The arbitrary and surreptitious deletion of several portions from various textbooks by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) betrays bad faith and lack of professionalism but, in the prevailing political climate, it is not entirely surprising. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has made the creation of a new knowledge ecosystem across all fields central to its politics. Among the key deletions, which the NCERT describes as rationalisation of syllabus, are references to the dislike of Hindutva extremists for Gandhi, a ban on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh after his assassination, entire chapters on the history of the Mughals, references to the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, the Naxalite movement, the Emergency and discussions on social movements. History texts have been targeted in particular, and 250 historians from leading Indian and foreign universities have pointed out that those who prepared them through a process of consultation and wide-ranging discussions were all kept in the dark. These changes are not limited to school textbooks. The UGC draft syllabus for bachelor-level history has also been altered, “leading to a plainly prejudiced and irrational perception of our past”, according to the Indian History Congress. The NCERT has sought to characterise its failure to be transparent as an “oversight”, but remains firm on the revision.
Knowledge expands continuously, and syllabus revision is essential for a robust education system. What is taught to the younger generation is a collective decision of a society in which formal education is a critical part. The values and ethics of the collective are reflected in education, which evolve over time. In India, education has evolved with an aim to promote national integration, critical thinking, and scientific temper. As any society matures, it might be able to process darker episodes of the past with more equanimity. There is also the question of deciding the appropriate levels at which learners are introduced to various levels of knowledge. For all these reasons, textbooks and pedagogy need to be revised periodically. The trouble is when this exercise is carried out in a politically partisan manner, and in disregard of expertise. It turns out to be toxic when strife, not harmony, is promoted through formal education. India’s growth and development depends almost entirely on educating its bursting young population with vocational and social skills and shaping youngsters into caring citizens of a pluralistic nation. They should learn history with the aim of not repeating its tragedies in order to build a harmonious future. There should be wider, more transparent consultations in shaping the curriculum at all levels.