Indian school textbook writers recently trimmed the contents of the curriculum to exclude the Babri mosque demolition and riots in its wake.

In doing so, India has joined the ranks of countries with dubious human rights records. This includes the “flawed” regimes of Serbia, which has banned teaching about the Srebrenica genocide of 1995 simply because the Serbs refuse to accept that they committed mass killings.

The Bharatiya Janata Party and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, described the textbook modifications “reforms” in school education (as Hitler and the Nazis did in their time). In fact, two decades ago, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s affinity for the Nazis had found its way into school textbooks of Gujarat, which glorified Hitler as a nationalist. The text was later revised mildly to include a fleeting reference to the Holocaust.

In a press interview, Dinesh Prasad Saklani, the director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training that prepared the current textbook explained why the 16th-century Babri Masjid, which was demolished by Hindutva mobs in 1992, had been described only as a “three-domed structure”. He claimed that teaching about riots “can create violent and depressed citizens”.

Why do children need to be cognisant of “negative” history?

Modernisation theory, which is concerned with the evolution of societies, predicts increased secularisation. It notes that education increases tolerance, even of groups who are perceived as a threat. Counterintuitively though, when curricula are biased, school education does the opposite. It strengthens ethnic divisions and antagonisms, increasing the risk of ethnic riots.

For instance, history and civics courses in Rwanda’s school textbooks before the genocide of the Tutsis in 1994 were manipulated to encourage a sense of collective victimhood among the Hutu community and an ideology that painted the Tutsis as inferior. Teachers contributed in radicalising ethnic identities.

Biased curriculum

Sociologist Matthew Lange, in his book Educations in Ethnic Violence traces this counterintuitive effect of education to a mix of factors. Poorer countries facing rapid educational expansion and governed by ineffective political institutions are very likely to formally discriminate against certain ethnic minorities. These are places where political regimes do not respect basic rights of citizens. Biased curriculum is a means to that end.

In my research project about the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat of 2002, I found that places with high levels of literacy did not have lower levels of anti-Muslim violence; in fact, literacy, quite possibly, increased the attacks. Literacy, of course, indicates only a bare minimum of education. But my findings reiterated the evidence on the effect of ethnocentric schooling on secular attitudes.

An ethnically biased education system combined with a rapid expansion of higher education without equivalent jobs can lead to disastrous consequences. As Lange argues, the educated get socialised into holding negative views about ethnic minorities; their aspirations are raised and, if not met, can provoke anger; and, with greater resources at hand, the educated can be easily ethnically mobilised.

Lange draws an interesting comparison of Kerala with Assam – both states with high levels of unemployment among the educated, differing only in their history of ethnic conflict. His analysis attributes Kerala’s relative peacefulness to a well-developed primary school system and a less ethnicised political system. Class politics in Kerala is stronger than religion. Lange published the book in 2012, but his findings resonate with Kerala minister MB Rajesh’s recent attack on the BJP’s decision to drop riot references from school textbooks.

Race-sensitive America can be as peevish as India is about including riots in school curriculum. Yet, even when not part of the formal curriculum, race riots tend to find a spot in informal discussions in the US to have students learn “what happens when a community breaks down or has no hope and no sense of justice”. Rwanda, too, in the aftermath of the genocide eventually decided to include genocidal studies in primary and secondary schools “to lead a nation cognisant of its past”, Unesco noted.

The NCERT’s decision is omission with intent. The anti-Sikh killings in Delhi in 1984 has stayed put in school textbooks because the Congress was responsible for it even as all BJP-orchestrated violence is booted out on ridiculous grounds.

The aim of the Nazis was to de-intellectualise education in a way that children could no longer think critically. The BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh are steadily going the same way.

Raheel Dhattiwala is an independent sociologist and honorary fellow of the South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg. She is the author of Keeping the Peace: Spatial Differences in Hindu-Muslim Violence in Gujarat in 2002 (Cambridge University Press, 2019).