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Speaking Volumes

India's history is heavily influenced by religion, making it important for students to recognise the various threads that weave the fabric of their history. When textbooks are the major, if not sole, purveyor of knowledge, the schools' choice of textbooks plays a significant role in the understanding that students have of their history and how current religious tensions could be interpreted. This study analyses four major events in Indian history and how they are presented in textbooks used by three faith-based schools that represent Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. By and large, the textbooks do not indulge in "revisionist history". However, a subtle interpretation of history is implied by the language used and by omissions and commissions of details. Further, these relate directly to the history of the religion and to the role religion played in Indian history.


Speaking Volumes

Religion and Teaching History in India

India’s history is heavily influenced by religion, making it important for students to recognise the various threads that weave the fabric of their history. When textbooks are the major, if not sole, purveyor of knowledge, the schools’ choice of textbooks plays a significant role in the understanding that students have of their history and how current religious tensions could be interpreted. This study analyses four major events in Indian history and how they are presented in textbooks used by three faith-based schools that represent Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. By and large, the textbooks do not indulge in “revisionist history”. However, a subtle interpretation of history is implied by the language used and by omissions and commissions of details. Further, these relate directly to the history of the religion and to the role religion played in Indian history.


eligious and educational principles in Indian society have much in common with the US. Large democracies with a plurality of religions represented in their spectrum, both countries have intentionally separated religion from education in the public schools. In both cases, this policy has fostered the growth of private schools with explicit or implicit faith-based features. In these two countries, both of which are supremely proud of their diversity, freedom and opportunity, education is viewed as the vehicle for changing people’s perception of different backgrounds and heritages. The largest democracy in the world, India asserts its ability to maintain relations in a country where differences are just as likely to intermingle as similarities; recently India’s then minister of external affairs, K Natwar Singh declared at Brown University, “India is uniquely poised to become a world political and economic power in the 21st century because of its history of democratic secularism and investment in education” [MacKay 2005].

Credited as the birthplace of four religions of the world – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism – the country recognises 18 official languages, a variety of ethnicities and a multitude of religions including, besides its Hindu majority, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsees and Jews. In order to recognise and support these varieties of people, India’s declared motto is “Unity in diversity”. In 1999, an official report to the Parliament of India noted that “education about religions could become an instrument of social cohesion and social and religious harmony”, and is essential to understanding the country in terms of diversity [S B Chavan Committee, cited in Rajput 2001]. This recognition allows schools to add religious pluralism, universal ethical and moral values to the history curriculum while still adhering to the country’s ideals of a secular nation.

Teaching history in modern India has involved an appreciation of the role of history in educating and balancing various societal and religious forces in the society. As V D Ghate (1940), inspector of schools in Bombay, explained “history deals with the life of a community as a whole and has to do with equal justice in different aspects of life – social, economic, artistic and religious” [Ghate 1940:14]. This was echoed by K P Chaudhary (1975) who pointed out, “The study of Indian history provides special opportunities for overplaying the unity and underplaying the disunity, thus fostering a cause of national integration” [Chaudhary 1975: 12]. Reinforcing this idea, he made clear to history teachers in India “whether you are a Hindu or a Muhammedan, remember that you are also an Indian and are interested in the larger concerns of your motherland and the still larger interests of Truth” [ibid: 97].

This philosophy was in direct contrast to the principles of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which came to power in 1998 (it had a 13 day stint in). According to the BJP, Hindu culture and Indian culture are synonymous, and all Indians regardless of their professed faith must have a thorough grounding in Hinduism, Hindu culture, and the achievements of Hindus throughout Indian history [Sherlock and Dorschner 2003]. Amid a flurry of protests, as the ruling party, it formally announced its intention to dispense with secularism and revamp the teaching of history in the nation’s primary schools [Kumar 2000; Dhavan 2001; Thapar 2001]. During its six years in power, the BJP government rewrote a number of history books to focus on Hindu nationalism, portray Muslims as invaders and play down the contribution of Christians, Parsees and other faiths [Behal 2004]. Following yet another change in government in 2005, in a reversal of policy, the textbooks are being rewritten to make the content less open to interpretation from the Hindu fundamentalist perspective.

In 1994, the National Council for Social Studies in the US stated the goal of social studies education as of helping “young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world” [NCSS 1994: vii]. This idea is ever imperative in India, where almost 10 per cent of India’s population is Muslim, making it the second-largest concentration in the world. Recent world events make it clear that a discussion of religion and its influence on people’s lives are of great significance. These frequent changes of the content of history textbooks reflect the importance that historical textbooks are

Economic and Political Weekly September 9, 2006 invested with in their portrayal of history. The consequences of “revisionist history” and the separation of church and state as exemplified in recent decisions in India make it important to study the connections between religion and history and the teaching of it.

Research Questions

These parallel environments in India and the US and their implications give rise to an overarching question: What is the role of religion in the teaching of history? The fundamental question in a secular democracy is the stated and hidden curriculum of the religion that is taught in history classes in middle schools. More specifically, how do faith-based private schools in India, where religion is considered an essential part of the entire curriculum, portray their own and other religions in history classes? How does this portrayal influence the curriculum in terms of textbook adoption and standards that reflect the amount and type of exposure to religion students encounters in their history class?


Demographics of the schools: This study was conducted in a large metropolitan city in south India known for its cultural and religious heritage. Purposive sampling was used to select three faith-based schools in Chennai: a Hindu school, an Islamic school and a Christian school. A preliminary criterion was that they should be affiliated to the same board of education. This would ensure that they would be bound by the same social studies standards and the curriculum would be the same across the sample. All three schools are private higher secondary institutions and are closely associated with relevant influential national and regional religious associations.

The Hindu school is co-educational and consists of 2,000 students. A vast majority of the school population, both students and teachers, is Hindu, with only a few exceptions.

The Muslim school works closely with the large Muslim community in the city. Like the Hindu school, the Islamic school also has approximately 2,000 students. However, it is a co-educational school only until class III, at which point boys are no longer allowed in the school. This all-girls school has a local hostel for about 100 girls from neighbouring cities and countries. Ninety-two per cent of the school population is Muslim, down from about 16 per cent until a few years ago. This concentration of Muslims is reflected among the teachers also; however, there are more non-Muslim teachers in this school than there are minority teachers in the Hindu school.

The Christian school proudly proclaims its status as a minority school that is “intended primarily to promote the educational interest of the Church of South India”. The school is larger than the other two with about 3,500 students. It is co-educational only until class V, after which it is a singlesex girl’s school. Unlike the other two schools, the large majority of the school population is non-Christian; yet the teachers are mostly Christian. Data collection: In 1995, the new education policy of the Tamil Nadu government agreed on a new syllabus for matriculation schools in the VI, VII and VIII classes, outlining expected outcomes of learning, content and learning activities. The books prescribed for these grades were analysed for the curriculum and how it was interpreted by the schools. These class levels were identified because over the three years approximately 95 per cent of Indian history is covered. The standards for class VI apply roughly to the time period known as early Indian history or ancient Indian history, class VII refers to the middle Indian history or medieval Indian history and class VIII focuses on modern Indian history. The textbooks used by these schools were obtained from either the schools themselves or from bookshops recommended by the schools. Data analysis: The unit of analysis was the reference to religion in the textbooks. Data was analysed using summative content analysis [Hseih and Shannon 2005] to identify themes and collate the data, and then the constant comparative method was used to compare the data among the three textbooks [Patton 1990].

Data included all references to events, notable figures and religious ideas or symbols. Some examples of these across religions were mention of Hindu holy scriptures, the building of Buddhist stupas, practising the “gems” of Jainism, Chinese philosophers, the prophet Zoroaster, Christian missionaries from European countries, Muslim creations of architecture and the role of the Sikhs in the Indian independence movement. Colourcoding was used to distinguish general and specific references to religion. Pink denoted general references, for example, the persecution of Hindus and Muslims, while yellow denoted specific religious references such as the three stages in which the Muslim conquest occurred.

Next, to compare across the textbooks, a table was created with chapters on the y-axis and the book on the x-axis. The data were transferred to a table. Each cell contained the details of that specific chapter and book, enabling easy tracking of data.

For a quick reference to the amount of specific reference to religion, each chapter was informally rated 1 to 5. A rating of one meant that the chapter contained little religious detail. Two denoted a chapter with mostly general references to religion without specific events or people mentioned; a five indicated a high occurrence of specific information on religious events and persons with few to no general references. This rating was placed in the upper right hand corner of the respective chapter/book cell. It was used merely as a handy tool and was not identified as an indicator of favour or preference. Finally, a running record of comments was maintained on the length of references, the depth of analysis, and whether the references were presented in a positive or negative light.


Template of the textbooks: The textbooks of all three schools are by and large similar in form, content and substance. The format includes chapters that specifically identify the topics, which are nearly always the same across all three books. The chapter material is presented with sub-headings and paragraph breaks, with each subsection containing important dates, names of influential people and an overall assessment of the role of the subsection topic in Indian history. Each chapter ends with a small self-evaluation for students to quiz themselves over the material. Both the Muslim school’s textbook (MT) and Christian school’s textbook (CT) have a brief section on ‘Points to Remember’, while the latter also displays a minor section titled ‘Do You Know’?

The standards are explicitly stated in both the MT and CT. The Hindu school’s textbook (HT) does not include the standards, although it seems to be based upon them. The historical periods covered include all of what is identified as Indian history beginning from Ancient India to British rule in India. Indian’s independence

Economic and Political Weekly September 9, 2006

is touched on lightly in class VIII but not at great depth. Focus of analysis: The content of the textbooks does not differ markedly and there is no obvious “revisionist history” undertaken in terms of dates and events. However, the religious inclinations of the schools are apparent in subtle ways. To illustrate the differences in treatment, three significant periods of Indian history taken from each of the three middle school classes were analysed. Class VI covers ancient Indian history which was essentially seen as a “Hindu” period but was significant for the new religious ideas that led to the spread of Buddhism and Jainism (600-400 BCE). The medieval period, part of the class VII syllabus, heralded the advent of Islam and wide trading routes, when the Turks Mahmud Gazni and Muhammad Ghori (997-1206 CE) expanded their influence and power and invaded India. The third instance will reference European rule in India (1498-1947 CE) and the revolt of 1857 as is portrayed in the class VIII syllabus.

Ancient India: The Rise of Buddhism and Jainism

Content: Sixth century BCE was one of the most notable time periods in Indian history in terms of religious questioning and influence. The emergence of two influential figures, Gautama Buddha and Vardhamana Mahavira gave rise to two new religions, Buddhism and Jainism, as well as caused significant developments in Hinduism. At this time, Hinduism’s influence was clearly divided into two sects, Saivites and Vaishnavites, partly due to the discontent with Hinduism as it was practised then. Causes for this displeasure included immoral practices by the religious leaders, dissatisfaction of the adherents with rituals and sacrifices, growing antagonism against caste system, and the ignorance about Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas, by the common people.

The Buddha was originally a prince, eventually attaining enlightenment as a wandering ascetic, teaching the importance of the ‘Four Noble Truths’ and the ‘Eightfold Path’. Buddhism spread all over India and beyond, with the number of followers fluctuating based on the support or critique of the government. Its impact on Indian society included social ideas such as equality among people, non-violence, and the importance of learning and art, as exemplified in the beautiful stupas and cave temples that were built to promote Buddhist ideas.

Vardhamana Mahavira founded and spread Jainism. His teachings include the concept of the three ‘gems’ and five important principles; the Jains made significant contributions to Tamil language and literature. The textbooks alsoreference the ideas of Confucius in China and Zoroaster in Persia.

At the end of this chapter, all three texts list review questions related to many specific ideas (see the table). For example, all three texts ask questions about the life and teachings of the Buddha such as, “Where did the Buddha deliver his first sermon”? [Mahalingam and Rangasamy 2002a: 57; Murray et al 2000: 59; Rangarajan 2003a 39]. Comparisons of religions: The major differences between the treatments of the three religions are best demonstrated by the different emphasis each text placed on what is deemed important and what is not. CT provides the most complete and interesting picture of the rise of the two new religions with stories about the two influential religious figures (Buddha and Mahavira), which make the text interesting. Two factors are pointed out to explain the differences between the popularity of Buddhism and Hinduism. One was the role of royal patronage. Secondly, the religious leaders effectively used the languages spoken by the common people rather than Sanskrit, which was the language of the elite.

MT is the only text to make explicit comparisons between different religions. One of the questions in the end-of-chapter list is: What is the similarity between Jesus Christ and Buddha? [Mahalingam and Rangasamy 2002a: 57].

HT makes more expansive claims for the religions, calling Buddhism a world religion, which the other texts do not. HT hails the Buddha and Mahavira “Saviors of India” [Rangarajan 2003a: 32] declaring that “Buddhism made the people think and reason out for themselves. It really helped to revive Hindu society” [Rangarajan 2003a: 35].

Even as HT lauds the two religions, it subtly devalues them, implying that their significance lies only in relation to Hinduism. It describes their beginnings from Hinduism, downplaying the importance of the religious figures and does not mention the impact the two religions had on the practice of Hinduism. One of the bullets in the section ‘Points to Remember’ states “Buddhism declined because of a revival in Hinduism” [Rangarajan 2003a: 38]. However, while HT does not discuss the teachings of the Buddha extensively, two out of 44 questions at the end of the chapter are related to the ‘Eightfold paths’ [Rangarajan 2003a: 39-40]. The “decline” of Buddhism: The topic of the “decline of Buddhism”, as HT phrases it, is treated very differently in each book. HT describes the decline of Buddhism and Jainism in detail. In MT, although there is no section on the decline of Buddhism or Jainism, the final sentence of the chapter in MT says, “Buddhism and Jainism exist only in some selected parts of India” [Mahalingam and Rangasamy 2002a: 55]. CT does not mention this aspect of religious revival at all. Vedic rituals: Though all three texts list, at varying degrees of depth, the deleterious effects of the contribution of vedic rituals to the practice of Hinduism, CT is the only text that frames the issue sociologically with a brief overview of social class structure and its impact on the growth of the new religions. As the text explains, “Since the Vedic religion did not give them [the lower classes] a high position in society, they looked for some religion which would improve their position”. This concept is reinforced in the end-of-chapter questions with “What was the result of the division of society based on caste lines”? [Murray et al 2000: 52].

Simplicity and lack of ostentation are important concepts in the teachings of Islam. It is, therefore, not surprising that MT presents three paragraphs in the chapter that mention the downfall of the “Vedic” religions, whereas HT only details one paragraph on the negatives, saying “The Hindu Society had lost its former glory and many abuses and superstitions had crept into it” [Rangarajan 2003a: 32].

Table: Number of Questions Related to Each Religion in the End-of-Chapter Questions in the Textbooks for Class VI

Total Number of Questions Buddhism Jainism Hinduism
Hindu school textbook 2 5 2 0 1 (Vedic)
Christian school textbook 1 7 1 9 5 (Vedic)
Muslim school textbook 1 1 1 0 0

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MT states that the fall of the Vedic religions was due to “costly religious rituals and bloody sacrifices”. It also emphasises that “the philosophers (the Buddha and Mahavira) preached that it was better to lead a truthful, moral and dedicated life instead of making a show of worship” [Mahalingam and Rangasamy 2002a: 47]. One of the most interesting questions that the MT asks is, “Why do we feel that Buddhism was economical”? [Mahalingam and Rangasamy 2002a: 57]. In comparing Buddhism to Hinduism, the text seems to imply that Buddhism was more practical and pragmatic than many of the Hindu practices of the times.

In contrast to both these texts, HT glosses over these causes, merely listing them, offering little explanation. Neither is there a statement about the significance of the causes. However, HT is not too reluctant to mention the faults of Hinduism when it asks the question, “Why were the people of India dissatisfied with the Vedic religion during the 6th century BCE”? [Rangarajan 2003a: 40]. Sectarian politics: The two sects of Saivism and Vaishnavismthat were formed among Hindus, relevant to the worship of Siva and Vishnu respectively, caused a further split in the pantheon of Hindu gods. The only reference HT makes to this event is in passing as it ascribes the decline of Buddhism to the “preachings of the great acharyas” [Rangarajan 2003a: 34], one of whom was a Vaishnavite and the other a Saivite. Apart from this brief allusion, HT makes no references to these sectarian politics, preferring to present a “Hindu united front” to the readers. CT and MT do not have such qualms and detail the splitting of the sects in more depth. MT in particular explains not only the importance of sectarian politics in the rise of Buddhism and Jainism but also in reforming Hinduism.

The Muslim Invasion: Ghazni and Ghori

Content: In class VII, students learn about the medieval period in Indian history, which was highlighted by the Muslim invasions. Originally driven to gain lands and influence over larger numbers of people, invasions from Muslims exposed India to different people and ideas. Two of the most influential figures in these invasions were Mahmud Ghazni and Muhammad Ghori who repeatedly led their forces further and further into India.

Ghazni’s incursions into India involved extensive warfare. One of his most famous battles was his raid on the temple at Somnath, well known for its riches. The brave rajput chiefs and Hindus of the city put up a gallant fight, but they could not overcome the Turkish forces of Ghazni. The wealth of the temples he looted was used to fund the beautification of his capital with a mosque and a library.

The successful invasions of Muhammad Ghori, a century and more later, which led to the foundation of Muslim rule in India, a basic description of his administration, and the reasons for the success of the Muslim invaders are explained in all three texts in fairly similar terms.

The majority of the questions reflect the outline. One question that is specifically asked in all three books is, “What were the causes for the successes of the Muslim invaders in India”? [Nirmala et al 2000: 28; Mahalingam and Rangasamy 2002b: 26; Rangarajan 2003b: 22], though MT uses “invasions” rather than “invaders”, preferring to emphasise the act rather than the person. Religion and the invasions: Both HT and CT acknowledge that the Turks sought to spread Islam and reference Ghazni as an idol breaker. End-of-chapter questions in both texts include “Who was the ‘idol breaker’”? [Nirmala et al 2000: 27; Rangarajan 2003b: 22]. But the similarities between these texts end there.

CT presents Ghazni in a positive light as an idol breaker who was trying to reform the religions of the area. It calmly states, “The Muslim invaders wanted to spread Islam” [Nirmala et al 2000: 24]. This stance appears to reflect various points in Indian history when Christians fought heavily against the Hindus, claiming that their temples constituted idol worship.

HT, on the other hand, focuses more on the effect of religion on Ghazni’s raids in which he “destroyed idol worship by waging jihad or holy war. As he broke the idols in every Hindu temple, he was praised as the ‘idol breaker’ in the history of Islam” [Rangarajan 2003b: 18]. It emphasises “the untold miseries to the people and thousands of Hindus killed, Hindu temples and monuments were destroyed and Islam developed in India and the Hindus developed a hatred towards Muslims” [Rangarajan 2003b: 19]. In dramatic, but not objective, language, HT claims: “The Muslims were crazy about their new religion and wanted to spread Islam to India at any cost” [Rangarajan 2003b: 20]. This background and tone of language seem to support and justify the reasons for the current Hindu-Muslim animosity.

MT is bland in its treatment of the Muslim invasions. It makes no mention of Ghazni as an idol breaker and explains sedately, “The Muslims fought with religious zeal, while the Indians lacked the incentive” [Mahalingam and Rangasamy 2002b: 24]. Economics and the invasions: HT has perhaps the most dramatic retelling of the sacking of Somnath: “The merciless iconoclast killed thousands of Hindus and carried the enormous looted wealth to Ghazni” [Rangarajan 2003b: 18].

The other two texts provide a less vigorous description and depict Ghazni simply as an invader trying to increase his holdings and wealth. At this point in the history, CT says “Ghazni ransacked the temple, broke all the idols and even the magnificent gates of the temple. He took away lots of gold, silver and precious stones…and beautified Ghazni” [Nirmala et al 2000: 24]. CT notes that the invasions ruined many buildings and caused untold suffering to the people.

While MT also acknowledges Ghazni’s plundering and vandalism, it puts a positive spin on it by emphasising the good he did with it for religion and learning. While not offering an excuse for the misery caused, the juxtaposition of the good appears to mitigate the harm done. “Ghazni razed the temple to the ground and looted the wealth…with the wealth he built the capital city of Ghazni with a beautiful mosque and large library” [Mahalingam and Rangasamy 2002b: 22]. Political effects of the invasion: Both CT and MT are cognisant of the long-term significance of the Turkish invasions. In the end-of-chapter questions, MT refers to them as “outstanding leaders of the Muslims” [Mahalingam and Rangasamy 2002b: 27]. CT and MT point out that the successes of Ghazni and Ghori led to the beginnings of Muslim rule in India, with MT using the grander term “empire” rather than “rule” [Mahalingam and Rangasamy 2002b: 25].

HT references the Muslim rule by ethnicity rather than religion (Islamic) in saying that “Turkish rule ensued following the invasions” [Rangarajan 2003b: 21]. HT is the only text that refers to the death of Ghazni, boldly stating that he died “to the great relief of the Indians” [Rangarajan 2003b: 20]. Neither CT nor MT references this idea. HT also tries to infuse Hindu sentiment into this period by posing a

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question about the “Hindu ruler of the Sind” [Rangarajan 2003b: 21].

European Rule: Historical Perspective

Content: Students at the middle school level complete their education of Indian history with the time period of modern history. Their textbooks explain the role of Europeans in recent history, the growth of the Indian independence movement and finally, independence from Britain.

A significant event during this period was the revolt of 1857. The British-trained Indian sepoys were both Hindu and Muslim, who feared that they would be forced to convert to Christianity by the British. This idea was further compounded when the British commanders ordered them to use cartridges that had been greased in cow and pig fat, in betrayal of their religious beliefs; in Hindu culture the cow is sacred and in Muslim belief the pig is forbidden. When this revolt was successfully put down by the British, the Indian administration was taken over by the crown and officially became part of the British empire. In the beginning: As an introduction to this period of history, each text recapitulates what it sees as relevant history, apparently establishing an appropriate cultural point of reference. CT reaches farthest back towards the west, tracing India’s trade relations in Europe “right back to the era of the Roman empire” [Sudhakar et al 2000: 1]. The section, ‘Points to Remember’ reinforces this with a bullet that trade in India with the Europeans began with the Roman empire. This is hammered home again in the end-of-chapter question: “When did India’s trade relations with European countries begin”? [Sudhakar et al 2000: 7-8].

MT’s overview of the chapter includes no reference to the beginnings of trade with the Europeans but moves closer in time and space to the 7th century, when India’s maritime trade relations with the west “fell into the hands of the Arabs” [Mahalingam and Rangasamy 2002c: 1]. The text claims that the trade routes that were established by this arrangement were made dangerous by the “conquests of the Ottoman Turks” [Mahalingam and Rangasamy 2002c: 1]. The power of the Turks is reinforced with two end-of-chapter questions relating to the cut-off of trade between India and the west by the Turks. In a significant reference to this, the stem of a multiple choice question at the end of the chapter reads, “What was the first opportunity for the Europeans to travel to the east”? A second question asks: “The overland route to Indian became unsafe because of the raids by the: (a) Portuguese,

(b) Dutch, (c) Turks” [Mahalingam and Rangasamy 2002c: 6-7].

HT starts with the Ottoman Turks, referencing their capture of the trading port of Constantinople in 1453 [Rangarajan 2003c:1]. Trade with Europe is alluded to in two of 34 questions at the end-of-chapter. One query, “Who discovered a new sea route to India”? [Rangarajan 2003c: 6], while the other probe is, “Who found the sea route to India from Europe first”? [Rangarajan 2003c: 5].

These are subtle, though not overt, references to religion as they demonstrate different foci on the influences upon India. HT wishes to acknowledge the least amount of European influence and therefore begins closer to the modern day. MT unabashedly begins its history of India with being influenced by the Arab traders – the same traders who were also responsible for spreading the ideas of Islam. Finally, the Christian textbook is willing to recognise the most amount of European influence in the country. It may also be seen as a suitable orientation because it was Rome that declared Christianity the religion of the empire. Attitude of the British to Indians: According to HT, the British were “arrogant and considered themselves superior to the Indians” [Rangarajan 2003c: 55]. CT and MT echo HT, bluntly saying that “the British exhibited racial arrogance” when they dealt with the Indians [Mahalingam and Rangasamy 2002c: 67].

Regardless of the religious leaning of the school, all three textbooks are agreed on how the British flouted Indian customs. The suppression of sati and the legalisation of widow remarriage were a direct contradiction to Hindu beliefs and practices of the time. The change of laws regarding rights of inheritance to the Christians is also cited as an instance that angered the Indians. The last is particularly significant since in the last 25 years inheritance laws of both Muslims and Christians have been challenged in Indian courts with considerable political fallout. Religious causes: HT and MT are agreed that “the Christian missionaries were active in propagating Christianity” [Mahalingam and Rangasamy 2002c: 69]. MT observes that this action made the Indians fearful that “the British were out to destroy their religions and to convert India into a Christian land” [Mahalingam and Rangasamy 2002c: 69].

HT provides historical continuity and asserts that both the “army and the civil population were under the fear that the government intended to make everybody a Christian as the Mohammadans had done before” [Rangarajan 2003c: 53]. The British are seen as iconoclasts, intent on destroying everything that had been established in India previously. It makes no attempt to hide its contempt for both the Christians and the Muslims who were encouraging converts.

MT seems to elaborate more on what HT described; however, it does not display the bias in the presentation of the text. The statements alluding to the idea of the British were purposeful about spreading Christianity all through the land are mild. The use of the word “heathen” in the following statement “to spread Christianity among the heathen natives of the east” [Mahalingam and Rangasamy 2002c: 1] is the strongest expression in this context.

CT is also very careful in describing the situations that existed in order to foster the growth of the revolt. It acknowledges that, “The zeal of the Christian missionaries in the propagation of Christianity alarmed the Indians” [Sudhakar et al 2000: 62] which made the Indian populace suspect that the British were out to convert all of India to Christianity [Sudhakar et al 2000: 62]. However, unlike its usual practice of providing interesting details, it is curiously less vocal on the topic of spreading Christianity and the Indian response that contributed to the revolt of 1857.

Discussion and Conclusions

The four events highlighted for analysis attest to the fact that the role of religion is firmly entrenched in the teaching of history, especially in a country like India with a long historical association with religions. There can be no doubt that even in a secular country where personal faith is alleged to be separate from the public forum of schools, religion is an intrinsic part of the curriculum and is taught in schools. Acceptance of this idea is essential for an appreciation of how the narration of history will shape students’ perspectives on the religious influences of the country they inhabit. Even in private schools, which can be more flexible with the curriculum, religion continues to be a vital part of the history class.

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It is creditable that none of the books has indulged in any obvious revisionist history of names and events. However, revisionism is not just in facts but also in omissions, commissions and interpretation. Thus, it would not be surprising if trusting readers of this HT view Buddhism as an off-shoot of Hinduism and are unable to see its intrinsic merits; faithful students of CT view proselytisation by the missionaries, a hot topic in India now, as a recent phenomenon; and impressionable readers of the MT cannot comprehend the history of discrimination and persecution shared by Hindus and Muslims during the British rule.

The power of words to provide various interpretations is modelled persuasively in these textbooks. While the ideas across the three books are all similar, the words used in each book tell a different story. Muslim rulers can thus be viewed as either vandals and harbingers of doom and destruction or as aesthetes who value learning and create beauty. The texts are also framed by the religious intent of the schools and these values are passed on to the students by way of the interpretation of the content. Students in a Christian school, for example, will view Ghazni as an invader, a negative role model, but also as an idol breaker, a positive role model from the viewpoint of Christianity.

The different treatments the events are afforded in each book confirm the relevance of history to present times. While the bias in the textbooks may not deliberate, the political and social climate may have contributed to its presence and power differentials may contribute to tone of the narratives. After all, Hindus are an overwhelming majority in the country and the BJP made no secret when in government of wielding its clout in favour of the dominant religion. The authors of HT may have felt emboldened by the majority status of the people and the prevailing political conditions so that Hindu fundamentalism is more clearly reflected in the HT than a similar slant of the respective religions in CT and MT.

Awareness of contemporary conditions would help a student of history place the recent clashes between Hindus and Muslims in a different perspective. Without this background knowledge, the tirade in HT against the Turks could be dismissed as a biased and non-academic approach. On the other hand, when seen as part of a long struggle for supremacy among the religious groups, students may gain insights into the transience of authority and the cyclical nature of civilisations.

Given that religion is a deeply connected part of Indian society, it is important to choose textbooks that represent both the school’s religion and the religions which the students will be learning about professionally and accurately. Clearly, there is some disagreement about what is accurate in the farther reaches of history, but these are the important conversations that need to take place for the benefit of the students and the future generations.

It is vitally important that schools recognise that history allows for dissemination of larger ideas of understanding and compassion. This requires schools to take responsibility for honestly informing students about religion and the importance of teaching religion in school, not merely for knowledge of historical facts but for the more far-reaching benefits of society. Given the religious tensions in certain parts of the country, though not in the state this study was conducted, it is incumbent on the educational system to provide for a clearer understanding of the purposes and processes of history and its interactions with religion. If schools are to be credited as academic institutions, they must adopt an inclusive and even-handed approach to learning. The choice of textbooks speaks volumes, both to the respectability of the school and curriculum that is taught to the students. The support of a strong school system will contribute in a large measure to buttressing the ideals of democracy and plurality and to better understand and serve the communities of India.

The private school movement in the US has acknowledged that religion is an important part of people’s lives. The curriculum in schools in India shows that divorcing religion from the teaching of its history is neither possible nor advisable. If teachers in these diverse societies were to adopt a thoughtful, sensitive and judicious approach to teaching history, students could weave together the various strands of the past and the present, the religious and the secular, achieving “Unity in Diversity”.




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    Economic and Political Weekly

    available from:

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    Churchgate Station Opp Indian Merchants Chamber Churchgate Mumbai - 400 020

    Economic and Political Weekly September 9, 2006

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