A chapter from the Class 12th NCERT textbook titled “Kings and Chronicles; the Mughal Courts” has been removed. This occurrence, amidst other changes including purging details of Gandhi’s assassination as well as the study of human evolution has caused justifiable worry amidst teachers and students.
Re-altering “Our Pasts”
The worry emanates from the fact that “our Pasts” (also the title of the History NCERT textbooks) are being reduced into one homogenous past. This narrative is a “regressive arcadia” of ancient Hindu glory, punctuated by a period of invasion and destruction inflicted by alien Muslim rulers, followed by the Colonial State and then the “grand resurgence” that occurs post 2014. This process of narrative-making claims certain figures as its own, concocts fact out of myth, and disregards significant historical actors: some by active villainisation, others by simple removal. The conflation of the Muslim in the present with genealogies of “despotism” and “violence against the Hindus” that is inscribed on the Mughals amidst other Islamicate rulers reproduces colonial discourse and encompasses what Tanika Sarkar calls “a universe of myth and magical realism calling itself history.”
The creation of a homogenous national subject
Majoritarian States create a homogenous national subject in opposition to the idea of the “other” to sustain themselves. The construction of the “other” in the Indian context has seen the erasure of Muslim markers from the public sphere, as well as attempts of projecting Muslims as the enemy. The system of ‘otherisation’ continues with this move representing Muslim Culture as outside the ambit of what is deemed relevant to the understanding of South Asian history.
But history cannot be reduced to a timeless construction of the Hindu and the Muslim identity, always in conflict with each other, as communal historiography does. Such a lens denies the fact that identities are not fixed in stone but are in constant negotiation. Historians have long demonstrated that identities were not perceived in such binarized terms. For example, ethnic terms were used to refer to different communities in Sanskrit texts from the Early Medieval period rather than the term “Muslim.” In fact, communal historiography groups together different identities, which were often in conflict with each other into one. This is a reductive view of the past, which regresses history to the study of dynasties without reflecting on larger socio-economic changes.
A brief history of pedagogical approaches in history textbooks
The professionalization of history textbooks began in the 1960s- with the institutionalization of the National Council of Educational Research and Training and the production of standardized textbooks by trained historians. Prior to this, non-specialists wrote textbooks which lacked veracity.
The new textbooks traced socio-economic changes over time. Historians like Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra, Satish Chandra and R.S. Sharma, fundamental to the discursive shifts in historical thought in and around South Asia, authored these textbooks. Thapar remembers the act of writing as a “national cause” of “moving away from conventions…so as to encourage the implanting of new ideas.” She reflects that these textbooks embodied a shift from James Mill’s tripartite religious periodisation to one that looked at “economic resources, forms of social organisation, the articulation of religion and art as aspects of social perceptions.” This shift triggered a considerable source of irritation for “communal historians who argue for a mono-causal religion-derived cultural uniformity.” Indeed, many attempts were undertaken to replace, and censor these textbooks especially under the NDA government in 1999.
Textbooks under NCF 2005
History writing is not static. It is a dynamic process, which involves a sensitive engagement with contemporary events, and global intellectual currents. Multiple shifts occurred in history writing since the 1960s. These included an engagement with gender, the inclusion of histories of marginalised groups, a greater consciousness of the interrelationship between humans and the environment, along with a study of how discourses shape history. Historians felt that turns in professional history writing needed to reflect in school textbooks as well.
Subsequently, the National Curriculum Framework was introduced in 2005 under the chairpersonship of Professor Hari Vasudevan. Neeladri Bhattacharya, the Chief Advisor of the textbooks explains their novelty. These he says de-centered the focus on the Nation as a whole and looked at how processes unfolded in different spaces, both in sub-regions of South Asia and globally. This allowed students a comparative approach to understanding historical processes.
The textbooks introduced students to a new kind of history: the history of everyday life. The Class 10th NCERT for example makes students ponder over how “the game of cricket got linked up with the politics of colonialism and nationalism.” Growing up one is fed ideas of how history is about rote-learning dates. The teaching of such everyday histories opened a new paradigm. The meaning of history significantly expanded for students. It opened sensitivity to see history in what was assumed to be “natural.”
The Historians’ Craft on display in the deleted chapter
The chapter dropped from the textbook, authored by Najaf Haider, is a wonderful introduction to the Mughal Empire. It doesn’t present a chronological narration of the reigns of different kings, as a conventional account would do. Steering clear of the narrative that pits Akbar versus Aurangzeb, the chapter instead looks at the processes of Empire Formation and Courtly Cultures. It considers the institutions of imperial structures and allows the student to understand various sources including paintings, chronicles and manuscripts through which history is written. It underlines the workings of the scriptorium, who produced these texts and for what reason, thus also making students understand how to locate the technologies of knowledge production. It isn’t a text that simply states conclusions, it explains how the various engagements of the historian through which a certain conclusion is reached.
The text encourages students to think critically about paintings. For example, a painting of Jahangir shooting the figure of poverty is displayed, with the painting being interpreted for students. The text states how the “motif of the lion and the lamp nestling next to each other” signifies a “realm where both the strong and the weak could exist in harmony.” It introduces the concept of allegory, with the text asking students to identify symbols in the painting and think about why justice is regarded as an important virtue in the Empire. The text essentially is not just to be internalised but is to be engaged with critically. It is to open discussion and evoke curiosity.
Wither critical historical thought
With the introduction of new NCERT textbooks next year, one would expect the logic of the current textbooks to go away. To cite one example, in 2018, a Minister termed the theory of human evolution as incorrect. In 2023, the theory of evolution was purged from middle-school textbooks. History is no longer being treated as a critical discipline; it has become subservient to propaganda.
The act of deletions have been undertaken in a completely undemocratic manner under the guise of “ rationalisation.” Reasoning that Mughal history is still being taught at the middle-school level does not suffice, as pedagogically middle-school textbooks are introductory in nature, while higher-school textbooks are supposed to engage with the subject thematically, and in substantial detail. By subverting well-established pedagogical practices, rationalisation has become a convenient tool to obfuscate the political reasons for this removal.
The realm of the “historical” is increasingly getting saturated by pseudo-history at multiple levels. The initial trend was the pervasive use of popular WhatsApp forwards, in parallel with narratives of jingoistic media to impose communal narratives of the past in an absorbable manner for mass audiences. Recently, one has seen the mass-print market flooded with hagiographies, and texts that claim to tell “alternate histories” including some that whitewash pogroms. The NCERT textbooks have long-served as reliable, historically accurate, and pedagogically well-thought-out texts, and have been integral to developing criticality in thought at the school level. With their alteration, combined with the trends outlined above, the scope for thinking critically in the classroom and beyond continues to shrink rapidly.
Moksh holds a Master’s Degree in Modern History. He has worked across various archives, and is interested in the histories of colonialism, capital and the environment.
Featured image illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty.