Opinion

What school textbook deletions tell us about the ruling establishment’s idea of ​​democracy and its understanding of social sciences

Chopping off sections from a textbook is much easier than writing one. Yet, the deletions made to social science textbooks by the NCERT — revealed by an Indian Express investigation — need to be taken seriously as an act of rewriting. This revision touches on vital points about the state-citizen relationship, the government’s vision of democracy, and how it imagines an ideal Indian society.

After eight years in power, the BJP has not been able to evolve a concrete statement that would form the basis for new school textbooks as per its ideological inclinations. But it entertains disdain for academic efforts and manifests cynical courage in “editing” school textbooks. As reported by this newspaper, social science textbooks have undergone three rounds of editing since 2017. Whatever the official reasons proffered for this, the fact remains that these deletions speak of a certain kind of approach to textbooks, pedagogy, and politics.

Of course, some deletions are purely ad hoc on the face of it and pertain to political facts unpalatable to the present regime. The violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 falls into this category. But then, curiously, the discussion on Emergency has also been taken out of the books. In purely tactical terms, this could be a calculated deletion to keep the Congress quiet by an unstated quid pro quo: We delete what we don’t want but we also delete what you may not want. It will be interesting to see how the Congress responds to this and whether, after more than four decades, it has the courage to make course corrections on this issue and admit its mistake. In any case, the deletions are not merely about what the government and ruling party don’t like to be mentioned. They are more about formulating social science textbooks and, in fact, the idea of ​​social sciences itself.

In this sense, the deletions also indicate the deep suspicion of social sciences among the powerholders and their attempt to re-formulate these disciplines, not just to change their textbooks. How to imagine the social sciences and introduce contemporary social and political processes to students of social sciences is a challenging question. Social scientists are facilitators of critical thinking among students and readers. Rulers uncomfortable with critical thinking seek to restructure the social sciences. The current bout of deletions needs to be understood from this perspective. The idea seems to be that by not mentioning some inconvenient facts, the regime can not only run away from reality but more importantly, also ensure that students do not develop the critical faculty to look at society and politics. This could be the larger purpose behind deleting the sections on the Gujarat violence and Emergency. The same logic applies to two other major deletions: The mention of caste injustice as part of India’s social reality and the discussion of protest movements as a vital part of India’s democracy.

Together, these deletions suggest that by undoing what is already there in the textbooks, the government is trying to rewrite the ideas of society and politics and re-envisage the purpose of social sciences. Often neglected in schools, social science subjects often become an arena of deep ideological battles for two reasons. One, their subject matter. The other, as mentioned above, pertains to their potential to develop a questioning attitude. Both these have a robust subversive possibility that only a healthy democracy can tolerate. Governments that harbor non-democratic tendencies are ill at ease with social science textbooks. To overcome this complication and to reconcile with the formal need to include social sciences in school curricula, three strategies are adopted.

The first strategy is heavy governmental control over curricula and textbooks and emphasis on avoidance. The bouts of deletions represent this strategy. In India, all governments have resorted to it. By deleting sentences and chapters, the government seeks to avoid students from being introduced to certain processes. If in political science this pertains to Gujarat violence, in history textbooks, it pertains to Mughal rulers. The avoidance is on display in deleting the discussion on Gujarat violence. Both the Emergency and Gujarat violence mark the failure of multiple institutions. Are these not important moments that students studying Indian politics should be introduced to? The answer for the present regime seems to be in the negative.

Parenthetically, the deletion of the sections on Gujarat violence marks an admission that there is something about that episode in 2002 that needs to be hidden from the public domain.

The other strategy is to present an idealized picture of society and politics by sanitising textbooks. This is being done on the caste question.

Instead of allowing students to comprehend caste as a system of injustice, the deletions seek to present an ideal and imagined Indian/Hindu society in which caste is only a marginal or slight distortion. To achieve this, textbooks are made to adopt a formalist approach wherein a mechanical mention is made of institutional designs. While this would make the subject matter uninteresting, it would also mean that students will not be introduced to the actual functioning of institutions.

The third strategy is probably the most crucial one: It involves a restatement of the moral bases of socio-political processes. The deletion of the chapters on the Emergency and protest movements needs to be seen in this context. The short-term politics of the BJP requires shaming the Congress for imposing the Emergency. But its long-term politics upholds two ideas. One is the idea of ​​a strong state that seeks to tame the citizen’s energy and the other is the idea of ​​formal and minimum democracy as substantive democracy. Emergency represents the rulers’ determination to tame the citizens and that is precisely what the present regime has been doing for the past eight years. Therefore, dropping the chapter on the Emergency is not merely a short-term political move, but a decision informed by the broader perspective that citizens need to be regulated heavily because the nation-state represents all wisdom. The deletion of the section fits well with the goal of reframing the relations between authority and citizens.

Similarly, in the case of the chapter on protest movements, the purpose is to reformulate the idea of ​​democracy. The textbook is predicated on the idea that theoretically, protests represent citizen initiative and in practice, they curtail the governmental authority. In place of this understanding, the government seeks to propagate the idea of ​​minimalist and formal democracy that’s based largely on the regular conducting of elections. Protests are seen as a challenge to democracy rather than as a phenomenon enriching it.

Democracy involves not merely competition, but also struggles and popular protests. In this sense, democracy is a messy affair. But underneath that mess, there is also an innate capacity to challenge all powers. This is exactly what the “rationalised” textbooks seek to avoid desperately.

The writer, based in Pune, taught political science and was one of the two chief advisors for NCERT political science textbooks

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