BYWORDS - The Indian Express (New Delhi), 30 November 2001

Textbooks Matter

On the controversy over writing school textbooks of history.


The social impact of school history books is significant. Textbooks shape the educated citizen's attitudes to religion and society -- both one's own and that of others. Often, we make sense of contemporary events (bringing down a mosque, religious conversions) and identify friends and foes by applying the idea of secularism we picked up at school.

If Hinduism is a tolerant religion and secular Akbar was "great", it is partly because you learnt it that way in school. Textbooks, with their extensive reach and access to young fertile minds, offer a subtle, efficient tool that no madrasa or 'party class' can match. As in other countries, in post-independent India too, school history books have been sacred texts in nation-building.

Thus, as fresh textbooks reshape individual attitudes and social interactions, their (ab)use will weave the fabric of India in the coming decades.

School history textbooks have become a political playground where historians tamper with the ball. Loud appeals and debates by Leftist and Rightist historians suggest that history -- whether written by nationalist, Marxist or Hindutva historians -- is selective presentation of facts, and politically convenient interpretation of the past.

Is it possible and desirable to write history textbooks relatively free of bias? If bias is inevitable and necessary, are there any principles that can be adopted in the writing of school textbooks?

It is imperative for historians and history teachers to devote their attention to answering these questions. Even while indulging in ideological warfare, historians (and society) would gain by approaching the issue constructively, honestly and creatively. That would be the first step towards promoting newer and better textbooks for use in schools.

Does the solution lie in preparing textbooks that acknowledge different viewpoints? Or, is it better to adopt the principle of revealing the politics of the textbook upfront (i.e., identify the textbook's bias and explain the reason for bias in the textbook itself)? These are additional questions that could be addressed by history teachers and writers.

We live in an era where secularism is no longer the reason for appreciating diversities within and across religions; secularism is becoming an excuse for promoting intolerance and masking diversities in religions (as the latest instructions from CBSE indicate). Today, nation-building is being redefined as building a belligerently patriotic, intolerantly majoritarian India.

Do you accept that communalism has the potential to violently disrupt a multi-religious society like ours? If yes, school teachers and parents cannot turn a blind eye to the religion-driven (re)writing of school textbooks. They could: (a) promote the supplementary use of minimum-bias textbooks that mention religious diversities (b) ensure that history is understood by the student as a contested domain rather than as a string of 'truths' or facts; and (c) continue to inculcate in children the value of religious tolerance.

In short, an unmistakeable lesson from recurring debates over history-writing is that in classroom discussions (whether on communalism, communism or anything), there is a need to supplement school history textbooks of the past and those in the offing. If not, we would be left with history that disguises itself as the right version.

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