Yellapragada Sudershan Rao and Dinanath Batra: Together the two form a formidable team. The chief of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) and the 84-year-old controversial crusader, who runs the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (Committee for Struggle to Save Education), which earlier this year forced a publisher to pulp Chicago-based Wendy Doniger’s book on Hindus. While Rao, whose credentials as a historian have been questioned, has sprung to the defence of the caste system and has vowed to prove the authenticity of the Mahabharata and Ramayana during his stint at the ICHR; nine books by Batra have been added to school curricula in Gujarat. The books deal not just with history, but go on to rewrite science and geography as well.
The Gujarat project is grand and the state establishment dead serious about implementing it. In the name of culture or protecting Bharatiya Sanskriti, a model code of conduct, which will apply to students and their teachers, is being pushed through. And minute, school-level ‘adjustments’ that change the fundamentals of what is taught in government schools are being made, initially in 42,000 schools across Gujarat.
Gujarat Education Minister Bhupendrasinh Chudasama, while adding the adjuncts or supplementary books to the existing list of textbooks, said that the idea was to “reinforce core values” and students were supposed to vigorously follow what was being stressed in the books. The books will be provided free of cost to students of all government primary and secondary schools.
The scope of the project is mind-boggling: the objectives range from ‘directives’ to redraw the maps of India to include other countries, to taking pride in the swastika, the symbol associated with Nazism. School children are also supposed to learn that gurukul (residential school) style of learning that prevailed in ancient India is the best bet even in contemporary times.
The Gujarat government published Batra’s books, written some eight years ago, in March this year and, through a recent circular, mandated them as supplementary reading for primary and secondary students.
A total of four books in a series called Prernadeep (springs of inspiration) have already been introduced. They compile anecdotes about how a childless couple got children by doing gau seva (serving the cow), how the country’s second president Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan had told the British that Indians were “rotis cooked right by god”, and how a “Bal Narendra” hid behind a bunch of plantains waiting for Hanuman.
The series pushes for the use of the word acharya instead of professor because the latter is a legacy of the British. “Professors profess, or preach, while the acharya practises. So quit such pretentious usage and permanently use acharya,” it says.
To make Batra a household name in Gujarat, each of his books carry his full-page biography, replete with messages from Narendra Modi and education ministers Bhupendrasinh Chudasama, Nanubhai Vanani and Vasuben Trivedi. Batra has been exhilarated by the response that he has elicited, and feels no necessity of updating his understanding that he arrived at a few years ago.
He was quoted saying, “The Gujarat State School Textbook Board had seen and read our books. They liked them and said they wanted to translate them into Gujarati and introduce them in schools. No financial exchange has been made; it was entirely on good relations. I have not taken a single paisa.”
Among the morale-lifting anecdotes is this one: “Once Dr Radhakrishnan went for a dinner. There was a Briton at the event who said, ‘We are very dear to god’. Radhakrishnan laughed and told the gathering, “Friends, one day god felt like making rotis. When he was cooking them, the first one was cooked less and the English were born. The second one stayed longer on the fire and the Negroes were born. Alert after his first two mistakes, when god went on to cook the third roti, it came out just right and as a result Indians were born.”
As far as the construct regarding gau seva begetting offspring goes, the following incident is told: “King Dilip was sad and worried that he did not have children, and about how he would take his lineage forward. He went to Guru Vashisht’s ashram and told him of his problem. The rishi told him, ‘Take a pledge that you and your wife will take care of cows, herd them and follow them wherever they go’. The king and queen agreed. One day a lion attacked a cow. The king came forward and told the lion, ‘Eat me first but spare the cow’. Seeing the king’s commitment, worship and responsibility towards the cow, the lion released the cow and did not harm the king either. As time passed, the king had the best children and his lineage progressed.”
Regarding the swastika, which was used by the Nazis as a symbol of the Aryan race, the following incident has been recounted in one of the books: “A Patel family lived in Connecticut, America, and was deeply connected with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh. Their two children, Harish and Satish, began going to a school there. Harish drew a swastika on the cover of his notebook and began colouring it in class when the teacher, who happened to be Jewish, got curious. When she saw the swastika, she got furious, because Jews see swastika as a symbol of Hitler-Nazism… She grabbed Harish’s book and screamed at him. Harish told her, ‘Madam, this is a symbol of our peaceful and progressive religion. How can I tear this?’ She asked Harish to get out of the class. Other Hindu students tried to make her understand. Harish went out of the class and told her he would tell his father about it. His father called up the principal and complained about the teacher’s behaviour and she had to apologise. We should be proud of our religion and its symbols.”
There is a snide response tucked in an anecdote attributed to no source but evidently the punch line reflects Batra’s own worldview: “One day Swami Vivekananda went to give a lecture. He told the gathering, ‘We should always wear Indian clothes’… He was wearing saffron robes but his shoes were foreign. An Englishwoman noticed this and said, ‘Swamiji! You are insisting on wearing Indian clothes but your shoes are foreign.’ Vivekanand listened to this and laughed. And he quietened down and said, ‘I was saying exactly this, that in our view, the place of a foreigner is here.’ The woman was dumbfounded.”
India’s pluralism and multi-cultural foundations do not hold any fascination for Batra, who says, “Sanskriti (culture) does not come by drawing from different regions. After mixing in the Ganga, there is no entity for those who flowed in it… Therefore, it is not correct to say that Indian culture is a mixed culture. It is appropriate only to call it Indian culture.”
The book has a surfeit of swipes aimed at humouring the impressionable age-group it seeks to address. Sample this: “The aircraft was flying thousands of feet high in the sky. A very strongly built Black reached the rear door and tried to open it. The air-hostesses tried to stop him but the Black was too powerful for them. He pushed the staff aside and shouted, ‘Nobody dare move a step ahead’. An Indian, however, caught hold of the Black and he could not escape. The pilot and the Indian together thrashed the Black and tied him up with a rope. Like a tied animal, he frantically tried to escape but could not. The plane landed safely in Chicago. The Black was a serious criminal in the Chicago records and this brave Indian was an employee of Air India.”
One of the supplementary books has a gem aimed at the present crop of politicians, but which somewhat surprisingly quotes approvingly of Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership. “In 1929, when people stood up against British rule under the leadership of Gandhi… the King of Bikaner, Ganga Singh Babu, one day spotted the picture of Mahatma Gandhi hanging from a wall of the warden’s room at Dungar College hostel… The king called Sampoornanand, the then principal of the college, and ordered him to ask for the warden’s resignation… To this the principal is said to have replied that ‘I am sorry, Maharaj. If putting Mahatma Gandhi’s picture on the walls is a crime, then please accept my resignation as well’. At that very moment, he submitted his resignation and left. In independent India, all those patriotic politicians who would not hesitate to sell the country, could you please take lessons from this story?”
While Batra’s exertions are directed at exciting the curiosity of the impressionable, what exactly does YS Rao do to authenticate the Mahabharata and the Ramayana is not known. However, Rao’s insistence on locating a link between tourism and history has evoked sniggers in interested circles. Further, while many academics are prepared to grant him the right to extol the intellectual achievements of pre-colonial and ancient India, his defence of the caste system has intrigued several observers. Also, the juxtaposition of faith versus reason in his thinking has been questioned on basic epistemological grounds. Faith may be part of a culture, but countering it with reason has occasioned some debate.
The floodgates of debate have been flung wide open following the Modi establishment’s keen desire to appropriate history and other social sciences. Questioning the legitimacy of eminent historian DN Jha because he disagreed with mythologising the sacred cow and calling Romila Thapar a “foreign agent” are aspects that are likely to cause considerable disquiet in the bargain.
While Dinanath Batra, who ran a strident campaign against AK Ramanujam’s seminal essay on the Ramayana, is no stranger to controversies, the new ICHR chief, during his short stint, has also shown that he revels in causing flutters in academic circles.