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The past is not another country. Battles over history are all around us—in cinema and popular culture, in election speeches and disputes over mosques. They have also found a way to the classroom, though not for the first time. The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has proposed sweeping changes to social science textbooks for Classes VI to IX. While the council has termed it an exercise to lessen the syllabus burden on students, given covid disruptions, it’s easy to see why that claim invites scepticism. Deletions include sections on the Delhi Sultanate and achievements of the Mughals, including Akbar, references to the 1975-77 Emergency and 2002 riots in Gujarat, chapters on social movements and the value of protests in a democracy. Passages that seek to warn students about the risks of majoritarianism, or give them a historical grasp of caste discrimination, have also been removed. Sure, these changes don’t boggle the mind—like, say, a Rajasthan textbook that had Maharana Pratap as victor at the Battle of Haldighati. But, taken together, they do suggest an anxiety to correct what rightists have long seen as leftist over-glorification of Muslim rulers and neglect of a Hindu past; and even to scrub off stains of caste and gender inequity. The erasures also push a view of the republic as ‘democracy lite’, where the state’s authority must be shielded from the noise of agitations and activists. It’s not the NCERT alone. Many state syllabi have had similar distortions. Karnataka, for instance, is in the midst of a political storm over questionable revisions of social science and Kannada textbooks.

In classrooms across India, history is often reduced to the drudgery of dates and facts, of kings and wars. Outside, in the larger polarized info-sphere, tussles are crude versions of ‘my hero versus yours’ contests, where the past is invoked to rally community pride or identify an enemy. All of this tends to go on with a worrying disregard for the tools of history and social sciences, and even of historians, whose insistence on nuance and caveats gets dismissed as a conspiracy against the “real truth". But history is not about good guys or bad, or a quest for a singular story of heroism. Rather, it is a deeper, critical debate on what’s likely to have happened, based on an objective assessment of complex and often paradoxical facts, and what we can learn from it. There are many blind spots in history writing. Feminist and subaltern historians, for instance, have challenged even the consensus of academia in creative ways.

Contests over our past are unlikely to go away, or become less vexed. But future generations can do a better job of coming to terms with it if they are trained to use history and social sciences as tools of critical thinking. To do so, we don’t only need good textbooks. Just as the deluge of data on the internet demands that schools steer students away from downloads and rote-learning to actual understanding and analysis, history teachers must arm their pupils with tools of scepticism. They should help students resist simplifications, whether it is of ruthless invaders or a syncretic past of harmony, so that they can engage with paradoxes of the past without shutting their minds to uncomfortable facts. They cannot do this if the NCERT takes away the resources that aid such a task. The council must remember that there are no winners in wars of history fought on a narrow, sectarian agenda. At best, it condemns us to repeat the tragic errors of olden days.

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