Textbook Tyrants

[This is an AHRC Statement]

The Rajasthan board of secondary education has recently announced its intent to include a chapter on the life and achievements of Mr. Narendra Modi, the Prime Ministerial candidate of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in its school textbooks. Following this, the Madhya Pradesh state government has announced the same.

The announcements have no shock value of their own; politicizing textbooks is nothing new in a country marked by sharp socio-political divisions that often ride on caste and community axes. Politicians affiliated to different political parties have exploited education being included as a subject in the concurrent list of the constitution and pushed through chapters in school textbooks eulogizing their own life and/or individuals ideologically suited.

Such attempts have also resulted in a game of musical chairs being played with children’s minds, with parties opposed to each other, on assuming power, purging and replacing chapters. The states of Tamil Nadu, where Ms. J. Jayalalitha purged a chapter on her arch-rival and former chief minister, and Bihar, where Mr. Nitish Kumar did the same to Lalu Yadav, come readily to mind. Add to this the chapters on Nehru-Gandhi family littered all over textbooks across states, partly because of the family patriarchs’ role in the freedom struggle and partly because of the family having held power for a majority of the post colonial period.

What makes the case of Narendra Modi special, though, is that none of the erstwhile leaders have been as polarizing. And, none of the other politicians whose lives figure in textbooks have reneged their constitutional duty – to protect a section of citizens under their watch from genocidal mobs – as he did in Gujarat in 2002.

That the jury is still out over his direct participation in the pogrom of the Muslims is true. However, no one denies that the state machinery under his watch looked the other way when murderous mobs affiliated with his political party were out on the streets killing members of the minority with unprecedented brutality.

Forget the skeptics, even Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister of India belonging to Mr. Modi’s own party, when visiting the relief camps, reminded Mr. Modi of his “Raj dharma” (duty of a king to look after his subjects without discrimination) and to not discriminate on the basis of ‘caste, creed or religion’. In a further indictment Mr. Vajpayee had shot another letter to Mr. Modi on 1 June 2002, voicing his concern over the fragile communal situation in the state and doubting if the interests of riot victims were being properly looked after.

Many later developments substantiated the charges of criminal dereliction of duty by Mr. Modi. These include Supreme Court orders transferring many of the related cases out of Gujarat and conviction with a life term for Maya Kodnani, a senior minister in Modi’s government, for her role in the riots. Furthermore, many journalists have reported on and captured rioters belonging to the organizations affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fountainhead for the BJP, owning up to their acts, unaware that they were being filmed.

Forget about apologizing for his failure to protect citizens he was oath-bound to protect, Mr. Modi has not even regretted the carnage. Though his persona non grata status in most of the civilized world, earned by his handling of the pogrom, is set for an overhaul because of geopolitical realities, can Indians allow the same in textbooks meant for young and impressionable minds?

The court cases may or may not continue; India’s criminal justice system is notorious for its inadequacies and may never catch up with those who orchestrated the mayhem.

But can the Indian democracy allow a hagiographic chapter in school textbooks on the life of such a figure? What is being communicated to the youth? Is the lesson that nothing succeeds like success no matter what the means and cost, no matter what violence it takes to get there? Is the lesson a medieval one: history written by or on behalf of victors? Certainly, all such hagiographies that have found their way into school curriculums scream about the whitewashing qualities of power and financial clout and the brainwashing depths of servitude in public life.

This is another test for the republic, something India claims to be. While the true unshackling of colonial history – so Indians can comprehend the traumatic nature of colonial rule and its continuing impact – is still awaited, so is a rewriting of post-colonial history free from subservient chapters penned by court poets.