Deletions in social science textbooks: History in the service of politics

A common refrain when talking of changes in curriculum is “reducing the content load on students”. The recent notification on the “rationalisation” of content in the textbooks by the NCERT begins with this assertion, adding that it is in keeping with the National Education Policy 2020, which also advocates creative experiential learning. We are told that the basis for the rationalisation is repetition in other subjects or the same subject books in different years, the “difficulty level”, accessibility for students by themselves, and “irrelevant” content in the “present context”. A series of reports in this paper has revealed substantive deletions in social science textbooks from Class VI-XII. Scrutiny of some of the deletions in the history textbooks shows that such academic downsizing raises serious concerns.

The Class VI book has some deletions that substantively alter the information and interpretation conveyed. Deletions on varna relate to birth as the basis of the caste system enunciated by the priestly Brahmin class, and the contestation of the superior status of the Brahmins, especially by the kings. The discussion on the development of agriculture due to the exploitation of the labour of dasas and dasis or the slaves, and the kammakaras or the labourers has been removed, as have caste and gender exclusions in the ashrama system pertaining to different stages of life. The reference to women and Shudras, who were otherwise excluded from Vedic learning, being allowed to hear the Puranas is deleted. It appears that the intention is to gloss over class, caste and gender inequality in ancient Indian society, and merely provide a description of varna in functional terms. Similar deletions are found in the class VII and VIII textbooks, with sections and chapters on occupational specialisation and labour, organised on caste and other lines, deleted. Over the last five decades, historians have made conscious efforts to counter the misplaced notion of a static and unchanging Indian society by historically contextualising caste and other social identities. Removing these references would adversely affect the students’ understanding of social transformation, hierarchy, and diversity.

Interestingly, the chapter “Ashoka, the emperor who gave up war” has been renamed “From a kingdom to an empire”. There has been criticism in the past of the so-called “eulogisation” of Ashoka, and accounts about his remorse after conquering Kalinga, including those mentioned in his edicts, are ascribed to mere political propaganda. It seems that the image of a humane ruler is not something that these “experts” recognise. India’s first Prime Minister, harking to that humane image, had been quoted on the evocative appeal of Ashoka’s message in his edicts. That has been axed from the syllabus. Is this an example of irrelevance in the current political climate? Two chapters have been merged under the broad theme of rural and urban life, and trade. The “content load” of students does not seem to be of consideration here. But widening their horizons through vignettes from Greece or Egypt or China is seen as too heavy. Other examples from non-Indian contexts have been removed in textbooks of higher classes.

A refrain among Hindutva votaries is the over-emphasis on “Muslim” rulers in textbooks on medieval India. It may not be a coincidence that the NCERT has removed crucial aspects related to the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals, particularly their territorial expansion across vast swathes of north, central, east, south, and northwest India. We do not get an adequate sense of the development of the integrative political culture or new administrative mechanisms of this period. And in any case, the bracketing of the entire period from the 12th to the 18th century as one of “Muslim” rule is incorrect, and with the deletion of full chapters that speak of diversity, the efforts to highlight regional processes are also brushed aside. The rich art and architectural heritage of medieval India, comprising the magnificent temples of the Cholas and other dynasties, the mosques and mausoleums of the Delhi Sultans, Mughals and Deccan Sultans, the tanks, forts and gardens — all attesting to the technology, skills and patronage arrangements of the times — have been left out. The social dimensions of trade and urbanisation with the rise of wealthy communities, flourishing economies and trans-regional and oceanic contact, and particularly early European mercantile interests that laid the foundation for colonial exploitation of the Subcontinent, are again serious omissions.

India’s struggle for Independence saw the envisioning of a nation founded on principles that were voiced and debated by leaders through various media. The deletion of the chapter on the tragedy of Partition, and dreams and aspirations of the newly independent nation enshrined in the Constitution in class VIII books hides the significant strides made by the nascent democracy from the student’s view. Overlaps there may be, but the historical continuity that is mapped through such a presentation for young minds to grasp the enormity of the nation-making process is irreplaceable. Four chapters in the Class XI texts on different aspects and periods of world history, particularly the removal of the section on the colonisation of South America and the Industrial Revolution, speak to a disjointed and tunnel-vision history. Mughals, colonial cities and the Partition are the “heavy content” taken out of class XII books.

These deletions speak of a concerted attempt to rupture historical interpretations of the past. That the government is accommodating demands and grievances from its core constituency will come as no surprise to many. But what will suffer is the textured sense of Indian history that lakhs of students will carry, many of whom will not pursue the subject beyond class X.

Revision of school curriculum for all subjects is necessary, but not just for the sake of easing the content load, or at the cost of the larger goal of the pursuit of knowledge and building a critical perspective. Of late, efforts at rationalisation in most fields seem to end up curtailing such pursuits. Pushed by communal and casteist logic, the present effort does something more — it commits violence against the idea of history.

The writer is professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and secretary, Indian History Congress

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