Fears grow about Hindu 'Modi-fication' of education

Published: November 21, 2014
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In this file photo, schoolchildren study inside their classroom at a government-run school in Kolkata November 20, 2014. PHOTO: REUTERS

In this file photo, schoolchildren study inside their classroom at a government-run school in Kolkata November 20, 2014. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI: Indians were flying aeroplanes, carrying out stem cell research and may even have been using cosmic weapons 5,000 years ago, according to the chairperson of India’s leading historical organisation.

Professor Y Sudershan Rao, the head of the Indian Council of Historical Research, has been criticised by fellow historians for comments that Hindu epics are adequate to understand the ancient world, rather than relying on evidence or research.

The Hindu nationalist government appointed Rao to the prestigious academic post soon after winning the biggest landslide in three decades, fuelling concerns of a push to teach the superiority of Hindu values and mythology at the cost of academic rigour, and cutting against the grain of secularism that runs through multi-faith modern India.

“We have so many proofs that these events happened,” Rao, 69, said in an interview, describing events in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the ancient Hindu epics about love and war, truth and deceit, that feature characters using inextinguishable fire and weapons with the destructive power of a nuclear arsenal.

Similar views have won support from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and in part reflect a belief that India’s history books are beholden to colonial powers, foreign invaders and Marxists.

While there is debate over the exact age of the Hindu epics, historians say they were probably written at least two millennia ago. Rao says this in itself is proof the texts are factual because humans did not develop the art of fiction writing until a few centuries back.

Many academics are horrified by such views, and describe his appointment as a blow for the history organisation set up four decades ago to guide research and hand out grants. They point to signs of a broader plan to bring more Hinduism to the classroom through changes to the curriculum.

Two states run by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have recruited controversial Hindu nationalist Dinanath Batra to advise on writing textbooks.

In June, thousands of schools in Gujarat were given textbooks by Batra that claimed cars were invented in ancient India and told children to draw an enlarged nation to include countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

Teachers at Batra’s organisation say they want the books to be in every school.

“The lessons from today’s history books are that Indians are nothing and good for nothing,” said Atul Kothari, secretary of Batra’s Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, or Save the Education Movement. “The truth is that historically we have been a far superior race.”

Education Minister Smriti Irani, a former soap actress, declined to comment on what revisions will be included in a review of the curriculum planned next year.

The last time the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was in power a decade ago it began to rewrite school books in line with Hindu-nationalist orthodoxy.

When the rival Congress party came back to power it rewrote the books again. Academics say the loser in all this are confused, and sometimes ill-informed, school children.

Modi is the first prime minister to publicly back the view that holy texts show many discoveries of modern science were made by ancient Indians. He told an audience of doctors last month that the Hindu god Ganesh’s head was evidence of ancient plastic surgery. A warrior the Mahabharata describes as born outside his mother’s womb was a test-tube baby, Modi said.

“These claims can be interpreted as signs of an inferiority complex,” said Romila Thapar, a leading scholar on ancient India. “The most disturbing thing is that many people accept this without questioning it,” said Thapar, whose books one BJP leader has said should be burned.

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Reader Comments (5)

  • Malatesh
    Nov 21, 2014 - 6:09PM

    I’m a Modi supported. But on this matter, I come on street to protest against Modi if he approves to include controversial topics like Ramayan/Mahabharath…

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  • vinsin
    Nov 21, 2014 - 6:42PM

    Indian history do have problem, Congress wants Mughal centric history, whereas BJP always wanted epics based history. Noone wants facts or objective history which they feel will bring anti-muslims feelings.History should be left to Historians and school should be teaching facts rather than narrow visions. BJP should focus on women rights, child rights, animal rights, resolving issues with Pakistan and economic development. India lost everything due to brahmanical caste system. There was no electricity, computer in ancient India.

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  • Reeba
    Nov 21, 2014 - 6:53PM

    Imagination leads to inventions. Ancient hindu texts lead Indians to think out of the box. So using hindu epics in text books in those context (not as history) will lead to innovations and a better future. If you can imagine it, you can do it.

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  • No lies
    Nov 21, 2014 - 10:46PM

    Hey, If Indians even thought that Ravana had a flying machine.Then there would have been one.For instance, Indians dint say that Ravan flew on a bird, he had a machine.Thats kindoff specific.Lots of great things can go down in the ages, like see Britain?Empire 50 years back, nothing now.And think of India, a very very old place.Years of degradation doesnt mean , things wouldnt or could not have happend. I support a fair imaginative chance, an agnostic scholarly,yet poet like position.And I think thats how Indian’s see the epics, more like Epics, not as a Dogma.For instance, a vast majority of Indians(From all Religions) will know who was Rama, or who was Krishna.Part of culture, something to ponder about, no one owns them, nor is it enforced in India.

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  • ForamenMagnum
    Nov 22, 2014 - 4:07AM

    Dear central government please stop injecting your version of history, leave that to able historians not the ones which you are supporting. I did vote for BJP/Modi this time for the development promises which were made. We’ll give you full support for the next elections like we did this year if you accomplish your said goals but if you do things which antagonize us(people of India) then we’ll do the same thing which we did to congress, after all you are just another political party. Ramayan and Mahabharath are great epics no doubt but when some people start using it for jingoistic purposes then it looses its importance, it is for every human on earth to read and understand . Agreed that there has been mentions of some inventions which are radical for that era when it was written, but to take it without any understanding or questioning is pure idiocy. Why should we bother that we Indians didn’t contribute anything to the world for that past many years, infact we have given to the world many great things and we are proud of it, but from here on we have to achieve much more than the past, let bygones be bygone. Just harping about mythical planes and fictional genetic engineering will take us no where, we have DO stuff to get us noticed.

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