Irrational rationalisation of education

BJP’s definition of Indian ethos is not necessarily shared by others. India’s diversity warrants a variety of perspectives

Published: 09th June 2023 12:27 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th June 2023 12:27 AM   |  A+A-

Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustrations | Soumyadip Sinha)

The textbook wars are heating up. The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) first announced changes to their syllabus in April,  which would affect all those studying social science and history in schools under the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). Soon after the predictable backlash, news broke that Darwin’s theory of evolution had been deleted from NCERT’s Class X Science textbook. Some 1,800 scientists and researchers have now demanded its restoration, the latest in a continuing controversy that suggests either gross ineptitude at NCERT or something more sinister.

There’s evidence for both conclusions. After all, what other than ineptitude explains the defenestration of Darwin from the CBSE Class X curriculum? Or, for that matter, jettisoning the periodic table in chemistry and Pythagoras’s theorem in mathematics? NCERT argues that genetics and evolution are still part of the Class XII curriculum, though removed from Class X – but to learn those, a student would have to choose biology at the Plus-Two level. All those who don’t (the vast majority) would come out as CBSE students who have studied science up to Class X but are ignorant about many of its elementary principles, including natural selection. The same with mathematics: we will now have CBSE products that would, for instance, never have done linear equations in two variables or understood that in a triangle, the area of the square whose side is the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.

But gross incompetence is not the whole story. NCERT’s changes to the class XII political science textbook notably altered the heading of a passage describing the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat from ‘Anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat’ to just ‘Gujarat riots’. NCERT also removed various mentions of communal riots, the Emergency (don’t want children to learn about authoritarianism?), Dalit writers, the Naxalite movement, and the fight against social inequality and caste-based discrimination. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the great nationalist who led Congress during the independence struggle and served as India’s first education minister, was excised from the class XI textbook. It is apparently no longer important to teach children that there were Muslims in India who fought against Partition.

The NCERT’s excuse is both confusing and debatable. While the CBSE described the exclusion of these topics as “syllabus rationalisation”, the NCERT, which publishes the textbooks followed by CBSE schools, said that the deleted content was “overlapping” and “irrelevant.” NCERT Director Dinesh Prasad Saklani claimed that “it won’t affect the knowledge of the children, and an unnecessary burden can be removed”. No wonder the decisions announced strike many as indefensible. Little “rationalisation” is evident; in purely pedagogical terms, the decisions are irrational. If the concern was genuine that schoolchildren were struggling to catch up after the hiatus caused by the pandemic, the answer would be not to delete topics but to offer students a greater latitude in their examinations – for instance, allowing them to choose, say, six questions to answer in an exam paper out of ten questions, admitting the possibility that some subjects could not be taught adequately in the time available.

But the pandemic and the resultant “curriculum overload” is merely an excuse. The heavy hand of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its Hindutva-inspired version of nationalism, is evident in the choice of topics removed from school Social Science and History textbooks. What emerges is a view of India that will serve a particular political narrative and produce a future citizenry more receptive to the ideas of those currently in government. Removing an entire chapter on the contributions of the Mughals from the Grade XII history textbook is a case in point. No one can rationally argue that the Mughal rule did not have a huge impact on India. For the NCERT textbooks to omit them is to serve the ends of politics, not history.

The history of the Mughals is minimised because, in the ruling party’s view, they were foreign Muslim interlopers ruling over a Hindu nation. The eminent historian Irfan Habib has deplored NCERT’s “regressive and sectarian vision, an exclusivist idea of India”. Habib is, of course, one of the historians whom the BJP has long demonised for “distorting” Indian history. But the Hindutva version of India goes beyond Habib’s field. Aside from marginalising Muslim contributions to the national story, the new textbooks discard discussion of problems in Hindu society, such as caste oppression. A chapter on social inequalities in India and the struggle by marginalised groups for their rights has been deleted from the textbook on Contemporary India. When the BJP speaks of “removing references to unhistorical facts and distortions about our national heroes from textbooks”, it seeks to produce a view of the past that will serve its political interests well into the future.

The NCERT revisions are part of a larger BJP-led project to reinvent the Indian story, including changing Muslim place names and promoting hyper-nationalist Bollywood films and public rhetoric attacking Muslims. The new National Education Policy talks about an “education system rooted in the Indian ethos.” But the BJP’s definition of the Indian ethos is not necessarily shared by others; India’s diversity warrants a variety of perspectives, not a single-minded focus on the exaltation of Hindus. When the history of India is taught in schools, it needs to embrace both the Mughals and the Vijayanagar Empire, the Khiljis, and the Guptas and Cholas. We should be adding material to compensate for past omissions (the Southern kingdoms, for instance, were long given short shrift by NCERT), rather than deleting what exists.

Removing the Mughals from textbooks does not remove them from India’s history; relegating Muslims to the margins does not eliminate them from India’s reality. When the Prime Minister addresses the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort, does it make sense to omit who built it? When a young Indian woman enjoys biryani, listens to Indian classical music, wears salwar-kameez, visits the Taj Mahal, or even just speaks Hindustani, she reveals she is heir to a culture profoundly impacted by Muslim rule. It is time to face facts. Stop mangling textbooks. Let sleeping dogmas lie.

Shashi Tharoor

Third-term Lok Sabha MP from Thiruvananthapuram and Sahitya Akademi award-winning author of 24 books, most recently Ambedkar: A Life

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