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A flawed syllabus in the making

National and international historians could possibly de-saffronise our academic programmes by examining history textbooks.

Shreemoyee Roychoudhury | New Delhi |

Recently, a questionable claim by a union minister attracted a lot of vitriol from historians and amplified the debate in the annals of Indian history. The minister argued that Hindutva icon V.D. Savarkar had submitted a mercy petition to the British authorities on Mahatma Gandhi’s advice, when in fact there was no literature available to prove the statement.

The attempt of University Grants Commission (UGC) to revise the undergraduate history syllabus is lambasted by the academic fraternity. The stress is increasingly more on Vedic literature than on history. The aspect of Mughal history is grossly missing. The Indus civilisation has become the Indus-Saraswati civilisation.

The works of V D Savarkar and M S Golwalkar in the syllabus of a post-graduate course at Kannur University have added to the controversy. Some academics and historians point out that new history for universities has been flawed and communalised. The omissions and inclusions are agenda driven.

This largely brewed discontent and controversy in various quarters that history and historical evidences are getting distorted and manipulated. To elaborate the issue, Savarkar was in the Andaman prison in 1911, where he filed a series of mercy petitions for his release.

According to The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi volumes, Gandhi wrote a letter in 1920 in response to a plea made by Savarkar’s younger brother Narayan Rao, to ask for the release of his brothers Vishnu and Ganesh from prison.

Gandhi had requested the brothers to send a letter to emphasise that their crime was for a political motive. Incidents of this ilk have been the substitution of two Dalit writers, Bama Faustina Soosairaj and Sukirtharani, with ‘upper-caste’ writers, and the deletion of Bengali writer Mahashweta Devi’s short story Draupadi from the English syllabus by the Oversight Committee in Delhi University.

Draupadi narrates the tale of a Maoist woman who is gangraped by the Indian Army. The reason for its removal were its graphic descriptions of rape. Despite the story being part of the English curriculum for twenty-two years, the varsity claimed that its syllabus should contain material “which did not hurt the sentiments of any individual”.

The deliberate exclusivity of the Dalit consciousness has generated much clangour among students, who believe studying the oeuvre of lower caste writers will impart cerebral academic value. The Oversight Committee is a group of individuals who do not belong to the Dalit or tribal community. The argument of the University was that the revision of its syllabus needed to include other works that ‘deserved to be taught’.

A deeper look at the English syllabus dismantled a different story – though the Dalit writers were dropped, the syllabus included twenty-one optional papers on literature written by marginalised sections. Devi’s stories, The Why Why Girl and Bayen, which discuss the trappings of tribal women, were present in two papers of the programme.

‘Draupadi’ was scrapped mostly for its offensive forward by translator Gayatri Spivak, who has also been notorious for derogatory translations of other works, such as Ma Durga. Delhi University’s syllabus contains a blend of papers that are ideologically loaded. But perhaps we can blame the deleting of fact and material in the curriculum of colleges by political parties, who use education as a tool to display India as less tolerant to euphemisms that challenge conversative values of untouchability and rape.

Jawaharlal Nehru University has also been subjected to controversial academic changes with the approval of a course on counter-terrorism that is linked to Islamic and community terror. This dichotomy comes right after police in Rajasthan arrested the publishers and writers of a book in late March this year due to a derogatory chapter linking Islam and terrorism.

The book was introduced during the tenure of the BJP government in Rajasthan. Further, scrutiny of the course revealed that it connected jihadi terrorism to State-sponsored terrorism, alluding to actions by communist China and the former Soviet Union. The content of the course did not include terrorism by members of other recognised groups or faiths.

The design of the course has been justified as an ‘an academic exercise’, where students would understand from an ‘Indian perspective’ about the ‘global phenomenon’ of Islamic terrorist groups and their infringement upon national security. This addition of this course increasingly shows a biased image that the university has towards Islam. Approving such course content may insult the Muslims.

Moreover, it may inculcate an idea that much of the terror around the world is attributed to Islam, thereby inducing public fear against Muslims. This is a blatant abuse of the education system to cultivate a narrative that Islam equals violence in our so-called secular country. The palls of twisting education do not stop there.

In early September, Delhi University set up a new rule that any college established under the parent University must have its namesake after Hindutva icons like V.D. Savarkar and late BJP leaders Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley. It was a proposal that met with criticism from academics for endeavouring to please the present government.

India has always been praised for its cultural moorings to several castes and religions. So, how does the attempt to jettison important texts and to rewrite history in academic curriculums benefit a particular political party?

When you deny every other section of Indian society its history and heritage, and students the access to knowledge about every section, how would that bring India’s ‘honour’ and ‘self-respect’ to the world? National and international historians could possibly de-saffronise our academic programmes by examining history textbooks.

History has to be clean of ideological bias and misinformation, as its learnings can prevent us from committing mistakes in the future.

(The writer is pursuing her master’s programme in Mass Communication in Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication (SIMC), Symbiosis International (Deemed University), Pune)