(Excerpted from RSS: A View to the Inside by Walter K Andersen and Shridhar D Damle and published with the permission of Penguin. This book fundamentally addresses three key questions: Why has the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates expanded so rapidly over the past twenty-five years? How have they evolved in response to India’s new socio-economic milieu? How does their rapid growth impact the country’s politics and policy?)
Following the 1948–49 ban on the RSS, an activist pracharak, Nanaji Deshmukh, established at Gorakhpur in eastern Uttar Pradesh the first RSS-affiliated school whose goal was to provide a Hindu orientation to the educational experience. As we noted in our previous book on the RSS, its activists in the post-ban period lobbied their own leadership to establish a broad array of affiliated groups to keep the Hindu nationalist message alive as the state penetrated such areas as education. A further incentive for setting up even more schools was their effectiveness as a recruitment tool for shakhas at a time when RSS membership was declining. These schools also provided jobs to RSS members who were sometimes blocked from government employment. The Hindu orientation of these RSS-affiliated schools, according to a study of them by Tanika Sarkar, includes observance of Hindu rituals and festivals, the practice of yoga, the teaching of Sanskrit, classes on ‘Indian civilization’ from a Hindu perspective and a profusion of Hindu symbols. While these schools are required to follow a mandated state curriculum, they have an element of discretion in the choice of textbooks and extracurricular activities that directly address issues of importance to them.
Following a rapid expansion in the number of schools in the 1960s and 1970s, the RSS in 1978 established a separate affiliate, the Vidya Bharati, to manage its burgeoning school network, which at that time included some 700 schools. The Vidya Bharati’s 2016 statistical report shows the very quick growth in the number of affiliated schools since 1978, noting that there are over 13,000 schools with some 32,00,000 students and 1,46,000 teachers, making it the largest private school system in India. In addition to these Vidya Bharati schools, another RSS-affiliated educational group, the Ekal Vidyalaya, established in 1986, has about 15,00,000 students in some 54,000 one-teacher, one-school facilities located mainly in remote rural and tribal areas. With such a large potential market for textbooks, RSS-affiliated groups have commissioned books on history and ethics for use in the Shishu Mandirs and other RSS-affiliated schools. Some of these groups, such as the RSS-affiliated Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas, lobby the ministry of human resource development (HRD) to ensure that textbooks recommended to the states include some with a value orientation they consider appropriate.
Controversy over the content of textbooks, especially on subjects related to culture and history, have existed from the time of India’s independence when the Congress party was in power. A parliamentary committee appointed in 1966, for example, reported that textbooks in some states ‘were overweighted with Hindu mythology’ and ‘Hindu beliefs are presented in a manner as if they are universally held by all Indians’. The federal Education Commission in 1964, in reference to this issue, stated, ‘It is necessary for a multireligious democratic State to promote a tolerant study of all religions so that its citizens can understand each other better and live amicably together.’ The establishment in 1972 of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) in the federal bureaucracy triggered a reaction from the right of a growing Marxist bias in the history texts that it commissioned.
Debates often centred on issues regarding the level of religious tolerance in states with Muslim rulers, the level of social harmony between Muslims and Hindus, the degree of social and religious unity among Hindus as well as larger philosophical questions regarding the influence of culture and economics on human behaviour. Historians on the right, Dinesh Raza writes in an analysis of the debate on the teaching of history, argue that historians on the left undervalue the culture and civilization and focus instead on class and economic factors. He notes, citing the controversy over the interpretation of Indian history in textbooks following the Congress’s return to power in 2004, that an agency of the HRD ministry withdrew an earlier recommendation for a book on medieval Indian history by historian Meenakshi Jain, as part of its effort to ‘de-saffronize’ textbooks, presumably because she argued that Islam entered India with a cultural worldview very different from the indigenous Indian civilization. This ideological battle over how to interpret history has deeply divided Indian historians and triggered political tensions that are almost unique to India. Two professional history associations differ on ideological lines, the Indian History Congress on the left of centre and the Indian History and Culture Society on the right. The sangh parivar even has its own association of historians, the Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana (ABISY), which claims to have published over 350 books since it was formed in 1984. Its website says that the organization is pledged to present ‘Bharatheeya Itihasa [history] from a national perspective’. It argues that this is
The British distorted Bharatheeya history, destroyed/perverted the traditional heroes, cultures, literature. Hence ABISY coordinates patriotic, bold, and incorruptible scholars and historians to write history truthfully on the basis of facts and evidences [sic].