India’s Dangerous New Curriculum

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From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, the Mughal Empire did much to create modern-day India. It consolidated the country into a sovereign political unit, established a secular tradition in law and administration, and built monuments such as the Taj Mahal. The Mughals were originally from Uzbekistan, but over time they became a symbol of the contribution of Muslims to Indian national history. Their lasting influence is evident in some of India’s most famous dishes, such as biryani, and the settings of several of the most beloved Bollywood movies, including Mughal-e-Azam (1960), by some estimates the highest-grossing film in Indian history.

So it was odd, on a visit this spring to a school in the Indian state of Rajasthan, to hear a Muslim teacher, Sana Khan, ask her entirely Muslim eighth-grade social science class, “Was there anything positive about Mughals?” Khan was teaching at the English-medium Saifee Senior Secondary School, whose students are Dawoodi Bohras, a small Islamic sect that has been based in India since the Mughal era, when its leaders faced persecution in the Middle East. Like Jews, Parsis, and Baha’is, the Bohras are a religious minority that found shelter in India’s unusually tolerant culture.

Yet some of Khan’s students saw only barbarism in the time of their own community’s emergence in India. “In the medieval era, there were wars and all. It was sectarian,” said a bespectacled girl named Rabab Khan. Rabab and another of her classmates, Qutbuddin Cement, told me that the “glorious” period of Indian history occurred before Muslim rule. “In ancient times, India was called ‘the Golden Bird,’” said Qutbuddin. “India was a world leader.”

Since last year, students at the Saifee School have been using new textbooks published by the Rajasthan government, which is run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that dominates India’s parliament and state legislatures. The new textbooks promote the BJP’s political program and ideology. They argue for the veracity of Vedic myths, glorify ancient and medieval Hindu rulers, recast the independence movement as a violent battle led largely by Hindu chauvinists, demand loyalty to the state, and praise the policies of the BJP prime minister, Narendra Modi. One book reduces over five centuries of rule by a diverse array of Muslim emperors to a single “Period of Struggle” and demonizes many of its leading figures.

These textbooks are part of the BJP’s ongoing campaign to change how Indian history is taught in middle and high schools. Textbooks issued last year by two other states under BJP rule, Gujarat and Maharashtra, resemble the Rajasthan books in their Hindu triumphalism and Islamophobia. So, in a subtler fashion, do updates made in May to federal textbooks.

Since the BJP came to power in 2014, it has stacked institutions with Hindu nationalist ideologues, presided over an increase in Hindu extremist vigilantism, and replaced Islamic place names with the names of Hindu nationalist heroes. The textbooks’ promotion of an essentially Hindu history provides a foundation for slowly remaking India into an essentially Hindu country.

Between the 1960s and the 1990s, India’s textbooks were a stronghold of the country’s left-wing ruling class, represented by the dominant Congress Party. Distinguished scholars such as the historians Romila Thapar and Satish Chandra wrote textbooks that were strikingly erudite, analyzing, for instance, the high price of shoes during the medieval era and the manner in which Indian colors such as peacock blue altered the Persian style of early Mughal court painting.

These textbooks used Mughal emperors as mouthpieces for twentieth-century politics. To the Mughal ruler Akbar (1542–1605), one book attributed “the great dream” that “people should forget their differences about religion and think of themselves only as the people of India.” This was actually the dream of Jawaharlal Nehru, a leader of the independence movement and India’s prime minister for its first seventeen years of statehood. In his book The Discovery of India, Nehru described his homeland as “an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously.” Such a polyglot history could form the factual basis, Nehru hoped, for each of India’s ethnic and religious groups to feel they shared a claim to a common national identity.

When the BJP took over several state governments in the 1990s, it began publishing its own state-level textbooks. The party assumed effective control of the federal government for the first time in 1998 and quickly announced that education would be “Indianised, nationalised and spiritualised.”1 Four years later, it started releasing textbooks—forerunners to those recently issued in Rajasthan—that glorified the Vedic era and vilified Muslim rulers.

The change provoked an outcry. One prominent journalist warned that the new federal textbooks heralded “the destruction of secularism and pluralism.” After the BJP lost the next general election in 2004, the new ruling coalition, led by Congress, changed the way textbooks were written in order to prevent them from being ideologically slanted. Rather than commission individual authors, the government introduced Textbook Development Committees (TDCs) composed of authorities from a variety of professions and academic disciplines. The books produced under this system lack the élan of their Nehruvian predecessors, but they signify a consensus of expert opinion and deftly navigate controversial issues. The seventh-grade history book, for instance, observes that Mahmud of Ghazni (971–1030), the Islamic sultan of Afghanistan, sacked Indian temples—a point of emphasis for Hindu nationalists—but explains that this was a common military and political technique also employed by contemporaneous Hindu and Buddhist rulers.

Though such careful distinctions remain in the federal textbooks, they are now awkwardly interrupted by politicized addendums. The TDCs’ authority has evidently been usurped by the increasing bureaucratic and political power of Hindutva (Hinduness), the BJP’s official ideology. The roots of Hindutva lie in the nineteenth century, but its modern form can be largely attributed to Vinayak Savarkar, who popularized the term in his 1928 book Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu? According to Savarkar, Hindutva comes from “Hindu blood,” cultural practices and languages with a Sanskritic origin, and the belief that India is the “Holyland.”

Non-Hindu religions that originated in South Asia, such as Sikhism and Buddhism, therefore meet the requirements of Hindutva, but Christianity and Islam (whose adherents collectively account for over 15 percent of India’s population) do not. Savarkar reasoned that conflict with these other groups might be a necessary stimulus to a Hindutva consciousness: “Nothing can weld peoples into a nation and nations into a state as the pressure of a common foe. Hatred separates as well as unites.”

The fact that these textbooks are essentially political manifestos is made clear by the way they discuss the ruling party. Rajasthan’s seventh-grade book directs students to “prepare a chart of the advertisements published by the Government about its different schemes and with the help of your teacher discuss the benefits of these schemes.” Swachh Bharat (Clean India), a government initiative to improve India’s hygiene with which Modi has closely aligned himself, is mentioned in five of the updated federal textbooks, according to a series of reports in The Indian Express.

Beyond expressing approval for India’s current leader, the textbooks also make implicit suggestions about what the government ought to be concerned with—namely, strength and unity. Rajasthan’s book on modern India emphasizes India’s military excellence with a list of weapons and pictures of a missile launch and a rumbling tank. The equivalent Gujarat book silently passes over India’s loss in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, while the Rajasthan book actually implies that India won, saying that the army “proved its might by retaliating the attacks of enemies in 1962.”

India is infallible; its citizens, however, must be disciplined. Gujarat’s eighth-grade book insists that “awareness regarding co-operating with the security agencies has to be developed.” Social harmony should be pursued even at the expense of individual rights: Rajasthan’s seventh-grade book recommends, “We should refrain from negative acts like strikes.” There is a whiff of authoritarianism in these proposed limits on autonomy and dissent.

Rajasthan’s official ninth- and tenth-grade social science books appear not to be available in English, but a private company has published its own editions that follow the same syllabus as the new textbooks. These books were being used by the Saifee School, and they were the only editions I could find in the bookstores of Udaipur, the city where the school is located. The tenth-grade book is more explicit in listing the “demerits of democracy,” including that “democracy teaches a person to be selfish, cunning and illusive,” that democracies do not produce economic development, and that they are weak in times of crisis.

One Gujarat textbook points to a troubling alternative. Amid surprisingly frequent criticism of the Treaty of Versailles and an enumeration of Mussolini’s successes, the new twelfth-grade history book praises Hitler at length:

Hitler made a strong German organization with the help of [the] Nazi party and attained great honour for this. By favouring German civilians and by opposing Jews and by his new economic policies, he made Germany a prosperous country…. He transformed the lives of the people of Germany within a very short period by taking strict measures. He safe guarded [sic] the country from hardships and accomplished many things.

This is not the first Gujarat textbook to praise fascism: the last one was the ninth-grade social science book of the mid-2000s, when Modi ran the state government. The offending section was not removed until after a visit from the consul general of Israel. The episode became international news and is still frequently referred to, yet the treatment of Nazism in the new textbook seems to have gone unreported.

An illustration from the Rajasthan seventh-grade social science textbook, showing the sixteenth-century Hindu ruler Maharana Pratap fighting a Muslim warrior in the Battle of Haldighati. Though Pratap retreated from the battlefield into a nearby mountain range, the textbook claims he won and ‘display[ed] his unmatched power.’

It is not an accident or eccentricity that the Gujarat books keep exalting Hitler. A positive view of fascism enables a government eager for more power to tell its citizens about the potential of “strict measures” to “transform” society. It provides a model for Hindutva’s emphasis on “honour” as a reward for the “strong.” More importantly, it gives historical precedent to Hindutva’s wish for a homogenous citizenry. The “people of Germany” may stand in for India’s Hindus, “the Jews” for Muslims. In his 1939 book We, or Our Nationhood Defined, M.S. Golwalkar, a personal hero of Modi’s and the former leader of the BJP’s ideological parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, wrote that Germany’s “purging the country of Semitic races” manifested “national pride at its highest,” showing “how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.”2

The main project of Hindu nationalist history is justifying the claim that Hindutva groups deserve a special status as India’s “one united whole.” Its central premises are that Hindus are India’s indigenous group; that the rule of Hindutva communities was glorious; that the rule of non-Hindutva communities was disastrous; and that Hindu nationalists have been responsible for winning back India’s freedom. Regardless of whether these propositions have anything like the moral implications Hindu nationalists hope for, each of them is factually dubious.

The word “Hindu” is not indigenous to India. It comes from an Old Persian word used by Arabs and Turks to refer to the people who lived around the Indus River. The religious sense of the word “Hindu” does not seem to have existed until the second millennium AD. Even into the early nineteenth century, its meaning was vague enough that Europeans would refer to “Hindoo Muslims.” The people we now consider Hindus appear generally to have thought of themselves for millennia as belonging primarily to a caste and to a region, rather than to a religion.

The first accounts of Hinduism lie in the Vedas, a corpus of religious texts whose most ancient works are conventionally dated to the middle of the second millennium BC. That’s pretty old, but it doesn’t make Hinduism old enough—or Hindus native enough—for the purposes of Hindutva. Ruins associated with the Harappan civilization suggest that an urban society without any obvious connection to the pastoral world described by the Vedas existed in India as early as the third millennium BC. Not only do the Vedas seem far removed from India’s earliest-known civilization, but they were also probably composed by the descendants of recent migrants to India who dominated other longer-standing groups in the form of the caste system.3

All this is inconvenient for an ideology that seeks to make Indian history into Hindu history. The Rajasthan books solve this problem by making the Harappan civilization fully Vedic, renaming it the “Sindhu-Saraswati” civilization after the “Saraswati River” of the Vedas. In this way, the Vedas provide a common origin point for Hinduism, for the diverse castes within Hinduism, and for India writ large. “Vedic culture” is transformed, as the sixth-grade book says, into “the Sanatan (Perennial) culture of India.”

The early Hindu era is depicted in the Rajasthan books as an unrivaled Golden Age. The condition of women was “happy and progressive.” In contrast to the strictures of caste, “as per his needs, a person could change his profession.” Many rulers followed a “democratic and constitutional form of administration” that resembled the “present day Loksabha,” India’s lower house of parliament, since “members were elected by the public.” At the same time, the Golden Age also boasted religious purity: “nobody except chandals”—members of a traditionally untouchable caste—“ate meat or drank wine,” and rulers were “hardcore followers of Hinduism.”

Gujarat’s textbooks take a more moderate line on ancient India, but still tend toward the view that “the most glorious and prosperous age of Indian history” occurred before Muslim rule. On a visit to a tenth-grade social science class at the English-medium Asia School of Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s former capital, I saw how even such milder promotions of ancient India could encourage chauvinism among teachers and students.

The class lingered on vastu shastra, the Vedic study of architecture, one of many aspects of ancient Indian thought emphasized in the tenth-grade social science textbook. In her explanation of the section, Archana Sharma, the teacher, described Vedic practices as quintessentially Indian and ascribed superlatively “auspicious” powers to them. One student wondered about the worldly implications of these views. “If we are following vastu shastra so well,” he asked, “why are we a developing nation?” This enabled Sharma to unlock the next step of the logic of Hindutva history: the idea that a lack of pan-Hindu sentiment permitted violent and immoral Muslims to defile the country. “Only one thing missing was unity. Otherwise, not possible for Mughals to come for so many centuries. They stayed here as a foreign country. We would have welcomed them as guest. But they did not stay as guest.” Instead, Muslims “looted so much.” India was “ruined by a number of invasions.” The class nodded along, taking notes.

One crucial question largely absent from Rajasthan’s books is how exactly the dominant power of India came to be Muslim. Rajasthan’s tenth-grade social science textbook observes that the twelfth-century ruler of northwest and central India, Prithviraj Chauhan, defeated Muhammad of Ghor in several battles, but passes over Ghor’s ultimate victory, saying simply that “due to certain circumstances, Muslim rule started in India by 1206 CE.”

In their discussions of the Mughal era, the Nehruvian textbooks emphasized Akbar, who empowered Hindu generals, married Hindu princesses, participated in Hindu ceremonies, abolished religious taxes, and held spiritual discussions with Hindus, Christians, Jews, and even atheists. These details are neglected in the new Rajasthan and Gujarat books, which concentrate instead on Aurangzeb (1618–1707), the emperor who reinstated religious taxes and destroyed some Hindu temples. The books overstate Aurangzeb’s prejudice—“Aurangzeb used to hate Hindus,” according to Rajasthan’s eighth-grade book—and exaggerate its influence, suggesting, as in Gujarat’s seventh-grade book, that “Aurangzeb’s narrow-minded policies were responsible for the end of the Mughal Empire.” The truth is more complicated: as Audrey Truschke, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, writes in her recent book, Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King, Aurangzeb “employed more Hindus in his administration than any prior Mughal ruler by a substantial margin” and supported Hindu religious practices in numerous ways.

As Muslim rulers are diminished or vilified, so Hindu figures of the same period are inflated to majestic dimensions. The updates to the federal seventh-grade history book include the introduction of Maharana Pratap, a local ruler who “stood his ground” against the Mughals, and an expanded section on the warrior king Shivaji’s “career of conquest.” Shivaji was from Maharashtra, and though the state’s seventh-grade history and civics book claims to describe the “History of Medieval India,” it treats this regional hero as a figure of such civilizational import that his life, like that of Jesus Christ, organizes time itself. There is “India before the Times of Shivaji Maharaj,” “Maharashtra before the Times of Shivaji Maharaj,” and then, climactically, Shivaji’s own era, that of “An Ideal Ruler.” Whereas the Mughals are described as “foreign powers,” Shivaji’s descendants are “The Protectors of the Nation,” suggesting that Indian national identity began with Hindu self-assertion.

The Rajasthan books use the more pungent phrase “foreign invaders” for the Mughals, but there is little evidence that most Indians saw them that way. In fact, during the armed struggle against the British in 1857, Hindu and Muslim rebel soldiers from all over India came to Delhi and proclaimed Bahadur Shah Zafar, the inheritor of the much-weakened Mughal Empire, the leader of their movement and the symbol of home rule.

The same tactics of selection and elision characterize the textbooks’ portrayal of the freedom movement. Mohandas Gandhi and Nehru are generally considered the most consequential figures of this period. Both, however, embody the “ancient palimpsest” view of Indian history that Hindutva seeks to eradicate. The Gujarat and Rajasthan textbooks emphasize instead figures of notable “manliness,” such as Bhagat Singh, whose activities during the independence movement included killing a British policeman and bombing the Central Legislative Assembly of the British Empire. “The revolutionary martyrs wrote the history of Indian independence through their blood,” according to Rajasthan’s tenth-grade book—a rather far cry from Gandhian nonviolence.

The Rajasthan books solve the conundrum of the ideology of the leaders of the independence movement by completely wiping out Nehru from their eighth-grade modern history section, and emphasizing instead none other than Vinayak Savarkar—whom they refer to as “Veer,” the Sanskrit word for “brave.” Savarkar is thought to have rather preposterously given himself this name in a pseudonymous autobiography, despite the assertion in Rajasthan’s tenth-grade book that “the public adorned” him with it. Without any mention of Savarkar’s writing on Hindutva, the books hail him as a “great revolutionary, a great nationalist and a great organizer.” Yet after being imprisoned in 1911 for violent anticolonial activities, Savarkar pledged loyalty to the British Empire. When Gandhi called for a civil disobedience campaign during World War II, Savarkar encouraged his followers to cooperate with the British war effort. Savarkar’s legacy comes from his theoretical and political contributions to Hindu nationalism—not from participating in the independence movement.

K.S. Gupta, a former professor at the Mohanlal Sukhadia University of Udaipur and one of the eight writers of the sixth-to-eighth grade Rajasthan textbooks, said in an interview that he was “fully convinced that Savarkar’s utility is due to his views on Hinduism.” Gupta declined to explain why Savarkar’s questionable involvement with the freedom struggle was mentioned in lieu of these views, but he did expound on Gandhi’s and Nehru’s flaws. “Gandhi was never successful in any of his movements,” he said. “Nehru had no in-depth study about India.” Chief among these leaders’ mistakes was being “very soft on Muslims,” especially during partition with Pakistan, since “there should have been exchange of population there.”

“What was the need of keeping them here?” Gupta asked about India’s Muslims. They have a “Pakistan mentality,” he explained, and yet “every political party is looking after their welfare.” “Parliament may be good for England,” Gupta concluded, “but not for India.”

Though the updates to the federal textbooks have been moderate so far, a BJP victory in next year’s general election would likely lead to greater changes. Crucial policy documents of the government education department are over ten years old, and their replacements are expected soon. In March, a Reuter’s article revealed that a federally appointed committee of scholars and bureaucrats is working on a report intended as a basis for rewriting textbooks along extreme Hindu nationalist lines. More changes can also be expected at the state level. Arun Yadav, a media adviser for the BJP government of the state of Haryana, told me that the local administration is planning to change its books to resemble those of Rajasthan.

Some journalists and academics will vehemently protest these efforts, but TV and print editors and university presidents are increasingly government loyalists. Meanwhile, years of battles over textbooks have led many Indians to conclude that there is no such thing as objective history—only power and the stories it finds useful. “Every party has their scholars,” Subhash Sharma, the deputy director of Rajasthan’s State Institute of Educational Research and Training, told me in an interview. “History writing has always been controversial, na? History is always written in favor of the government.”

Such cynicism will make history into a province of passion rather than reason. This transformation has had destructive consequences before. In 1992, Hindu mobs tore down a mosque because of dubious claims that it had been constructed centuries earlier on the site of a demolished temple. Riots followed in which roughly two thousand people, many of them Muslim, were killed. It’s not just the nature of Indian identity that depends on what Indians believe about their history. It’s also the most basic rights of over two hundred million citizens who do not identify as Hindus.

  1. For a thorough and balanced account of modern Indian historiography and textbooks, see Sylvie Guichard, The Construction of History and Nationalism in India: Textbooks, Controversies and Politics (Routledge, 2010). William Dalrymple addressed some of the same issues in “India: The War Over History,” The New York Review, April 7, 2005. 
  2. Excerpts from major works by Savarkar, Golwalkar, and other influential Hindu nationalists may be found in Hindu Nationalism: A Reader, edited by Christophe Jaffrelot (Princeton University Press, 2007). 
  3.   See “The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia,” Vagheesh M. Narasimhan, Nick J. Patterson, Priya Moorjani, et al., bioRxiv, 2018. 

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