History as fiction: Sweeping changes to NCERT textbooks

The NCERT is supposedly an autonomous body, set up in 1961 with the mandate to establish educational standards in the country

History as fiction: Sweeping changes to NCERT textbooks

Herald View

Thanks to this government and its ideological progenitors, the NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) has been in the news a lot since 2014. It has made headlines yet again with news of sweeping changes in the school textbooks for history and political science and possibly other subjects too. The details are important, of course—it has to do with what our children will know of their country and its history—but we shouldn’t miss the political design to re-engineer public memory. The brief, in case there are any lingering doubts in the minds of readers, is to retell the story of this country, its culture and cultural influences through the prism of the Sangh’s bigoted Hindu supremacist fantasies.

The NCERT is supposedly an autonomous body, set up in 1961 with the mandate to establish educational standards in the country. Syllabuses and textbooks prescribed by the NCERT are followed not only by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and 23 other state examination boards but also several private schools and other boards, albeit with some tweaks. Which is to say that the changes the NCERT makes in its textbooks impact the learning of a staggeringly high number of students in this country. Before the inflection point of 2014, when the Modi government first assumed office, these exercises seldom drew suspicion—they were considered routine, were seldom controversial and by and large above reproach.

For the better part of its history of 60-plus years, the NCERT has enjoyed a well-earned reputation for academic rigour. Public trust in its experts, who designed curriculums and commissioned textbooks or presided over changes, was high. But the manner in which it has gone about making changes in recent years and the changes themselves raise suspicion that this revisionist exercise is anything but academically driven. The official word is that these changes are part of a ‘rationalisation’ exercise the NCERT ran last year, with the intention to reduce course load and help students recover from learning setbacks during Covid. But sample some of the changes and judge for yourself if that argument is tenable:

o All references to the 2002 Gujarat riots have been dropped from all NCERT social science textbooks. (Gujarat 2002 just didn’t happen.)

o Pages on the Mughal era and the caste system have been severely pruned. For example, a two-page table in a Class 7 textbook detailing the achievements of Mughal emperors Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb

o Entire chapters on protests and social movements have been dropped. o A section on varna in the Class 6 history textbook has been cut by half, and references to the hereditary nature of varna and the classification of people as Untouchables removed

o Also gone are passages related to Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse and his links with the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS and the second short-lived ban on the RSS following the assassination

There is lots more, but you get the picture: it’s the desire to obliterate passages of history that do not fit the Sangh’s conception of India as a Hindu Rashtra, and to whitewash passages that expose its own dubious history. Make no mistake: the NCERT too has been weaponised in this project. It’s worth noting here that in 2017 alone, the Council made as many as 1,334 changes in 182 textbooks. The very next year, there were reports that it was under pressure to junk almost half the prescribed texts. Apoplectic with rage over the goings-on, one historian of ancient Indian history said the Council was guilty of a form of ‘cultural genocide’. But maybe to put the blame at the doorstep of the NCERT is to credit it with the kind of agency or autonomy it no longer possesses.

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