SACW #1 | 2 Jan. 03
- South Asia Citizens Wire #1 | 2 January 2003
#1. Chilling nuclear disclosure (Praful Bidwai)
#2.India: Nothing At All To Lose: The Congress does not know how to
oppose political Hindutva (Achin Vanaik)
#3. An ode to the Indian Constitution (M.N. Buch)
#4. India: National Textbooks for the Future? (Kumkum Roy)
The News International
January 02, 2003
Chilling nuclear disclosure
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's disclosure that he planned an
"unconventional" response to a possible Indian attack across the
border last year has sent tremors through the international
community. His statement, and the Indian response to it, are a grim
reminder that South Asia is still "the world's most dangerous place".
To be fair, Gen Musharraf's statement-that Indian troops "should not
expect a conventional war" if they "moved a single step across the
international border or the Line of Control", and further that this
was conveyed to "Prime Minister Vajpayee through every international
leader who came to Pakistan" did not explicitly use the words
It is also true that Maj Gen Rashid Qureshi later "clarified" that
"the President only meant unconventional forces, and not nuclear or
biological weapons...They (a section of the media) took this
unconventional form of people rising against the Indian armed forces
as meaning nuclear weapons..."
However, the world is likely to interpret the statement as a
disclosure, or at least a broad hint, that Islamabad had made
preparations to use nuclear weapons at some point during the
10-month-long post-December 13, 2001, eyeball-to-eyeball
confrontation, as New Delhi in all probability did; he also conveyed
a nuclear threat, however obliquely, to India.
This conclusion is not unwarranted. For one, historically, nuclear
threats have been generally made not through overt, explicit
references to nuclear weapons, but through warnings of "horrible"
consequences, etc. For another, it is broadly understood, especially
after the Kargil war, that both Pakistan and India would have
contingency plans to use nuclear weapons; both have doctrines that
permit such use (in Pakistan's case, a first strike).
And for a third, the specific context to which Musharraf referred was
an exceptionally dangerous situation, with a distinct potential for
escalation from "limited" skirmishes, to large-scale war (with
conventional weapons and methods), on to a nuclear exchange.
Even assuming that Musharraf had in mind "non-traditional" war,
involving far more lethal armaments than those deployed in past
India-Pakistan wars, or the use of unconventional manoeuvres
(encircling of Indian forces by the Kashmiri people), the immediate
response from India's forces suggests the assumption of a more
Thus, outgoing army chief Gen S Padmanabhan said: "We were absolutely
ready to go to war. Our forces were well located but such a decision
is ultimately a political decision." Padmanabhan dismissed the notion
that Pakistan's nuclear capability had deterred India from going to
war twice last year. He said: "When we assess our adversaries, we
assess all [their] capabilities. We had evaluated it [Pakistan's
nuclear capability] and were ready to cope with it." Padmanabhan
hinted that an "informal" nuclear command structure has already been
in existence. "What is invisible today will become visible tomorrow."
The lightest interpretation that can be put on this exchange is that
the threshold for an India-Pakistan nuclear confrontation has now
fallen to a dangerous new low. Amidst the heightened visceral
hostility, which the two states' rulers mutually nurture, nuclear
weapons could be used not at the fag-end of a conventional conflict,
when the defeat of one adversary appears imminent. They may be used
early-without much warning.
This week's verbal exchanges have further raised the temperature of
India-Pakistan rivalry. There have been several such recent
exchanges, including the hubris-driven claim by each state that it
"won" the recent border confrontation against the other. Two months
ago, India's defence minister George Fernandes declared "victory".
Now, Musharraf has announced: "We have defeated our enemy without
going into war...The enemy has withdrawn its forces..."
In reality, both India and Pakistan lost billions of dollars in
staging the globe's biggest military mobilisation since World War II,
involving a million troops. Both imposed avoidable hardship and
fatigue upon their forces by keeping them on high alert for long
Both sacrificed the lives of scores, if not (a few) hundreds, of
their soldiers-in landmine blasts, shelling, and accidents. In India,
the estimate is 300 armed personnel dead, and an unspecified number
of civilians, along with loss of limb to several hundreds, and the
death of countless sheep, goats and cattle. Neither gained strategic
advantage or political-diplomatic leverage from the confrontation.
Both India and Pakistan parody, ridicule or altogether demonise each
other's intentions, plans and actions. Thus, The Hindu quotes
officials to say that India believes that Musharraf was "addressing a
domestic audience" on Monday. He "wanted to show" that it was India
which "backed down" after mobilising its troops. "India believes
Musharraf wanted to bring the India-Pakistan issue under the
spotlight once again" when the international community's interest in
it is "waning". India treats Musharraf's statement "with disdain".
At the same time, New Delhi has termed Musharraf's statement "highly
dangerous" and "provocative" and used it to reject any meaningful
"forward movement" in mutual relations.
Such casual, cavalier exchanges between the two receive tub-thumping
reception from the expected cheerleaders: strategic "experts" and
hawkish politicians. This sows the irrational illusion that each side
is in some sense "prepared" to match/counter the other's "nuclear"
challenge, that nuclear wars are winnable, that "protection" is
possible against these mass-annihilation weapons.
This is heady Macho mythology, the most dangerous part of the
pathological mystique associated with nuclearism. For there are, can
be, no victors in a nuclear war. Nuclear weapons are strategically
irrational. They cannot protect civilian non-combatants. Rather, they
make them especially vulnerable.
The best "security" nuclear weapons afford is of a negative kind --
based on fear, insecurity, balance of terror. It is at best cold
comfort to know that retaliation is possible after the adversary's
first attack. But nuclear retaliation is an act of senseless revenge,
not of regaining security.
Yet, both India and Pakistan are hurtling towards inducting nuclear
weapons into their armed forces. Pakistan announced last April it was
upgrading its strategic nuclear command. India is planning to
establish this month its Strategic Forces Command (SFC) tasked with
managing the nuclear arsenal. "The Cabinet Committee on Security is
expected to give the formal go-ahead...A nuclear command post in the
shape of a concrete underground structure is also being built,"
reports The Times of India.
For the moment, the nuclear system's different components will be
kept separately. The radioactive cores will be with the Department of
Atomic Energy, the detonation assembly will be in the custody of the
Defence Research and Development Organisation, and the delivery
vehicles with the armed forces.
This is one more step in the direction of raising the nuclear danger
in South Asia. Yet, given its preoccupation with the Middle East, and
the many actions of the US government in legitimising nuclear
weapons, the world community is unlikely to intervene in this region
to counsel restraint and halt India and Pakistan's descent into a
nuclear arms race.
The pressure for such restraint will have to come from within. In
today's vitiated climate, that is a tall order. India's government,
the country's most rightwing and conservative since Independence, has
decided that it will obstruct the normalisation of relations with
Pakistan as much as possible. That's what the latest visa
restrictions mean. Pakistan has duly reciprocated this hostility.
Only a strong peace movement can alter this dismal situation.
January 02, 2003
NOTHING AT ALL TO LOSE
- The Congress does not know how to oppose political Hindutva
One of the more comforting assumptions that political analysts have
had is that India's sheer size, complexity and array of diverse and
cross-cutting social, cultural, ideological and economic demarcations
force all national-level politics to ultimately move towards some
kind of "moderate" centre. Even though the rise of the Bharatiya
Janata Party and the sangh parivar pushed the centre of gravity of
Indian politics to the right, there has always been the argument that
if the BJP wants to be a "normalized" ruling party then it cannot at
the same time be the party of the Hindu rassemblement. Hence the
repeated predictions that the only way it could grow electorally and
legitimize itself nationally would be by moderating its ideological
However, its first major spurt took place between 1984 (two Lok Sabha
seats) and 1989 (89 seats) mainly because of its Ramjanmabhoomi
campaign. Its next major spurt took place after its calculated
demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 when in subsequent
elections in 1996, '98 and '99, its tally hovered between 161 and 182
seats. This new electoral plateau had then suggested to many that the
same principle of moderation stood as the guarantor preventing
further acceleration of the Hindutva project.
The Gujarat results have put paid to this belief. It is by shifting
even further to the right that the sangh now expects to make further
electoral inroads. For if the failures of governance (the
anti-incumbency factor) were the main reason earlier for pendular
shifts between ruling and opposition parties in the states, thus
holding out the promise of a Congress-centred ruling coalition at the
national level in the next Lok Sabha elections, such a view must now
The gains from Gujarat for a hard and ruthless Hindutva project are
very significant. The first lesson is that the failure of governance
is not enough to topple a party if it also has a powerful mobilizing
strategy and capacity. After all, a wearied electorate has enough
experience of all parties performing miserably when it comes to
governance. Second, a state-organized pogrom against Muslims does not
horrify very substantial sections of society, not just in Gujarat.
There is a new and widespread "common sense" about needing to "react"
against "threatening" Indian Muslims supposedly linked by religion to
both Pakistani treachery and "Islamic terrorism". Third, patient
grassroots work in civil society amongst tribals and Dalits through
the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other
front organizations can pay rich dividends even if these activities
cannot overcome material problems and deprivations faced by these
communities. Fourth, allied parties in the National Democratic
Alliance have neither serious political scruples nor any national
vision and are most concerned simply to continue enjoying the feeble
fruits of a minority share in power at the Centre. Fifth, the
Congress opposition does not know how to oppose political Hindutva.
This last factor is perhaps the most disturbing. For the sangh to
carry out fully its Hindutva agenda (the establishment of an
anti-democratic reg- ime, and an authoritarian civil society) it must
achieve an electoral majority or close enough to it so that it can
rule on its own. Even better would be achieving the two-thirds
majority that would enable it to permanently change the Indian
Constitution and institutionalize irrevocably a Hindu rashtra.
Standing in the way of this electoral route to decisive political
authority is the Congress. The Congress must suffer a virtual
electoral demise if political Hindutva is to fully triumph.
The Congress must fight this opponent at two different levels - the
electoral and the ideological-political. For over 15 years, whatever
the fluctuations in the electoral graph of the BJP at the Centre or
in the states, the curve of the sangh's ideological-political advance
has moved steadily, even if sometimes only slowly, upwards. This is
because there is no other force capable of matching the range and
depth of their activities - from the cultural-ideological to the
welfarist-recreational - in the pores of Indian civil society.
In contrast, the Congress has for a long time been little more than a
ramshackle electoral machine periodically geared up, whose own
activists are, in so many cases and at so many levels, attracted to
various themes of Hindutva ideology as well as tempted to change
sides since the sangh bears the aura of being nationally the possible
"wave of the future" or at least the next party of governance in the
states where the Congress today rules. The Congress has no inspiring
vision of its own, no systematic programme that reflects strong
social commitments to the lower castes and classes, and therefore no
assured constituency of supporters, ideological, political or
In the longer term, the sangh has to be confronted and defeated in
civil society. If the Congress cannot develop comparable grassroots
organizations and activities, can it at least think of various local
and regional, if not national-level, campaigns on particular issues
that can provide inspiration and appeal to many sections of Indian
society as well as enthuse its own party-workers and supporters?
Can the Congress become, at least in part, a campaigning force of
some creativity not only adopting the negative posture of opposing
Hindutva, which it must (soft Hindutva is finished, which is not to
say the Congress might not still pursue this approach), but also of
pursuing the positive posture of standing for something worthwhile
and relevant to the lives and feelings of the people it wishes to
attract? In short, how does it make itself politically distinctive
and meaningful and how does it convince people of its sincerity and
commitment in this regard? If today's Congress is not even capable of
doing this much, then is there anything else it can do?
Manmohanomics makes it neither distinctive from the BJP nor
meaningful to society outside the mislabelled Indian "middle class",
that 10-15 per cent of the Indian elite which is in fact the
strongest social base today for Hindutva. At the last general
elections of 1999, 46 per cent of Hindu upper castes voted for the
BJP compared to 21 percent for the Congress. Not only is the BJP no
longer a Brahmin-Bania party (having made inroads into other backward
classes as well as tribals) but it is also now the most favoured
party of the Hindu upper castes and classes.
In the short term, there are two things the Congress can and should
do besides abandoning permanently the temptation to pursue soft
Hindutva. It must make pre-poll alliances with other political
parties so as to forge stable coalitions that are seen as being
stable, and by doing so send home the message that there is also a
broad unity of forces strongly opposed to what Hindutva stands for.
It can no longer afford to remain aloof or simply expect others to
woo it. Second, given its programmatic or organizational limitations
it must look for a "low fuss-high impact" initiative that has the
potential to alter its image and to attract those sections of Indian
society whose own resurgence offer the best chances of countering the
In effect, can it find a way, for example, to give its own ranks and
support-base a Dalit composition? No mainstream party in India has
had the courage to adopt a policy of reservations at all internal
organizational leadership levels for Dalits, tribals and women in
proportion to their membership within the party. As the membership of
such groups grows, so does their leadership presence. Such a policy
can galvanize the Congress as never before. It has everything to gain
and what, given its current plight, does it have to lose?
The Hindustan Times
Wednesday, January 1, 2003
An ode to the Indian Constitution
The VHP has been trumpeting the Hindu Rashtra theme after the
Gujarat elections. Around 82 per cent of the population professes the
Hindu faith. With such a vast majority being Hindu, why should the
VHP suffer from such a deep-rooted inferiority complex that it
insists on a formal declaration of India as a Hindu Rashtra?
The average Hindu has no doubts about his Hindu status or faith, nor
does he want that there should be a formal declaration of the nation
as a Hindu nation. Unless, there are other ulterior motives, as is
clearly the case with the VHP.
The first motive could be to change the Constitution, to remove the
word 'secular' from the Preamble, to dilute Article 14 which mandates
equality for all and to eliminate Article 25 which gives freedom of
worship as a fundamental right to all Indians. In other words -
declare India as a theocratic State.
Our neighbour, Sri Lanka, in its Constitution (Chapter II, Article
9), accords a special place to Buddhism. The article reads, "The
Republic of Sri Lanka will give to Buddhism the foremost place and
accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster
the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted
by Articles 10 and 14 (1) (e)."
The Sinhala speaking people are largely Buddhists. Article 18 of the
Constitution made Sinhala the official language. Hence, the balance
of employment in government services tilted in favour of the
Sinhalese to the disadvantage of the Tamils. An official religion and
language which excluded Tamil is one of the main reasons why an
extreme form of violent separatist movement was launched by the
Jaffna Tamils under the banner of LTTE.
Sri Lanka's status as a near-theocratic State has not led to national
development. It has instead triggered a civil war.
We have the example of Pakistan whose Constitution declares it as an
Islamic republic, mandates Islam as the official religion and directs
that only a Muslim may hold the high offices of State such as
president, prime minister, etc. The truth is that the binding force
of Islam has not brought about unity between the western and eastern
wings of Pakistan as originally constituted in 1947, nor has it led
to peace between the Shias and Sunnis, the original inhabitants of
the four constituent units of present day Pakistan and the Mohajirs
(refugees from India), and between the four provinces themselves.
Islam has not resolved the internal conflicts in Pakistan. It has not
brought democracy. It has instead made the civil society subservient
to military control. Despite Islam, Pakistan sponsors terrorism,
especially against India. Theocratic Pakistan, when compared with
secular Turkey, is certainly not a happy country to live in.
In every true democracy, there is complete separation between the
church and the State. In all temporal matters, temporal and secular
laws govern the State. Religion has no role in governance. Every
great democracy tends to be multicultural and multiethnic and this
was true of Anglo-Saxon Britain before the Asian influx. Britain
consisted of the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans, the Picts, the Irish, the
Welsh and the remnants of the original Britons. Even this society was
multiethnic and multicultural, a democracy. The Anglo-Saxons or the
Normans no longer dominated once the power of the king was broken and
parliamentary democracy was introduced.
The strongest point in favour of democracy is that everyone is equal
in the eyes of law and justice is done on the basis of merit rather
than on religion, caste or status. Because Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence
is based on such equality it has given the world a system of justice
and adjudication which is the model for most countries, other than
Even the Indian system of justice is based on Anglo-Saxon law, as
modified for Indian conditions. And it is this system of justice
which permits people like Praveen Togadia to make highly provocative
and obnoxious statements.
Another motive of touting a Hindu Rashtra could be to rid India of
anyone who is not a practising Hindu or owes allegiance to another
faith. If they fail to push out such people or to physically
liquidate them, then in a Hindu Rashtra they would have second class
citizenship and be denied of rights of a free citizen. This,
incidentally, is the fate of non-Muslims in Pakistan.
An extreme example of such brute discrimination was Nazi Germany in
which the Jews didn't have the right to live and the people of
Eastern Europe, the Slavs, who were called Untermenschen
(sub-humans), were fit only to be slaves. Can a democratic India
afford to call its non-Hindu citizens Untermenschen? Or create
concentration camps for Muslims, Christians and 'liberals'? Or murder
millions inside gas chambers?
A third motive could be to play the communal card to win elections.
Nothing could be more myopic than this. Winning votes in the name of
religion demands that the electorate should consist of fanatics who
are prepared to put religion above such issues public order, access
to a development and employment, better education and health services
and a bright future. The Constitution of India mandates the welfare
of the people as the primary duty of the government and a party
seeking power must convince the people that their welfare will be
The appeal made by the VHP is an open invitation to bigotry.
Ghettoisation, mental or physical, is fatal to the well-being of the
nation and everything that Ashok Singhal, Togadia and their ilk say
only promotes such ghettoisation. This is a dangerous trend because
the ultimate in ghettos was the Warsaw Ghetto in which the Jews were
herded by the Nazis and then exterminated. Perhaps the likes of
Togadia have yet not reached the depths of degradation of Hitler, but
the intention seems to be common.
A sane, democratic India cannot afford the insanity of a Togadia or
Singhal. LK Advani has categorically stated in Parliament that India
cannot be a Hindu Rashtra and its secular nature will prevail.
Indeed, the VHP is the greatest enemy of Hinduism.
Economic and Political Weekly
December 21, 2002
National Textbooks for the Future?
We have been told how the sentiments of self-proclaimed
religious leaders have been taken into consideration in rewriting
school history textbooks. What is obvious is that the first casualty
of this rewriting has been truth. Presumably these so-called
religious leaders do not include the quest for truth in their
agenda. Neither does the National Council of Educational Research and
Training. The case of the Class XI book on ancient India authored by
We have been reviewing textbooks that have been published by the
National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) for the
past few months, and it is quite likely that we have reached a
saturation point as far as interest in the issue is concerned. Yet,
given the gravity of the situation, it is perhaps necessary to
continue with the exercise, in order to draw attention to the serious
problems that will arise if these books are recommended and used in
schools. It is in this context that we need to scrutinise the Class
XI book on ancient India authored by Makkhan Lal.
We need to remember that these are books that will be used by
students who consciously opt to study History at the Senior Secondary
School level, some of whom will perhaps go on to study History in
college and subsequently as well. It is these young men and women who
will become History teachers in the next generation. Also, given past
experience, one knows that NCERT books have often been used by
students preparing for various competitive examinations. As such,
what goes into them has widespread implications that cannot be
Some statements in the book are confusing, to say the least. I will
cite just two instances. One, from page 11, informs us: "they [the
British] were worried of the fact that British civilians were getting
brahmanised and developing inferiority complex" (p 11). Elsewhere (p
32) we learn that "India is a country with vast variety of rich
vegetation and congenial regular weather chain. It is most suited for
human habitat. Conditions for population saturation resulting in mass
human migrations are more probable here than in any other part of the
world like central Asia or Europe." It is perhaps our loss that we
are unable to make sense of such ideas.
Perhaps more worrisome are the inaccurate statements that have
slipped into the book at a number of points. Once again, a handful of
glaring examples must suffice. We learn on page 86 that "RigVedic
society comprised four varnas, namely, Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya
and Sudra." As I have pointed out elsewhere ('Where Do We Go From
Here?' in Saffronised and Substandard: A Critique of the New NCERT
Textbooks, SAHMAT, New Delhi, 2002, pp 25-38), there is only one
reference to the fourfold varna order in the Rig Veda, in one verse
out of more than 10,000, and to use this to suggest that society
represented in the text was stratified along varna lines is simply
inaccurate. It is not justified by any logic of historical
reconstruction, but then perhaps we are naïve to expect such logic to
operate. What we are up against is the logic of attributing as much
antiquity and sanctity as possible to any institution that is
regarded as valuable from a narrow, majoritarian, homogenising
perspective. So the varna order has to be classified as early Vedic,
even if the evidence cannot sustain such a claim.
The second statement, on the same page, flows from similar concerns.
"The Vedas prescribe a penalty of death or expulsion from the kingdom
to those who kill or injure cows." Once again, this is inaccurate,
simply because the Vedas consist of mantras or prayers to the
gods/goddesses. They are not normative texts, and do not prescribe
punishments. But then, in the introduction to one of the most popular
works on Vedic mathematics, we are told:
It is the whole essence of his [Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Puri who
"discovered" Vedic mathematics] assessment of Vedic tradition that it
is not to be approached from a factual standpoint but from the ideal
standpoint, viz, as the Vedas, as traditionally accepted in India as
the repository of all knowledge, should be and not what they are in
human possession. That approach entirely turns the tables on all
critics, for the authorship of Vedic mathematics then need not be
laboriously searched in the texts preserved from antiquity. [italics
in the original, General Editor's Note, p vi, to Vedic Mathematics by
Jagadguru Swami Sri Bharati Krsna Tirthaji Maharaja Sankaracarya of
Govardhana Matha Puri, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi].
We also learn (pp xxix-xxx):
Revered Guruji used to say that he had reconstructed the sixteen
mathematical formulae (given in this text) from the Atharvaveda after
assiduous research and 'Tapas' for about eight years in the forests
surrounding Sringeri. Obviously these formulae are not to be found in
the present recensions of Atharvaveda; they were actually
reconstructed, on the basis of intuitive revelation, from materials
scattered here and there in the Atharvaveda. In 1957, when he had
decided finally to undertake a tour of the USA he re-wrote from
memory the present volume, giving an introductory account of the
sixteen formulae reconstructed by him.
As such, we should not be surprised that the term Veda can be used to
mean just about anything. Such attempts to redefine 'Vedic' could
have been dismissed as harmless eccentricities in most situations.
But, as we have seen in Jhajjar, people can lose their lives if they
are thought to have been guilty of killing cows, and it is in that
context that we need to ensure that such statements do not go
It is perhaps worth recalling what H D Sankalia, recognised for long
as the father of Indian archaeology, said with respect to the cow:
The ban on cow slaughter is indeed of comparatively recent growth,
mostly as a reaction against Islam rather than genuine, real love and
reverence for the cow. ...From some 3000BC to C700 BC, man in India,
as elsewhere in the world, continued to prefer beef to all other
forms of animal diet...What the cow/ox in India needs today is good
treatment - wholesome food, and fodder and water, and freedom from
exploitation by the Hindus at all levels. Their reverence for the cow
is always superficial. This was noticed and recorded by the authors
of the Bhagavata Purana and the Ramayana centuries ago and regarded
as one of the symptoms of the Kali Yuga! The Kali Yuga has increased
in its intensity and so also the exploitation of the cow. It is
against this exploitation that we must all strive, not for a blanket
prohibition of go-vadha. ('The Cow in History', Seminar, 1968.)
What is alarming is the scant regard for truth that has accompanied
the rewriting of history in the name of updating antiquated
Another instance of tampering with evidence occurs on page 90. Here
we learn that "Indra is known as Purandara, 'Lord of Cities'". This
is a shocking travesty of Vedic Sanskrit. It is true that there are
several references to Indra, one of the most important gods of the
Vedic pantheon, as Purandara in the Rig Veda. But the term purandara
means destroyer of pura, and not lord of cities. Pura itself might
mean a settlement, perhaps fortified, and not necessarily a city. The
only way in which one can arrive at the sense of lord of cities is by
replacing d by dh, and creating a term purandhara that does not occur
in the Rig Vedic mantras. But clearly, the devotees of Indra will
stop at nothing to achieve their ends. And why must Indra become the
lord of cities? Well, the Harappan civilisation is by any standards
urban, and if it has to be claimed as Vedic, then Indra, as one of
the chief gods of the Vedic pantheon, and as a warlike, valorous hero
figure, has to be urbanised. What better than a simple sleight of
tongue, replacing one consonant by another? So, while on the one hand
lip-service continues to be paid to the sanctity of the Vedas, on the
other hand, Vedic mantras and words can be transformed to suit
Consider certain other problems with the book. Let us look at the
definition of the Dharmasutras (p18).
The Dharmasutras and the Smritis are rules and regulations for the
general public and the rulers. It can be termed in the modern concept
as the constitution and the law books for the ancient Indian polity
Such parallels between modern and ancient institutions and practices
were frequently drawn by nationalist historians in the early
twentieth century, when there was a preoccupation with trying to find
parallels for modern institutions in the past. However, in the
twentyfirst century, and after more than 50 years of independence, we
should be able to move beyond such strategies, which were
not necessarily accurate, and acknowledge historical change instead
of constructing a picture of a changeless past by all means, fair
and foul. Notice also that equating the Constitution with the
Dharmasutras obscures and denies the very different histories that
have gone into the production of these documents. The Constitution
emerged through a process of intense discussion and debate, which is
part of our democratic heritage. The Dharmasutras and Smritis, on the
other hand, are primarily brahmanical documents and need to be
understood as such.
A related problem is the way in which this perspective leads to
constructing a picture of uniformity, one that runs counter to the
rich diversity of developments in ancient India that have been
documented over the last few decades. We read, for instance, on page
Although there always had been many states in India but their social
and cultural setup had been broadly the same throughout. Sanskrit was
the most respected language besides the local languages. States were
administered and governed on the basis of law-books called
Dharmasastras. Places of worship and pilgrimage are distributed
throughout the country. These cultural bonds gave the Indians a sense
of unity and nationality.
It is worth examining the implications of this statement, which in
fact constitutes one of the running themes of the book. The only
diversity that is acknowledged is that of different political powers.
Social change is brushed aside and the fact that we have histories of
the spread, modification and change in the varna/jati system would be
impossible to accommodate within this framework. Linguistic diversity
is likewise suppressed. Students would not be allowed to examine the
implications of the fact that the earliest inscriptions (including
those of the Mauryan ruler Asoka) are primarily in Prakrit, and not
in Sanskrit and that the Dharmasastras may have had little or no
significance for the Mauryan administration (and those of many other
polities) for instance. The fact that the institution of pilgrimage
has a history of its own would not be focused on and the fact that
nationality is a modern notion would be lost on students who would be
taught that it existed from time immemorial. And what about
pedagogical strategies? Sadly, the book abounds in statements that
are simple assertions, designed to encourage rote learning. Read the
following paragraph, (p 84) which is inserted to suggest that the
Vedas are of great antiquity:
Bal Gangadhar Tilak, on astronomical grounds, dated Rig Veda to 6000
BC. According to Harmon Jacobi Vedic civilisation flourished between
4500 BC and 2500 BC and some of the Samhitas were composed in the
latter half of the period. Famous Sanskritist, Winternitz felt that
the Rig Veda was probably composed in the third millennium BC. R K
Mookerjee opined that "on a modest computation, we should come to
2500 BC as the time of Rig Veda". G C Pande also favours a date of
3000 BC or even earlier.
What, if anything, does this tell us about the logic of dating texts?
The student will have half a dozen names to remember but little
insight into a serious historical problem. To add to the confusion,
we have a sentence on page 92 that states "there are other scholars
who consider Vedic culture as different from that of the Harappan
civilisation." If we look for any understanding of why they suggest
this, we will be disappointed.
Finally, it may be worth considering what happens with four issues
that have been marginalised from standard histories. One would have
expected that in a new history written in the twentyfirst century,
these issues would have found some space. But that is not to be. The
first issue that we can consider is the treatment of regions, and I
will simply focus on the treatment of Tamilakam, the ancient Tamil
region. On page 153 we find a map of south India, where
Gangaikondacholapuram and Tanjavur are listed as sites of the Sangam
Age. Obviously, chronology has been sacrificed. There is a
discrepancy of several centuries between the Sangam Age and the
period of the later Chola rulers when these settlements emerged as
important urban centres, but then, perhaps from the perspective of
the author, notions of time are generally irrelevant for regional
history. It is also worth looking at the treatment of the tradition
of Bhakti in the text. The Alvars are referred to as Vaisnava saints
on page 193, they become Vaisnava devotees on page 199 and finally on
page 229 we learn that "The Bhakti movement led by Nayanars (Saiva
saint) and Alvars (Vaisnava saint) spread all over the country. These
saints went from place to place carrying their message of love and
devotion." Which of these three statements is the student to accept?
Clearly, time, space and factual accuracy are trivial matters when
reconstructing regional histories. And this is the case of a region
whose history has been amongst the best researched in the last few
It may also be useful to see what happens with issues of gender.
Women pop in and out of the pages of the book occasionally, in
connection with inheritance, where we are told that they could
inherit in the absence of "male issues" (p 96) or if they were the
only child of their parents (p 86), a situation that is portrayed as
being virtually constant (p 160, p 226). None of the concerns with
engendering history that have been raised in the last three decades
find space in the book. If we expect to find discussions about women
in connection with other matters, including their roles in
production, or in alternative religious traditions such as Buddhism
and Jainism, we will be disappointed.
Perhaps more intriguing is the treatment of the concept of 'tribe'.
Clearly, this has become a dirty word, to be scrupulously eschewed.
This may have to do with the fact that 'tainted' scholars such as R S
Sharma had suggested "that the social formation represented in Vedic
literature could best be understood in terms of the category of a
tribal society in transition. In the present book, the only reference
to tribe occurs in the context of the Kusanas (p 145) who are
connected with central Asian tribes. There is also an illustration of
tribal coins on page 142, but beyond that the student would be left
in the dark about the possibility of tribal societies existing in the
past. In other words, tribal populations will now be denied a past
and will perhaps figure as a figment of the imagination of Christian
missionaries, if at all.
It is also worth examining what happens to the question of
untouchability. This almost surfaces twice in the book: once, on page
97, in the context of the later Vedic period, when we learn that "The
most glaring evil of the jati system, namely, the concept of
untouchability had not yet reared its ugly head". Then we suddenly
stumble on some remarkable information on page 225. "The
transformation of a specific profession into jati and the increasing
phenomenon of hypergamous unions between different jati led to the
rise of mixed jati. Jatis were also formed on the basis of religious
sects such as lingayats, virasaivas, svetambaras, and digambaras,
etc. The lowest were the antyajatis of whom Chandalas are the
most important representatives." Does this tell us anything at all
about the oppressions associated with caste, and how these
affected the lives of vast sections of people? And do our children
have a right to know and understand these issues?
One is left wondering whether women, dalits, tribals are part of the
nation or not, or whether the nation is envisaged as an upper caste,
brahmanical construct, centred on the Ganga valley. Surely, the
National Council of Educational Research and Training has some
responsibilities to discharge towards the vast majority in the
country. We have been hearing about how the sentiments of
self-proclaimed religious leaders have been taken into consideration
in rewriting History. What is obvious is that the first casualty of
this rewriting has been truth. Presumably, these so-called religious
leaders do not include the quest for truth in their agenda. Neither
does the NCERT.
It is in this context that it is absolutely essential that many more
of us engage in what has been called the battle of the books. We need
to intervene in as many ways as possible, as parents, teachers,
concerned citizens of the country, to ensure that future generations
of school-going children learn histories that move beyond a
preoccupation with dynastic vicissitudes, and can be equipped to
understand and intervene in an increasingly complicated social
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