Row over Hindu bias in revision of history syllabus

India’s higher education regulator, the University Grants Commission (UGC), recently released a revamped undergraduate history curriculum after consultations with stakeholders during February and March this year.

But some academics, historians and student communities across various universities in the country have taken a dim view of it for omitting certain aspects of history and focusing on some others that promote versions backing the ruling party’s Hindu ideology.

For example, the revised syllabus, which the UGC drafted with a committee of experts, has been criticised for focusing more on Hindu mythology and reducing the importance of Muslim rulers during the Mughal period of Indian history.

“Overall, the revision of the history syllabus seems to have a set political agenda of highlighting India’s past conflicts among existing communities, and marginalising those historical figures that represented harmony, such as [Mughal Emperor] Akbar and his ideas of religious tolerance,” said Richa Raj, assistant professor of history, at Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi.

Critics say the topics on Mughal history have been reduced despite the fact that the Mughals ruled over a majority of India for more than 250 years and had a lasting impact on India’s culture.

Instead of being studied on their own, the Mughal emperors are presented only to prove the supremacy and dominance of Hindu rulers of that period like Hemu Vikramaditya, India’s last Hindu emperor, and Maharana Pratap, a Hindu Rajput King who held out against the expansion of the Mughal empire.

While reducing the focus on Mughal and other Muslim rulers, the new syllabus gives greater importance to Vedic and Hindu religious literature and pre-historical texts such as the Vedas, Vedangas, Upanishads, Smritis and Puranas, while dropping ancient literary texts considered inclusive and secular like Kautilya’s Arthashastra, an ancient Indian Sanskrit treatise on economic policy and military strategy, the poems of ancient Sanskrit poet Kalidas or the Ayurvedic medicine text Charak Samhita.

There is also less content on leaders such as the country’s secularist post-independence prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and politician and social reformer Bhim Rao Ambedkar and the roles played by them in the building of modern India.

The spread of communalism in the early 20th century is also underplayed in the new curriculum, according to many historians and commentators.

One history research scholar said the syllabus refers to Bhim Rao Ambedkar’s role in history as someone who helped draft the Indian constitution but his fight to abolish the caste system and untouchability is not mentioned. Untouchability or the practice of ostracising a group of Dalit or underprivileged people regarded as ‘untouchables’ was prevalent in India before and after independence from British rule in 1947.

Syllabus ignores ‘the rich diversity of India’

“The preamble of the document containing the new syllabus speaks eloquently about the need to meet the ‘fundamental challenges of ever-changing academic scales (balances) at global level’, but then ironically the revised syllabus does just the opposite,” Raj told University World News.

“The newly introduced paper, the ‘Idea of Bharat’ [Bharat is the Hindi term for India] clearly reflects the aim of such a revision. All components in this paper seek to highlight the ‘singular’ and ignore the rich diversity of India” she said.

“Among the languages that are listed, there is no mention of Tamil as an important language of ancient India. There is also no mention of gender in ancient India, which is a crucial component of the history syllabus otherwise,” Raj added.

Some major historians ignored

Some students of history lamented that works by renowned historians such as RS Sharma, author of more than 115 books on ancient India who also taught at Delhi University, and Irfan Habib’s book on medieval India have been removed from the reading lists.

Books of lesser-known authors, some of them believed to be pro-RSS, have apparently found a place in the revised curriculum. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS is an Indian right-wing, Hindu nationalist, volunteer organisation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is often described as the political wing of the RSS.

During a webinar organised in April by the department of history at Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi, on “History syllabus revision and dangers ahead”, Professor Irfan Habib described it as a “very defective and dangerous syllabus because it is going to promote a totally false history of ours”.

He demanded that the UGC withdraw the framework which they called Learning Outcomes-based Curriculum Framework under a new system that will allow optional transferrable credits in undergraduate degrees, “and tell us who the scholars are who drafted it and appoint a committee of recognised scholars who have long experience of teaching and also well-known historians,” he said.

Raj said: “Given the assertion of false history and the blatant unprofessionalism, the secrecy over how these revisions have come into being and who are the members of the revision committee is incomprehensible.”

She added: “It is important for the UGC to authenticate the document by making public the names of the members of the history syllabus revision committee. It is the least the UGC could do for the students of history.”

Romila Thapar, a renowned retired Indian historian specialising in ancient India, has in the past come under attack by the ruling party for “under-valuing” the achievements of ancient India. In an opinion article in the New York Times, she said of the Modi government: “Rewriting Indian history and teaching their version of it is crucial to justifying the ideology of Hindu nationalists.”

She noted that historians find no evidence for some of the sweeping generalisations promoted by the ruling party “but their views are dismissed”.

However, according to the UGC, historical facts are not static since new discoveries are constantly being made.

The revised syllabus, apart from removing major distortions, will give students a feeling of ownership over their own history, according to the UGC.

The draft of the new syllabus says the curriculum plan is only a “guiding principle”, saying “justice to the glorious past and vast canvas of Indian history can only be done by providing the much-needed space at micro and macro levels”.

In the past, the UGC only issued general guidelines. This is the first time that the regulator has drawn up a full-fledged syllabus which could be implemented across centrally funded public universities in India.

The UGC says the syllabus is “peer reviewed” after taking suggestions into account, and non-binding in nature.