Mughals, RSS, evolution: Outrage as India edits school textbooks
India’s right-wing government removes significant historical and scientific facts from textbooks as it pursues a Hindu supremacist agenda.
New Delhi, India – In 2018, a year before the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stormed back to power for a second term, a federal education minister said he believed Indians were the descendants of Hindu “rishis” (sages) and not monkeys.
Satya Pal Singh, who was the minister of state for human resource development, said Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was “scientifically wrong”.
“It needs to change in the school and college curriculum. Since man has been seen on Earth, he has always been a man. Nobody saw an ape turning into a man,” he said.
By the 2021-2022 academic year, Darwin’s theory was quietly removed from the examination syllabus for the students of Class 9 and Class 10. By 2022-2023, the topic of evolution was completely purged from school textbooks, teachers and education experts told Al Jazeera.
Now, millions of school students will not know who Darwin was or what his theory says – unless they opt for biology in Class 11 and Class 12.
The changes to textbooks were prescribed by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), a state-run body under the federal education ministry.
NCERT textbooks are prescribed by more than 24,000 schools affiliated with India’s Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), with tens of millions of students. CBSE also has about 240 affiliated schools in 26 countries across the world.
Apart from that, at least 19 school boards in 14 Indian states also use NCERT books in classrooms.
Muslim rulers erased from textbooks
Evolution is not the only glaring omission in the textbooks, introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government that has ruled India since 2014.
Modi’s BJP and its ideological mentor, the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have long campaigned for a revision of India’s textbooks that aligns with their political objective of replacing a constitutionally secular India with an ethnic Hindu state.
In pursuit of that goal, the BJP and other RSS-affiliated Hindu groups are running a campaign to marginalise India’s 200 million Muslims, who constitute 14 percent of its population. Denying the historical fact that Muslims ruled over the Indian subcontinent for centuries – and demonising those rulers by creating an alternate history of alleged Hindu persecution – are major elements of that campaign.
As part of the same campaign, references to the Mughals, who ruled over the subcontinent between the 16th and 19th centuries, have also been removed from history textbooks.
In a move that the NCERT claimed would “rationalise” textbooks and reduce the workload on students affected by the pandemic, it deleted several pages from the Class 7 history textbook that referred to the Delhi Sultanate rulers, such as the Mamluks, Tughlaqs, Khiljis and Lodis. It also removed a two-page table explaining in detail the milestones and achievements of the Mughal emperors.
Along similar lines, three pages talking about the expansion of the Delhi Sultanate and a section explaining in detail a “masjid” (mosque) were also removed. A chapter called Kings and Chronicles: The Mughal Courts, which dealt with Mughal-era manuscripts including Akbar Nama and Badshah Nama, were removed from Class 12 history textbooks.
Gandhi’s killing, Gujarat riots details edited
The NCERT political science textbooks for Grades 11 and 12 also removed a reference to a brief ban on the RSS after India’s iconic freedom fighter Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, popularly called “Mahatma” (noble soul) and revered as the Father of the Nation, was assassinated in 1948 by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu hardliner with links to the RSS.
A sentence in the 2020-21 edition of the textbook – that Gandhi “was convinced that any attempt to make India into a country only for Hindus would destroy India” – has also been deleted. Another sentence that has been dropped said Gandhi’s “steadfast pursuit of Hindu-Muslim unity provoked Hindu extremists so much that they made several attempts to assassinate Gandhi ‘ji’ [ji is an honorific in Hindi]”.
NCERT has also removed references to Muslim freedom fighter, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad from the new Class 11 political science textbook, titled ‘Constitution – Why and How?’. Azad was India’s first education minister and member of the constituent assembly that drafted the country’s constitution after independence from the British rule in 1947.
The earlier editions of the textbook had a sentence saying: “The Constituent Assembly had eight major committees on different subjects. Usually, Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first prime minister), Rajendra Prasad (the first Indian president), Sardar Patel (Vallabhbhai Patel, first deputy PM and home minister), Maulana Azad or Ambedkar (Bhim Rao Ambedkar, chairman of the drafting committee) chaired these committees.”
According to The Hindu newspaper, the second sentence in the revised textbook says: “Usually, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Patel or BR Ambedkar chaired these committees.”
An investigation by The Indian Express newspaper, which first broke the story, also found that references to the 2002 riots in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, in which nearly 2,000 people – most of them Muslims – were killed, have also been removed from all social science textbooks. Recently, India banned a BBC film that said Modi, who was then Gujarat’s chief minister, was directly responsible for the carnage.
The rewriting of history is in line with the BJP’s attempts to push its Hindu nationalist propaganda, historian S Irfan Habib told Al Jazeera. Calling the cuts in textbooks a “major assault”, Habib said, “It is going to impact the younger generation more than what we can imagine.”
“This politicisation of students’ textbooks leads to the polarisation of the country by presenting a skewed past which will keep students in the dark. It is a conscious act by the present government to pursue agendas to further the religious divide in India by brainwashing young kids. The current government is assaulting the ethos of India by poisoning the school curriculum,” he added.
Darwin’s theory ‘purely imaginative’
Until 2020-2021, textbooks for Class 9 and Class 10 had chapters on evolution. The Class 9 chapter, titled Diversity of Organisms, has been deleted. In Class 10, the topic was taught as part of a chapter titled Heredity and Evolution. In the revised textbook, it just says ‘Heredity’.
Similarly, if the students of Class 11 opted for history or biology as a major, they were taught about evolution. That is no longer an option.
“Evolution is a bedrock scientific concept. It helps students place concepts such as reproduction, adaptation and survivability in a bigger frame to understand how life appeared on Earth, and how it can change,” a teacher who was part of the new textbook committee told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
“It is also the chapter where students find a place to debate and challenge religious notions of the emergence of life and scientific ideas. This chapter was a good way for a teacher to make students distinguish between ‘faith as a way of knowing’ and ‘science as a way of knowing’.”
The teacher said eliminating the chapter on evolution robs students of an opportunity to dispel the misconceptions they learn from social media, most often propagated by the creationist theory supporters.
The removal of the chapter comes as Hindu groups are pushing the mythological theory of Dashavatar which claims that humans evolved through incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu.
In 2019, while addressing the 106th Indian Science Congress, Nageswara Rao Gollapalli, vice chancellor of Andhra Pradesh University, claimed the Dashavatar gave a better theory of evolution than Darwin.
“The theory of Dashavatara is within the bloodstream of Hindus, so it must be taught in schools.” Surendra Jain, a retired college principal and senior official at the far-right Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) told Al Jazeera.
“The theory of Darwin has limited the scope of religion. It is purely imaginative. We have found proof of Dashavatara. It should be taught not merely to Hindu students, but to all students of India. Entire world will benefit from message of Dashavatar. It is not just mythology, but history,” he said.
Krishna Kumar, who once headed the NCERT, told Al Jazeera that the government’s erasing of scientific and historical facts was “terrible”.
“No one knows the full extent of deletions from the textbooks. Can you imagine a student passing 10th standard without knowing who Darwin was?” he asked.
“The school curriculum is badly brutalised. It is so unfortunate that an entire batch of students will turn out to be completely ignorant about important concepts of science and history.”
‘Longstanding agenda of RSS’
Al Jazeera independently reviewed other changes made in the curriculum and found that some parts of the Diversity and Discrimination chapter that talked about discrimination against India’s Muslim minority were removed from Class 6 textbooks.
The review also found that two chapters in Class 7 social science textbook were removed. One, titled Understanding Advertisements, talked about the role of big business in media. The other, Struggles for Equality, explained the various factors why people were treated unequally in India. It also contained details of famous struggles for equality, such as the women’s empowerment movement.
“The attempts to politicise school books is nothing new but a longstanding agenda of RSS and the Hindu far right. However, the scale is alarming,” historian Habib told Al Jazeera.
“The BJP is hiding those facts from students which show centuries-old secularism in India and harmony between Hindus and Muslims to present a distorted Hindu nationalist perspective that [believes] India is only for the Hindus.”
In a statement, NCERT director D P Saklani said the council will not restore the deletions because they were made on an expert committee’s recommendations.
When Al Jazeera asked for his comments, he said: “As a director, I have done my job in this matter for three months last year and three days again this year, and given each and every information, clarification to all through electronic and print media.”
Prominent Muslim parliamentarian Asaduddin Owaisi accused the ruling BJP of “pushing its political agenda” by revising and rewriting school textbooks.