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Revision Of School Textbooks A Political Agenda

In the name of ‘rationalisation’, NCERT seems to have adopted a method of hasty deletion. Passages have been reduced, quotes cut and exercise boxes flung out. But was it really done in haste?

Revision Of School Textbooks A Political Agenda
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In a new set of changes introduced by the Nat­ional Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT) under its latest syllabus ‘rationalisation’ exercise, chunks of Indian political and social history have been dro­p­ped from the syllabus of secondary and senior secondary school books. According to the autonomous body, the changes were made to ease the bur­den of students grappling with academic bac­klog and delays caused by Covid-19. However, in the name of ‘rationalisation’, NCERT seems to have adopted a method of hasty deletion. Passages have been reduced, quotes cut and exercise boxes flung out.

But was it really done in haste? Some of the key portions dropped by NCERT from its history, sociology and political science textbooks, include the 2002 Gujarat riots, quotes of Jawaharlal Nehru, caste oppression, democratic movements, farmers’ protests and Mughal history.

The deletions are part of the much-touted cha­nge in curriculum that has been in the offing for some time. In fact, educationist and former NCE­RT director Krishna Kumar says that he is surpri­sed the earlier books under NCF 2005 lasted this long. “The current books were designed more than 15 years before the 2017 review. It’s surprising they lasted thro­ugh eight years of this government,” he adds.

The signs of change started to emerge after 2014 but although the NCERT carried out two reviews since 2014, not much was changed till now. The latest changes come ahead of the fifth time the national curriculum has been revamped, the second time under the National Curriculum Fra­mework (NCF). Kumar was the chief when NCE­RT had undergone its last major syllabus overhaul in 2004-2005, at the time when the process was christe­ned NCF. Led by the late Professor Yash Pal, those were some of the most compreh­ensive in terms of representing the country’s socio-­political past and present. Apart from the social sciences and languages, textbooks of science subjects and mathematics also went through a radical redesigning on the basis of a child-centered vision of learning. 

While modifying the syllabus to adapt to changing realities is a necessary practice, critics claim that the new deletions have been selective and pol­itically motivated. “It is so brazen. You pointe­dly want to remove Nehru or Ambedkar’s political legacy, so you just remove their quotes. This is in very poor taste, and it’s clearly no academic exercise. It’s politically motivated, to era­se significant parts of our history,” says Anita Rampal, former dean of DU’s faculty of education and member of NCERT’s executive committee, who was also the chairperson of the advisory teams for textbooks.

“Since NCF 2005, NCERT engaged a large community of people for the first time, including academics and experts from various fields, to create textbooks that were more representative of Ind­ia’s diversity and its most disadvantaged stude­nts,” Rampal tells Outlook. “This time, however, the process seems to have been ad-hoc,” she adds.

She claims neither she, nor the chairpersons and advisors of teams for revision of other textbooks and disciplines, were consulted. “Syllabus change should happen through a process of academic consultation. You don’t just decide to rem­ove certain lines and chapters because you don’t like the content,” Rampal adds.

“Any changes made in those existing books have to be done in consultation with the team or at lea­st the chairpersons and advisors. This time, we weren’t even consulted,” she further adds.

NCERT has not responded to questions regarding the process of updating the syllabus followed to arrive at the current set of changes.

While the allegedly arbitrary process behind the select­ions in the new syllabus itself cas­ts a shadow on the ‘rationalisation’ exe­r­cise, topics that have not made the cut have further convinced cri­tics who accuse the government of ‘saffronising’ Ind­ian edu­cation. The Ind­ian Express repor­ted that topics removed inc­l­ude key parts on the Guj­a­rat riots, including timelines, casualty figures and news reports of the time, as well as chapters that dealt with people’s movements like the Chi­pko Andolan, Narmada Bachao Andolan, and anti-­caste protests and mov­ements. Also deleted, citing repetition, are portions and chapters on ide­as like communalism, casteism, federalism, democracy and India’s democratic and linguistic history.

In 2021, a parliamentary panel report had urged the government to regularly update history books to account for post-Independence history. It enc­o­uraged the adoption of “knowledge from the four Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita” and Jain scriptu­res. In March 2017, when NCERT released a new set of books, the Indian Express had reported considerable increase in information on “ancient Ind­ian knowledge tradition and practices”. Rec­e­n­tly, while inaugurating the South Asi­an Institute of Peace and Reconciliation at Har­idwar’s Dev San­­skriti Vishwavidyalaya, Vice President Venka­iah Naidu made a pitch for “Indianisation” of education, saying it nee­ds to come out of the shackles of the imperial legacy of Thomas Mac­a­ulay and find a way back to its “roots”. “This mig­ht be cal­led saffronisation, but what’s wrong with saffron?” he asked.

Nothing, says researcher Thallapelli Praveen. “But if you paint an entire nation in the same colour, that is wrong,” the JNU sch­olar adds. Praveen, who has been researching caste and Hindutva and philosophy of Indian history, says the latest changes are just another part of the BJP’s strategy to cement the approval for a “Hin­du Rashtra”.

“If you don’t let children study the basics of cas­te oppression in the past, they will never understand caste privilege today and never stand up against it. So when the next time a Dalit man is killed for growing a moustache or riding a horse, they will not understand why it’s a hate crime,” he adds.

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By erasing the history of oppressed castes and minorities, Praveen asserts that the present disp­ensation is trying to project a “hunky dory image of India, which is a land of past riches, knowledge and glory, where nothing was ever wrong until the Mughals came and destroyed everything”.

In the end, Praveen feels it all comes down to ele­ctoral politics. “In the age of social media, when information is so easily available and there is a need for youth to look ‘woke’ and ‘pro­g­r­essive’, there is huge pressure on the government to app­ear as the leader of a free, democratic world that condemns social ills. It can’t remove the ent­ire cha­pter on caste. But it will make convenient cha­nges in context and subtext to make centuries of Brahminical oppression appear as a natural part of Indian society,” he adds. The removal of parts that deal with Brahminical justifications of the caste system and subjugation of women in ancient Indian texts mean key linkages between caste and employment or caste and gender would be lost to future students, who are just starting to grapple with the complex concepts. 

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While the deletions are a cause of concern, educationists and activists hope the federal structure of NCERT—which allows states to take independent decisions on syllabus—can help salvage the sit­uation. Since education is in the Concurrent List, states can choose not to follow NCERT books or only include parts of these. However, trends in the last five years have shown an increasing number of states opting for “Indianisation”. In Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, for instance, the Bhagavad Gita has been made mandatory in the school syllabus, while in Madhya Pradesh, the state education minister announced new graduate courses on Ram­ay­ana and Mahabharata. 

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Major Shifts

Post-2014 Three revisions/reviews in textbooks.

2017 NCERT updates 182 textbooks. Topics like Swachh Bharat, Digital India, ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’, demonetisation & GST added.

2018-19 New additions in history, including portions on Hindu calendar, metal­l­urgy, Shivaji, Swami Vivekananda & Rani Ava­ntibai Lodhi. Chapter on Maharana Pratap added to Class VII syllabus.

2019 NCERT drops chapter on caste conflicts from Class IX books. Ch­a­pters on Indo-China & novels, society & history dropped from Class X books.

2022 Vajpayee’s statements on Gujarat riots, quotes by Nehru & Ambedkar dropped; history of Naxalism cut. Discussion on farm laws dropped, those on caste oppression & dangers of communal politics cut. Portions on Mughal rule, Mamluks, Khaljis & sultanates cut.

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2022 CBSE drops poems by Faiz Ahmad Faiz from Class X­ ­Political Science book. Cartoons on communal politics, a chapter on Central Islamic Lands and impact of globalisation on agriculture dropped from other senior secondary books.

(This appeared in the print edition as "A History of Forgetting")

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