencing of the reprisal killings of Muslims in the state under the then government’s watch after the mass arson of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra.

A former chief justice of India, Justice JS Verma’s scathing criticism of the Gujarat government’s failure to control the violence has now been relegated to the dustbin of history! The second page (now removed) carries a collage of three newspaper reports along with an excerpt of the NHRC’s annual report (2001-2002) on the Gujarat government’s (mis)handling of the riots.

Unsurprisingly, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s famous “raj dharma” remark in this section has also been removed: “My one message to the Chief Minister (of Gujarat) is that he should follow ‘raj dharma’. A ruler should not make any discrimination between his subjects on the basis of caste, creed and religion.” Vajpayee had said this at a press conference in Ahmedabad in March 2002 with Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, sitting by his side. The two had been visiting the 12,000-populated Shah-e-Alam camp in Ahmedabad.[i]

The passages in the NCERT texts that have been deleted, existed as attempts to educate young populations of ruptures that threaten the Republic, to learn from those that affect marginalized sections in the past. The bald desire to erase any references to serious flaws in the young Indian nation’s past is nothing short of a political project to prevent pining of accountability and the deepening of democracy. Few youth born over the past decades recall the horrors of 2002 or 1984, much like Partition related violence which has been relegated to selective community memory.

What we are seeing now is the re-fashioning of the Republic into a crude structure of a brute state, armed by an excitable mob, fed on propaganda not the rational discipline of history. Future textbooks will further this project. Any modern or cohesive identity of the nation or its people, secular and egalitarian as our Constitution outlines, has been fractured and dismembered to rubble, where narrow, chauvinist, misogynist identities have been encouraged to come to the fore.

This project to de-historicise history is not happening in isolation, it is accompanied by a destructive, violent present. It is the publicised images of the bulldozer leitmotif from MP’s Khargone to Delhi’s Jahangirpuri to UP’s Sahranpur, Kanpur and Prayagraj (Allahabad) that capture the period of history that we in India are living through. While television channels and sections of social media have recorded these as they selectively target the Indian Muslim, the narrative of the ruler seeks to erase even this brute exclusion and re-fashioning.

India 2022 is witnessing the ripping through, or ripping apart of the Indian nation as it was once constructed. The re-writing of history and political science texts is matched by the brutal violent ruptures of so many parts of north and central India, on the ground. Lynchings of minorities, criminalizing of their protests and dissent, socio-economic boycotts of their businesses, stigmatizing and demonizing of food and culture, selective demolishing of homes and properties.

Between the erasure post-Independent social ruptures of a violent kind (that targeted lives of marginalized minorities) and present day active violent, re-fashioning, there is a sordid connection.

The attempt to build a false narrative of modern Indian history and the birth of the nation that has little or no connection with reality. ‘The collapse of education is the collapse of the nation.’  India as we have known it truly stands on the brink.

 

[1] KN Panikkar,  A Concerned Indian’s Guide to Communalism and the ICHR volume on Towards Freedom, 1940: A Documentary History of the Freedom Struggle.

[2] Cultural Identities and Education Located in the Learning of History, Teesta Setalvad (presented at the CBCI seminar, Mumbai in November 2000)

[i] Incidentally the supposedly independent statutory body, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has also removed its own 2002 report and follow up reports from its website: https://nhrc.nic.in/press-release/nhrc-makes-preliminary-comments-and-recommendations-government-gujarat-and-government

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