The BJP's Textbook Revisions: What lasting legacy for society?

Marie Lall | 04 May 2020

The textbook revisions between 2001 and 2004 are one of the least covered; yet one of the most controversial legacies of the previous Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. The nationalist agenda of the BJP institutionalised a radical re-articulation of Indian identity, with moves to de-secularise the Indian education system in an attempt to strengthen the party’s future voter base. However, the barometer of success that defined the BJP’s education policies was neither the introduction of new textbooks, nor the emergence of Rashrtiya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) activists at the helm of national education institutions. It has been the apparent acceptance of the discriminatory narrative by the Indian public, many of who grew up with Nehru’s secular ideals of constructing an inclusive Indian national identity.

In every country, one of the prime functions of education has been that of building a socially cohesive society - one held together by shared values, purposes and activities. While economic growth often appears to drive government policy, building social cohesion still remains one of the main purposes of public education. Most national education systems have been designed to more or less impose one culture - usually that of the elite: a dominant race, class, political party or colonial power.

Throughout the first forty years after independence, the main concerns of Indian education policy were the shortage of teachers in rural areas, the level of literacy amongst the wider population, and equity in education for women and the scheduled castes and tribes. However, the BJP led the NDA government, more than any other, recognised that education policy was an effective means to establish political sustenance and spread its nationalist ideology. After assuming power they replaced key staff in education departments, changed the curriculum and introduced new textbooks. The ostensible aim was that by educating the next generation within their chosen ideology, Hindutva (Hinduness) thought would become the norm.

In an interview, the influential former Minister for Human Resource Development, Science and Technology, Dr M.M. Joshi explained that the changes were made following complaints from minorities who felt aggrieved by the events were depicted in the old textbooks, in addition to not-so-veiled attack on the left.

“We examined them and the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) made a decision to delete them…. Certain authors of history have tried to distort history. They have given it a purely leftist colour. They say that India had no history of its own because they are guided by Marx. They teach the history of a nation that was mainly defeated and conquered by foreign powers. It’s a travesty of facts and an attempt to kill the morale of a nation.”

Re-writing history is in itself part of the growth of historical knowledge and historiography. India was for years stuck between communal and imperial/colonial interpretations of history. Postcolonial history writing in India was tied in with the elaboration of the new democratic, liberal, socialist vision of Nehru’s India, and had to define its identity with regard to its colonial inheritance. The historical vision of the Nehruvian times was written in opposition to the colonial and communal representations of the past and emphasised a shared heritage and collective struggles, rather than sectarian and communal disharmony. Later, subaltern studies challenged the elitism of earlier histories that attributed historical agency to the elites.

However, not all forms of rewriting are benign and one needs to examine the assumptions behind the rewriting of history. When certain facts are altered, the motives for such changes have to be questioned and analysed. After all, the education system and specifically history, should not be playground of political parties who define need and necessity within specifically narrow and self-serving parameters. Hindutva ideologues contend that the aim of teaching history is to create a healthy nation and that critical historians can harm the positive image of Hindus and Hinduism that children ought to learn about. For the Hindutva historian, revisiting history is not simply about differentiating the other, but finding the ‘self’ – i.e. the Hindu nation that has been downtrodden for so long. This process of awakening is associated with the new pride.

Under the BJP’s logic of majoritarianism, the Indian nation was re-conceptualised as Hindu. The main argument espoused by the government, was that previously, the Hindu majority had suffered as the role of minorities had been unduly emphasised. The BJP hoped to ‘rectify’ the situation by endowing the Hindu populace its rightful place, starting with the school textbooks. Indian history was reprioritised and even changed to highlight continuous strife between Hindus and non-Hindus, with non-Hindu communities identified as foreigners and often as enemies of the nation. In tandem, there have also been attempts to prove the indigenous origins of the Aryans in order to establish historical legitimacy for Hindu nationhood. This not only ignores the pluralistic roots of India, contributions of the Muslims and other minorities to Indian heritage, but represents a total reversal of the Nehruvian roots of Indian education as taught for over 50 years. With this came the reversal of the definition of Indian National Identity as being inclusive of all the different communities in India.

The BJP’s attempts to socialise a whole new generation of ‘new Indians’ into nationalist ideology in the world’s largest democracy has to be seen as one of the most radical policy shifts in Indian political and social history. This was occurring exactly as new economic and social reforms presided over a burgeoning Indian market that was plugged into the global economy. The contradiction between economic openness and educational gerrymandering to create a more inclusive and intolerant society could not have been more apparent.

Nonetheless, the issue of historical revisionism seems to be a part of a wider phenomenon. Recently there have been controversies involving Japanese history textbooks that downplay Japan’s responsibility with regard to the horrors committed in China during the Second World War. This led to mass protests in China. In India however, democracy notwithstanding, the Muslim minority for example, and other minorities too, do not have access the same recourse.

Marie Lall is a lecturer at the Institute of Education, University of London. She is currently on a fellowship at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), Singapore.

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