Erasing history: One NCERT chapter at a time

Keerthana Satheesh
SY BSc Economics

“Tremble therefore, the Tyrants of the world. Tremble before the virtual writer”

— Louise-Sebastian Mercier

A worrying trend haunts our nation. Last week, NCERT books removed evolution and the periodic table from class 10 syllabus. The news of such deletion is no doubt upsetting. Nature published this article that sounded the alarm bells. An attack on science like this, put in the context of recent developments, is extremely concerning given that certain groups stand to gain from students lacking an understanding of evolution. Deletion of such fundamental concepts has even the experts baffled. This is one of several rounds of “rationalisation” of syllabus that has been happening since 2017. The most sweeping changes came about last year, which deleted a huge chunk of the books, under the pretext of helping children cope with their studies in the post pandemic era. However, it is important to note that these rationalisations have been happening even before the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, social science suffered the greatest blow.

Indian Express last year published this investigative report that detailed the deleted portions from class 6-12 in social science (If you don’t have premium access, you can read the report through South Asia Citizens Web which has a free copy. All the sources in this essay are from the Indian Express investigative report unless mentioned otherwise). On reading the report, which is quite exhaustive, a clear pattern can be seen. Before any accusation of politicising an “independent decision taken by an educational body” is levied against this essay, understand that it is important for us to put any such move in its social and political context and look at it from the contemporary lens in order to spot patterns. Only by doing so will our understanding transform from that of a common man’s to that of an informed person’s. Once such an educated exercise is done, it is difficult to look at this issue as anything other than a symptom of a larger malaise.

For starters, textbook content on Islamic rulers in India from class 6-12 have suffered deep cuts. Several pages on Delhi Sultanates and Mughal Empire have been removed from the class 7 textbook. The deleted portions also included a cut down on the etymology of the words like masjid, imam and namaz. The chapter on Mughal Courts in class 12 has also been deleted. A two-page table that detailed milestones and achievements of Mughal emperors such as Shah Jahan, Humayun and Akbar in a seventh-class textbook has been removed. Centuries may have passed since their tryst with power but Mughal rulers – a convenient proxy for a religious minority – continue to remain in the cross hairs of Indian politicians. The deletions removed information on the states of Awadh, Bengal and Hyderabad but retained information on Rajputs, Sikhs and Marathas— the pattern is quite hard to miss there. 

History is not black and white or us v/s them. History is a rather dull grey. To view it as anything other than an amalgamation of several people’s decisions and actions is a sign of an uninformed person. The Mughals cannot be universally characterised as entirely good or bad. Their legacy includes both positive and negative aspects, and it is essential to examine specific historical events and rulers to form a comprehensive understanding. There was Akbar who was a symbol of secularism and tolerance but there was also Aurangzeb who reimposed the Jizya tax. By cutting down certain portions and distorting history this way, you steal from the curiosity of a child, the full context of a historical event. This further presents these books as facts to be memorised and not spaces to be explored.

Then, there are deletions of people’s struggles and movements that contemporary India witnessed. Mentions of Chipko Movement, Narmada Bachao Andola, and the agitation organised by Bharatiya Kisan Union in the eighties have been removed. I still remember the day we were told the story of Sunderlal Bahaguna and the courage with which he fought for a cause he believed in. Perhaps it was the passion with which my teacher explained it in class or perhaps it was the story itself that gave me goosebumps. By hiding such struggles and protests of contemporary India, a signal is being sent to the students. The signal to remain silent. Do not be inspired for there is nothing to be inspired by. Quite ironic, considering how India as we know it today would simply not exist if not for protests and mass movements. By removing details on protests and agitation, democracy’s heart is being brutally ripped out in broad daylight— and we are all being a witness to it.

The next part of the Indian Express Investigation details how issues of caste have also taken a hit. Multiple times, on different pages words and sentences have been removed— as if to make the caste struggle softer.

A box has been dropped from the chapter “Confronting marginalisation” in the book Social and Political Life-III for Class VIII. The box said: “The term Dalit which means ‘broken’ is used deliberately and actively by groups to highlight the centuries of discrimination they have experienced within the caste system.” (Source)

The varna system and how its hereditary nature has ensured the oppression of many has also been removed. A big chunk on discrimination detailing how untouchables for centuries were casted away to do manual scavenging has been removed. These sentences highlighted the brutality with which the caste system in India ensured social order. The words are truly painful to read but so is life for a Dalit in India. So what if India has been incapable of solving caste discrimination for 75 years— at least we can delete it off our textbooks. This is not even half of the deletions done on caste and minority discrimination. Read the Indian Express Investigation for the full list.

The Gender, Religion and Caste chapter in class 10 Political Science textbook which details the nature of secularism in India — saw all poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz removed. These beautiful poems captured the mistrust that lurks and commands a diverse society, sometimes even leading to its destruction.

The chapter on Emergency in class 12 textbook was reduced by five full pages. Mentions of the controversy around Indira Gandhi’s decision to impose emergency, including malpractices and abuse of power has been removed. If students don’t learn of the signs of a dictatorship, they will never see it coming.

Bits and pieces, sentences and words have been removed from here and there in the name of rationalisation. Mentions of Nathuram Godse being a Brahmin from Pune and a Hindu extremist has been removed as if those few words will ease the load on students. This is not rationalisation. This is selective amnesia designed to further shrink the area of dissent. It is done so that the future generation will be good subjects and not good citizens.

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