Erasing the Past
The Indian Government’s Dishonest History
In April 2023, authorities in India took the significant step of withdrawing a number of chapters pertaining to the Mughal Empire from the textbooks used across the nation.
A significant and prominent Muslim kingdom that ruled from the 15th century to almost the mid-19th century, the empire extended to nearly the whole of the subcontinent, accounting for almost 25 percent of the world’s gross domestic product at the time. Many of the prominent architectural marvels in India, including the famous Taj Mahal, are remnants of Mughal rule in India.
Now, information on the Mughal Empire is extremely limited in the classroom for grades 7–12. Students will study little about the 235 years of Mughal history, including renowned emperors like Akbar, Jahangir, and Humayun, and hardly will be exposed to materials related to Mughal rule chronicles like Badshah Nama, Akbarnama, and other textual and judicial compositions. And this applies not only in history classrooms. Textbook chapters on the theory of evolution, the periodic table, environmental sustainability, and energy sources, among other topics, have been entirely removed from the respective class curricula.
This move has received a strong backlash from international educators and scientists. Education professor Jonathan Osborne (Stanford Univ.) expressed his grave concern over the elimination of topics like evolution, saying, “Anybody who’s trying to teach biology without dealing with evolution is not teaching biology as we currently understand it.” The political manipulation of school curricula and textbooks in India has thus become a grave concern for educators around the world.
The origins of this erasure come from both national and state levels of India’s federated government. Although textbook revisions have always been an important part of the education system, the tenor of this political interference is both novel and recent. In 2017, textbooks underwent their first major revision in nearly 15 years, facilitated by the proposals of parents, students, educators, and others. These revisions had a hint of political interference, most notably in the inclusion of policy initiatives by the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This revision also entailed the introduction of Indian philosophy, Yoga, and Maharana Pratap (a 16th-century Hindu regional ruler) to the curriculum.
Although textbook revisions have always been an important part of the education system, the tenor of this political interference is both novel and recent.
More recently, under the guise of reforming the curriculum to reduce repetition, remove irrelevant information, and aid students’ understanding, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), which designs the textbook curriculum in the country, has become an easy yet powerful weapon for controlling the historical narrative. Deepak Kumar, the additional chief secretary for basic and secondary education, said, “The content of the textbooks has been rationalized for various reasons, including overlapping with similar content in other subject areas in the same class, similar content included in the lower or higher classes on the same subject.” The NCERT has constantly denied the political motivation behind dropping historically relevant and important topics, but the reasons they provide for such changes often seem weak.
The current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in India has promoted a fabricated narrative about the history of the country, as the right-wing Hindu nationalist party bases its support on Hindu majoritarianism, accompanied by hatred and villainization of Muslims who represent almost 15 percent of the country. One such step in this process has been the radical manipulation and selective elimination of historical topics such as the Mughal Empire and themes that contradict the present government’s narratives, alongside demonization of the Muslim rulers of India whom the BJP equates with the current Muslim population. Elsewhere, the NCERT has strategically removed subtopics, paragraphs, lines, and words to negate the impact of Muslim rule and territories. The grade 7 history textbook, which was previously dedicated to the history of Mughal rulers, has faced large-scale censorship, with pages excised on the regime of Muslim rulers like Khiljis, Lodis, Mamluks, and more. A two-page historical monument to Mughal leaders has been struck off. If it doesn’t suit the BJP’s narrative, it is to be removed.
This manipulation affects students’ understanding of history, and historians from around the globe decried the changes as unnecessary and harmful to younger generations. As one group’s statement said, “We are appalled by the decision of the NCERT to remove chapters and statements from history textbooks and demand that the deletions from the textbooks be immediately withdrawn.”
Many social activists and academics view these changes as part of a broader political agenda. Many believe that the BJP’s “Hindutva” politics, an ideology now almost a century old, aim to convert India to a Hindu state; Hindus make up approximately 80 percent of India’s population. The BJP has long struggled against historical reality in justifying this goal. The convenient elimination of Muslim histories is a major element of this effort to transform India into a Hindu nation. Asaduddin Owaisi, a prominent Muslim leader, has said, “What BJP is doing is in line with other fascist rulers. We have seen in other countries how fascists have played with history to suit their ideology.”
The deep-rooted Hindutva (literally Hinduness) ideology behind the textbook manipulation is intended to produce a generation with beliefs and sentiments identical to that of the current government. For example, one sentence was manipulated in a way to reduce the contribution of prominent Muslim freedom fighter Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in the formation of the Indian constitution. According to respected historian S. Irfan Habib, this act is “a major assault, impacting the younger generation,” and this revision of history through the textbook alteration aids BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda. In short, the selective deletion of historical events is intended to divide the nation by creating anti-Muslim and pro-Hindu social narratives.
The BJP government is trying to bring back an old anti-Muslim rant, dividing the country once again by alienating a particular community.
The BJP’s new biased history is not confined to anti-Muslim thought, although it remains a prioritized narrative; it also edits the legacy of many of the heroes of Indian independence. The 2020–21 edition of a history book included a reference to Nathuram Godse’s attempt to kill Mahatma Gandhi in response to Gandhi’s constant support of Hindu-Muslim unity. This sentence was removed in the latest edition. In the 2020–21 edition of the 11th grade history textbook, a sentence read “Mahatma Gandhi was convinced that any attempt to make India into a country only for Hindus would destroy India,” but this sentence is absent from the revised edition.
Many BJP leaders and supporters have justified this political exploitation of history by the party, calling it a move in favor of an “Indian history” and a “much-needed alteration.” “It is a great decision to remove the 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 are not in the history books, they are in the dustbin,” tweeted BJP leader Kapil Mishra.
There is no doubt that centuries of Mughal control over the Indian subcontinent are a challenge for Hindu nationalist ideologies, and this has resulted in right-wing and pro-government targeting of Muslim leaders. By ruling out an “undesired” part of Indian history, the anti-Muslim BJP government is trying to bring back an old anti-Muslim rant, dividing the country once again by alienating a particular community. Aditya Mukherjee (Jawaharlal Nehru Univ.) identifies this attempt to erase a significant part of Indian history as the beginning of a large-scale attack on India’s Muslim community. “Whenever we have witnessed the erasure of a particular community from our history,” he said, “it is usually followed by a genocide of the community.” This is, to say the least, a cause for deep concern.
Hamaad Habibullah is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. He writes about the politics and history of South Asia.
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