Why school textbooks are the new battleground
Chapter cuts may have a bigger role than just reducing the burden on school children.
The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) recently asked the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) to cut three chapters from a textbook meant for class IX students. The chapters, from the textbook titled Contemporary World-I for social sciences, account for nearly 70 pages. According to media reports, this is part of the curriculum rationalisation exercise initiated at human resource development minister, Prakash Javadekar's behest.
While the decision is a part of the curriculum rationalisation exercise initiated by Javadekar apparently to reduce the burden on students, the content removed from the social science textbooks is considerably more than that deleted from the mathematics and science textbooks. While the burden of students may well be a valid reason, there seems to be a larger reason. This becomes evident when you take a look at the chapters axed.
One of the chapters axed is called Clothing: A Social History. It primarily deals with how social movements influenced clothes that people wore. One section of that chapter details how a social movement arose among the lower caste Nadar community in the southern princely state of Travancore, because their women were forbidden to cover their chest by the dominant Nair community in the 19th century. Any woman who defied this rule was attacked. “Over subsequent decades, a violent conflict over dress codes ensued,” the chapter states.
This section had caused political controversy in Tamil Nadu with the major political parties in the state voicing strong opinions. DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi and MDMK leader Vaiko had both taken umbrage at the fact that the Nadar community was described as migrants. PMK’s S Ramadoss had found remarks about Nadar women in the textbook objectionable. Even the late chief minister J Jayalalithaa had written to the central government against the chapter, asking for certain objectionable sections to be removed. In 2016, the CBSE had issued a circular omitting it from the curriculum and issued clear instructions that no questions from this section would be asked in 2017. However, it has remained part of the textbook, until now.
The two other chapters on the chopping block are History and Sport: The Story of Cricket, and Peasants and Farmers. The first chapter is on the history of cricket in India and its connection to caste, region, and community. The second chapter is on how the rise of capitalism and colonialism altered the lives of farmers and peasants.
As can be seen, there is a definite pattern emerging in this. Most of these chapters do not fit the national narrative built by the ruling BJP and it ideological parent, the Rashtriya Sawayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS has a cultural project and is not known to be tolerant of things that do not fit their narrative. The project of changing textbooks is old and they have worked tirelessly to reach this point. Textbooks, particularly of social sciences, were changed even when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was in power from 1998 to 2004. History, in particular, was targeted.
Also, this is not the first time an attempt has been made to change textbooks in this regime. The Narendra Modi government has been repeatedly accused of trying to “saffronise” education. Following Modi’s win in 2014, the NCERT has repeatedly come under pressure to omit some “objectionable” sections from textbooks. At one point, NCERT was asked to change a section on “anti-Muslim riot in Gujarat” to simply “Gujarat riots”. Apart from this, there is also opposition to a passage in the book which carries quotes from former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s famous Raj Dharam statement.
According to media reports, while there are proposals for cuts across all subjects as per the Javadekar’s rationalisation programme, there is a disparity in share. According to media reports, NCERT has reduced content from social science textbooks by almost 20 per cent while cuts in science and mathematics books are way less than that. This raises serious questions about the motive.
The timing of this move is what is raising eyebrows. The national elections start in a month. Modi and the BJP are fighting to stay in power. The party is seriously trying to woo the Nair community in Kerala, following the Sabrimala protests, a state which includes large parts of the erstwhile Travancore state. The regime’s tenure has also been marked by student unrest across university campuses in the country and large-scale agrarian distress.
Britain’s famous Second World War statesman Winston Churchill once said that history is written by the victors. This exercise may show that the country is in the midst of a war of narratives, one of a secular modern India and the other of the Hindutva right wing, based on imagined historical slights and a monolithic uniform nation. Who will win?