Three reasons why Indian school textbooks need an overhaul and a rewriting
Even after 70 years of Independence, decolonising the thinking of Indian intelligentsia remained an unfinished agenda
Importance of school textbooks in our lives cannot be undermined. What we learn through school textbooks remains in our memory for decades. Even after over half a century, one continues to recall stories, pictures and maps in school textbooks. Schoolgoing kids are in their formative age. Naturally, the kind of opinion-making that happens at that stage helps shape up one’s thoughts and ideas. When a school textbook portrays a tyrant as a benevolent king, one refuses to accept the facts regardless of huge evidence to that effect. Textbooks, at times, become gospels and even if one's own parents vouch for a thing different from what is said in the textbooks, children refuse to accept.
Unfortunately, in India, even after Independence, decolonising the thinking of Indian intelligentsia remained an unfinished agenda. Neither our public administrators could free themselves from the shadow of British rule, nor could our academia understand the needless dominance of Euro-centrism in our pedagogy. Thomas Babington Macaulay, British historian-politician of the early 19th century, was clear about the objectives of education. Without mincing words, he told us through his Minute that education (in India under British rule) was to “form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect”. Sadly, Macaulay's influence continued endlessly.
There have been multiple examples of how this influence has continued to manifest through our textbooks repeatedly for decades together. The three main aspects dominating this manifestation are: Needless glorification of the medieval history, relegating ancient history completely to the periphery; the portrayal of India's freedom struggle from a partisan perspective, obliterating the contribution of those who were not so much a part of the Indian National Congress; and inadequate representation of great women from all periods, including freedom struggle. Unsurprisingly, this happened when the so-called ‘eminent historians’ had presided over the system of textbook production.
To start with, let's take the example of the disproportionate allocation of space and emphasis on medieval history. The latest report on textbook reforms by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education observed that NCERT should take a relook at the guidelines for the writing of the history textbooks so that equal weightage and importance is given to the various eras, periods and events in history textbooks.
Similarly, it was observed that school textbooks (at present) do not give adequate coverage to some of the great Indian empires like that of Cholas, Chalukyas, Vijayanagar, Gondwana or that of Travancore and Ahoms of the northeastern region, whose contributions in the expansion of India's standing on the world stage cannot be ignored.
A case in point is the Class 7 history textbook of NCERT. It tells us about the Mughal family tree in great detail, but other dynasties that had valiantly fought with the aggressors — whether Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj or Maharana Pratap — find just cursory references. And not just is their neglect of non-Mughal dynasties but perhaps everything non-Mughal. One finds scant references to Bhakti and Sufi traditions as also to the most influential Vaishnavite saints such as Srimanta Sankardeva in Assam and Sufi saints such as Ajaan Fakir. Traditions such as Sravana Kirtana and Borgeet (devotional songs) have also been more or less ignored.
Glorification of selective leaders and events during the freedom struggle also merits attention. All those who fought for Independence and especially those who made supreme sacrifice deserved equal amounts of importance. However, while leaders like Motilal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu and Abul Kalam Azad find elaborate mentions — and nothing objectionable about that — other great leaders like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Veer Savarkar, Gopinath Bordoloi or revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh or Chaphekar brothers and Anant Kanhere are either ignored or at times are mentioned as offenders.
Besides, as pointed out by Tanish Venkatesh — who became the first Class 9 student to depose before any Parliamentary Standing Committee — most pictures published in Class 7 textbooks are that of Britishers defeating provincial rulers in parts of India only as if the latter never defeated the former.
Tanish, a research-minded schoolboy, has further pointed out how Mangal Pandey, the great revolutionary of India’s first war of independence in 1857, finds just a cursory mention in two lines. Same is the case with Rani Lakshmibai. The NCERT Class 7 textbook covers her contribution in just three lines, saying “In Jhansi, Rani Lakshmibai joined the rebel sepoys and fought the British along with Tantia Tope, the general of Nana Saheb.” And “Rani Lakshmibai was defeated and killed in June 1858.” This is nothing but a crass insult to the great warrior-queen of 1857.
Yet another area of deep-rooted biases is the role of women in society in general and in our glorious history in particular. In its report, the Parliamentary Standing Committee has rightly pointed out that “generally women are underrepresented in school textbooks, many a time shown through images in traditional and voluntary roles, leading to the formation of gender stereotypes in the impressionistic minds of students and feels that there is a need to undertake an analysis of the textbooks from the gender perspective as well”.
It further observes that “notable women in all fields, and their contributions, like that of Ahilyabai Holkar, Abala Bose, Anandi Gopal Joshi, Anasuya Sarabhai, Arati Saha, Aruna Asaf Ali, Kanaklata Deka, Rani Ma Gaidinliu, Asima Chatterjee, Captain Prem Mathur, Chandraprabha Saikini, Cornelia Sorabji, Durgavati Devi, Janaki Ammal, Mahasweta Devi, Kalpana Chawla, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Kittur Chennamma, MS Subbulakshmi, Madam Bhikaiji Cama, Rukmini Devi Arundale, Savitribai Phule and many others have not found adequate mention in NCERT textbooks”.
The fact that the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education received as many as 12,697 e-mails and dozens of submissions in writing separately shows how passionately people think about the content of the textbooks.
Notably, the committee report has emphasised the need for evolving a mechanism, first to avoid any distortions and mistakes and, second, to rectify mistakes as and when they are pointed out. In a way, the Committee report has underscored a long-standing need to have textbooks free from injustices to both our national heroes of the past as well as that of the future. This was needed to ensure that colonial prejudices and more importantly, prejudices emerging out of politically-correct thinking are not allowed to influence young impressionistic minds.
The writer is a Rajya Sabha MP who heads the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education. Views expressed are personal.
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