NCERT tweaks appear politically motivated
The giveaway in the story is the choice of chapters and passages selected for deletion. The only full chapter knocked out is on the Mughal period.
A little over a week ago, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Kapil Mishra tweeted, “It is a great decision to remove false history of Mughals from NCERT. Thieves, pickpockets and two-penny road raiders were called the Mughal Sultanate and the emperor of India. Akbar, Babar, Shahjahan, Aurangzeb belong not in the history books but in the dustbin.”
He was reacting to newspaper reports of deletions, including large chunks on the Mughals and the Delhi Sultanate — from school textbooks by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). NCERT director DP Saklani, however, brushed aside suggestions of any political agenda, and said the deleted portions were part of the material that was overlapping across classes and books. He said that the deletions were part of a routine rationalisation of syllabi necessitated to lessen the learning burden on students and help them cope with the learning loss caused by Covid-19.
Much as we would like to believe in NCERT’s institutional integrity, successive statements by several commentators made no mention of the Covid-19-burden-induced deletions, and instead defended the deletions on the grounds that the textbooks were written by so-called Leftist historians who love the Mughals (read Muslims) and are not proud of everything Hindu. Some more sophisticated commentators argued that the history in these textbooks was North India-centric and did not give enough space to the history of South India and the Northeast.
But how do the deletions — a chapter on the Mughals from part-II of the history textbook for Class 12, and topics such as the 2002 Gujarat riots, the Emergency, some Dalit writers and the Naxalite movement from textbooks of classes 6 to 12 — remedy that? The truth is that there were no wide-ranging discussions or attempts to consult members of the teams that wrote these books, and no effort to preserve the pedagogical values of inclusivity and diversity that would prepare a student to meet challenges and appreciate varied points of view. So, every time you hear the NCERT director pleading innocence to political interference, and almost begin to believe him, you are prevented from doing so by the loud ideological justifications for the deletions.
To set the record straight, the Hindutva project of rewriting Indian history has never been a secret. Scholar Ganesh Devy pointed out in a recent interview that efforts were on to depict six golden eras of the Indian past, drawn from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s book, Six Golden Pages in the History of Bharat; in that text, the medieval period, which was dominated by Islamic art, Islamic empires and Islamic advancement, is seen as a dark era. Several other ideologues, including former RSS chief MS Golwalkar, never made a secret of their view of Indian history, which demonises everything “Muslim” and valorises everything “Hindu” and where minorities are seen as suspect.
It is also a well-known fact that NCERT history books were the subject of controversy in the past as well, first in 1977-79 during the Janata Dal government, and then in 1999-2004, when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was in power. During the NDA regime, the first generation of history textbooks written by famous (now reviled by some) historians, such as Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra, RS Sharma, Satish Chandra, and Arjun Dev were first subjected to deletions and then successfully removed. They were replaced by inferior texts written by authors whose claim to fame lay largely in ideological proximity to the party in power. The Indian History Congress, the apex body of Indian historians, even brought out a book at the time, pointing out the errors and distortions in these books. Interestingly, at the time, the book on contemporary India forgot to mention that Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. Protests led to a single sentence being inserted that mentioned the fact of his assassination, without any details.
Widespread protests against these textbooks led to the United Progressive Alliance government ordering a review in 2004 by very senior historians, who recommended their removal. The older books, written by the so-called Leftist historians, were also not restored. NCERT appointed a very broad-based advisory board, which then invited groups of historians to write new books. In these, different chapters were written by different experts on topics of their expertise. These are the books from which deletions have been ordered now.
It is necessary to clarify this because there is a lot of shadow-boxing by a section of television commentators, who allege that the textbooks were written by a clique of historians supposedly nurtured by Indira Gandhi’s education minister, Nurul Hasan. In reality, those books were removed more than two decades ago by NCERT and never restored as textbooks. (The books, for which the authors received a pittance as royalty from NCERT, have since been published by private publishers and are selling very well.)
Above all, the giveaway in the story is the choice of chapters and passages selected for deletion. The only full chapter knocked out is on the Mughal period. While the earlier textbook discussed the two most important kingdoms in mediaeval India — the Mughals, and the Vijayanagara empire — the revised text retains only the latter. How much burden of learning is reduced by removing a few sentences from the description of the supreme tragedy of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination? How relieved are the students feeling after being saved from reading lines that identify the political affiliation of the assassin by describing him as “the editor of extremist Hindu newspaper who had denounced Gandhiji as an appeaser of Muslims”, and tell us that Gandhiji was “convinced that any attempt to make India into a country only for Hindus would destroy India” and that “his steadfast pursuit of Hindu-Muslim unity provoked extremists so much that they made several attempts to assassinate Gandhiji”?
These are questions that will continue to be asked of those whose primary responsibility should be the interests of our young students, and this includes administrators and those ruling over us.
Mridula Mukherjee is former professor of history at JNU and former director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and LibraryThe views expressed are personal