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Hindu Nationalists Campaign to Remake Education in India

Ruling party and its allies enlist academics to revise the canon


New Delhi

Did you know that Homer's Iliad was actually written by an
Indian? Or that the 1947 partition of the Indian
was part of a Christian plot to divide and conquer Hindus
and Muslims?

Such things must be true, students are told, because they
now appear in history books in India.

With the stated goal of "recouping lost cultural values,"
India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and its
allies have set out on a campaign to rewrite history.
Commonly known as the B.J.P., the party is the largest of
19 in the coalition government that came to power last

The history project is the cornerstone of a radical
Hindu-revivalist movement that, among other things, is
calling for the "Hinduization" of education in India. The
movement goes by the name "Hindutva," which means
Hindu culture. While the term itself is not new, the
degree to
which it is being invoked certainly is.

In part, the movement seeks to counter the influence of
Christian missionaries, whom Hindu fundamentalists
accuse of using force or trickery to make converts.

Christians account for 2.5 per cent of India's nearly 1
people; Hindus are in the majority, with 80 per cent of
population. Muslims make up the largest minority, at 12

The Hindutva movement has been blamed for inciting
dozens of violent attacks on Christians in recent months.
Zealots have torched churches and assaulted Christian
priests and nuns with stones. In the worst case, four nuns
were raped in Madhya Pradesh state.

The Bharatiya Janata Party and its more radical allies
denied any role in the violence. They say they do not
advocate the use of force to counter the influence of the
Christian missionaries but, rather, a
government-sponsored education campaign to teach
Hindu values and culture.

They have enlisted thousands of academics to help them
achieve their goal. The scholars' primary task is to
a new historical canon -- one with Hindu teachings as its
ideological backbone.

Critics fear that revisionism is just a beginning.
"This is a
Hindu version, and it's going to become the popular
history," says K.N. Panikkar, a cultural historian and the
author of a book on secularism in India. "They want to
over the education system and do it in a big way."

Unlike other political parties in India, which lack clear
ideologies, the B.J.P. has recognized the potential of
education to influence the masses. In one of his first
after taking office, the party's Minister of Education,
Manohar Joshi, appointed scholars sympathetic to the
Hindutva cause to national academic bodies.

The first institution affected was the Indian Council of
Historical Research, where Mr. Joshi replaced 14 of the 18
members with Hindutva supporters. The council is the sole
government body responsible for distributing funds for
historical research in India, where private research
are virtually non-existent.

Next, the minister tackled the Indian Council of Social
Science Research and the Indian Institute of Advanced
Studies, adding several pro-Hindu scholars to both.

In addition, the B.J.P. has begun installing its
supporters in
key positions at universities and colleges across
India. The
party is trying as well to make inroads at the National
Council of Educational Research and Training, the
country's main education policy-making body.

These moves have outraged conservative as well as liberal
academics, who see them as part of an effort by an
extremist minority to destroy India's tradition of
and to create a theocratic state.

The seeds of the backlash were planted at a national
education conference in October, when Mr. Joshi added a
proposal for Hinduizing the school system to the agenda.
The proposal, which was presented as the findings of a
panel of unnamed experts, turned out to be the work of a
radical Hindu group aligned with the B.J.P.

Among the plan's most controversial points: compulsory
courses in "Indian values" from preschool through graduate
school; the inclusion of Hindu religious texts in all
and education in Indian values and culture at all
levels of
teacher training.

Mr. Joshi was forced to withdraw the proposal after more
than a dozen state education ministers denounced it and
the conference erupted in angry shouting.

Later, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who had sat
impassively on the sidelines, sought to undo the damage
by declaring that children should be taught to respect all
religions, and that "there must be no place for religious
bigotry and intolerance" in the schools.

But the Hinduization proposal -- and the commotion it
generated -- started a nationwide debate on the state of
the Indian education system, a debate that has served to
legitimize the Hindutva campaign.

Critics, acknowledging that the schools need revamping,
say the B.J.P. is wrong to focus only on the content of
education and not on deep-rooted structural problems.

Furthermore, they argue, the content favored by the ruling
party would fuel tensions in India by stripping religious
minorities of their constitutional rights. They
object to a proposal to include Hindu religious texts,
back to the second century B.C., in the core curricula for
students of all religions.

"The B.J.P. is attempting to destroy the basic secular
fabric of our country, because they don't believe in
secularism," says S.H. Chakravarty, Minister of Higher
Education in West Bengal state.

He cites the appointment of Hindu fundamentalists to the
top academic councils as the primary threat to secularism.
"Their views are totally unscientific. They want to
history to malign Muslims by depicting them as
collaborators with the British and as torturers."

Hindutva supporters say they are just trying to right the
wrongs of the past, making up for centuries of Muslim and
Christian domination. "For decades, we have appeased
the followers of Marx, MacCauley, and minorityism, ... and
we have allowed them to distort history," says Dinanath
Batra, head of Vidya Bharati, the group that developed the
controversial education proposal in October. The group's
name translates as "Indian knowledge."

Many prominent news columnists have rallied to the
Hindutva cause. They have aimed barbs at Lord
MacCauley, the 19th-century British educator who helped
formulate education policy in then-British India. His
attitudes were to blame for Indians' widespread ignorance
of their own culture and heroes, they argue.

In defending the Hinduization proposal in India Today, a
weekly magazine, Tavleen Singh quoted an infamous
MacCauley statement: "A single shelf of a good European
library is worth the whole native literature of India and

Ms. Singh also attacked Sonia Gandhi, Italian-born leader
of the Congress Party, the country's main opposition, who
has accused the B.J.P. of moving toward a theocracy. Ms.
Singh argued that a foreign-born Christian -- even one who
is the widow of an assassinated Prime Minister, Rajiv
Gandhi -- could not be expected to appreciate the degree
to which Indians had been denied knowledge of their own

Mr. Joshi, the education minister, has taken on the
Congress Party, which ruled India for most of the past
half-century. In an interview with The Week, an Indian
magazine, he said the party was to blame for the fact that
almost half of India's 980 million people are illiterate.
"People who have kept India illiterate for 50 years cannot
understand and appreciate our programs," he said. He did
not mention that India's literacy rate has more than
since independence in 1947, from 15 per cent to 52 per

The Vidya Bharati group functions as the education section
of the Rastriya Swayansevak Sangh, or National Volunteer
Corps, which is the militant wing of the B.J.P.
Together, the
two organizations have established an education network
across India. Vidya Bharati has set up 14,000 primary and
secondary schools and dozens of colleges, operating in 32
of the 33 states, with 1.8 million students. It is
working hard
to expand its network, particularly in remote areas, where
Christian missionaries have made inroads. The National
Volunteer Corps plans to set up a network of
Sanskrit-language colleges that would further its campaign
to make that ancient tongue the common language of all

The most visible activity of the National Volunteer
Corps is
its large network of Hindu youth cadres, students who turn
out in their khaki uniforms for morning calisthenics and

But the most controversial project involving the corps and
Vidya Bharati remains the rewriting of historical
to highlight the achievements of Hindus -- or, as critics
argue, to distort history to promote Hindu communalism.

Examples of altered histories abound, and their number
has grown rapidly under the B.J.P.-led government. Some
are used in college courses and appear on lists of
recommended reading. Others are sold in popular
editions. Still others, particularly regional histories
with a
strong Hindu bias, are readily available in the
Because the country's more respected historians do not
deign to write local histories, often the pro-Hindu
are the only ones available.

In Vidya Bharati schools, students read that the Iliad
is not
an original work, but an adaptation of an ancient Hindu
religious epic, the Ramayana.

In history textbooks used in the group's schools, the
partition of the Indian subcontinent into Muslim-majority
Pakistan and Hindu-majority India in 1947 is depicted as a
Christian conspiracy. Even today, says one of the books,
Christian missionaries "are engaged in fostering
anti-national tendencies" in tribal regions.

In defending the 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque, in
northern India, Vidya Bharati textbooks cite disputed
archaeological research to bolster their version of the
event. They say the mosque was built atop the ruins of a
Hindu temple that had stood on the site of the
birthplace of
the Hindu god Ram.

Most archaeologists say they have found no evidence that
such a temple ever existed, never mind that it was sacked
70 times by Muslim invaders, as the textbooks state.
Nonetheless, the Vidya Bharati version of the dispute was
disseminated widely and played a role in inciting the mob
attack on the mosque, which sparked riots throughout
southern Asia in which more than 1,200 people died.

Although Vidya Bharati textbooks have not yet made it into
the curricula of state-run schools, the group hopes
that its
representation in the leading academic bodies will help
change that.

Mr. Panikkar, the historian, who says he has no political
affiliation, argues that the education campaign is part
of a
wider push by the Bharatiya Janata Party to increase its
representation in the lower house of parliament. The
campaign in the rural and tribal areas, he says, is
part of a
drive to gain an additional 10 per cent of the Indian
the proportion that the B.J.P. needs to form its own,
one-party government.

Mr. Batra, the Vidya Bharati leader, declines to address
the suggestion directly. "We're not thinking about today,"
he says. "We're thinking of the future."
Section: International
Page: A56

Copyright © 1999 by The Chronicle of Higher Education.


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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .