Teaching and Un-Teaching the Hindu Rashtra
by Akash Bhattacharya

A Commentary on the NCERT Syllabus Revision

Deleting the Mughals, and More

The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has removed the chapter on ‘Kings and Chronicles: The Mughal Courts (16th and 17th Centuries) from the history textbook’s ‘Themes of Indian History – Part II’. The removal sent down a few shockwaves since Mughal administrative unification played a decisive role in shaping the territorial and cultural map of India as we know it.

But the country that we have known is fast disappearing. Annihilating its diverse history is a key modus operandi of the architects of the Hindu Rashtra.  In November 2022, in a meeting in Assam, Home Minister Amit Shah had declared: ‘Who can stop us now from rewriting our history with pride? We will have to amend this and put our history in front of the world with pride.’

Which part of Indian history needs to be rewritten and why one may wonder. The Hindutva brigade has used the ‘decolonization’ and ‘democratization’ rhetoric to justify their rescripting of India’s nationalist meta-narrative. Both these master categories are covers for accomplishing three tasks: projecting a Hindu-Muslim binary on to India’s past, for ascribing a false indigeneity to Hinduism, and for downplaying ‘internal’ disagreements, hierarchies, and conflicts within Hinduism. These form the three core elements of the historical rationale of Hindutva.

In terms of pedagogy, teaching the Hindu Rashtra involves communicating pro-Hindutva histories through formal and non-formal methods. The deletion of diverse, pluralist perspectives goes hand in hand with the injection of sensational and biased narratives in both the official syllabus and in the public sphere.

Pro-Hindutva histories have always been full of blatant factual errors, deliberate distortions, and omissions. But their style possesses a mass appeal, and they lend themselves easily to social media campaigns. Backed by state power, these histories are also finding enormous space in literary meets and cultural gatherings, in addition to the official syllabi.

A Comprehensive Transformation

History is only a part of the broader intellectual moulding undertaken by the government. A closer look at other changes in the syllabus belies a threefold attempt at a deeper pedagogic transformation.

Three themes have been deleted or diluted in these post-2014 efforts to saffronize textbooks. First, the mention of Muslims as an integral part of Indian history, second, the mention of popular socio-political mass movements in this country, and third, the atrocities committed by the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and their ideologues.

The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Rajasthan introduced a new series of school textbooks in 2016, in which science textbooks draw upon mythical texts, and the literature and social science textbooks whitewash the evils of the caste system, reinforce caste and gender stereotypes, conflate patriotism with respect for armed forces, and distort significant historical events like the Battle of Haldighati.

In the NCERT syllabus, references to the 2002 Gujarat riots have been deleted; passages that dealt with Emergency’s draconian impact on people and institutions have been removed; chapters on protests and social movements, including those spearheaded by the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Dalit Panthers, and Bhartiya Kisan Union have been dropped from social science textbooks.

In the recent past, Mahatma Gandhi’s efforts towards building Hindu-Muslim unity, the ban on the RSS following Gandhi’s assassination, Nathuram Godse’s role in the assassination and his Brahmin background, have all faced the wrath of the government approved ‘experts’ looking into the NCERT syllabus.

Similarly, chapters like ‘Central Islamic Lands’, ‘Confrontation of Cultures’, and ‘Industrial Revolution’ have been removed from the 11th grade textbook ‘Themes in World History’. References to Dalit writer Om Prakash Valmiki have also been removed from the social science textbook for Classes 7 and 8.

Subverting NCF 2005

The attacks on the NCERT syllabus are of special significance because the current textbooks reflect peoples’ democratic traditions and the constitutional spirit more than previous textbooks. This curricular framework was produced in 2005, during the Congress-led government, but the textbooks went beyond Congress-oriented narratives of Indian society and history.

The post-2005 school history curriculum, to take an example, emphasised on regional histories, reckoned with histories of caste and gender oppression with a view to overcoming them, and sought to teach children to think historically instead of overloading them with information about the past. Perhaps that is why NCF 2005 is a great threat to the Hindu Rashtra’s pedagogic projects.  

The NCF 2005 was the product of the limited but significant democratization of education that has happened since the 1970s. It brought together perspectives of several post-independence generations of Dalit Bahujan, feminist, Adivasi, and Marxist scholars.

The Hindutva brigade eagerly dismisses these scholars as ‘leftists’ because their scholarship is a threat to their anti-democratic politics and ideology. These perspectives belong to a post-colonial scholarly tradition that was critical of both colonial and Hindu majoritarian viewpoints.

In the hands of outstanding scholars such as Gopal Guru, Nivedita Menon, Romila Thapar, Tanika Sarkar, to name a few, decolonisation came to mean something very different from the Hindutva project of rescuing the Sanatana Dharma. In accordance with the legacies of anti-colonial movements in the subcontinent and beyond, decolonisation in fact came to mean a lot more than the attainment of political freedom. It entailed the undoing of historically oppressive structures of caste, class, gender, and race.

Secular, democratic social scientists repeatedly warned against the dangers of using democracy as a legitimizing tool for majoritarian victimhood. NCF 2005 carries a powerful imprint of their democratic viewpoints in both the curriculum and pedagogy.  

NEP Redefines Learning Objectives

In the past, whenever political affiliates of the RSS, be it the Bhartiya Jan Sangh (1977-1980) or the BJP (1996-2004), have been in power, efforts have been made to put in place a curriculum that aligns with their politics, i.e., reinforces Brahminical stereotypes, glorifies authoritarianism, demonizes our Muslim rulers, denies historically ascertained Aryan migration theory, and encourages communal polarization. Concomitantly, there has also been a reluctance to acknowledge the deep caste, class, and gender inequalities that define our society, in their curricular vision.

The current situation marks a great leap forward for the RSS since they have been able to inscribe these changes on to the new policy architecture in the form of the National Education Policy (NEP 2020). The influence of the RSS is palpable on the learning objectives as defined in the policy document.

The document outlines the inculcation of ‘basic ethical reasoning, traditional Indian values and all basic human and Constitutional values’, among others, as key objectives of learning. The values listed (Section 4.28) are as follows:

  • …seva, ahimsa, swachchhata, satya, nishkam karma, shanti, sacrifice, tolerance, diversity, pluralism, righteous conduct, gender sensitivity, respect for elders, respect for all people and their inherent capabilities regardless of background, respect for environment, helpfulness, courtesy, patience, forgiveness, empathy, compassion, patriotism, democratic outlook, integrity, responsibility, justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity.

The learning objectives are a curious blend of the Sangh’s own values and constitutional values, done in a way that undercuts the significance of constitutional rights which happen to find no mention in the document. The document is full of references to ancient Indian tradition as a source of values but contains no references to Islam as such. It also emphasizes on fundamental duties over fundamental rights.

The policy called for the drafting of new position papers to rework the syllabus in accordance with the redefined learning objectives – a process that is currently underway.

Institutional Changes

Rewriting textbooks is only a small part of the pedagogic project of the Hindu Rashtra. It constitutes just one of the multiple elements in the NEP that are geared towards saffronizing education. Integrating RSS-backed para institutions with the formal education system is an integral part of the fascist takeover of public education.

Over the years, the RSS has developed a wide network of schools of its own: formal schools (estimated 12,363), single-teacher schools (estimated 12,001), and thousands of Sanskar Kendras run by the Akhil Bharatiya Shikshan Sansthan, Vidya Bharati, and other RSS fronts. The NEP strongly encourages private philanthropic initiatives in education and there will be an effort to integrate this RSS para system within the formal education network.

Earlier the RSS had used this para-system to undercut the influence of the formal school system over which it had little control. Now firmly entrenched in the state, integration seems to have become the name of the game.

The NEP encourages the government to outsource functions such as teacher-training, assessment, security services in educational premises to private bodies. With no clarity on the regulations guiding the participation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private organizations in education, there is genuine apprehension that RSS backed NGOs and other private bodies will find a greater space within the system.

To take an example of NGO-based intervention, in the prelude to the NEP, the central government set up advisory committees consisting of RSS functionaries and associates for ‘Indianizing’ education. An important body among RSS affiliates, the Bharatiya Shiksha Niti Ayog headed by Dinanath Batra, has previously advised such changes as the removal of a poem by Punjabi poet Pash, a couplet by Mirza Ghalib, removing mentions of the BJP as a ‘Hindu’ party and the occurrence of riots under BJP administrations, from school textbooks, and the avoidance of English, Arabic or Urdu in school syllabi. Batra and his ilk have played an advisory role in the drafting of the NEP, and they have welcomed the new framework.

The above-mentioned institutional changes are meant to work in tandem with saffronized syllabi to create an ambience of fear, division, and subservience in education, thereby undercutting critical and pro-constitution pedagogies.

Un-Teaching the Hindu Rashtra  

Un-teaching the Hindu Rashtra will require more than the ongoing vocal protest against the syllabus changes. NEP as a whole, and not just the changes in syllabus, needs to be contested at different points of its application. Only a few Left and Dalit organizations seem to be doing that at present. All those who are concerned about the syllabus changes need to be concerned about NEP as a whole.

The processes described in this article constitute merely a few of the myriad ways in which the NEP seeks to usher in a Hindu Rashtra. Producing a perfect institutional milieu for re-consolidation of upper caste / class domination is another of its methods.

NEP subtly alters crucial definitions that have emerged in course of anti-caste, feminist, and Left struggles. In the definition of Socio-Economically Disadvantaged Groups, gender is referred to as an identity, caste is reduced to Scheduled Castes, while class as a category is absent (Section 6.2). As already stated, teaching students about our constitutional rights are downplayed in the learning objectives. This seeks to limit the extent to which education can remain a site from which a powerful ideological challenge to the current matrix of power can emerge.

Big corporations are clearly set to gain from this milieu and no wonder they have played a major role in pushing the NEP through. Supposedly ‘benevolent’ corporate organizations such as the Azim Premji Foundation are in fact playing an important role in the syllabus alteration process that is underway.

In multiple ways, the NEP normalizes the current deeply unequal and exploitative employment landscape and seeks to mould schools, colleges, and universities to suit the same. It thus seeks to create a socio-economic milieu that is suited to big corporate domination – another face of the communal-corporate Raj. The challenge to NEP will therefore also have to be integrated with the ongoing battles against Company Raj.

Lastly, as far as history is concerned, it is necessary to project a counter-narrative through old and new networks of historians. The organizational challenge that it brings along is perhaps greater than the narrative challenge. As we project a counter-narrative, we must look for ways to de-couple history from the ongoing Hindutva quest for retroactive justice. A tall order indeed, or maybe a tough battle that can still be won!

Teaching and Un-Teaching the Hindu Rashtra