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This week, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) reduced the syllabus for classes IX-XII by up to 30%, given the time lost with the Covid-19 lockdown. With chapters on secularism, citizenship, nationalism, federalism, demonetization, goods and services tax and India’s foreign relations with neighbouring countries getting the axe, the move is contentious.

“Textbooks are a tennis ball bounced from one side to the other by governments, and the move by the government was clearly designed to shield students from controversial aspects of India's past, which are still prevalent today," says says Pradyumna Jairam, a PhD Candidate at Kings College London, who is studying the politics of school history textbooks in India.

One of the chapters that has been removed, for instance, is "Understanding Partition". As a former teacher of history, Jairam thinks this is significant, since prior to the 2005 NCERT edition, the students were never given a nuanced understanding of Partition.

“In the present textbook, Partition was humanized, it brought in the everyday struggles and fears of ordinary people—Hindu, Muslim, Sikh—and also introduced the horrific nature of violence against women, in particular," adds Jairam. “A chapter like this, virus or no virus, needs to be mandatory reading for students, for it showcases the violent nature of human beings, where in any cycle of violence, women bear the brunt of societal violence," he adds.

Ideological ping pong

Historically in India, textbooks have always been a reflection of the ideological leanings of governments in power. This is particularly true for social science subjects, such as political science and history. The right-wing maintains that the history curricula had long been hijacked by the left, and the pushing of party agendas through gate-keeping of ideas has since been an allegation against the NDA from the other side of the political spectrum.

In the coalition government between 1999-2004, for example, the human resource development ministry was occupied by M.M. Joshi and Uma Bharati, both members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. “A portfolio like defence was given to the allies, but education was kept by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), so much so that Joshi termed historians who disagreed with his line of history as 'intellectual terrorists' posing a bigger threat than cross-border terrorism from Pakistan," says Jairam.

On the other hand, after the subsequent regime changes, JS Rajput, former director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) had written in a blog for News18 India in 2009: “Practically everything initiated in the times of the NDA government was banished from the scene unceremoniously by the UPA government, purely as a political vendetta. Even a semblance of an academic audit worth the name was not conducted."

Eventually, deletions from textbooks harm students, who are left without holistic context for both internal and external conflict within Indian society. Until 2019, for instance, the CBSE social science textbook for class IX had a chapter titled “Clothing : A Social History". The chapter dealt with the history and uprising of the Nadar community, whose members were not allowed to cover their upper bodies in front of the upper-caste Nairs. This practice changed as a result of missionary activity—the converts began to wear blouses.

Essentially, then, this chapter dealt with an assertion of rights and a challenge to upper-caste supremacy. It was removed when the (then) Union human resource development minister Prakash Javadekar launched the "Curriculum Rationalization Exercise" in the second textbook revision for NCERT as the BJP-led government retained power in 2019. “As someone who taught this chapter to students, (I can say that) its removal actually goes against the interests of the students, as (the chapter) introduces them to conflicts within Hindu society, and tries to look at societal contradictions as being the fault of indigenous factors such as caste, and not colonialism," says Jairam.

So what goes into the making of these curricular changes? The question of how textbooks have evolved in the procedural sense has gained importance over time. Maitrayee Chaudhuri, professor of sociology at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), who was part of the textbook development committee of the NCERT from 2005 for sociology textbooks, sheds some light.

In her experience with the institution, Chaudhuri maintains that the process of putting together textbooks was a curious mix of bureaucracy and "ad-hocism". A lot of the “intellectual work" was done by teachers or researchers who were not employed by the NCERT, but their role thereafter was limited. “Once textbooks were done, if a question was raised in Parliament, the immediate response would be a quick deletion, rather than engagement."

Thinking in silos

In the face of all the backlash, the CBSE released an official notice, stating that its July 7 notice on the revised syllabus has been "interpreted differently" and that the deleted chapters will be covered in the alternative academic calendar issued by the NCERT.

Some educationists, however, see these changes differently—hoping to use these “much needed" deletions as an opportunity to approach learning in a more lateral way.

Ameeta M Wattal, principal of Springdales School, Pusa Road, Delhi, for instance, believes that a topic need not necessarily exist in a textbook for it to be taught to students. “We have to stop thinking in silos—this is a topic and these are the questions and this is the paragraph, you underline it and vomit it out in the exam. This is not the way learning happens for a reflective and research-based syllabus," she says.

Wattal adds: “I am horrified when I have senior people lamenting that 'secularism' has been deleted. Just because the topic isn’t there it doesn’t mean you cannot teach it through the chapter on liberty, it does not mean you cannot teach it through a chapter on governance or through a chapter on constitutional rights," she adds. The onus then lies on the teacher, who has to take responsibility and ensure that students get a “wholesome picture of the world".

In effect, curricula are hardly ever “neutral". Consistently, uncomfortable realities are erased and differences also exist within Centre- and State-prescribed pedagogies. The government could have easily removed a chapter on the French or Russian Revolutions, for instance, which were written in a very haphazard manner—as Jairam points out—but it made a choice. Governments have customarily made such choices over the years.

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