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The undeciphered script of Indus Valley people holds key to a question with sharp political overtones – were people of Indo-Pak  subcontinent’s earliest recorded civilisation Aryans or Dravidians? Or neither?  In 1946, a India’s archaeological survey team was at one of its favourite digs when it stumbled upon 37 skeletons. Two lay on steps of a well with visible marks of head injury. Five were on steps of another well room.

A few others were hastily buried as if times were so bad dead could not be taken to cemetery. “Men, women, children seemed to have been massacred in streets and left dying or, at best, crudely covered without any last rite,” wrote Mortimer Wheeler, who led the expedition. (more…)

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By Steve FarmerLast week this article in the Indian magazine Frontline reported that the Hindu Right’s attempts to rewrite California school textbooks on India and Hinduism were meeting with strong resistance from renowned historians and scholars in the U.S. and abroad. Steve Farmer is one of those scholars; he reported on that resistance and the smear campaign against another of them, Michael Witzel, on a listserve last December, and gave B&W permission to publish a slightly updated version. There is recent news here.

Part I: The California Textbook Issue

The smear campaign aimed against Michael Witzel is meant in retaliation for the critical role he has played since early November – in collaboration now with hundreds of Indian and Western researchers and S. Asian minority groups – in helping block massive changes in California 6th-grade textbooks demanded by Hindutva political-religious groups. Some of these groups, as noted below, have long-time connections with rightwing groups in India, whose attempts to project Hindutva political-religious ideology into Indian textbooks have been turned back since 2004 (after the rightwing BJP party lost national power) by India’s National Council of Educational Research & Training (NCERT). (NCERT is the closest thing in India to a national ‘Board of Education’.)

The upshot is that the current US Hindutva moves in California, begun not long after the BJP fell from power, can be tied (along with related moves in Great Britain, involving the BBC) to a much broader international plan to rebuild the declining Hindutva movement in India.

Before November 9th, the Hindutva groups involved in the US had managed to convince the California State Board of of Education and the Department of Education staff – few if any of whom had even heard before of Hindutva (and they say that ignorance is bliss) – that they spoke for what they represented as a homogenous American-Hindu community. In the early months, the Board did not hear from Dalit groups, mainstream Hindu organizations, Tamil Hindus, or any of the many non-religious Hindu groups that have obvious reasons for opposing the Hindutva agenda.

The fictional notion presented to the California Board of Education that the highly fragmented Hindu-American community is homogenous has certainly come as a surprise to the Tamil, Dalit, and other Indian minority groups in the United States with whom we have contacts.

No matter how the final act of the California drama plays out (in March), by now the California Board of Education is acutely aware that the three main groups involved in the California affair – the Vedic Foundation (VF), the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF), and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) (on these groups, see Part III) – do not, by the wildest stretch of the imagination, speak for all Hindu-Americans.

While the research community, mainstream Hindus, and Indian minorities were initially caught sleeping by events in California – none of us knew about events there until November 5th, four days before what was to be the final Board of Education meeting on this textbook issue – in the last seven weeks hundreds of non-Hindutva Indian-Americans, a solid base of specialists in South Asian History (one recent letter from such a group has over 130 signatures), and an ever expanding list of South Asian minority groups, including those representing Dalit and tribal groups, have informed the State of California in very clear terms that the three organizations noted above do not represent their interests or opinions.

The role that Michael helped play in awakening non-Hindutva Indian-Americans to events in Sacramento helps explain the vehemence of the attack currently aimed almost exclusively at him personally. The rightwing’s strategy consists in attempting to divert attention from resistance to the Hindutva agenda within the Hindu-American community by representing the setbacks to their California plans as being due to the efforts of one fictional “Aryan Supremicist” Harvard Professor with Nazi roots, etc. – rather than to the efforts of many non-sectarian South Asians and Westerners who have long opposed the Hindutva program.

The first and still most critical battle in California took place on November 8-9th, when a letter endorsed by Michael and approximately four dozen other researchers from India, Pakistan, the United States, Europe, Australia, Taiwan, and Japan (many of them on this List) first alerted the California State Board of Education to the religious-political motivations behind Hindutva attempts to alter history textbooks. The letter was sent out within 48 hours of the time that we first learned of the involvement of Hindutva groups in the textbook affair.

The letter informed the Board about the successful recent NCERT battle over Hindutva alterations of Indian textbooks, which were made when the BJP was in power. It also provided the California Board of Education with links to U.S. State Department papers issued in 2003 and 2004 explicitly warning against the influence of Hindutva groups in education. The importance of the letter and what was going on in California was underlined at the Board of Education meeting in Sacramento on November 9th by James Heitzman, of the University of California at Davis. Heitzman came to the Board meeting armed with an analysis of the full list of proposed edits by the Hindutva groups.

Far from just being the ‘Witzel letter’ (Dr. Heitzman didn’t even know about the letter until after it was submitted) – as the Hindutva organizations like to characterize it – this original letter from the scholarly community to the Board of Education (there have been others since) was endorsed by a long list of mainstream archaeologists, linguists, and historians, including specialists on ancient India from every part of the world.

A few of the international signers whose work is well-known in the field include Patrick Olivelle (who is a native S. Asian), of the University of of Texas; Harry Falk, of Free University, Berlin; Madhav Deshpande of the University of Michigan; Muneo Tokunaga of Kyoto University in Japan; Maurizio Tosi, of the University of Bologna in Italy; Richard Meadow of Harvard University and Mark Kenoyer of the University of Wisconsin (Co-Directors of the long-running Harappa Archaeological Research Project); well-known Indian researchers including Romila Thapar, Shereen Ratnagar, D.N. Jha, and others; Hartmut Scharfe and Stanley Wolpert, both emeritus professors of UCLA; Asko Parpola, of Helsinki University; and so on.

The endorsers are a highly diverse international group that represents many opposing research perspectives: but despite these differences, all are uniformly opposed to Hindutva fabrications of history, with which they are all familiar. As a group they don’t have even a faint resemblance to the imaginary group of “Harvard leftists” fantasized in the Hindutva slander campaign directed at Michael Witzel (see Part II, below).

As a result of this first letter, the massive rewrites of the chapters on India submitted to the Board of Education by the Vedic Foundation for the submitted textbooks were rejected in toto by the Board – and have remained off the table ever since.

That was our first victory, and it’s a lasting one.

If it hadn’t been for the November 8th letter sent out by international scholars, things could have turned out very badly at the November 9th meeting. If the Vedic Foundation rewrites had actually made it into the textbooks, the absurdity of their positions would have eventually forced those textbooks to be withdrawn – as was recently the case in India – at an estimated cost in the case of California of several hundred million dollars. (Those figures are not given lightly, and are drawn directly from publishing industry estimates.)

The textbook-issue waters became murkier at a meeting in Sacramento on December 1-2 – held not by the State Board of Education, as misreported in the India press, but by a subsidiary (and totally advisory) body known as the Curriculum Commission (CC). Events at the December 1-2 CC meeting were far more chaotic than at the November 9th State Board of Education meeting, due largely to the fact that the audience was packed to the walls with Hindutva supporters.

The fact that no South Asian opponents of Hindutva were at the meetings involved some miscalculation on our part: no one expected much to happen at the CC meeting, since the Board of Education had explicitly directed the CC (with legal force) on November 9th to judge all proposed edits solely on the basis of historical accuracy, and not on religious grounds. To this end, the Department of Education staff had drawn up a report based on a full review of previously proposed edits (from the VF and HEF) made by Stanley Wolpert, James Heitzman, and Michael Witzel, who were officially appointed as a Content Review Panel (CRP) specifically to fulfill this task. The original expectation was that the CC meeting would end quickly with acceptance of the Department of Education staff report.

Against those expectations, the meeting was chaotic – we’ll publish some funny eye witness accounts at some point – with the result that after much wrangling with the Department of Education staff, several conservative members of the CC took control of the meeting and largely ignored the Department of Education staff report. The result, after hours of arguing and confusion, was that a number of blatantly religious edits were left in the history books and several new edits (breaking all historical precedents and the explicit directive of the Board of Education) were stuck into them ‘on the fly’. The result, as everyone on all sides recognized at the end, was an inconsistent mess that has left everyone involved in a quandary about what to do next.

As one publishing insider puts it: “California is a mess.”

For now, let it be noted that it is clear to everyone (1) that the advisory CC, whose role in the vetting process is finished, violated the Board of Education’s legal directive from November 9th that stated that issues of historical accuracy alone must determine what makes it into the ancient India edits; and (2) that the publishers, the Department of Education, and everyone else involved knows that the current gross mess of inconsistent edits has to be cleaned up before anything goes to press.

But all that said, one key point by now is crystal clear. Recently Hindutva forces have begun to claim publicly (as in the Pioneer article; see below), apparently to rally their sagging troops, that what happened on December 1-2 in the CC meeting was some kind of victory for their side. This is a radical about-face from their reactions at the end of the CC meeting on December 2, when (as on November 9th) they again went away furious that the massive Vedic Foundation rewrites of the publishers’ texts – which are as comical as they are absurd (e.g., placing the Buddha and Asoka in the early 2nd millennium BCE) – didn’t make it into California textbooks.

Those rewrites weren’t accepted by the California Board of Education on November 9th; those rewrites weren’t supported by even the most conservative of the CC members on December 2; and now that academic and anti-Hindutva forces have been awakened by what almost happened in California, no rewrites like this will make it into US textbooks the next time this little drama plays out in some new state with adoption processes. (The next really big battle will not be until Texas, and that won’t occur until the end of the decade.)

Part II: Recent Smears against Michael Witzel

When other things fail, Hindutva groups traditionally try slander. And that’s what they are now trying with Michael Witzel.

The Hindutva misinformation campaign, which started several weeks ago, reached new heights with publication of a grotesquely distorted article on Christmas day in the rightwing New Delhi newspaper, The Pioneer.

Its many inaccuracies will be obvious immediately to those who have read the background materials presented in Part I, above. Other inaccuracies will be noted below.

The timing – and at points even the exact language – of this blatantly defamatory piece overlaps with an Internet petition aimed at Harvard University (my copy arrived on Christmas eve), which among much else calls for the disbanding of Harvard University’s Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies (not coincidentally, Michael’s department).

The cover letter of the petition – all of it that many people will probably see before signing it – starts with what appears at first to be a progressive agenda, perfect for Christmas eve:

To defend the best liberal traditions that we all hold dear, I hope you will take a moment to please sign the petition at the url below, to support our effort to get the religious hate groups (you know which ones..) from using Harvard facilities and resources. The Petition is developed by well-wishers of Harvard university, concerned over the increasing intrusion by religious hate groups into our environment. I am sure you will agree with us.

The inside of the petition, which is several clicks away, drops the ‘liberal’ facade. A few highlights:

  • Our Indo-Eurasian Research List is characterized (just as it is in the Pioneer article) as an “Internet hate group”.
  • Harvard is linked with supposed “anti-Semitic Nazi groups”, and Michael is characterized as “Harvard’s Aryan Supremicist Sanskrit Professor.” (The irony of the fact that real historical links existed in its formative years between Hindutva and the Nazis is apparently unknown to the petition’s authors.)
  • I’m characterized as Michael’s “assistant”, apparently working with him at Harvard, despite the fact that I live in California, many of thousands of kilometers away from Harvard, on the opposite side of the United States.
  • One choice quotation from the petition pictures Michael as an “Aryan Supremicist” – the writers apparently have blond blue-eyed Germans in mind – and me as a “Creationist”, which I suspect would please my relatives, who have long suspected that I harbor irreligious evolutionary tendencies:

Witzel’s screeching against the community is often part of his marketing of the ‘Aryan Invasion Theory’ (AIT), now re-packaged as “Aryan Influx Theory”. This marries Farmer’s Creationist dogma, with Witzel’s Aryan Supremacist requirement that all civilization must have emanated from his ‘Aryan’ Caucasian roots. Devoid of intellectual substance, this gang personally abuses anyone who cites the growing scientific evidence debunking ‘AIT’. The evidence points to distributed local evolution of civilization, independent of any Caucasian influx.

Back to the Pioneer piece :

Just a few points on one scientific issue and on various defamatory materials in the text: it would take a book to straighten out all half truths and lies in this hatchet job:

1. The idea that DNA studies support the Hindutva view that there was no movement of Indo-Eurasian speakers in antiquity into India, ascribed in the article to S. Metzenberg (one of the conservative members of the advisory CC, who is not on the Board of Education) is ludicrous. For every study that makes such claims, as another CC member (the physicist C. Munger) accurately pointed out to Metzenberg, others can be cited that ‘prove’ exactly the opposite. As is well known to every researcher in population genetics, such studies are based on modern genetic data back-projected into historical times using very iffy theoretical models of genetic drift. The result is that the error bars are literally thousands of years long in every such study.

2. The idea that Michael has “contempt for Indians who live and work in the US” is ridiculous: he works with them daily, and counts them among his best friends and students. (Obviously many of them have also endorsed the Board of Education letters, and many others are on this List.)

3. Michael is the last person I would ever think of as a ‘racist’. Anyone who knows his immediate family, which is more Asian than Caucasian (!), in fact, would be more than a bit startled to hear such claims.

4. The quotations ascribed to Michael in the Pioneer article are consistently ripped out of context and reformulated to make it appear that they involve hate or ridicule aimed at the S. Asian community. It would take a lot of time to show this quotation by quotation, but to do so would be intellectually trivial. There isn’t an ounce of hate that I’ve ever seen in Michael Witzel, after knowing and collaborating with him on many articles and projects now in the last half decade.

5. Previous idiocies in publisher-submitted textbooks have absolutely nothing to do with Michael and have in fact been sharply criticized by him in discussions with both the publishers and the California Department of Education. Historical inaccuracies arising from corporate ignorance, however, are obviously quite distinct from Hindutva groups trying to stick politically and religiously inspired edits into US kids’ 6th-grade textbooks.

6. The fictionalized account in the Pioneer article that makes it appear that Michael appeared before the Board of Education (which the article confuses with the Curriculum Commission), which subsequently rejected his views as “unscholarly, insensitive, biased and devoid of facts – heaping ridicule on the Harvard brand” never happened. Michael never went to California, never appeared before the Board, and certainly wasn’t at the CC meeting. Far from having his views rejected by the Board of Education, he was specifically charged by the Board of Education (as part of an official ‘Content Review Panel’ with Dr. Wolpert and Dr. Heitzman) with vetting the earlier edits submitted by the VF and HEF.

7. Just as in the petitions aimed at Harvard, the Indo-Eurasian Research list is once again misrepresented in The Pioneer as an “Internet hate group.” Opposing attempts to rewrite history for political and religious purposes does not qualify us or any other group for such a label. These rightwing groups have had a terrible effect on research in premodern fields, and correcting the false image they present of history is an unfortunate (and obviously thankless) part of our job.

Part III

There are three Hindu groups involved closely in the California proceedings. We’ve said a bit about them before, so here I’ll just give the quickest of summaries:

1. The VEDIC FOUNDATION in Texas. Their proposed edits to California textbooks are the most ridiculous of all of them. This is no wonder, given their views of ancient history, which have it (in webpages now largely removed) that Indian civilization reaches back 1,972 million years – over 1.7 billion years before the age of dinosaurs.

From Internet Archives for one of their rapidly disappearing webpages.

(Don’t miss this little gem if you haven’t seen it before!)

For those of you who don’t recognize the political significance of the standard Hindutva claim that ‘Aryans’ are homegrown in India, please pay close attention to the first item on their “Do You Know” list!

2. The HINDU EDUCATION FOUNDATION, in Silicon Valley. This is a much more politically oriented group than the VF. It arose as a “project” of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) (as noted in an HSS webpage now only available to password holders, though as usual a copy lives on in our files). The group was set up specifically for projects like the California campaign. Its “Advisors” include infamous Hindutva propagandists including S. Kalyanaraman and David Frawley – the latter the American adherent of “Vedic Astrology” and the “Out of India” theory who claims in his books that American Indians came from India.

3. The HINDU AMERICAN FOUNDATION. This is the most problematic of the groups, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out, since their public persona has it that they are a “Human Rights Organization” representing 2 million (!) Hindu Americans. Please note that according to US census figures this is far more than the total number of Indians (Muslims, Dalits, and Tamils included) living in the US, let alone conservative Hindus.

You won’t find a visible trace of Hindutva anyplace on their webpage, but when you dig beneath the surface, you’ll soon find that the President of HAF, Mihir Meghani, has a long history of links with the rightwing in India. See, e.g., his famous manifesto from 1998 – “Hindutva: The Great Nationalist Ideology” – which is still found (at this minute, anyway) on the official BJP website in India.

Read this one carefully: it is another gem, although not very funny.

Finally, for anyone not acquainted with Michael’s writings on Indology, see this bibliography, where you can download many of his works as PDF files. See also his personal homepage.

  • Besides holding the Wales Chair in Sanskrit at Harvard University, Michael was elected as a Fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003.
  • He is the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Oriental Series, the oldest continuous Western publication series in the field, which first appeared in 1891.
  • Michael is editor-in-chief of Mother Tongue, one of the most innovative research journals devoted to comparative and historical linguistics. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies, which has published a long series of important studies in the past decade.

Michael’s own writings in the past several decades have fundamentally altered the way that all of us, both in Indology and comparative history (my field), have viewed ancient India in particular and ancient history in general. One of the most influential of his studies appeared in a ground-breaking book that he edited in 1997, Inside and Outside the Texts: New Approaches to the Vedas, which contains major essays not only by Michael but by Joel Brereton, George Cardona, Tatyana Elizarenkova, Harry Falk, Hans Henrich Hock, Asko Parpola, Wilhelm Rau, and many others. Michael’s essays in this volume have fundamentally changed the way we picture historical data in Vedic texts, and they have had a long lasting effect on my own research. (The two of us are now extending part of this work in dimensions that reach far beyond India.)

Finally, it should be mentioned that the 1989 workshop that gave rise to Inside and Outside the Texts grew eventually into the increasingly important yearly Harvard Roundtables on the Ethnogenisis of South and Central Asia, which is now entering its 8th year. (This year’s conference was held in Kyoto, Japan, and next year’s will again be held in Asia, at a very exciting location still not publicly announced.)

The Indo-Eurasian Research List is an off-shoot of those Roundable meetings. Certainly no one who works through our archives with any care, starting at the beginning, will end up concluding that we are an “Internet hate List”.

Let me end on a personal note: Michael Witzel is one of the most intelligent, most humanistic, and also one oif the very funniest men I know. He is a wonderful collaborator to boot, and it has been a privilege to work with him.

The smear campaign aimed at him is obscene – it is the first word that comes to mind thinking about it – and I hope and expect that a lot of other people will speak out in his public defense.

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2005 has been a terrible year for the human rights of African Americans in the United States. Facing assaults on livelihoods, falling incomes, rampant police violence and brutality, cuts in social spending and a generally cruel and undisguised contempt from the reactionary Bush administration, African Americans will remember 2005 as the year that saw the destruction of the great city of New Orleans, first by the hurricane (made possible by years of neglect and siphoning of levee funds to the “war on terror”), followed by the cruel racism of the state, media and mainstream white society as survivors were classified as “looters”, “holdouts” and “thugs”, which opened the way for a full-scale forcible displacement of the African American population of the city. To date, the city’s whiter and affluent residents have received far more generosity and care from the government, corporations and mainstream media than have African Americans. Worse, most of the city’s poorest residents, overwhelmingly African American, are being deliberately kept out of their city, their homes and residences targeted for bulldozing and sale through the use of nefarious means reflective of the worst legacies of racist America. 

This means then that the struggle of African Americans for equality and justice in America is not a historical event lodged in the past but an ongoing and present reality necessitated by institutionalized racism and oppression. This is where the comparison between African Americans and immigrant communities becomes a problematic issue. As bad as any form of racism is, it is a stretch for instance to suggest that the treatment of Indian Americans is comparable to the oppression of African Americans. But it is a bizarre departure from reality when a supremacist movement represented by a well-funded, very affluent section of the immigrant Indian American community claims to be oppressed like African Americans, especially when this claim is couched not in the aftermath of some terrible episode of racial violence or institutionalized brutality, but in the context of an effort to rewrite middle-school history textbooks in California.  

California’s school textbooks come up for review every six years. Recently the State Board of Education has become the center of an intense struggle over the content of middle school history textbooks pertaining to ancient India. [1] It is widely acknowledged by scholars that these textbooks leave much to be desired, some of these problems being factual errors (such as the idea that Hindi is written in the Arabic script with 18 letters) and others glaring displays of text writers’ ignorance and ethnocentrism (such as asking “do you see any monkeys around” after stating that Hindus worship a monkey god). What is needed is a thorough inspection and revision of these textbooks to overcome these problems with the view of advancing knowledge of ancient India consistent with the available historical research on the subject. Sensing an opportunity given the shoddy nature of these textbooks, an alliance of organizations with names such as “Vedic Foundation,” “Hindu Education Foundation” and “Hindu American Foundation” have attempted to radically rewrite these textbooks by proposing various edits that not only fail to address the problems inherent in these textbooks, but actually attempt to promote views that are consistent with Hindu supremacist ideology. 

The edits proposed by these organizations are consistent with the institutional and ideological ties these organizations have with the Hindu supremacist movement (Hindutva) led by the R.S.S. (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) in India. What is surprising and disturbing for anybody concerned with the rights of minority communities in the United States, is that these supremacist organizations have cast their efforts to rewrite California’s textbooks as if they were a struggle for minority rights. This claim could hardly be farther from the truth. The HEF and VF have together proposed edits to the textbooks that seek to erase the importance and centrality of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization by asserting without evidence and contrary to the established body of historical evidence, that Indo-Europeans (Aryans) are indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. They wish to mask and downplay the oppressive character of the caste system by treating it as if it were a form of social contract between people endowed with different capacities. This is a grievous insult to the historical experience of Dalits (erstwhile “untouchables”) and Sudras (lowest caste, mostly manual laborers and peasants). Additionally these proposed “edits” change references to the unequal rights of women in caste Hindu society into idyllic notions of “different duties” for men and women. 

Take for example the following paragraph from a MacMillan/McGraw Hill published history textbook, and the alternative proposed by the HEF which follows: 

MacMillan/McGraw Hill, page 252 last paragraph: 

“There was one group that did not belong to any varna. Its members were called untouchables. They performed work other Indians thought was too dirty, such as collecting trash, skinning animals, or handling dead bodies.” 

HEF wanted to delete the above paragraph and replace it with: 

“There was one group that did not belong to any varna. Its members were called untouchables because they performed dirty work such as skinning animals or handling dead bodies.”  

What this edit suggests through the subtle use of the word “because” is a causal relationship that inverts the reality of caste society. People are supposedly classified as untouchables because of the “dirty work” they do. In reality the term “untouchable” was part of an imposed social order whereby forms of labor considered impure by the social elites were imposed on those classified as untouchables. Elsewhere the HEF changes references to the mention of the “four castes” in the Rig Veda (an ancient sacred text of the Brahmins) into the “interrelationship and interdependence of the four classes” again with the intention of erasing caste as a system of discrimination and inequality. For a comprehensive account of the proposed edits by the HEF and the VF please see: www.friendsofsouthasia.org/textbook/TextbookEdits.html 

The similarities between racism and the caste-based discrimination prevalent in India has been the subject of vigorous debates, most recently at the 2001 U.N. Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa. [2] Dalit efforts to make the issue of Dalit human rights a part of the conference’s agenda faced stiff opposition from Hindu supremacist organizations in India who objected to this inclusion on the grounds that the abolition of the caste system would constitute a violation of Hindu human rights! The HEF and VF however believe that the oppression of Dalits in contemporary India is nonexistent since in their view such things cannot happen in post-independence India where untouchability is outlawed in the constitution. Such a denial is definitely comparable to the ridiculous notion that racism in the United States is nonexistent since the law forbids it! In fact the erasure of caste based discrimination proposed by these edits is far worse: the HEF and VF want to remove the word Dalit itself from the textbooks. These supremacist organizations are in effect targeting for silencing and erasure from history and the present, the very people who suffered most from millennia of caste-based discrimination.  

The HEF and VF are attempting to foist a view of ancient India that is consistent with the Hindu supremacist movement’s ahistorical assertions that Aryans (i.e. Hindus of the higher castes) are indigenous to India. This claim to indigenousness is inspired by and informs a chauvinist politics that sees all cultural “others” as outsiders and foreigners and thereby less-deserving of full rights. The Indus Valley Civilization has remained a historical problem for Hindutva’s proponents since it clearly proves a pre-Aryan indigenous civilizational complex that some have identified as Dravidian. The ancient Vedas (sacred texts of the upper caste Hindus) is replete with references and praise for light-skinned “gods” (Devas) vanquishing dark-skinned “Dasyus”. The rise of Aryan society in ancient India is therefore simultaneous to the decline and disruption of the Indus Valley civilization, AND the rise of the hegemonic caste system, which placed conquered peoples within lower and subordinate ranks while invading/migrating and lighter skinned Aryans became the upper castes of what then became Hinduism over thousands of years. Those defined by Aryan society as “untouchables” suffered the worst forms of institutionalized barbarism every created by human beings — for thousands of years they have lived condemned to the worst occupations, segregated socially, economically, culturally — and to this day targeted for brutalization by upper caste Hindus throughout India. (“50 Years of Independence , Still Untouchable,” Combat Law – the Human Rights Magazine, Vol. 1 Issue 4). 

By claiming that this effort to Hinduize ancient Indian history and erase the history of untouchability in the process represent the interests of an aggrieved minority, Hindutva activists insult the historical and contemporary legacy of struggles against racism and discrimination. In an article titled “Harvard Professor launches anti-Hindu crusade” that appears on a Hindu right-wing website, S. Kalyanaraman, an advisor to the HEF, and a senior ideologue of the Hindutva movement in the U.S., draws a parallel between white racists who protested against Harvard University for admitting African Americans in 1850, and the activists and scholars including some from Harvard University who intervened to oppose the HEF from having its way in the textbook-rewrite controversy. Casting himself and his allies as “victims” Kalyanaraman reduces the momentous struggles of African Americans in racist 19th century America to the level of the Hindutva movement’s efforts to sneak in supremacist propaganda through textbook edits.  

The human rights struggles of African Americans are now put on the same level as the “rights” claimed by Hindutva supremacists! Yankee Hindutva (i.e. the U.S. based Hindutva movement) is not a movement for minority rights by any stretch of the imagination — it is in truth the equivalent of an Indian Jim Crow movement seeking entry into the classrooms of sixth-graders by disguising itself as a representative of a victimized minority. Hindutva cannot project itself in the United States the way it does in India — arrogantly displaying its chauvinism in the public sphere since there it is a majoritarian movement. Even as recent as the second week of January 2006, the VHP and its affiliates have embarked on a campaign of violence and intimidation of Christians in the Adivasi (indigenous) regions of the Indian state of Orissa. While its U.S. affiliates feign victimhood and demand minority “rights” to write their own prejudices into the textbooks of U.S. sixth graders, the Indian VHP has no need for such antics – it is busy distributing swords and spikes to its cadres with the goal of fanning mayhem and murder for Hindutva. [3] The same advisor of the HEF noted above does not disguise his contempt for Indian Muslims as for instance in his outburst against the ideal of secularism: 

“It is time to attack the ‘secular’. It is a dirty word, a dirty system and should be used as a word of abuse against anyone who does not adhere to Sanatana Dharma . . . I think secularism should be deemed a negation of Dharma, anti-Dharma, a word of abuse and hence rejected altogether.” (“Secularism and Islam are incompatible,” by S. Kalyanaraman)

Notes: Secularism in India generally refers to the idea that there should be no discrimination against anyone on the basis of their religion or community. “Sanatana Dharma” is a term often used by upper caste Hindus to describe their religion as the “eternal law.”

APPENDIX

Meet the Hindu supremacist editors of California’s middle school textbooks – the HEF, VF and HAF and the Hindutva movement. 

1. “Vedic Foundation” (VF): (http://vedicfoundation.org) 

The Vedic Foundation may not be institutionally part of the RSS family of organizations but its conflation of India and Hinduism is identical to the RSS view that India and Hinduism are one and the same. It is also the case that the Vedic Foundation, like various new-age cults has a following that consists of people who have no problems with the Foundation’s bizarre claim that its work “describes the history of India and the religion of India (Bharatvarsh) of 155.521972 trillion years.” The close ideological affinity between the VF and the Sangh Parivar is perhaps best exemplified in this current effort to Hindutva-ize American history textbooks. See www.friendsofsouthasia.org/textbook/About_HEF_and_VF.html 

2. “Hindu Education Foundation” (HEF) (http://hindueducation.org) 

HEF was set up and run specifically for the textbook rewrite effort by a team of Hindutva operatives in the United States. The HEF is acknowledged as a “project” of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS, the core RSS affiliate in the US). The HEF consists of 15 members of which almost all are activists, ideologues and leaders in prominent Hindutva organizations throughout the U.S. (www.hindueducation.org/advisors.htm)

Recently an activist of the HSS attending an RSS event in India stated on the Times of India: “Through the Hindu Education Foundation run by the RSS in California, we have succeeded in correcting the misleading information in text books for primary and secondary classes,” said Soni. — RSS ABROAD: ‘We are striving to keep our culture alive,’ TIMES NEWS NETWORK, December 31, 2005, Page 5.”

Also see: www.friendsofsouthasia.org/textbook/About_HEF_and_VF.html  

3. “Hindu American Foundation” (HAF) (http://hinduamericanfoundation.org) 

The HAF provides legal assistance to the VF and HEF in the textbook rewrite effort. Its founder and president Mihir Meghani co-founded the Hindu Students Council (a project of the VHPA, US affiliate of the VHP, itself created by the RSS) more than a decade ago. HAF claims to represent “Hindu Americans” and waxes eloquent about “human rights” but its agenda is in sync with the Hindutva movement and not with any genuine human rights concerns. A few years ago Meghani made the following statement: 

“The future of Bharat is set. Hindutva is here to stay. It is up to the Muslims whether they will be included in the new nationalistic spirit of Bharat. It is up to the government and the Muslim leadership whether theywish to increase Hindu furor or work with the Hindu leadership to show that Muslims and the government will consider Hindu sentiments. The era of one-way compromise of Hindus is over, for from now on, secularism must mean that all parties must compromise.”

Meghani wrote this in a piece titled “Hindutva, the Great Nationalist Ideology” which can be read on the website of the BJP.  

To the best of our knowledge Mr. Meghani has neither repudiated this statement nor the sentiments behind it. Threatening Muslims in this disgusting manner disqualifies Meghani’s claims to represent any human rights concerns. If anything the notion that the human rights of one cultural/religious community is expendable and at the mercy of another community is utterly at odds with the universalism that the idea of human rights implies. Meghani’s HAF promotes a sectarian Hindu outlook by appropriating human rights discourse and supports an agenda that is inimical to all minorities in India. 

This same “human rights” outfit condemned the denial of a U.S. visa by the State Department to the Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi (widely held responsible for the organized genocide of Muslims by Hindutva organizations in the state of Gujarat in 2002) as “Hinduphobic,” and expressed “distress” over the arrest (in a murder case) of a prominent religious head of the Kanchi Mutt, an institution that remains fervently pro-caste system and anti-Dalit. Undaunted by such contradictions, the HAF expends resources attacking critics and opponents of Hindutva as anti-Hindus. Why would an organization committed to Hindutva project its cause in terms of a “minority” seeking “human rights?” It is perhaps more likely that the HAF’s organizational effort is to enable the Hindutva agenda to sneak through the backdoor of multiculturalism by deceiving the U.S. public and the CA board of education into thinking that it (the HAF and its allies) represent an aggrieved and marginalized community seeking inclusion and equality. 

Raja Swamy is a writer and activist based in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at: raja.swamy@gmail.com.

RELATED ARTICLE

* Now, Hindu Nationalists Rewriting California Textbooks by Angana Chatterji

REFERENCES

[1] “Speak Out Against the Hindutva Assault on California’s History Textbooks.”

[2] “Fighting Caste Bias, Shefali Srinivas,” Women’s eNews, September 2001.

[3] “Stop VHP reconversion drive, Minorities panel tells Centre,” Indian Express, January 15, 2006.

by Raja Swamy, www.dissidentvoice.org ,January 19, 2006

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Michael WitzelProfessor Michael Witzel, Wales Professor of Sanskrit in the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Harvard University, shot off a letter to the California Board of Education on November 8 after coming to know what he described was US-based Hindu groups’s attempt to have sections of school textbooks relating to information on ancient India, Hindu religion and culture altered to conform to their views.

Professor Witzel warned in the letter, co-signed, among others, by Stanley Wolpert, Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Los Angeles, a pre-eminent American specialist on Indian history, and Romila Thapar, India’s most famous historian on ancient India and a recent Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, that the textbook changes proposed by these groups would lead to an international educational scandal if accepted by California’s Board of Education.

Following the letter, Professor Witzel, who has lived and taught Mimamsa philosophy in Nepal for more than five years and held many positions in the US and Germany, was retained by the Curriculum Commission along with Professor Wolpert to revisit the changes/edits approved by the ad hoc committee.

After the commission, an advisory body, decided by vote to accept only a dozen or so of the 58 recommendations made by the Witzel panel, Professor Witzel spoke to rediff India Abroad Senior Editor Suman Guha Mozumder explaining the reasons for his panel’s opposition to the corrections proposed by the Hindu groups.

Why did you choose to write to the Board of Education almost at the end of the process? What issues were you and other scholars on India uncomfortable with?

It was the whole approach these two Foundations — the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation — took on the issue of textbooks. As we mentioned, the agenda of these groups proposing these changes is familiar to all specialists on Indian history who have recently won a long battle to prevent exactly these kinds of changes from finding a permanent place in history textbooks in India.

The proposed revisions are not of a scholarly but of a religious-political nature and promoted by Hindutva supporters and non-specialist academics who write on issues outside their areas of expertise.

Could you elaborate?

I must perhaps say that school textbooks are never perfect, and are always behind the curve. But now what these two Foundations have done with their proposed changes is to make the textbooks even worse for the school children of California.

Why do you think so?

The reasons are twofold.

First of all, it is a rewriting of Hinduism. Academics discuss Hinduism, among all religions, keeping in mind that there are so many diverse groups. If you read their edits, it would seem like Hinduism is a monotheistic religion, like Christianity or Judaism, with God spelt with a capital G.

It is a very narrow sectarian approach and that is being inserted into textbooks.

I have no preference, but you see there are tantriks, lingayets and others who too are Hindus, but all of them are missing (in the groups’ opinion of Hinduism) and you get only one particular, sectarian and religiously-motivated point of view.

What is the second reason?

Number two is that history too has also been rewritten seriously. If you had gone to the Vedic Foundation web site, you will be happy to see that Indian civilisation is 1.9 million years old. I wonder who was around that time in India but anyway they say it is that old.

I believe you and your panel objected to as many as 58 proposals approved by the ad hoc committee. What were the main ones?

I do not know (because) there are so many. The main ones are on the side of philosophy and religion. They talk only in terms of God and cut out other gods and goddesses. Then there are many historical inaccuracies. They would say that Hinduism is just Vedic.

If it was just Vedic then many things like the worship of goddess Kali would not be part of present day Hinduism. Or they would say that the ancient sacrifices or jagnas did not involve any animal sacrifice. As if nobody knows what goes on in Kalighat (a temple in Kolkata where goats used to be sacrificed until a few years ago) or Kathmandu (capital of Nepal, the only Hindu kingdom in the world) every day.

They say the same things for the early Vedic period. There are historical inaccuracies all over the place.

I believe your panel had objections about the corrections relating to the caste system.

It is always complicated. First of all, the textbooks authors had confused caste and class although that has been corrected. But they say the caste system developed in the last few centuries or so. But the fact that the caste system was there before the British came to rule India is denied by them.

To come back to our point, what they are doing is misrepresentation of both history and religion.

Your panel also had objections on women’s rights.

Young women would be happy to learn that, as the edits suggest, that their rights were different from the rights of men in India like the slave owners and slaves had. Schools children will learn that, although it contradicts what the ancient Indian texts say.

A very famous quote from Manu says ‘a woman should be guarded at all stages of her life — as a child at home by her father, as a married woman by her husband and as a widow by her son.’ Thank you very much for the protection, but these things are never mentioned. Only that women and men had different rights.

The Shruti says, for example in the Satapatha Brahmana, that in war one should not kill women.

But the next sentence says one should just rob them. It shows the rights of women, but it also shows the position of women, too!

Could this be out of ignorance of history?

You know, I would agree with them as far as the ultimate cause is concerned because Hindus and others living in the US notice that their religion gets misrepresented and there is a need to correct the image. I agree with that.

But the question is how to go about it?

The intention of the Vedic Foundation and Hindu Education Foundation was good but the way they are doing it, as I said, is sectarian, narrow and historically wrong.

If they had consulted scholars in the US — and most of them are South Asians — then they would have got a balanced proposal.

Of course, scholars would not always agree with the religious people and the religious people would not agree with each other, but at least you would have got a balanced set of proposals.

That has not happened. Instead, you get narrow, sectarian points of views. I am hundred percent in favour of rewriting these books but not in this way.

I believe most of the recommendations made by the ad hoc committee have been upheld despite the suggestions/alterations suggested by you. Does it surprise you, given the fact that you and Professor Wolpert made suggestions?

I have several reports from that meeting from people who were present. The proceedings were incorrect. They did not follow the mandate that they had but made it up themselves. I mean the Curriculum Commission made up their own mandate. The meeting was taken over by one of the commissioners. In simple American language, it was really a mess.

This is something for the Californians to sort out. It was not done properly by this ad hoc committee and it was dominated by one commissioner who pushed for a sectarian, unhistorical narrow approach to corrections. They also did not take into account other Hindu voices, forget about us.

Do you think…

You see the main aim is to present India in the best light which is fine. They are really trying to erase things that are negative. But there are negative things. I just do not understand why does one have to do such things? Just praise what is good. But that is never done.

Why not say we (India) had early development of maths, good surgeons and good philosophy 2000 years ago, things that are factually correct?

I always get misrepresented that I am a Hindu hater, but I am not.

I hate people who misrepresent history.

Do you agree with the perception in certain quarters that it is a victory of sorts for Hindus in America?

That is a very doubtful characterisation (laughs) if you follow this particular issue. You might be angry if you know anything about history and might not be happy.

Rediff Dec 2005

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T.K. RAJALAKSHMI
in New Delhi

The exoneration of the historians involved with the “Towards Freedom Project” in the interim report of the Bandopadhyay Committee is evidence of the BJP-led government’s communal agenda.

 

 



S.Gopal

THE interim report submitted by D. Bandopadhyay, a former Secretary to the Government of India inquiring into the affairs of the Indian ICHR of Historical Research (ICHR), has exonerated the General Editor and Editors of the two volumes of the “Towards Freedom Project” of the charge levelled against them by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government. The charge was that the volumes were sent to press without the knowledge of the ICHR. The interim report, based on the evidence unearthed by the one-man committee, is bound to cause some discomfort to the BJP, more specifically to former Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister and senior BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi.

The report, in an obtuse reference to the previous regime, observes: “It is unfortunate that it [the project] got unduly delayed due to various exogenous and endogenous circumstances and attracted criticism from various quarters.”

The committee was appointed on September 6, 2004, by the Department of Secondary and Higher Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development. It was given six months to submit a report to the government covering five broad areas: the administrative and financial functioning of the ICHR in relation to the aims and objectives as laid down in the Memorandum of Association; the non-publication/stoppage of volumes of the “Towards the Freedom Project”; and the non-submission of research work by scholars who were given fellowship by the ICHR during 1995-96 – 2000-2001, as highlighted in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General 2002-03. The committee was also mandated to give recommendations and suggest remedial measures to improve the functioning of the ICHR and ensure its autonomy.

One of the controversies that the ICHR got dragged into, and for which the interim inquiry committee was set up, was the tendentious but prestigious “Towards Freedom Project”. During the tenure of the BJP-led government, the HRD Ministry took a serious view of some of the volumes of the project and did not allow them to be published on some procedural pretext. The reasons were far from procedural; they were more ideological, as the interim report has established. The interim report focuses almost entirely on the “Towards Freedom Project” and reflects the meticulous and objective work of the inquiry committee. The final report will be submitted in March.

At the outset, the committee was hamstrung by the non-availability of the main file of the ICHR relating to the “Towards Freedom Project”. It was informed that the file had been requisitioned by Murli Manohar Joshi. It transpired that even before the committee made a request for the main file, former member-secretaries of the ICHR, R.C. Aggarwal and A.K. Ambasht had written, in August 2002 and July 2004 respectively, to Joshi’s personal secrertary Alok Tandon requesting him to trace the file and send it back to the ICHR. Even Bandopadhyay wrote to the Ministry to return the file. “The file remains untraceable in both the personal office of the Minister of HRD and in the Ministry of HRD. Obviously, someone in the previous HRD Minister’s office wilfully removed the file from the public domain with some ulterior motive,” the interim report states. It adds: “Unless these important files were retrieved, much of the materials relating to the non-publication/stoppage of Towards Freedom Project would never be unearthed.”

The Bandopadhyay Committee had to depend on the annual reports of the ICHR, agenda papers and minutes of the ICHR’s meetings, press clippings and articles in magazines regarding the controversy, Parliament questions, status papers and the draft White Paper prepared by the ICHR, and so on. It was evident that the inquiry committee faced considerable difficulty in collecting all the relevant material in the absence of the main file.

The Towards Freedom Project was initially with the National Archives of India (NAI). After the setting up of the ICHR, it was made the executing agency of the project. The primary objective of the unique project was to collect material from official and private sources, news reports and other contemporary sources that dealt with the social and economic dimensions of the Indian National Movement for the decade preceding Independence, that is, from 1937 to 1947. The volumes were meant also to reflect the aspirations of the masses, apart from the struggles and the sacrifices made by people who led the movement against the imperial power.

In 1972-73, the project was reorganised and an editorial board comprising eminent historians was set up, and in 1975 the late Professor S. Gopal was made the Honorary Chief Editor. The project, funded by the Ministry of Education, was to be completed by March 31, 1988. It was restructured in accordance with a decision taken by the ICHR’s Advisory Committee in August 1987. Ten volumes were planned, and one volume was published before the restructuring of the project. Eminent historians were invited to edit them and Prof. Gopal was made the General Editor of the project. It was also decided during the restructuring that the documents would be classified on a thematic basis instead of a chronological order.

As 1988 was fast approaching, the ICHR sought an extension of the deadline . As no progress could be made, the government withdrew the project and gave it to the NIA and later decided to fund it until March 1992. It was decided that all volumes pertaining to the Project should be published by March 31, 1994. The deadline could not be met.

The project became a part of the ICHR’s routine activity and came to be known as “Special Publication Programme”. But the processing work continued, as revealed by the ICHR’s Annual Report for 1995-96. The report states that volumes covering the years 1938, 1940, 1943-44 and 1946 were processed for publication. Two volumes covering the period 1943-44 edited by Professor P.S. Gupta, were sent to the Oxford University Press for publication. This volume was published in 1997.

The Annual Report for 1996-97 states that the volumes edited by Sumit Sarkar (1946) and K.N. Panikkar (1940) would be sent to the press in October 1997. Relying on the information from the Annual Reports for 1996-97 and 1998-99, the inquiry report concluded that the volumes edited by Panikkar and Sarkar were lying in the ICHR’s custody for three and a half years for different stages of processing.

This has been a very crucial finding as it is instrumental in debunking the notion put forth by ICHR officials close to the previous government that the volumes of Panikkar and Sarkar were not looked at by the ICHR at all and sent straightaway for publication. It was on this ground that the two volumes were withdrawn from the press. It was strange, observed the interim report, that the Annual Report for 2000-01 did not mention anything further on the status of the project, which was the most important and direct publication programme of the ICHR. The Annual Reports of the subsequent years until 2003 also failed to mention anything about the project. Stated the inquiry report: “From such silence, it could be inferred that either the project had been completed prior to 2000-01 or it was abandoned. Having spent so much of public funds on the project and involved so many eminent historians and academics, such silence speaks of high degree of academic irresponsibility verging on grave dereliction of duty on the part of the authorities in general and of the then Chairman and Member Secretary in particular.”

 

H. VIBHU

K.N. Panikkar

A perusal of the agenda notes and the minutes of the ICHR’s meeting relating to the project by the inquiry committee revealed some interesting facts. The inquiry report has reserved some of the most scathing comments for the ICHR’s demeanour in the case of the volumes edited by Panikkar and Sarkar. In the 43rd meeting of the ICHR on December 28, 1999, when B.R. Grover was the Chairperson, the ICHR decided that the “remaining volumes still to be published should not be sent for publication without having been read and reviewed by the Council/Review Committee”.

In the same meeting, it was also decided that the publication of the two volumes should be stopped temporarily and their manuscripts sent to the ICHR/Review Committee.

The inquiry committee observed: “It was indeed a very strange decision to temporarily stop the publication of these two volumes.” It added that the ICHR had not recorded any adverse remarks regarding the academic quality of the two volumes.

Further, it noted that “if all the proofs were not received by the Council from Oxford University Press, they should have asked for it. Non-receipt of some portion of proof cannot be a legitimate ground for temporary stoppage of publication”. It stated that it was “indeed unusual” that while in the 41st meeting, the ICHR appreciated “the hard work” put in by the editors of the “Towards Freedom Project”, the 43rd meeting of the ICHR decided to stop temporarily the printing of the manuscripts already in the press on some “puerile grounds”. And more specifically, the report observed that “obviously, the Council did not take the decision on its own but did so on the basis of some direction or hint from somewhere else. To cover it up, they gave an inane reason of non-receipt of proof for stopping publication”.

 

S. SUBRAMANIUM

Prof. Sumit Sarkar

After a perusal of the minutes of the 46th meeting of the ICHR, where the temporary suspension of the publication of the volumes was recorded and a review recommended by a committee of experts, the inquiry committee found that Grover had requested Professor Devendra Swaroop to prepare a status report. Swaroop was not a member of the ICHR at any time; neither did the minutes show the reasons for assigning the task to him, especially when he was not associated with the ICHR except as a special project holder.

As the circumstances were intriguing, the inquiry committee concludes that “one can reasonably presume that the Council took this unusual decision on some extraneous consideration unrelated to serious academic issue”. The report also observed that despite the status report never being prepared, secretarial assistance was provided to Swaroop. “Thus the money spent on providing secretarial assistance to Dr. Devendra Swaroop was totally wasted.”

The inquiry report has unearthed enough evidence to establish that both the Chairman (Professor S. Settar) and the ICHR were under outside pressure to sabotage the “Towards Freedom Project”. Settar, in an interview to Frontline in March 2000, had said that “two volumes were sent to the press with my knowledge” and that the matter was duly reported by him to the ICHR (Frontline, March 17, 2000). But a status paper was produced by the ICHR, which was completely contrary to the facts present in the Annual Reports.

The inquiry report has described as a “perfidious lie” the claims in the status paper regarding Prof. P.S. Gupta’s volume that it was sent to the press without the knowledge of the publication section of the ICHR. This claim has been debunked in the Annual Report for 1995-96. “It continued to harp on this deceit when it mentioned `the two volumes prepared by Prof. K.N. Panikkar and Prof. Sumit Sarkar covering 1940 and 1946 respectively had already been sent to the press (OUP) without any scrutiny’.”

 

S. ARNEJA

B.R. Grover

Relying almost entirely on information present in the Annual Reports, the inquiry committee observes: “Obviously, the authorities of ICHR were deliberately and wilfully fabricating lies after lies, ignoring their own factual statements mentioned in the Annual Reports submitted to Parliament. This was done obviously with an ulterior motive of defaming, maligning and tarnishing the academic image of distinguished historians like Professor Sumit Sarkar, Professor K.N. Panikkar and above all the late Professor S. Gopal and to find out some justification for their utterly unreasonable and unethical action of withdrawing the volumes under print.” A scathing indictment indeed.

The report states that “as the Chairman of the ICHR, [the] late B.R. Grover played a dubious role in the withdrawal of the two volumes from the press”. A typed but unsigned note on “Facts about Toward Freedom Project” was recovered from the cupboard of Grover, in which criticisms were levelled against the work of P.S. Gupta and Basudev Chatterjee. The main points in the note were that Mahatma Gandhi had been reduced to a mere footnote; that the Communist Party, “which had played a traitorous role” in the freedom struggle, had been highlighted out of proportion; that the thematic arrangements allowed for subjectivity with the specific objective of fabricating a past to a purpose of propaganda for a particular ideology; and that the volumes were unusually bulky resulting in a high cost of production and unaffordable prices.

Rejecting all the criticisms made in the note, the inquiry committee found that the charge that the historians attempted to hide “the traitorous role” of the Communist Party of India was untenable and baseless. “As honest historians, they revealed the truth as it appeared in the contemporary documents,” stated the inquiry report, adding that both the volumes by P.S. Gupta and Basudev Chatterjee contained a large number of documents relating to the Hindu Mahasabha, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and Hindu communalism and the Muslim League. In fact, the eagerness of the Hindu Mahasabha in forging links with the allied powers has been revealed in the volumes. “The volumes of Dr. Basudev Chatterjee (1938) and Professor P.S. Gupta (1942-43) which contain objective documents relating to all political parties, social groups and individuals somehow traced the raw nerves of some people who reacted rather violently to scuttle the whole project. The ICHR should act very fast to complete the project before another assault is mounted to subvert it,” observed the inquiry report.

Sixty-five per cent of the work still remains to be done. The report recommends the immediate revival of the project with a separate fund allocation from the government; completion of the project in the next 24 months; appointment of an eminent historian as general editor; constitution of an editorial board; appointment of volume editors, and so on.

Front Line Magazine, Jan 29 – Feb 11, 2005

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Professor Romila Thapar, one of India’s finest historians, is in the news again — for refusing the Padma Bhushan. During the reign of the National Democratic Alliance government, she was in the news for a series of run-ins with the ideologues of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the largest party in the NDA coalition. The BJP was keen to do away with her interpretation of history and present a new version — which was questioned by most historians for its authenticity and interpretation since it sought to glorify the Hindu aspects at the cost of non-Hindu aspects. The United Progressive Alliance government put an end to the ‘rewriting’ of history.

Thapar’s refusal of the Government of India’s award had so many from the media questioning her that she made copies of her reasons for declining the award and distributed them (the statement is reproduced below as the answer to the first question).

She also agreed to give an interview to Deputy Managing Editor Amberish K Diwanji where she dwelt on the study of Indian history in the country today.
Why did you decline the Padma Bhushan?

My declining a State award is an entirely personal decision that I took 13 years ago when I was first offered the same award and which I also declined then. I decided at that time that I would only accept academic and professional awards. And because it is a personal decision, let me emphasise that it does not reflect on others who have accepted the awards, neither is it a gesture of arrogance nor of opposition to the government. I was more than delighted with the election results of 2004.

I also have a sense of unease about these awards. One of the problems is that over the years there has been a degree of slippage where State awards are being seen as government awards, in effect, government patronage. The line dividing them may be thin but has to be maintained.

The procedures for these awards should be systematised and made more transparent. We should know who is consulted when names are considered, what the procedure is in taking a decision, and who decides. If the names of the members of these committees are known, that would add to the prestige of the award. Those listed for awards should be consulted just prior to the finalisation of the list. This would save considerable embarrassment on both sides when awards are declined.

These awards are generally given to those who are already recognised. One would like to see a larger number of awards going to those who are doing valiant work in various fields and who remain unrecognised: those in rural education, health care, urban slums, and areas essential to the well-being of our society as a whole. Awards going to such people would lend far greater weight in society to the work that they are doing.

Politics and lobbying plays a part in all awards, whether academic or even the Nobel Prize. Does that take away from the award or the recipient?

State awards have become increasingly mixed up with government patronage in India. But there is a difference between State awards and professional awards. The latter are strictly for the work one has done and nothing else. Therefore, I prefer taking a professional or an academic award.

The other point I’d like to make is that although many awards do get politicised, including professional awards, nevertheless in a professional context, a smaller group of people is involved, and professionals can critique a judgment. One can say that so-and-so doesn’t deserve the award, but it is very difficult to say that in a State award, which is more extensive, has a lot of people involved in different fields, and so forth.

My decision was the same in 1992 and my reasons then were the same as they are now. I have stayed with these reasons all through my career and I have stayed with the same decision.

Moreover, in societies like ours, there isn’t the same value placed on academic awards as is placed on State awards and one always likes to encourage academic and professional awards.

You had also said that in India awards are usually given to those who have already accomplished rather than to recognise emerging talent as they should. And it has always been pointed out that far too often, the Indian government recognises talent after it is recognised by an international body.

What I was trying to suggest is that awards are given to those who are already recognised. There are a large number of people who are working in unglamorous areas such as rural education, urban slums, etc. Some of them are doing valiant jobs and a lot of their credibility and respect would be increased if they were given a Padma Shri or Padma Bhushan. I think more of these persons need to be brought into the net of awards than they are at the moment. That is what I meant when I said the awards tend to be given to people who are already recognised.

International recognition does seem to be rewarded by national recognition.

You said textbooks are written based on accepted knowledge. So what should be the parameters for changing textbooks? A lot of people might object to, say, the school history textbooks as found in West Bengal. After all, there will always be some who will oppose change.

It depends on where the demand for change comes from. If it suddenly comes from political parties, then there is a suspicion as to why they want to change the textbooks. In the normal course of pedagogy, all knowledge has to be reconsidered from time to time because knowledge advances. The history that was written 20 years ago has to be revised in the light of new advances, whether in source material or interpretation. The objection is not to the fact that the history has to be revised, but to the basis on which that revision takes place.

If a committee of a dozen respected and recognised historians go through the textbooks and tell us where and what should be revised, none of us will have objections to the principle, although we may disagree with the suggested revisions.

But people who represent the Arya Samaj, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), the (Shiromani) Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee or this and that — and none of them historians — when they say that they object to various statements in the history textbooks, then we have to ask for historically based objections. They are not historians and there can be little historical discussion on the objections. Here the purpose comes to be seen as one where ideology, in the political sense, is being brought in.

That seems to be happening worldwide. We now have a situation in the US where there is a demand to study the ‘theory’ of creation alongside the theory of evolution.

Yes, but the point is that there is a debate and there are people fighting the compulsory teaching of creationism. But you are right, this is not an entirely Indian phenomenon. Everywhere there are groups that don’t wish to bring in change and this leads to debates.

The only difference is that debates are generally conducted in a civilised manner, whereas here, when ministers of the Government of India were abusing us publicly by name, day in and day out, this was really not called for. That kind of behaviour doesn’t make for a debate.

There is a complaint that our history is seen from a certain perspective. For instance, Dalits often complain about lacking representation in history.

That is the same as the gender perspective. There is much feminist history that is only now being written. This frequently happens — that as and when groups become empowered, they wish to see their history at least incorporated in or parallel to the existing history. And this will continue a this is one perspective from which history changes. What I wrote about dalits and women in my recent Early India is much more than what I wrote 35 years ago, because there wasn’t that consciousness 35 years ago.

So it does boil down to the fact that history is driven by the political and social changes taking place?

No, it does not boil to that. Not at all! What it boils down to is that the political and social changes may make us conscious of other dimensions that we had missed out earlier. But the change in history is not one that simply reflects contemporary changes since there has to be reliable data for making statements about the past, or ways of looking at existing data that may give us leads that can be tested.

But so often history misses aspects. For example, books on Maratha history took a long time to discover that under the Peshwas, the Dalits suffered terribly. And this didn’t come out till recently.

I don’t know about this particular case. But more generally, one reason is that history, till recent times, has been treated as the history of elite groups, (is) because it was only the elite groups that left written sources, inscriptions and other literary records. If the Dalits had done so, if there were texts written by Dalits in earlier periods, those texts would have been treated as source material.

It is only now that historians have become conscious of the oral tradition and conscious of what (anthropologist) Eric Wolfe has called ‘people without history.’ They were regarded as people without history; but then, everyone has a history, and that is an input.

The awareness of these histories has some influence on our understanding of identities from the past. And when one is talking about looking for identities, it is no longer a single identity that the historian is concerned with, but the recognition of multiple and sometimes overlapping identities.

Are we as a people ready for critical history? So often our books lead to a public outcry.

This is part of the process of getting used to discussion and debate. It doesn’t happen overnight. We were a colony for 200 years in which our entire intellectual debate was focused on not deviating from the given message, not challenging convention and authority.

We challenged it at the political level through nationalism and this had its influence on secular historical writing. Now we have to challenge convention not as an opposition to colonialism alone, but through new ways of understanding the past and this includes accommodating intellectual processes that question conventional knowledge. It will take time to adjust to this, but it is happening.

If you read the history that has been written in the last few decades you will find that it does question conventional views and does so in methodical and precise ways. There is a premium on critical enquiry and this needs encouragement. The attack on critical enquiry, not just in history but in various fields of knowledge under the previous (NDA) government, has done a lot of damage.

But so often opinions are so sharply divided. For instance, you either have versions saying thousands of temples were destroyed or very few were.

There is historical writing investigating which temples were destroyed and for what reason and which declined through other reasons. These are careful analyses and not partisan figures. They are concerned with the why and how of the rise and decline of a temple.

The problem is that much of the general public, and particularly the media, seems to have given up on reading. Today, all that is wanted is not a book but a byte, and a sensational byte at that. So either it is said that ‘Oh they destroyed all the temples’ or that ‘No, no, they did not destroy the temples.’

Temples have a biography and a community history, which explains much of what happens to them. A large range of questions have to be asked and answered. Such questions are being asked and answered by historians. But few are interested in these because it means a little bit of reading, the kind of activity that most television channels set aside.

The media is only interested in sensation! I am sorry but I am convinced about this.

Are you writing another book?

I am writing on something that I have been thinking about for virtually all my working life. There is a widely held theory that Indians never had a sense of history, that Indian civilisation was ‘a-historical.’ I am trying to refute this by pointing out that there is a historical tradition; it is expressed differently but it is there and I am trying to trace it.

How would you assess the study of Indian history at present? Is much research being done?

Oh yes, there is an enormous amount that is being done. The public perception of history generally goes back to books that were written 50 years ago or so, but in fact, in the last half century, much has been done to further the methods of historical writing. The basis of this has become much more specialised, and historical research much more complex.

Now we speak about the historical method, which wasn’t talked about when I was a student. It is a method that requires a historian to assess evidence — and particularly its reliability — to analyse it, to examine as many causes as possible, to argue for a priority of causes, and then to finally to bring the argument together in a historical generalisation. There is a method to the procedures and to specialised research. This is something that the press, the visual media and the politicians don’t understand when they readily pronounce on history.

The point that I have been making all along in the issue that was being discussed during the period of the BJP government about NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) textbooks is the difference between textbooks and research. Textbooks are never at the cutting edge of knowledge because the main purpose of a textbook is to encapsulate the mainstream of accepted knowledge. Those on the frontiers of knowledge, propounding new theories, do not include these in textbooks. Maybe some years from now, when this knowledge becomes part of the mainstream knowledge, it will become part of textbooks.

But many who took part in this debate during the last five years were unfamiliar with the kind of historical research that was being carried out because they didn’t read the books we were writing. They were commenting on us as historians on the basis of what they read in the textbooks, if at all they read the textbooks.

So the attack on me was because I had talked about the eating of beef in the Vedic period in a Class VI textbook. This has been an established fact in historical research for many decades and therefore has found its way into a textbook. And the people who were vilifying me as a historian were people who had certainly not read my other books on history.

But is there a case that ultimately the version of history we accept is determined by ideology?

In the case of the confrontation with the BJP it was not just ideology but also the intention of using history as part of an ideology geared to political mobilisation. It is something that has been slowly boiling up as it were and was used when the opportunity occurred.

A clear example was the Ram Janmabhoomi movement where there was a misuse of history in order to support political mobilisation. In fact, the historical factor should not have come in at all. If people have a belief in their associations with a particular place, and it is an appeal to faith, this has nothing to do with the history of the place. You can’t bring history into faith. But there is the feeling all the time that in order to strengthen the argument, if you can say there is historical proof as well, then it becomes much stronger.

There are various ways of seeing ideology. Where ideology is the driving force of ideas it can lead to shifts in the paradigms of knowledge and to that extent knowledge can be driven by a context that includes ideology. This has been argued even for much of scientific advance. The point here is that knowledge is that which makes advances or overcomes any kind of ideological constraints and goes forward.

But at a more ordinary level, there is the kind of ideology that becomes a mechanism for political mobilisation. This has nothing to do with knowledge. It has to do with a political intention and political agenda. Therefore the attack should not be on the driving force of knowledge but on the intention of using ideology for political gain.

Aren’t you contradicting yourself here? If knowledge is driven by ideology…

(Interrupting) No, I am not saying it is driven by ideology. There is a difference. Ideology may play a role in pushing knowledge in a particular direction, but this is a different kind of ideology as it does not require people to demolish historical monuments. The popular definition of ideology is more a programme for political action.

But wouldn’t it have the tinge of the ideology that drove it?

If the word ideology is used in its widest sense, namely, the manner of thinking of individuals, then everything has a tinge of ideology; the way one speaks, what one eats, how one thinks… that is part of life and in part an explanation of what one is. From this perspective all our attitudes to life are tinged with ideology.

Does that mean there is no such thing as objective history?

There is no absolute objective history but some histories are more objective than others based on how the historical methods are used. There are no absolutes.

Rediff, Feb 2005

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Romila Thapar … “Historical writing is not a free-for-all in which anyone can claim to be writing history.”Romila ThaparProfessor Romila Thapar was recently in Chennai at the invitation of the Prakriti Foundation, known to bring to the city the best among scholars and artists for an enlightened audience. She gave two lectures at the Museum Theatre on two unusual but important themes — “Perceiving the Forests: Early India” and ” Somanatha: The many Voices of a History”. They made Thapar’s lectures almost dramatic in their presentation with a rich artistic background to the stage, but the scholar performer had members of the audience glued to their seats with her highly academic and lucid presentation, which needed no setting or backdrop.

The two lectures were highly illuminating and were marked by the historiographical advance of recent scholarship, which has revolutionised our understanding of the nature of the discipline and our vision of the past. What was of interest to the audience was that they demonstrated the kind of historiographical changes that have taken place in both the handling of new themes and in the re-interpretation of existing theories. The first lecture on the forest was undoubtedly a new theme and the subject of the forest in history may have been puzzling to some, but the intention of the lecture was not only to show that such non-conventional subjects are relevant to the study of history but also to narrate changes that have taken place during a long span of time — Fifth Century B.C. to Seventh Century A.D. The choice of the theme is noteworthy. It indicates the importance to historians today of themes that had been neglected in the past or not even recognised as important in historical processes which would extend to societies such as pastoralists and forest dwellers and their contribution to mainstream history, and also those who had been at the lower end of society or had been marginalised.

Professor R. Champakalakshmi spoke to Professor Thapar on the significance of the choice of themes.

HOW important is the study of the forest for the present, especially in India?

Its relevance to the present is in the form of two aspects. One is the varied symbolism of the forest in Indian literature and culture, which has not really been investigated or fully explored, e.g., in the epics, exile is into the forest and the forest becomes a central space for the activities of the heroes. The question of why the forest was chosen relates to the early views in some North Indian texts, of the dichotomy between the forest and the settlement (aranya and grama or vana and kshetra). The interface between the two concepts is played out in many later texts. The second is the attitude of our present day society to the forest. There is a tendency to almost ignore the centrality of the forest and the people who live in it because their culture and living pattern is regarded as different if not inferior.

Has this attitude always existed?

Attitudes to the forest have changed in time and space. In some texts there was a dichotomy posed between the settlement and the forest. The forest was initially regarded as an unfamiliar space, a wilderness hosting people whose culture was alien. Sometimes the descriptions of such people are projected as realistic as in the description of, for example, the Nishada and Sabara, although even this supposed realism becomes a stereotype. At the other end the question may be asked as to whether the references to the Rakshasa, the Preta and the Daitya, demons and ghosts of various kinds could have been a reference to the alien people of the forest. Demonising the “other” is sometimes a technique to justify holding such people in contempt and even attacking them.

Was the relationship between the settlement and the forest always a contested relationship?

No. This was not always the case. There are other texts in which the relationship is depicted as distinct but harmonious or symbiotic, as in the Tinai ecologies of the Tamil Sangam texts, a concept that is just beginning to acquire importance in environmental history and needs to be discussed further. There is also the romanticising of the forest, as for example in the plays of Kalidasa. The forest is symbolic of nature and although there is some tension between the settlement and the forest, the forest is not a wilderness or an unknown place and is not associated with evil. In fact these changes in attitudes come about in different kinds of societies in different periods.

If the subject is relevant today, then what was the attitude of the state to the forest in the early past?

One major difference between the depiction of the forest in creative literature and the concern of state policy is the example of Kautilya’s Arthasasatra. The forest here is a resource from which the state derived revenue. The products of the forest such as timber, gemstones and elephants contribute to revenue as also does the clearing of the forest and converting the land to cultivation. From mid-first millennium A.D. onwards, the state increasingly made grants of land to religious authorities and institutions and to a lesser extent to those who served the state. Where such grants were of waste land or in the forested area they entailed the conversion of forest land to cultivation. Doubtless such activities would in some areas have been resisted by those who habitually derived their livelihood from the forest.

Where the relationship was not confrontational, what form could it have taken?

This is actually a very important area which has been discussed by social scientists working on recent history in relation to the conversion of non-caste groups to castes. It is one aspect of what some sociologists have referred to as the process of change from jana to jati. This process can be recognised in some sources of the early period but needs more detailed investigation. The argument that is sometimes made is that when caste society comes into juxtaposition with the peoples of the forest, there is a process of what might be called osmosis, where the conversion of the forest people to caste can take place, although frequently they continue to observe their kinship patterns, customary laws and religious beliefs and practices. As has often been stated by historians working on the history of religion, new forms of deities and new rituals were possibly contributed through this osmosis. The osmosis could be an end product of confrontation or of juxtaposition, depending on the particular circumstances.

Does this not suggest that it is entirely ahistorical to maintain that Indian tradition goes back to a single source and is monolithic? What you are suggesting is that there has to be a study of the multiplicity of sources and contexts that went into the making of Indian religious tradition.

Yes. I agree entirely.

For environmental history, your approach would seem to be a preliminary but necessary step towards further analysis of past attitudes to environment, man-nature relationship and ecological changes.

Yes. It is. One hopes that such subjects are taken up and analysed further.

Taking the lecture on Somanatha, it was in many ways a demonstration of a methodologically significant analysis of one of the most challenging of historical events — the raid of Mahmud of Ghazni on Somanatha in A.D. 1026. What is of value in this analysis is that the sources have all been well known to all historians in the past but their inter-relationships have not been probed and the event has been repeatedly misrepresented and abused for political ends. Your re-appraisal of a wide range of sources (six categories), situating them in their historical contexts reveals varied perspectives, diverse and even contradictory perceptions even in a single category of sources viz., the Turko-Persian chronicles and narratives, in projecting the raid as a crusade and Mahmud as a champion of Islam, the ideal Islamic ruler who founded Muslim rule in India, which is historically an inaccurate statement. You rightly attribute it to the erroneous periodisation of Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British, which made it into a national event, as also the languages of their major sources viz., Sanskrit, Persian (especially for the Medieval period) and English, ignoring all other contemporary and later sources in other languages of other regions, particularly the contemporary Sanskrit inscriptions and Jain biographies and chronicles, apart from trade and mutually supportive agreements between traders and local big men regarding land and property for religious purposes. The colonial interpretations, which made it a national event, constructed the memory of a trauma among the Hindus, depicting Muslims as uniformly tyrannical and oppressive causing a deep Hindu-Muslim divide. Thus an event which had a restricted local significance and a political motive was blown out of proportion and constructed as the social memory of a traumatic national disaster. Equally important is the fact that what comes through in the lecture is the centrality of the context of the sources to the historian. The method followed in this lecture reveals the need to see the interface between various sources and not rely uncritically on just one category. What made you turn to the range of sources that others had not done so far?

If one is studying the history of an event or a location, one inevitably has to consider all the sources and their many voices. Unfortunately in the past, priority was given to the Turko-Persian chronicles, without considering a comparative study with Sanskrit sources and the Jain chronicles of the same period, the Rajput epics and popular traditions of the Nathpanthis and the Tantric texts, all of which have a relevance to the history of Somanatha and thereby a perception or otherwise of Mahmud’s raids.

Essentially this was an event that concerned a specific region, i.e. Gujarat and parts of North India and there appears to be no awareness of such an event in other regions and other sources of that period. What was a local event was projected as a national event and a traumatic one at that. Why was a local event projected as a national event?

The absence of reference to the raid of Mahmud in other sources other than the Turko-Persian chronicles remains an enigma. The wider coverage was initially in the Turko-Persian chronicles. But it was after the colonial endorsement of the event that the larger dimension came into the picture. This was then taken up by some sections among the Indian nationalists who treated it as a national event.

If you are using such a wide range of sources, can there be a single criterion for assessing their reliability?

The evaluation of the reliability of each category of sources is crucial because each has what would today be called an ideological context. These contexts have to be recognised as different from one another. Court chronicles, whether of the Sultanate or of the Chaulukya (Solankis of Gujarat) court carry their own biases as do the statements of traders and of popular preachers or for that matter the use made of Indian history as part of colonial policy as much as subsequently by religious nationalism.

Would you then say that this historiographical advance makes it imperative that historians realise that history is as rigorous a discipline as any other science and that teaching and research have to be constantly updated, both in content and methodology? And that students are made aware of the importance of multiple and diverse perspectives of historical processes and events, which cannot have a mono-causal explanation?

As you know, we have all been arguing for many years now that the writing of history has to be based on what historians now call “the Historical Method”. Stated briefly this requires ensuring the reliability of the evidence that is used (and this requires wind-ranging training in handling sources), the critical analyses of the evidence, assessing the priorities among multiple causes and the logical basis of the historical arguments that follow. Historical writing is not a free-for-all in which anyone can claim to be writing history. The use of the Historical method has primacy in historical writing.

Yes, it is a rigorous discipline. It is the same with the more intellectually challenging writing in all subjects. It is this kind of change that encourages advances in knowledge.

The advances are also dependent, as you rightly say, on constantly updating the content and methodology of the discipline. In the case of history, an awareness of the method and the changes also come through historiography — that is, the history of ideas relating to historical explanation. Inevitably this becomes a component of historical method.

R. Champakalakshmi is former professor of history, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

The Hindu, Forgotten themes, S.R. RAGHUNATHAN, Sunday, Dec 19, 2004

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