Assault on history textbooks smacks of ideological insecurity

Ashraf Engineer

April 15, 2023


Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

Recently, textbooks were revised to exclude chapters on the Mughals and Mahatma Gandhi’s opposition to the Hindu right wing, which included the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, as well as mention of riots in Gujarat when Narendra Modi was chief minister there. It’s not the first time the BJP government has been accused of rewriting history to fit its agenda. In fact, the BJP has consistently pursued its agenda for a Hindu Rashtra, away from India’s secular ethos, and it justifies its attempt to rewrite history as a shedding of what it calls a “slave mentality”. This is arbitrary, reductive and ultimately dangerous.


Recently, when students began school, new editions of the political science and history textbooks published by the National Council of Educational Research and Training, or NCERT, attracted criticism over the amendments. Some of these amendments were introduced without the usual public notifications. The NCERT curriculum is used by the Central Board of Secondary Education, or CBSE, which has 20,000 affiliated schools across India. Its textbooks are also used for exams for jobs in the bureaucracy.

The textbooks diluted or deleted historical references that the BJP finds inconvenient. These included the links between Hindu extremists and the murder of Gandhi, the 2002 riots in Gujarat, the Mughal rule and secularism in India. In fact, references to the 2002 riots have disappeared from all social science textbooks for those aged between 11 and 18.

Here are a few of the deleted passages from Class 12 textbooks:

  • Gandhi’s “steadfast pursuit of Hindu-Muslim unity provoked Hindu extremists so much that they made several attempts to assassinate” him
  • Gandhi “was particularly disliked by those who wanted India to become a country for the Hindus, just as Pakistan was for Muslims”
  • “Instances, like in Gujarat, alert us to the dangers involved in using religious sentiments for political purposes. This poses a threat to democratic politics”
  • Also removed from a political science textbook for was the reference to the hatred saffron nationalists had for Gandhi and the multiple attempts to assassinate him

These changes are in line with the BJP’s obsession with saffronisation of all walks of life and removing visible Muslim symbols and texts from the public space, which spans a ban on the hijab for students in Karnataka to renaming cities with Muslim names.

When it comes to textbooks, there have been several amendments over the past nine years. Mughal references have been consistently removed or amended, while references to Vinayak Savarkar have been added to describe him as a great patriot and freedom fighter. Savarkar, who wrote mercy petitions to the British while lodged in the Andaman jail, is an ideologue of the Hindu right wing.

Officials of NCERT, an autonomous body under the Ministry of Education that oversees textbook content, told the media that the changes were meant to reduce students’ workloads and would not affect the knowledge they needed. This included, in some cases, the removal of just a word or two. Case in point: the description of Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassin, as an upper-caste person. If you buy the NCERT argument, a couple of words extra in a textbook would have overburdened students.

Not surprisingly, historians and the Opposition condemned the revisions. Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said: “You can change the truth in books but you cannot change the history of the country.” Others said it was an attempt to “weaponise” and “erase” history to suit the government’s agenda.

The BJP, meanwhile, said it was not rewriting history but balancing the “biased approach” of past governments and historians.

The RSS’ members, of course, celebrated the changes. Vinod Kumar Bansal, of the RSS-affiliated Vishwa Hindu Parishad, told the media: “In the minds of young kids, students, effort was made to stamp the sign of slavery and not the proud traditions of India.” The Opposition, he added, had “taught us all by glorifying the history of the slavish Mughal period. Better late than never. This is an effort to remove all those chapters”.

Critics of the changes have rightly argued that they would give students a misleading impression of India’s history and that they are an attempt to change the historical narrative.

An editorial in ‘The Indian Express’ said: “The recent revisions invite the charge that not only does the government wish to escape unpalatable facts, but it also wants to ensure that students do not engage with social and political realities with a critical attitude.”

We must pause to think what kind of historical consciousness we want, and who gets left out of our narratives and why. Should history be tied to a certain political need? Should the parts that are inconvenient to that need be deleted?

You can’t leave history to non-historians. Like any discipline, such as physics or chemistry or engineering, it involves tools and frameworks that must be recognised and adhered to and not be bypassed because a political ideology demands it.

Education at any level, school or higher, surely cannot be a slave to political agendas. We need to study a variety of facts, which includes rulers, dynasties, assassinations, the people responsible, the social and political factors at work at any point in time, connections, relationships, the clash of ideologies and so on. This is because one of the pillars on which the future of any nation depends is a proper understanding of its past.

At a time when education across the world is broadening to include new and inclusive global realities, education in India is getting constricted.

Our rich history offers insights into a great many events. What we need is not a static or narrow understanding of them but a dynamic and deeper one. To change that approach on the basis of national honour or some such silly argument is a great disservice to this nation and is unwarranted.

Education must be about scholarship that is based on fact, rigorously analysed and sound in research. National pride can’t be secured by rejecting historical fact and covering up inconvenient realities. Its seed lies instead in recognising the past, learning from it and using that learning to create a better tomorrow.

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