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NCERT Syllabus Change: Whose history is it anyway – a common refrain from historians

NCERT Syllabus Change: Recently, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) of India decided to remove the history of the Mughal Empire from the school textbooks. The move has ignited debate across academic and political circuits. Academicians maintain the move will have a far-reaching impact as future generations will get a distorted view of modern history.

Senior Journalist, Pranav Chaudhary interviewed academicians and authors, Prof. Aditya Mukherjee and Dr Mridula Mukherjee on the above issue. 

Excerpts from the interview: 

Q: How do you agree, or disagree, with the NCERT director’s argument in defence of the cuts as a rationalisation process prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the need to lighten the burden on students?

A: I wish it was true, but it’s not. In fact, it has messed up the syllabus by “revising” the NCERT textbook. It has all got to do with politics. In fact, RSS and Jan Sangh had first jointly launched their attack on history books way back in 1977 under the leadership of the Morarji Desai-led Janata Party government demanding a total ban on the textbooks authored by renowned historians like RS Sharma, Satish Chandra, Bipan Chandra and Arjun Dev. And they had succeeded in banning their books. There was a nationwide protest by a cross-section of people including those supported by all major newspapers. As a counter to their books, the then education chief of RSS Dinanath Batra had written history books which were published by Vidya Mandir.

Finally, again in April last year, the NDA government brought the NCERT Syllabus Change.

BJP leaders have defended the changes in the NCERT syllabus. One of the BJP leaders, Kapil Mishra, in his tweet on April 3, said Mughal rulers are “not in the history books, they are in the dustbin”.

Q: How can you understand modern India without reading about the Mughals?

A: You can’t. We won’t understand anything in modern India. As a matter of fact, India’s GDP was eight times more than that of the UK when the British came to India. During this Mughal period, we had Kabir, Tulsidas, Guru Nanak, etc. India was culturally rich in art, architecture, dance, music and languages.

Q: The current textbook has a mention of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi but leaves out a key contest about the Hindu right’s influence on the killer, why? Please elaborate.

A: Globally, whenever a particular community is demonised over a long period of time when they are erased from history, these are signs of impending genocide. It does not happen overnight. It is preceded by this kind of isolation of a community. All they hear from them is how they are terrorists. After striking out Mughal rulers from books, a series of similar kinds of moves aimed at obscuring Muslim influence in India including the changing of city names/roads to erase Muslim origins, surcharged nationalistic Bollywood films and politicians fusing Hindu mythology with history are happening. We have a classic example of the Turkish Empire which is similar in nature.

Q: Is it a strategy to win the upcoming general election in 2024 by consolidating Hindu votes?

A: It is not directly related to it, but definitely a strategy to create an atmosphere against a particular community which is a dangerous trend for any society.

Q: What impact would the implementation of this new syllabus make on the new generation of students in the coming years?

A: I’m afraid about the mindset of our new generations. They might turn into illiterate and fanatic morons. As a result, most of the talented students may migrate abroad for further studies. How can one imagine that topics like the Industrial Revolution have been deleted from the syllabus? Without studying the Industrial Revolution no one can understand the process of industrialisation in the West.

Q: The present UP government has already announced that it would be subscribing to these textbooks for students in the current session. In fact, some non-BJP-ruled states like Bihar, Rajasthan and Jharkhand have introduced the CBSE syllabus in the state board courses. How can it be changed now?

A: It can be possible at the state level through SCERT. Since education comes under the concurrent list, it can be done at the state level. Some of the non-BJP-ruled states have decided to oppose the new syllabus of NCERT textbooks.

Q: You have published a detailed booklet documenting numerous errors in those textbooks from the early 2000s. But these books are hardly available in the Hindi belt. What would be your strategy to popularise these booklets to counter “distorted history” among the masses as well as students?

A: We brought you a chapter from the book “RSS School Textbooks and the Murder of Mahatma Gandhi” by me, Mridula and Sucheta Mahajan with a foreword by Bipan Chandra. It explores how the RSS, in the early nineties, communicated ideology through “tens of thousands of its Saraswati Mandira and Vidya Bhartiprimary and secondary schools via fabrication of historical facts. To elaborate, the authors refer to a 2003 study titled “History in New NCERT Textbooks: A Report and an Index of Errors” which reveals an uncanny similarity between the distortions in these NCERT books and those produced by the RSS Shishir Vihars and Vidya Bharati.

Q: How will a professional group of historians under the banner of the Indian History Congress (IHC) protest these changes in the NCERT textbook at the national level?

A: Yes. Of course, we all are discussing it with all seriousness. Since I am the president-elect of IHC for the next session, we will soon come out with a joint statement protesting against the changes in the existing syllabus of NCERT textbooks. The IHC will also take up this issue at its forum.

NCERT Syllabus Change interviewees:

Prof. Aditya Mukherjee taught contemporary Indian history for more than 40 years as a professor of history at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He was dean, of the School of Social Sciences, JNU and director of Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Study, JNU, and president-elect of the Indian History Congress 2022-23. He has been visiting professor and fellow at Duke University, USA, La Sapienza the University of Rome, the Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Sau Paulo Brazil, the University of Tokyo Japan Institute Of Advanced Study at Lancaster UK and Nantes in France.

He has co-authored with Dr Mridula Mukherjee three bestselling books – India’s Struggle for Freedom, India Since Independence as well as RSS, School Texts and the Murder of Mahatma Gandhi: The Hindu Communal Project. These books have been translated into several languages, some of which have sold more than half a million copies. He has published more than 50 articles in reputed journals and edited volumes.

Dr Mridula Mukherjee taught history at the Centre For Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi for over four decades. She was director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library New Delhi from 2006 to 2011 and dean, of the School of Social Sciences, JNU from 2012 to 14. She is co-editor of the Sage Series in Modern Indian History in which 18 manuscripts have already been published. She authored several books on nationalism, the freedom movement and peasants in India’s nonviolent revolution.

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