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India’s Dangerous New Curriculum

By Alex Traub

From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, the Mughal Empire did much to create modern-day India. It consolidated the country into a sovereign political unit, established a secular tradition in law and administration, and built monuments such as the Taj Mahal. The Mughals were originally from Uzbekistan, but over time they became a symbol of the contribution of Muslims to Indian national history. Their lasting influence is evident in some of India’s most famous dishes, such as biryani, and the settings of several of the most beloved Bollywood movies, including Mughal-e-Azam (1960), by some estimates the highest-grossing film in Indian history.

These textbooks used Mughal emperors as mouthpieces for twentieth-century politics. To the Mughal ruler Akbar (1542–1605), one book attributed “the great dream” that “people should forget their differences about religion and think of themselves only as the people of India.” This was actually the dream of Jawaharlal Nehru, a leader of the independence movement and India’s prime minister for its first seventeen years of statehood.

When the BJP took over several state governments in the 1990s, it began publishing its own state-level textbooks. The party assumed effective control of the federal government for the first time in 1998 and quickly announced that education would be “Indianised, nationalised and spiritualised.”1 Four years later, it started releasing textbooks—forerunners to those recently issued in Rajasthan—that glorified the Vedic era and vilified Muslim rulers.

Since last year, students at the Saifee School have been using new textbooks published by the Rajasthan government, which is run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that dominates India’s parliament and state legislatures. The new textbooks promote the BJP’s political program and ideology. They argue for the veracity of Vedic myths, glorify ancient and medieval Hindu rulers, recast the independence movement as a violent battle led largely by Hindu chauvinists, demand loyalty to the state, and praise the policies of the BJP prime minister, Narendra Modi. One book reduces over five centuries of rule by a diverse array of Muslim emperors to a single “Period of Struggle” and demonizes many of its leading figures.

These textbooks are part of the BJP’s ongoing campaign to change how Indian history is taught in middle and high schools. Textbooks issued last year by two other states under BJP rule, Gujarat and Maharashtra, resemble the Rajasthan books in their Hindu triumphalism and Islamophobia. So, in a subtler fashion, do updates made in May to federal textbooks.

One crucial question largely absent from Rajasthan’s books is how exactly the dominant power of India came to be Muslim. Rajasthan’s tenth-grade social science textbook observes that the twelfth-century ruler of northwest and central India, Prithviraj Chauhan, defeated Muhammad of Ghor in several battles, but passes over Ghor’s ultimate victory, saying simply that “due to certain circumstances, Muslim rule started in India by 1206 CE.”

In their discussions of the Mughal era, the Nehruvian textbooks emphasized Akbar, who empowered Hindu generals, married Hindu princesses, participated in Hindu ceremonies, abolished religious taxes, and held spiritual discussions with Hindus, Christians, Jews, and even atheists. These details are neglected in the new Rajasthan and Gujarat books, which concentrate instead on Aurangzeb (1618–1707), the emperor who reinstated religious taxes and destroyed some Hindu temples. The books overstate Aurangzeb’s prejudice—“Aurangzeb used to hate Hindus,” according to Rajasthan’s eighth-grade book—and exaggerate its influence, suggesting, as in Gujarat’s seventh-grade book, that “Aurangzeb’s narrow-minded policies were responsible for the end of the Mughal Empire.” The truth is more complicated: as Audrey Truschke, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, writes in her recent book, Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King, Aurangzeb “employed more Hindus in his administration than any prior Mughal ruler by a substantial margin” and supported Hindu religious practices in numerous ways.

Such cynicism will make history into a province of passion rather than reason. This transformation has had destructive consequences before. In 1992, Hindu mobs tore down a mosque because of dubious claims that it had been constructed centuries earlier on the site of a demolished temple. Riots followed in which roughly two thousand people, many of them Muslim, were killed. It’s not just the nature of Indian identity that depends on what Indians believe about their history. It’s also the most basic rights of over two hundred million citizens who do not identify as Hindus.

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