Dear NCERT, What History Should India's Students Read? One That Fetches Votes?

Downscaling of the Muslim/Mughal history from most of the textbooks continues to be the prime NCERT agenda.

5 min read
Hindi Female

Eric Hobsbawm, one of the foremost historians of the present times, once famously said that “history is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies, as poppies are the raw material for heroin addiction.” Our neo-nationalists today are precisely doing that. Their obsession with the past is a refuge for everything that goes wrong in the present.

They seem to believe that our generation of young women/men have not been nationalist enough because they were fed with the history of invaders and not of those “nationalists” who sacrificed their lives defending the motherland. Forget about individual “nationalist”, read Hindu heroes, even ‘our’ dynasties found no place in the curriculum while ‘they’, the invading Mughals had the pride of place. If you begin with a premise of ‘our/us’ and ‘their/they’ then history surely needs to be sanitised, all those who came from outside should disappear from our textbooks.


What History Are We Allowed to Read?

Nevertheless, it is a historical fact that India has been a palimpsest, with diverse races, religions, cultures that descended here over the centuries and got immersed and assimilated into Indian identity. Tony Joseph has established this impressively in his Early Indians. The claims of belonging today are being made through the logic of ‘pitrabhumi’ and ‘punyabhumi’, which excludes a huge section of our population who are Muslims or Christians.

Within this paradigm, the Hindutva ideologues have already told us about those who belong here and it is their history that need to be taught. All others can remain part of the historical tomes but the coming generations will grow up totally unaware of these ‘others’ in their textbooks. That serves the purpose pretty well.

As we should be aware, our immediate historical past before independence was the British colonial rule, which was preceded by the Mughals, with all its strengths and weaknesses of the period. The British historians and orientalist writers demonised the Mughals, dubbed them barbaric and made tall claims that they were here to save the Hindus from the depredations of the Mughals/Muslims. This was surely a smart exercise in the legitimation of colonial rule.

There were many colonial historians like V A Smith, and multiple volumes of Eliot & Dowson that provided a semblance of scholarly authority to this prejudiced reading of our past. Our Hindu right derides Macaulay, like others do as well, but revels in the communal and very expedient interpretation of the Mughals by the same Macaulyans.

  • Sweeping changes in school curriculum have been happening since 2014

  • Obsession with the past is a refuge for everything that goes wrong in the present.

  • The British historians and orientalist writers demonised the Mughals: a smart exercise in the legitimation of colonial rule.

  • The focus of all the curriculum changes remain the most polarising issue, that pays maximum electoral dividends.

  • At least 24 members of NCERT committees have direct links with the RSS affiliated bodies.

BJP Governments' Obsession with Invoking the Past

Sweeping changes in school curriculum have been happening since 2014 when the Modi government came to power, and are not confined to just history books but also covers political science and sociology textbooks from class 6 to 12.

However, as per the Indian Express investigation, the changes are not confined merely to the medieval past alone, even the immediate inconvenient past is being deleted. Our coming generations should not know about the excesses of the emergency or even about the Gujarat violence of 2002. They should not be aware of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Dalit Panthers and Bhartiya Kisan Union.

The BJP governments, from A B Vajpayee to Modi, have always been more serious about the past, particularly the medieval past, while the present and future have mostly suffered due to this obsession. I do not have to comment on the state of economy and general governance during the past few years. Even if the past does not conform to the present political needs, as it often happens, then in the words of Hobsbawm again, “If there is no suitable past, it can always be invented.”

In any case historical facts do not matter here, the suitable facts have to be imagined to create a convenient and glorious past. “The past gives a more glorious background to a present that doesn’t have much to celebrate”.


Curriculum Changes Happening for Electoral Gains

Yet the focus of all the curriculum changes remains the most polarising issue, that pays maximum electoral dividends. Thus, the deletion and downscaling of the Muslim/Mughal history from most of the textbooks continues to be the prime NCERT agenda. And all this is being done to reduce the workload after the two-year Covid time learning and teaching deficit.

Similarly, most references to caste-based discrimination, that had been a historical fact and continues to pester us even now, have been deleted. This history can be deleted from the textbooks but it will remain part of our past. Our ostrich like behaviour cannot eliminate caste-based hatred that our society faces every single day.

Coming to some specific deletions, I was appalled to see that a paragraph informing the students about Al-Beruni and his Kitab-ul-Hind is deleted and the reason seem to be that he was part of the entourage of Mahmud Ghaznavi. Al-Beruni was a scholar who left behind a major source of history, science and sociology of the period, which was based on Sanskrit sources as well.

Ritika Chopra of the Indian Express informs us that in the Class 12 history textbook a major chapter dealing with the Mughal Courts, building constructions, hunting expeditions and the major Mughal battles is deleted. The Chapter called the ‘Eighteenth Century Political Formations’ that dealt with the states of Awadh, Bengal and Hyderabad is deleted, while the section on “the content on states under the control of the Rajputs, Marathas, Sikhs and Jats has been retained”.


Does NCERT Have an Extra-Curricular Agenda?

So much for the NCERT Director Dr Dinesh Prasad Saklani's claim for not being selective. He also claims that all the changes, across disciplines, have been carried out after the consultations with experts. But who are these experts? One of the major accusations against the previous governments was that most experts in NCERT committees were from the Left background.

Here in the National Curriculum Framework, at least 24 members have direct links with the RSS affiliated bodies, with hardly any known expertise in any of the areas in social sciences or sciences.

The chosen members seem to have only a single-minded agenda of implementing the regressive and sectarian vision, an exclusivist idea of India that they have grown up with. One Prof Issac, who is also a member of the Indian Council of Historical Research, is associated here with a committee on Education in Social Sciences. The Indian Express on 21 June 2022 reported him complaining that “Nowadays, our history in school syllabus is subjective, not objective. The Indian defeat, Hindu defeat is the main theme of the school syllabus.”

This naïve and complex ridden understanding of our history is bound to produce something that will not sync with our pluralist and syncretic past.


Muslims and Nationalism: Past Present, and Future

Keeping in view the changes and deletions in history textbooks I will end with a quote from one of our militant nationalists Bipin Chandra Pal, who was the last of the Lal-Bal-Pal trio. These words will help us to comprehend our history, particularly medieval history and also to understand the true meaning of nationalism that some of us use as a divisive tool today. He wrote:

“Under the Moslems we had, whether Hindus or Mahomedans, one common Government, but that did not destroy the integrity of Hindu culture. We took many things from our Mahommedan neighbours, and gave them also something of our own, but this interchange of ideas and institutions did not destroy our special character or our special culture. And that special character and culture is the very soul and essence of what we now understand as Nationalism.”

(S Irfan Habib is a historian of science and modern political history. Till recently, he was Abul Kalam Azad Chair at the National University for Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), New Delhi. He tweets @irfhabib. This is an opinion piece. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  NCERT 

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