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Nations and Nationalism 19 (1), 2013, 68–86.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8129.2012.00556.x

The Indian nation and selective
amnesia: representing conflicts and
violence in Indian history textbooks
University of Geneva, Switzerland

ABSTRACT. ‘Unity is always obtained by means of brutality’ wrote Ernest Renan.
Following this idea, this article investigates how social conflicts and violence are
included or muted in national history. This is done by comparing the successive series
of history textbooks used in India in the postindependence period. The historical
narratives contained in the textbooks were influenced by different conceptions of the
Indian nation, and these variations allow us to observe and better understand what is
remembered or forgotten in the national narrative. We will see that conflicts and
violence are referred to when they involve the nation against its ‘other’ but depictions
of conflicts within the nation as it is imagined are avoided. Thus, certain violent
episodes of the past find a place in the national historical narrative, yet violence in itself
is never described.
KEYWORDS: Hindu nationalism, history, India, partition, secular nationalism,

How are past conflicts and violence remembered or forgotten in national
history? In order to shed some light on this question, this article looks at the
way conflicts and violence have been represented in history textbooks in
postindependence India.
Studies of history textbooks from different countries have shown that textbooks’ narratives tend to circumvent the subject of social conflict1 and to avoid
the depiction of violence (Apple 2004: chapter 5, Cole 2007; Kumar 1996;
Levstik 2000; Pathak 2002; Rodríguez 2007). However, it is my contention
that the idea of a general avoidance needs to be nuanced and I suggest the
following specification: when textbooks are elaborated primarily as nationbuilding instruments, the historical narratives they contain shun the mention
of social conflict within the nation as it is imagined. Conflict and violence are
referred to, but only when they involve the nation against its ‘other’. Moreover, episodes of violence are mentioned when they can not be ignored but
without describing the violence itself.
© The author(s) 2012. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2012

The Indian nation and selective amnesia


In effect, history textbooks devote space to expose conflicts with the
nation’s ‘other’ as the national narrative constructs the nation’s identity precisely against this ‘other’ (see, e.g. on North and South Korea’s textbooks,
Bleiker and Young-Ju 2007; on Indian and Pakistani textbooks, Aziz 1998;
Kumar 2001; Saigol 2005). Yet, conflicts within what is considered as the
in-group are less willingly narrated, but they are not forgotten either. They
suffer from what could be called selective collective amnesia. It does not mean
complete forgetting and might not be as conscious as a choice; it corresponds
rather to a group preference not to build the national narrative using certain
pieces of the national past’s repertoire.
Renan’s well-known and oft-quoted passage from his 1882 conference at
the Sorbonne shows well the complexity of the idea of ‘forgetting’ parts of the
nation’s past:
Forgetting, and I would even say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of
a nation [. . .]. [T]he essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in
common, and also that they have forgotten many things. [. . .] every French citizen
should have forgotten the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre and the thirteenth
century massacres in the South of France. (Renan 1996: 227–8, author’s translation)

Here, Renan is addressing an audience of French people and refers to events,
which he says, should already be forgotten. However, he expects the listeners
to be familiar with these events as he only names them without giving any
further explanations. Moreover, as Anderson (1999: 200–1) noted, why should
people forget events that they should anyway not ‘remember’ as they happened more than 400 and 700 years ago? In the context of national narratives,
in general, and in connection with social conflicts, in particular, the meaning of
‘forgetting’ and ‘remembering’ seems more complex than might appear at first
The choice of what is ‘remembered’ and ‘forgotten’ is never definitive and
rarely uncontroversial. Studies of nations and nationalism have shown that a
nation can be imagined in different ways (Hutchinson 2005) and that the
conception of who is part of the in-group varies consequently (Brubaker et al.
2004). The elements ‘forgotten’ by one group are often contested by another
group defending a different conception of the nation and referring to other
parts of the national repertoire.
Yet this selective amnesia does not rest only on cold calculus, sheer ill
will or political manipulation but rather corresponds to a more unconscious
need to reconstruct the world (and history in this case) as we imagine it.
Social psychology studies demonstrate that our self image depends on the
image of the group we identify with (Tajfel and Turner 1986). For this
reason, we tend to remember more the events in which our group was positively involved than those in which it played a negative role (Sahdra and Ross
These social psychology studies read in conjunction with the research
on nations and nationalism, allow specifying or developing the hypothesis
© The author(s) 2012. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2012


Sylvie Guichard

announced at the beginning: for people with different representations of
who is included in and excluded from the nation, what is acceptable in terms
of depictions of historical events varies depending on whether these depictions hurt the image of the group. Thus, one group with one conception of
the nation might have amnesic episodes of certain events and another group
with another conception of the same but different nation (with another
conception of who is part of the in-group) might have other amnesic
Let us see if this hypothesis helps us understand how social conflicts and
violence have been represented in the history textbooks prepared by the
central institution in charge of textbooks in postindependence India, the
National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT). What I
propose is a close analysis of some of these textbooks. The material studied
is not new and is widely available. However, there have been relatively few
studies comparing the successive sets of textbooks (even if there have been
many defensive and critical articles after the publication of the second series
of textbooks in 2002–04). Moreover, textbook studies of national identity
have mostly focused on the representation of the ‘other’ in national history.
My aim is linked but distinct as I propose to examine how conflicts and
violence are depicted and the comparison of the three consecutive series of
NCERT textbooks allow to study how this changes when the conception of
the nation changes.
In India, education is a shared competence of the states and the centre. The
NCERT is the federal institution that prepares ‘model’ textbooks, but these
books are used only in a limited number of government schools and in some
private schools.2 As a consequence, a minority of students learn history
directly with the NCERT textbooks. Most of them use the textbooks prepared
by the textbook boards of the states. However, the NCERT textbooks have a
symbolical importance as material coming from a central institution: they
constitute the official discourse and enjoy a greater visibility than textbooks
produced by the states textbook boards.
There have been three successive series of NCERT textbooks: the first one
was produced at the end of the 1960s and in the 1970s. It was replaced by new
textbooks between 2002 and 2004 when the coalition led by the Bharatiya
Janata Party (BJP) came to power at the centre. These books were very
controversial, and when the Congress-led coalition won the 2004 general
elections, a third series of books was written. These textbooks have been used
in schools since 2006.
The first two parts of this article look at and compare how Hindu–Muslim
conflicts and also – but more briefly – conflicts linked with caste are presented
in the first two sets of history textbooks. The last two parts focus on the
representation of violence, first in textbooks (in the third part) by comparing
how the violence of partition is talked about in the first two series of textbooks.
Then, the fourth part turns to the difficulties that historical writings in general
face in writing about violent events.
© The author(s) 2012. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2012

The Indian nation and selective amnesia


The ‘Arcadian harmony’ of national history and Hindu–Muslims relations
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a well-known Indian social scientist, recalls his experience with school textbooks and how they failed to address the questions and
events he was confronted with as a child. He wrote:
I was in high school when the anti-Sikh carnage in Delhi took place, the Shah Bano case
was threatening to erupt and even a quick glance at a newspaper would raise troubling
questions. But our textbooks did not equip us to ask those questions. There were
intense conflicts in society, yet the textbooks presented a vision of Arcadian harmony.
In an age even more marked by information than our age of pre-TV innocence was, the
yawning gap between textbooks and society will generate an even more corrosive
scepticism. (Mehta 2006)

The textbooks Pratap Bhanu Mehta refers to are likely to have been part of the
first set of textbooks produced by the NCERT. This institution was founded in
1962 to prepare common textbooks that would help ‘national integration’ as
expressed in the 1966 report of the Education Commission:
At present, there is hardly any common book which all the students of India read; and
that is one of the reasons why our educational system contributes so little to national
integration. On the other hand if we had, say, a set of 100 books on different topics
written by the best of our scholars [. . .] the entire thinking of the rising generation
would be different and national integration could be immensely strengthened.
(Government of India 1964–66: 230 quoted in Bhattacharya 2009: footnote 2)

The textbooks conceived in the 1960s and 1970s were thus thought of as
instruments to help constructing a united India and it was considered that for
India to be united, it needed to be secular. In 1947, after partition and the
creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the idea that India had to be a
secular country had certainly influential detractors, especially but not only
among the proponents of Hindu nationalism. Yet it had even more powerful
defenders, notably the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru has been
the paragon of the secular conception of the nation according to which one
belonged to the Indian nation not because of his or her religion but depending
on one’s birth or residence on a certain territory. The first set of textbooks were
rooted in this conception of the nation and had to support this united and
secular India.
In 1969, the Report of the Committee on School Textbooks highlighted the
crucial role of history textbooks in building ‘national unity’, and this should
determine which episodes to include in the new national narrative:
In view of the fact that in teaching Indian history in the past, during the British rule,
stress has often been laid on religious differences and conflict, it is necessary that we
should now highlight those situations – and they are legion – where people of all
religious faiths have worked together in unity and cooperation. [. . .] This would,
obviously, involve a creative and purposeful reinterpretation of history and a judicious
selection of historical truths. The interests of national unity and the needs of a modernizing society should be the primary consideration in our choice and presentation of
material. (Government of India, Ministry of Education 1969: 12)
© The author(s) 2012. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2012


Sylvie Guichard

As recommended in this passage, the first set of textbooks told a story of
Hindu–Muslim harmony in the subcontinent.
The authors of these textbooks belonged to different historiographical
traditions (more or less influenced by Marxist historiography), but they shared
a secular understanding of India’s history. They refused the British reading of
Indian history as well as the nationalist and the communalist/Hindu nationalist ones, in which a ‘Hindu golden age’ was terminated by Arab invasions
opening a ‘Muslim period’3 followed then by a ‘British period’. Secular historians specially questioned the conception of Hindus and Muslims as two
distinct and antagonist groups in Indian history. They saw this as a vestige of
the colonial frame of understanding. They argued on the contrary that Hindus
and Muslims were two heterogeneous groups consubstantial of the Indian
nation. Moreover, they emphasised that most of the Indian past saw a peaceful
and harmonious living together, and a mixing and enrichment between Hindus
and Muslims (see Bhattacharya 2008; Thapar 2009).
The textbook on Medieval India for class VII (for twelve- to thirteen-yearold children) offers a good example of this secular reading of Indian history.
This textbook, first published in 1967 and written by the historian Romila
Thapar, was the second book prepared under the aegis of the NCERT (the first
one also by R. Thapar and published one year earlier was on Ancient India).
The description of the sufi and bhakti traditions under the Delhi Sultanate
(from the early thirteenth century to the early fifteenth century) is in line with
the ‘Arcadian harmony’ approach. About the sufis, Romila Thapar wrote:
Among the Muslims who had come from Persia and other lands in the eleventh century
were some sufis. They settled in various parts of India and soon had many Indian
followers. The sufi emphasized love and devotion as a means of coming nearer to God.
[. . .] Because of the emphasis on love, they were tolerant of other religions and sects,
and believed that the paths to God can be many. [. . .] The sufis did not try to convert
Hindus to Islam but advised Hindus to be better Hindus by loving the one true God.
(Thapar 1967, 2001: 52–3)

The textbook also contains a whole chapter on the Mughal emperor Akbar
(who ruled from 1556 to 1605), who symbolises tolerance, while only two
paragraphs are devoted to the reign of Aurangzeb, who ruled from 1658 to
1707 and is popularly believed (whatever the historical accuracy of this representation) to embody politico-religious fanaticism and repression.4 In the
textbook, Akbar is described as follows:
Akbar was a great ruler not because he ruled a vast empire, but because of his concern
for the country and the people. [. . .] In many ways Akbar had the same ideas about
ruling as did Ashoka. Ashoka says in one of his edicts ‘All men are my children’. If
Akbar had known about this he would have agreed with it. Akbar’s great dream was
that India should be united as one country. People should forget their differences about
religion and think of themselves only as the people of India. (Thapar 1967, 2001: 94–5)

This passage conveys a teleological narration of the construction of ‘unity in
diversity’. In such a narrative, internal social conflicts are glossed over as they
© The author(s) 2012. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2012

The Indian nation and selective amnesia


constitute discordant voices in the process of national integration; they represent disruptions in the national trajectory.
The manner in which the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi was described
in the textbook Modern India for class VIII (for thirteen- to fourteen-year-old
students) is particularly telling in this respect. Gandhi was killed by Nathuram
Godse during a public meeting in 1948. Godse reproached Gandhi for having
betrayed the Hindus by granting too many concessions to the Muslims. In the
textbook, Gandhi’s death is presented as follows:
[Gandhi] had devoted his life to the cause of Hindu–Muslim unity. When the communal riots broke out, he toured the riot-stricken areas with his message of love and
brotherhood to restore peace and communal amity. Gandhiji was in a riot-affected area
of Calcutta on the day India became independent. The killings of Hindus and Muslims
and the partition of the country had caused him deep anguish. His message of love and
brotherhood was not to the liking of some people. Their minds had been poisoned by their
hatred for other communities. On 30 January 1948, a Hindu fanatic shot him dead as he
was going to a prayer meeting. The Indian people who were just beginning to recover
from the shock of the communal killings and destruction of the previous year were
plunged into mourning. (Dev and Dev 1989, 1991: 270–1, emphasis added)

As pointed out by Krishna Kumar (1996: 8–19), the information given in this
passage does not provide the readers with the necessary elements to make
sense of the event. If we concentrate on the three sentences in italics, we
understand from the first sentence that some people did not appreciate Gandhi’s message of love and brotherhood, but nothing is said about who these
people were. The text only makes it clear that their minds had been poisoned
by hatred for other communities. The announcement in the next sentence of
Gandhi’s death at the hands of a Hindu fanatic leaves the reader without any
explanation about the assassin’s motives.
For the reader to understand Gandhi’s assassination, it would be necessary
to mention the deep cracks that had appeared at the time between the Hindu
and Muslim communities (as shown among others by Pandey 1990). But the
authors of the textbook avoid this topic, giving the impression that they are
covering up aspects of events that make them uncomfortable. We situate the
reason for this very truncated narrative in the desire to avoid having to tell
about conflicts within the nation as they imagine it.5

Leaving Arcadia: conflicts in place of harmony
Precisely because they were seen as nation-building instruments, the NCERT
textbooks of the first set have been criticised since their publication by the
advocates of Hindu nationalism. Hindu nationalists accused secular historians
of leniency in their treatment of Muslims deeds and of ignoring the violence
perpetrated by Muslim rulers such as the destruction of temples and forced
conversions (see Rudolph and Hoeber Rudolph 1983).
© The author(s) 2012. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2012


Sylvie Guichard

In 1998, when the coalition led by the Hindu nationalist BJP won the
general elections, it seized the occasion to ‘correct’ history and had all NCERT
textbooks rewritten. This second set of textbooks triggered a strong controversy. The BJP was accused of using the education system to instil the Hindu
nationalist ideology in the mind of children. The Hindu nationalist vision of
Indian history appears indeed very clearly in the second set of NCERT textbooks (as well as in the Gujarat social studies textbooks prepared after 2002;
for a detailed analysis of these books, see Manjrekar et al. 2010). This narrative has been fiercely criticised for presenting school children with a biased,
exclusively Hindu and divisive vision of Indian history.
In what became known as the ‘textbook controversy’, the supporters of a
secular reading of history and those in favour of a Hindu nationalist vision
competed with each other to dominate historiography, to appropriate
resources in the field of education and historical research and to influence the
construction of historical knowledge. This was seen as crucial as the actors
linked it with the struggle for defining national identity and thus leading to an
inclusive or exclusive vision of the nation (see Guichard 2010). Each group got
political backing: the secular historians from the Congress Party and the
Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Hindu nationalist historians
from groups revolving around the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It is
interesting to note that the Muslim representatives have been nearly absent
from the debate even if an important part of the controversy concerned the
depiction of Muslims in Indian history.
After this overheated debate, some scholars – who were clearly on the side
of secularism – pointed out that the secular irenic conception of history was
indeed problematic. Tapan Raychaudhuri (2006), for example, underlined
that by avoiding to mention some parts of history (notably temple destructions, communalism and the violence of partition), the narrative in the first set
of textbooks was indeed prone to criticism and left under-explored constitutive
parts of a common history. But if Raychaudhuri upholds what he sees as
shortcomings of the secular vision of history, he overtly condemns the Hindu
nationalist vision.
In effect, if the authors of the first set of textbooks were downplaying the
conflicts involving Hindus and Muslims in Indian history, the authors of the
second set of textbooks did the opposite. A case in point is the textbook of
the second set on medieval India (Jain 2002). It was criticised for depicting the
medieval period as a time of Muslim oppression towards Hindus, notably by
stressing temple destructions and higher taxation imposed on Hindu subjects
without giving the necessary explanations that would help students understand why things happened as they did (see Indian History Congress [IHC]
2003: 58–87).
The textbooks of the second set encapsulate indeed a very different view of
the Indian nation. Compared with the secular nation of the first set, they
present the opposite image of a religious/Hindu Indian nation. According to
this narrative, Muslims are not only not part of the Hindu nation, but they
© The author(s) 2012. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2012

The Indian nation and selective amnesia


even threaten it by their presence within the territory (the Muslim Indians are
seen as unfaithful citizens always ready to take the side of Pakistan). In the
Hindu nationalist vision of the Indian past, Muslims are equated first with
invaders who plundered India, then with rulers who oppressed Hindus and
destroyed temples, and finally, they are made responsible for partition. Thus,
Hindu–Muslim conflicts that were considered internal in the secular conception of the nation and were for this reason seldom talked about become
external and can be spoken about, even emphasised or overemphasised.
As we have seen, secular historians (and notably, Romila Thapar) have
refuted the interpretation of Indian history according to which Hindus and
Muslims are monolithic, uniform and antagonistic religious communities.
Thapar (2004) further argued that the projection of Muslims and Christians as
the ‘other’ also diverts attention from the social inequalities within the ‘Hindu’
group. According to her, the Hindu nationalist reading of Indian history
focuses on Hindu–Muslim conflicts and completely passes over injustices of
the caste system and upper caste domination.
Indeed, the injustices of the caste system during the ancient and medieval
periods are not mentioned in the history textbooks of the second set. In its
Report and Index of Errors prepared after the publication of the second set of
history textbooks, the IHC noted about the textbook on Ancient India for
class VI (written by Lal et al. 2003): ‘It is strange that neither the caste
(varna/jati) system nor the dharmashastra texts are mentioned in the chapter on
Hinduism’ (IHC 2003: 24); and about the one on Medieval India for class XI
(Jain 2002): ‘It is remarkable that this book nowhere contains a description of
the treatment of dalits or of untouchability under the caste system, as if the
dalits have no part in our heritage’ (IHC 2003: 70–1).
However, conflicts related with caste questions are not absent from all
textbooks of the second set, at least if we consider the importance given to
Ambedkar in the textbook on modern India for class XII. Ambedkar,6 who
fought for caste issues during the independence struggle and who played an
important role in the Constituent Assembly after India became independent,
appears in the narrative earlier than in its correspondent of the first set in
which the space dedicated to him is only marginal (he enters the narrative at
the very end in the part concerning the writing of the constitution).
In the modern India textbook of the second series, Ambedkar appears
already before independence in relation to his demand for separate electorates
for the ‘depressed classes’ (i.e. the former ‘untouchables’ now called dalits) and
the Poona Pact (Mittal 2003). The textbook explains that Ambedkar was
convinced that separate electorates were needed to further the emancipation of
the ‘untouchables’. Gandhi, on the other hand, opposed this measure because
he thought that it would break social unity. A compromise was found with the
Poona Pact that replaced the separate electorates by a quota of reserved seats
for the ‘depressed classes’ in the legislative assemblies. However, the textbook’s narrative does not explain how irreconcilably Ambedkar and Gandhi
were opposed on this and other subjects. It gives the impression that the issue
© The author(s) 2012. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2012


Sylvie Guichard

was solved with Gandhi breaking his fast after the signing of the Poona Pact
on 24 September 1932 (Mittal 2003: 232–3). But it was not. The pact was
signed yet the gap between Ambedkar’s and Gandhi’s position on the need of
special protection to be accorded to dalits further widened.
One reason for the increased space given to Ambedkar in the textbook of
the second set might be that the Hindu nationalist movement tries to detach
itself from its image of an exclusive high caste movement in order to appeal to
a wider ‘public’, notably dalit (Guru 1991). Another reason might lie in an
attempt to diversify the heroes of the struggle for independence, to detach the
narrative from Gandhi and Nehru (both closely linked with the Congress) by
giving more importance to other actors (see Manjrekar et al. 2010: 65).
This being said about Ambedkar, it remains true that conflicts related to
castes are seldom touched upon in both sets of textbooks. The secularist
textbooks (the first set) mention inequality due to castes, but they do not talk
about the conflicts that it might have caused. Moreover, in the textbook on
modern India for class XII (first set, for seventeen- to eighteen-year-old students), the tensions linked with caste questions during the independence struggle find no place. But even castes in general – not just the lower castes but any
question related with the idea of caste – are almost absent from the history
textbooks. As Sumit Sarkar (1996: 270) pointed out, the origin of this absence
lies further upstream in the dominant historiography in which the study of
questions related with castes and the caste system has been neglected even by
the historians of the Subaltern Studies.
Thus, tensions within the nation ‘as it is imagined’ are given as little space
as possible in the national narratives; these narratives avoid representing the
existence of conflicts within the nation (here between castes).7 Yet conflicts that
implicate the out-group are depicted. The source of conflict is placed outside
the nation as it is imagined. The ‘principle’ is the same for the secularist and the
Hindu nationalist narratives, but their imagining of the nation differs.
With this ‘principle’ in mind, let us see how Gandhi’s killing is presented in
the textbook of the second set. As a preliminary remark, we should note that
Hindu nationalists have an ambivalent relationship with the figure of Gandhi:
on the on hand, they have a strong antipathy towards him and his philosophy
of non-violent protest that they believe is cowardly and effeminate, but on the
other hand, they try to ‘co-opt’ him so as to increase the popularity and
accessibility of the Hindu nationalist movement.
The episode of Gandhi’s death is briefly recounted in the second edition of
the textbook Contemporary India for class IX after it was ‘forgotten’ in its first
edition. Strong criticism of this omission forced the NCERT to correct it and
reprint the textbooks. Hari Om, author of the section in question, replied to his
critics that the ‘omission was not deliberate’. His arguments were, however,
particularly unconvincing: he said that it was due to ‘time and space constraint’ and that ‘it was impossible [. . .] to include each and every development
in the limited space available [. . .]. Another problem was the font size. Since
the textbook is meant for class IX, the font size has to be bigger’ (Om 2003).
© The author(s) 2012. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2012

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