Vande Mataram/ Sujalaam Sufalam...." A board with the verses of India's national song is displayed prominently at the entrance of the building that houses the office of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan (SBA). It is inside the premises of Saraswati Bal Mandir, a chain of primary schools run on the ideals of Hindu nationalism. It's apt, then, that the wall across the lift on the second floor of the building in Delhi's Naraina Vihar has the Gayatri Mantra written on it.
SBA, and its national convenor Dinanath Batra, are back on prime time and front pages these days for getting yet another publisher to agree to withdraw/censor its books. This time it's Orient Blackswan that Batra has shot off a legal notice to, alleging that its publication, From Plassey to Partition: A History of Modern India by Wellington-based historian Sekhar Bandyopadhyay shows the RSS in a bad light. (In one passage, the RSS is described as an "overtly aggressive organisation"; in another, its growing popularity in the 1940s is connected to the increasing incidence of communal violence.) Journalists, who'd given Batra and SBA the miss this past couple of months, are back, lining up for interviews and bytes.
It's hard to connect the tall elderly man dressed in khadi kurta and pyjama with his reputation as the latest bogeyman of Indian publishing. He speaks slowly, patiently and deliberately, in idiomatic Hindi peppered with the occasional English word or phrase. The impression one gets is of a man careful to underline that his views are not rabid rants but the considered opinions of someone who cares about the nation and Hindu religion, and has made it his life's business to ensure that "objectionable" things about them are not published.
The list of what 84-year-old Batra considers "objectionable" is, of course, long and well-known. Referring to The Hindus: An Alternative History, SBA's cause celebre, Batra says he was offended that Wendy Doniger should imply that "Lakshman had illicit relations with Sita; that Rani Lakshmibai was in cohorts with the English, and that Mangal Pandey was an opium addict; that Gandhiji was a strange person who slept with young girls and Swami Vivekananda was a beef eater; that Hindus don't have a Great Book and the Rigveda says that women are nothing but child producing machines". (Incidentally, Batra has a much thumbed copy of Doniger's book, with the offensive bits marked out with multi-coloured post-its.)
This is the view of Hinduism which considers the Ramayana as god's word laying down the ideal way of life. Ancient India, in this view, is sone ki chidia — highly developed and rich — laid low by the corruptions introduced by Muslims and Christian invaders. It's a view sanctioned by VD Savarkar and MS Golwalkar and marked by moral prudishness, where sex, even within marriage, is not to be spoken about. The problem, of course, is that this view, like all dogma, does not brook questioning or contradiction.
Right-wing or not, Batra dismisses any suggestion that he's become more active this year or that his campaigns have anything to do with Narendra Modi coming to power.
"Most of our campaigns were during the UPA regime. Whether Modi is in power or not is of no consequence." Even so, Batra was an early visitor to Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani; he submitted a memorandum with recommendations such as making social service mandatory to get a degree. But he's against, he emphasises, changes in curriculum. "Students are not footballs that textbooks should be changed whenever a government changes."
But whatever be its politics, there's no denying that the SBA has come a long way in just 10 years (it was launched on July 2, 2004) thanks to Batra's litigiousness. While the capitulation of Aleph and Penguin over Doniger (Penguin pulped one book while Aleph withdrew the other) was the crowning glory, and Orient Blackswan's decision to undertake a "pre-release assessment of books that might attract similar reactions", the icing on the cake, SBA has won 10 judgments in its favours from various courts, as its pamphlet proudly mentions. The first, and most important, of these was the 2006 Delhi high court direction, on the basis of a PIL filed by Batra, to set up a committee to examine 70 "objectionable" passages in NCERT textbooks, followed in 2008 by Delhi University's decision to drop AK Ramanujan's essay 300 Ramayanas from its syllabus.
Education is the SBA's prime focus. Its secretary Atul Kothari declares that its aim is "not limited to merely rectifying small errors, but to unmask the conspiracy and thereby stop attempts to malign the country's language, culture, religion, great personalities, traditions and institutions at the national and international level". To that end, Batra's next campaign is against NCERT's Hindi textbooks which use several English words. Monika Arora, SBA's legal advisor and Batra's close associate, puts it in a historical light: "Our entire education system was designed by Macaulay to create a comprador class that would help the British rule India and so is full of biases against Indians."
Batra's sole motivation, Arora says, is seva (service). "At 84, he was present in court at 10am even if the hearing was scheduled for the afternoon. Such is his dedication."