India through the glass darkly
The falsification of history is not the only danger the young — and the old — are going through.
MAHATMA Gandhi, revered as the father of the nation for helping to free India from the British, has made a sudden exit from history. Millions of schoolchildren will never know what happened to Gandhi after independence since new textbooks have carefully scrubbed out any reference to his assassination by a militant Hindu who was once a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the mothership of Hindu nationalism.
That Gandhi fell to bullets pumped into him by a right-wing Hindu killer is being hidden from a new generation as the Hindu right turns myths and an imagined past into a new history of India tailored to meet political ends.
History has always been a contested arena in India, where the past has been interpreted through the ideological lens of the left and the rest, but never before have outright lies been peddled as facts.
Indoctrination to turn out a nationalist generation, that is, children who will believe that the past was one of unrivalled Hindu supremacy in all fields, from science to war, is in full swing in the states where the BJP, the RSS’s political offspring, is in power.
And here, history is being turned completely on its head. In Rajasthan, textbooks proclaims that Mughal Emperor Akbar lost the famous Battle of Haldighatti to Rana Pratap, the ruler of Mewar, in 1576, while students in the rest of India are taught that Rana Pratap lost to the Mughal forces led by Raja Man Singh, a fellow Rajput.
In Madhya Pradesh, another BJP-ruled state, children are being taught a whopper: that India won the 1962 war against China, although we came off badly in the confrontation. But for the Hindu right wing, the ressentiment over the defeat continues to colour India’s relations with its large neighbour.
The falsification of history, though, is not the only danger the young — and the old — are going through. The belittling of science is an even greater threat as India slips further into obscurantism under a regime that glorifies myths as evidence of scientific prowess. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claim at the Indian Science Congress early into his tenure that the elephant-headed god Ganesha was proof that India was skilled in plastic surgery in ancient times has been roundly criticised; Indians have learned to live down that embarrassment. But his breathtaking audacity in denying climate change during a nationally televised programme for schoolchildren has left everyone dumbstruck and provided little solace that the country can deal with one of the gravest challenges confronting it.
When a schoolgirl asked how India could protect the environment, the prime minister was dismissive. Climate has not changed but people have changed and destroyed the environment. For good measure he added that the elders often complain that it is colder only because their tolerance level has dipped and not because of climate change.
India has come a very long way from Nehru’s ideal of building a rational society by fostering the scientific temper in the people. The BJP loses no opportunity to belittle and abuse its first prime minister and the new textbooks have practically erased Nehru even though the foundation for the country’s modern secular state and its scientific prowess in everything from space technology to software was laid during his time.
What the BJP provides is never-ending embarrassment that makes India look ridiculous. Most recently there was more humiliation as the country’s education minister claimed that Darwin’s theory of evolution is “scientifically wrong” since no one has seen “an ape turning into a man”.
And soon after Stephen Hawking’s death, the science and technology minister Harsh Vardhan claimed that the renowned physicist and cosmologist had said that the Vedas have a theory that is superior to Albert Einstein’s e=mc2 theory of relativity.
The contempt for proven scientific knowledge, coupled with the saffron brigade’s campaign to promote a dubious “swadeshi science” that aims to combine “Bharatiya heritage with a harmonious synthesis of physical and spiritual sciences”, augurs ill for the country. So the ministerial prescription for agricultural distress is yogic farming (yoga by farmers for “vibrations of peace, love and divinity to seeds and land”) or havans, the ritual burning of ghee and firewood to bring rains!
Juxtapose this with what is happening on the political front. As religious bigotry and old hatreds are stoked across the most backward stretches of northern India and fomented in opposition states, communal clashes and horrific caste violence are ripping apart the fragile social fabric of a country that is confronting a demographic nightmare.
India is an extraordinarily young country. Half of its population of 13 billion is under the age of 25, and two-thirds are less than 35. By 2027, all of this will add up to a staggering workforce of a billion people, the largest in the world.
How is India going to cope with such a vast sea of humanity looking for jobs, the legion which has neither the education nor the skills to be productive workers? Steeped in the mediaevalism of the times and with nothing going for them, how will this generation transform India into a superpower that its rulers claim it will soon be?
Caught up in its agenda of creating a Hindu nation and faulty economic policies, the government has quietly jettisoned its plans to provide skills to 500 million young people by 2022, having trained less than a fraction so far. The BJP, it appears, has more important tasks at hand.
The biggest chunk of the young are in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh where a priest runs the state and is hell-bent on creating communal tensions. He does not even pretend to have a development agenda and is used by the ruling party to drum up support for Hindutva across India. The other sizable mass is in Bihar which is now notorious for frequent communal flare-ups and not much else.
What India needs is the miracle of quality education, specialised skills and a host of openings in factories and offices for millions. Will havans and deep breathing do the trick?