Where's the critical thinking? Nehru's exclusion from textbooks serves no purpose

Recently, a friend told me that he has advised his daughter to steer clear of history as a subject of choice, when she decides what to study in college. “There is every chance that the history course will be periodically distorted at whims and fancies of parties in power. In such a ridiculous situation, not studying history in a formal degree course is better than learning multiple distorted versions of it,” he said.

These words came back to me on reading the latest news reports about the Rajasthan government’s decision to delete the names of Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, from the social science textbook for Class VIII students.

Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. News 18

Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. News 18

Following the uproar over the removal of names, Rajasthan’s Education Minister Vasudev Devnani told The Indian Express that Nehru does still find mention on pages 91 and 177. But the one-line stray references to the Congress leader would only qualify as exclusion of his role in this period. For instance, according to The Indian Express, while page 91 carries a one-line mention of Nehru in the chapter ‘Our Constitution’, the only mention he finds on page 177 is for having “inaugurated one of the steps in the course to Rajasthan’s unification.”

Published by Rajasthan Rajya Pathyapustak Mandal, the contentious textbook includes leading lights of the national movement, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh, Lajpat Rai, Gangadhar Tilak and Veer Savarkar. However, the chapter on the national movement is conspicuously mum on other leading Congress freedom fighters like Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, and Madan Mohan Malviya. That’s not all. The chapter on post-Independence India refrains from making any mention of Nehru even as it mentions Rajendra Prasad as the first President of India, and dwells on the role of Sardar Patel in the country’s unification process. The ludicrous changes are ostensibly part of the government’s curriculum restructuring exercise.

Such tampering is of course, of a kind with many other similar random deletions that we have seen of late. Earlier this month, we were informed that a well-known history textbook on modern India, India’s struggle for Independence, written by the late Bipin Chandra and historians Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee, K N Panikkar and Sucheta Mahajan, has been removed from Delhi University’s history syllabus. The textbook had come under attack for describing Bhagat Singh as a “revolutionary terrorist.” Instead of initiating a discussion on the changing connotations of the word “terrorism”, the textbook was removed.

In her reaction to the removal as mentioned in an article in The Indian Express published on 6 May, historian Romila Thapar said: “Even in today’s times, almost a century after Bhagat Singh, the description of ‘revolutionary terrorist’ has a very different meaning from the term ‘terrorist.’”

This is not the first time that we have witnessed pedagogical perversions that convey an alarming disrespect for historic authenticity and sanctity of knowledge on the part of authors who execute them. Political parties – particularly those driven by ideology – have traditionally been known to treat the field of social science as a soft target, as their ideological preserve and a playground for their desired versions of the past. The subject of history, which is supposedly meant to provide students with a sense of the past, as well as advance their understanding of the contemporary, has become a plaything in the hands of political parties.

While the Congress and other parties have also been guilty of efforts to rewrite the past in biased ways, it can be argued that this process has, in the past few years, assumed frightening proportions. It’s also reasonable to ask how modern Indian history be taught without dwelling on the contributions made by Nehru to the making of the nation Indian nation. How can students not be informed of a basic historic fact – one that is uncontested and beyond challenge – that Nehru was the first Prime Minister of Independent India?
Does his work require critical reassessment or does it have to be erased from our text books?

The BJP’s aversion to Nehru is well known. But the sanctity of pedagogy requires those tasked with textbook writing – regardless of their party position – to not view historic material through the prism of a narrow ideology. Any straying from this pedagogical path tends to corrupt the historic material at hand. It leads to the meaningless exclusions of the kind we are now witnessing – deletions of historic personalities, who were defining markers of their times. Exclusions of fundamental and irreversible facts only end up denying students basic knowledge.

In fact, many independent, non-partisan scholars have suggested (though seemingly in vain) that classrooms should ideally be sites for a critical engagement between students and teachers. While Nehru’s exclusion from textbooks serves no purpose in advancing any kind of critical thinking about the Congress leader and his role in history, a critical presentation of his vision in the making of modern India on the other hand, could perhaps have generated discussions around him.

But the Rajasthan government seems to have made up its mind that denying students the ‘right to know’ is the best way of preventing them from ‘going astray.’ Earlier this year, for instance, the BJP government scrapped works of literary giants like Thomas Hardy, John Keats, William Blake, TS Eliot, and Edward Lear, ostensibly to familiarise students with local and regional literature and culture. Why do such decisions always have to be made in an either/or frame? One does not have to make way for the other.

In the end, political parties would do well to realise that classrooms are no longer the only space where young people learn. In the fast-paced and addictive digital age, where people are exposed to multiple media and social platforms, information and even knowledge travels. Nehru may not feature in Rajasthan’s social science school textbook. But it would be puerile to imagine that such random exclusions can actually delete national memory and its manifestations in everyday life.

Updated Date: May 09, 2016 17:21 PM

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