Column: Textbooks belong to nations -not politicians. photo shows schoolchildren in Deolali Nasik Maharashtra IndiaStudents at a school in Deolali Nasik Maharashtra, India. [photo:: Dinodia Photos / Alamy]

The end of the nation state has often been heralded. But such obituaries have been hugely premature, as Mark Twain would have said. In fact, we face a global rise in nationalist sentiment, fuelled by migration fears, economic declines, pandemic fears, religious fervours and new bully superpowers.

Discussing such issues with a group of young visiting Indian students recently, our focus switched to numerous changes they had noticed in their school textbooks – especially those relating to history and geography.

“There is so much more in our history books about Hindu Gods. I was really surprised,” one said. “I asked my teacher how it could be true that the Gods did so much for our country, and I was told to sit down and carry on reading,” said another.

So it went on for the next 20 minutes before we had to call time. They reported Mughal history has been curtailed to shorter sections even though they ruled India for 400 years; Hindu claims of scientific discovery enhanced, and Charles Darwin’s ‘theory of evolution’ has been removed; Gandhi is no longer to be seen as someone who sought Hindu-Muslim unity; while Maulana Azad, India‘s first Education Minister, a Muslim, seems to have been expunged. 1800 academics protested in a letter against the removal of Darwin from the textbook.

The students also laughed at the now classic story of how it has been claimed that a raised ocean shelf between the tip of India and the nearby island Sri Lanka was the legacy of the imagined ‘bridge’ created by the God, Hanuman, and his army of monkeys to rescue the kidnapped Sita, wife of Ram.

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This discussion of a so-called ‘rationalisation of textbooks’ was given poignancy coming in the run-up to the orchestrated high-profile opening of the controversial Ram Mandir temple at Ayodhya, in north India. This is the alleged birthplace of the ‘mythical’ Hindu God and site of a long dispute between a Muslim mosque and a Hindu temple.

The opening is a global Hindu event. The spotlight though remains literally on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, projected on big screens all around and about. He is of course preparing to launch a spring general election campaign.

Textbooks are powerful. They set norms for young minds. Such norms are not easy to shift even  as laws, communities and civil codes, change. For decades, UK schools used Our Island Story by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall, issued in 1905, as a key textbook recounting Britain’s global ‘civilizing mission’, from cannibals to Christians and Conservative governments regularly tried to reshape history textbooks.

Most Commonwealth members can be said to be still in their nation-building stages, forging their identities after Empire, after independence, and nowadays, in so many cases, and after the demise of influential and cohesive inheritor elites leading freedom movements.

Times change, and the 21st century, alone has seen fresh its own ‘winds of change’ on individual rights and belonging. Thus #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Decolonisation, the rising South, Fourth Wave Feminism, indigenous First Nation rights, trans rights, and more – all have been blowing.

So it is that politicians and communities in each Commonwealth country have had to engage in their own ‘re-imagining of their communities’ in the words of the brilliant political historian, Benedict Anderson. He warned though that this was too often done to suit their own particular ends.

In Canada, select schools offer indigenous language courses with community members. In British Columbia, the First Nations steering committee is striving to make Indigenous history classes mandatory, while universities such as Winnipeg, have made it mandatory to take at least one indigenous course to complete an undergraduate degree.

New Zealand schools and kura are engaged in revamping a curriculum long characterised as insufficient and Eurocentric. From 2023, Te Takanga o Te Wā and Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories were due to be part of all schools’ marau ā-kura and local curriculum.

In Kenya, curriculum reform focuses on championing Afro-centrism as key, a theme shared across the continent. The aim has been to break ‘the alienation caused by the Euro-centric education’ and ‘the focus on a single European language’. Thus, to quote one leading education writer from the Cameroon, Achille Mbembe, a ‘decolonized university in Africa should put African languages at the centre of its teaching and learning project’.

Unsurprisingly, some of the keenest curriculum debates around de-colonisation are to be found in South Africa, where so-called Critical Race Theory is widely followed. The focus of much radical thinking, revitalised through the Rhodes-Must-Fall movements in 2015-16, is on re-training teachers. This draws inspiration from the words of Steve Biko, that decolonisation ‘must begin with the teachers’ mind’.

Across the Caribbean, a lack of cultural pride has been blamed on a negative curriculum.

In St Kitts, for example, textbook reforms are seen as way of ‘fostering cultural empowerment and positive affective development in learners’.

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In Australia, the focus has been on deepening school understanding of First Nation history and culture, contrasting the impact of the British settlers and their role in ‘building Australian heritage and diversity. Yet, in the recent referendum, indigenous leaders helped defeat a proposition to include indigenous voices in the Constitution.

Such trends can ebb and flow. But across the Commonwealth, many examples can be found of textbook reforms reflecting a generally inclusive, multi-cultural agenda. Not so in India recently.  The stories and evidence emerging from my Indian students suggest a ‘re-imagining’ that is particularist.

Textbooks in India are under the control of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) which had, by and large, earned itself a solid independent professional reputation – until the arrival of the Bharatiya Janata Party governments.

The last year or two has seen the most comprehensive set of textbook revisions under the guise of ‘reducing learning pressures’ following Covid. The NCERT, like many Indian institutions, is being put under huge pressures by the Modi BJP Government, as part of its so-called Hindutva Project, to propel a more majoritarian, positive, Hindu, outlook.

Even the 1992 Godhra Riots in Gujarat, which saw 100s of Muslims killed apparently by Hindu mobs, implicating Mr Modi personally for inaction, have been expunged from Class 12 sociology textbooks.

Anderson warned how myth-making and ‘fake news’ can be misused in the re-imagining of nation communities. It is hard not to see these Indian text revisions as re-writing history as particularist, encouraging levels of religious superiority, even communalist (sectarian) inspired violence – which is how the Ayodha temple issue burst into prominence in 1992.

With Narendra Modi very likely heading for a third term as Prime Minister, the NCERT needs to re-assert its autonomy. Textbooks belong to whole nations – not to politicians, however popular, nor to ethnic groups, however majoritarian.

Paul Flather is a member of the Round Table editorial board. Views expressed in articles do not reflect the position of the editorial board.

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