In March 2018, investigative reporters revealed the existence of a committee tasked by the culture minister, Mahesh Sharma, to revise India’s history. This fourteen-member committee (including archaeologists, bureaucrats, and ideologues) was commissioned by the minister to produce a “holistic study of origin and evolution of Indian culture since 12,000 years before present and its interface with other cultures of the world.”
The idea that the age of Hindu civilisation is three or four times greater than what has been established by contemporary historiography aimed to achieve two explicit goals. First, it was coupled with the persistent effort by Hindu nationalists to present their mythology as history. Mahesh Sharma himself told Reuters: “I worship Ramayana and I think it is a historical document.” And he added, in keeping with the tried-and-true method of strategic emulation, “If the Koran and Bible are considered as part of history, then what is the problem in accepting our Hindu religious texts as the history of India?” Second, uncovering evidence from ancient history aimed “to prove that today’s Hindus are directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants many thousands of years ago” and thereby give Hindu nationalists arguments to claim a sort of superiority.
While Mahesh Sharma’s task concerned his culture ministry, similar plans also affected public education. The government made its intentions clear. The former minister of state for human resource development Ram Shankar Katheria had said two years before, “There will be saffronisation of education and of the country. Whatever is good for the country will certainly happen, be it saffronisation or sanghwaad (propagation of the RSS ideology).”
Unlike the Vajpayee government, which tailored the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) to suit its wishes and published guidelines for writing new textbooks, the Modi government has preferred to proceed with stealth and allow states to make changes to textbooks, even postponing the idea of publicising the New Educational Policy promised by Modi, not because it had given up on the idea but because it valued undercover efficiency over open public debate.
The textbooks put out by the NCERT, which can be used in schools affiliated with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), have been extensively rewritten. According to The Indian Express, repeated interventions from the minister of human resource development (Prakash Javadekar, another RSS member) resulted in 1,334 changes in 182 textbooks originally put out by the NCERT, 68 without following the procedures that should have involved the NCERT and its experts.
These changes once again enhanced ancient Indian history (in terms of medicine, astronomy, yoga, etc) and major Hindu figures from the past (Maharana Pratap, Shivaji, Aurobindo, Vivekananda, etc.) at the expense of “the Muslim era.” Such alterations were not only made to history text- books. The class 10 science textbook included two hymns of the Arthavaveda, and for class 8, it cited “what Indian mythology says about the constellation Ursa Major.” Many textbooks also showcased key Modi government policies, starting with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Protect Girls, Educate Girls).
The scale at which Hindu nationalists are rewriting history can be most clearly gauged on the state government level, where they have been extremely active on that front in BJP-ruled states. As primary and secondary education come under the responsibility of the states, such an approach made sense, especially since the nationwide influence of its ideologues could be felt at this level as well.
Batra was thus tasked with writing several textbooks used in Gujarat and in Haryana. In Haryana, he was appointed to head the committee in charge of renovating the education system as soon as the BJP won in 2014. He immediately brought in the moral education textbooks he had written for the schools in Gujarat. Six of them were introduced in autumn of 2015 for classes 7 to 12 (ages thirteen to eighteen).
They all begin with praise to the goddess Saraswati, but Batra argued that it was not a form of Hinduisation: “Saraswati is not a religious figure. Each part of the goddess is a symbol of qualities that every student should emulate. . . . Which right-thinking Muslim student will not want to have these qualities?” The textbooks also include a poem by Batra: “I have a dream, of building a school on the foundations of Hindutva and patriotism.”
The state most spotlighted in the media, however, was Rajasthan, where considerable changes to history textbooks were made: in the class 10 social science textbook, the Rajput king was thus presented as victorious in the battle of Haldighati against Emperor Akbar (contrary to researchers’ conclusions). The new social science textbook purely and simply failed to mention Jawaharlal Nehru and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, contrary to the textbook used when the Congress was in government. The education minister, Vasudev Devnani, explained these changes by stating his desire to teach children about Raj- asthani heroes, to make them proud of Indian culture and create patriots as much as citizens.
Other states also reoriented their telling of regional and national history. In Maharashtra, in the rewriting of history textbooks, a drastic cut was made in the book for class 7: the chapter on the Mughal Empire under Akbar was cut down to three lines. Uttar Pradesh simply deleted the Mughal Empire from some of its history textbooks, while the University of Delhi drastically reduced the study of this period in its history curriculum.
In the syllabus of Nagpur University, a chapter that discussed the roles of the RSS, the Hindu Mahasabha, and the Muslim League in the making of communalism has been replaced by another one titled “Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Role in Nation Building.”
Alongside official examinations in Uttar Pradesh, the Sangh Parivar organised a test of general culture open to all schools in the state. According to the brochure designed to help students prepare for this test, which Amit Shah released in Lucknow in August 2017, India was a Hindu Rashtra, and Swami Vivekananda had defended Hindutva in Chicago in 1893.82
In Karnataka, after cancelling Tipu Sultan Jayanti, the festival that the state used to organise to celebrate the birth of this eighteenth-century Muslim ruler, the BJP government also dropped the chapter dealing with this historical figure from the class 7 textbook in 2019. This decision was made in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic that had led the government of India to ask all states to reduce syllabi for students in classes 1 through 10 by 30 percent, in light of the learning challenges brought about by the lockdown.
The decision of the Karnataka government, in fact, fit in with a larger picture. Under cover of the pandemic, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), India’s largest education board, decided that all over India “government-run schools no longer have to teach chapters on democratic rights, secularism, federalism, and citizenship, among other topics.”
To foster assimilation of knowledge that amounted to propaganda, final exams have increasingly focused on the heroic deeds of Hindu icons and reforms initiated by the Modi government, even on the person of the prime minister. The economics exam at Lucknow University for the bachelor of commerce (BCom) asked students to evaluate schemes launched by Modi, such as Digital India (to develop digitisation throughout the country) and Startup India, or to describe job- creation schemes.
The civil service exam went even further. In Madhya Pradesh, candidates to join the state administration were thus asked in 2016: “The Swachh Bharat campaign led by the honourable Prime Minister has a great impact on the society because 1) People understood the importance of cleanliness, and 2) People across the country like the campaign.” The trap was obviously only discernible to Modi supporters: both answers were correct!
The nationalist tone of textbook rewriting deliberately extols ancient Indian knowledge systems over contemporary science. For instance, the minister of state for human resource development responsible for higher education, Satya Pal Singh, denied the validity of the theory of evolution and in one of his speeches claimed that it was an Indian who invented the airplane.
The deputy chief minister of Uttar Pradesh maintained that the test-tube baby procedure had existed in ancient India because Ram’s wife, Sita, was born in an earthen pot, while the chief minister of Tripura, Biplab Kumar Deb, explained that the technologies of satellites and the internet existed in ancient India. In the same vein, the education minister of Rajasthan claimed that the law of gravity had been discovered in India in the seventh century. And along the same lines, another BJP minister – health, education, and finance minister in Assam – claimed that cancer patients were paying for their “sins.”
The Uttarakhand BJP president declared similarly that pregnant women could avoid caesarean deliveries if they drank water from a river in the state. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself claimed that India invented reproductive genetics and plastic surgery. In October 2014, he told a gathering of doctors and other professionals at a hospital in Mumbai: “We all read about Karna in the Mahabharata. If we think a little more, we realise that the Mahabharata says Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother’s womb. . . . We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.”
Remarks such as these were met each time with protestation from “rationalists,” a category of intellectuals often affiliated with the communist Left. Three of them, known for their criticism of Hindu nationalist sectarianism and obscurantism, were murdered between 2013 and 2015: Narendra Dabholkar, the founder of the Maharashtra Blind Faith Eradication Committee; Govind Pansare, a long-standing member of the Indian Communist Party; and MM Kalburgi, former vice-chancellor of Kannada University in Hampi96. For obscurantists (whether they belong to a religious sect or an ethnonationalist movement), rationalists are key targets because they are viewed as blasphemers and pose a threat to their belief system by exposing the myths in which they believe.
Excerpted with permission from Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy, Christophe Jaffrelot, Context.