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A Schoolbag Of Biases

Some of the textbooks in India’s schools are a serious joke

A Schoolbag Of Biases
Illustration by Sorit
A Schoolbag Of Biases

Did You Know...

  • Narasimha Rao is still PM in an Urdu textbook in Andhra
  • Pakistan is a part of India
  • Vivekananda was great as he was a Brahmin and fair
  • Only men participate in sport or citizenship


If you were to hand over a map of the United States to a middle school student from any government school in Punjab, he or she is likely to end up spending hours looking for a place that doesn’t exist—Silicon Valley. For the child would have read in his social science textbook that Silicon Valley is a city in the US. Or that heavy industries are called so because they use heavy raw material. It is likely the student wouldn’t even know that Punjab sits atop historical sites that go back to the Harappa and Mohenjodaro civilisation, for all the sites he learns about in his book are from faraway places. And the child would also be convinced that deforestation occurs only when at least 25 per cent of the trees are chopped in a forest.

These are just some of the flaws that Rajiv Lochan, a professor of history at the Punjab University, found in the middle school social science textbooks (for classes between 6 and 8) used in Punjab’s government schools and prepared by its education board. “The only possible explanation for such content appearing in our textbooks is that the people who wrote and vetted them did so irresponsibly or in great hurry. Even a student of Class 9 ought to have the correct information on these things, says the professor, who completed his analysis of the textbooks for the ICICI Foundation a few months ago.

Amidst all the brouhaha over the Ambedkar cartoon in a school textbook, the need for reviewing textbooks, especially those at the states, has been conveniently glossed over. The lack of any serious reassessment means that students across the country are learning things that are often wrong, controversial or downright silly. This problem was raised even in Parliament by AIADMK MP S. Semmalai when the cartoon controversy was at its shrillest, but it was immediately forgotten by our lawmakers, who kept themselves busy with the self-appointed task of purging cartoons from our textbooks.

Semmalai offered some incredible examples to suggest that India’s children go to school in some la-la land. Like how Class 3 Urdu textbooks in Andhra Pradesh continue to claim that P.V. Narasimha Rao is the prime minister of the country. In neighbouring Karnataka, CBSE textbooks, the MP claims, say Pakistan is a part of India. “If this is the standard of our textbooks, one can imagine the quality of students we’re producing,” he says. But then perhaps these students are better-off than their counterparts in Uttar Pradesh where the textbook Aalok Shabd produced by a private publisher (Prism House Publication) for primary students introduced the Hindi letter ‘Ba’ as one for ‘bomb’ and ‘cha’ for chaku. Graphic illustrations of a grenade and a butcher’s knife drove home the point. The book was pulled out after reports about it appeared in the media.

However, these silly discrepancies may not be as damaging in the long run as the underlying ones in our textbooks that express subtle biases, including those that are sexist or casteist in nature and go unchallenged for years. Some of them showed up a few years back when Roop Rekha Verma, a former vice-chancellor of Lucknow University and a social activist, analysed a series of textbooks titled Hamare Mahan Vyaktitva (Our Great Personalities) published by the UP State Education Board and used for classes between 4 and 9.

For men only Gujarat or West Bengal, school textbooks display very defined gender roles, privileging men over women

A clear bias against girls was evident in a chapter on Savitri, a mythological female character whose fidelity to her husband Indian women are expected to emulate. She is simply and unquestioningly said to have asked for a hundred sons, and not a single daughter, when granted a wish by Yama. “Unless it is problematised correctly for social analysis, I don’t see why something like this should be in a lesson that discusses ideals,” Verma says.

Likewise, sexism permeates the chapter on Kasturba Gandhi who’s described as a ‘chhaya matra’, a mere shadow of the mahatma. Casteist undertones, on the other hand, were apparent in the way the chapter eulogises Vivekananda’s qualities: the opening lines describe him as someone from a high-standing Brahmin family, with a broad forehead and a very fair complexion. “This naturally leads children to believe that someone who’s not a Brahmin or isn’t fair does not qualify as a great person,” Verma argues.

Dipta Bhog, the project coordinator for a 2009 study on textbooks carried out by Delhi-based group Nirantar, says both women and men, usually from a pool of chosen few, are idolised in our textbooks in a manner that they become “more demigods and less human”. “They become preachy communicators of moral values and get idolised so much that we can’t benefit from their struggles and their humanity,” she goes on to say.

Therefore, when Bhog was drafted in to reformulate the NCERT textbooks after the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) was launched in 2005, she and her colleagues brought in examples of ordinary women, including Dalit and tribal ones, to represent their everyday struggles. Even prominent personalities were made more human and, therefore, accessible; for example, a new inclusion was Ambedkar’s description of how he was discriminated against as a child.

The Nirantar study, titled ‘Textbook Regimes: A feminist critique of nation and identity’, also threw up subtle biases such as those pointed out by Verma. Among the many flaws highlighted was the ingrained bias against women that came through repeatedly in a “highly gendered construction of citizenship and a privileging of a male public sphere” in our textbooks. This includes the example of the covers of two Gujarat textbooks where women have been left out. The first, a cover for a physical education book, shows only boys playing, while the second, a cover for a social science textbook, depicts only men as citizens of the country. Similarly, a panel from a Class 3 textbook in West Bengal presents teaching as the only suitable profession for women and displays men as judges, doctors, etc.

Because education is a state subject, any suggestion of a review of textbooks by the Centre is usually seen as an infringement of a state’s rights. And the states themselves are often far too lethargic to even think of taking up the challenge of a comprehensive review. When the UP government, like other states, was offered money a few years back for a review under the NCF, it returned the money, saying its textbooks needed no redrafting. Pankaj Pushkar, a research scholar who has been involved with the redrafting process under NCF, says there is a lot of “inertia” associated with any curriculum reform as it is a huge exercise, especially in UP, and always given low priority. “It is a sad commentary,” he says, “that while we can get very sensitive about a cartoon in our textbook, we have little time to think about reforming our curriculum.” We need to educate ourselves on reform first before our children can be educated.

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