The assassination of the Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi is a dark chapter in the country’s history, something Indian schoolchildren have read about in their textbooks for years.
From the textbooks, 17 and 18 year old (12th-grade) students learned that the assassin, Nathuram Godse, was “a Brahmin from Pune” (a priest and member of the highest of the four social classes, the varna, in ancient Indian society) and “editor of an extremist Hindu newspaper which had denounced Gandhi as lenient towards Muslims”.
The students also read that Gandhi was “especially disliked by those who wanted India to become a country for the Hindus, as Pakistan was for the Muslims”. His “steadfast pursuit of harmony between Hindus and Muslims was seen to provoke Hindu extremists so much that they made several attempts to assassinate Gandhi.”
But when students returned to school for the new school year this April, those passages were no longer in textbooks.
The Indian Express newspaper reported these deletions on Wednesday, prompting an outcry from academics as well as opposition politicians, who accused the government of “whitewashing” the curriculum.
The revision was conducted by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), an independent government organisation that develops textbooks widely used in India.
Among the deleted paragraphs is one that mentions how organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) were “banned for a short time” after the murder as part of the government’s crackdown on organisations “that spread communal hatred”.
The RSS is a right-wing Hindu socio-political organisation with which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a member, is closely associated.
Another deletion is a reference in the NCERT’s 11th grade textbooks regarding the 2002 Gujarat riots. These talked about how class, religion and ethnicity often lead to the segregation of residential areas and neighbourhoods. The riots, in which over 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed, took place when Modi was the state’s chief minister.
In June 2022, the Supreme Court upheld a verdict acquitting Modi of complicity in the riots.
These creeping changes come on top of those announced in June 2022 as part of a “rationalisation” of textbooks for grades six through twelve to reduce the academic load and help students catch up after the covid-19 pandemic .
These changes also include cuts to references involving Hinduism’s caste system, protests that evolved into social movements and even India’s Muslim rulers. With a chapter dedicated to the Mughal Empire that controlled much of the subcontinent between the 16th and 19th centuries being removed.
The Mogul emperors are hated by the Hindu right wing, partly because of the destruction of temples during their reign.
BJP leader Kapil Mishra described the changes as “a decision to remove the false story of the Mughals”.
The changes – the third since the BJP was elected to power in 2014 – are part of a wider BJP campaign targeting the moguls. In January, the iconic Mughal Garden at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi was renamed Amrit Udyan (Garden of the Sacred Nectar). The busy Mughalsarai railway station in Uttar Pradesh was also renamed as Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Junction in June 2018, after the leader of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh political party, which was also the forerunner of the BJP.
NCERT director Dinesh Prasad Saklani told The Telegraph newspaper that the content had been deleted “professionally” by subject experts and “uniformly without any selective approach”.
BJP national spokesman Gopal Krishna Agarwal told Reuters that this is not an attempt to erase history, but to counter prejudice.
Dr. Aditya Mukherjee, a retired professor of modern Indian history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that the Hindu right wing’s persistent attempt to rewrite the textbooks began as early as 1977 with the election of the Janata Party, which was formed through the merger of a number of entities, including the Bharatiya Jana Sangh – the political arm of the RSS.
“So there is clearly an agenda for the RSS and the BJP, this is not historians coming together and saying we have to make a change,” he said, referring to the recent changes.
“This kind of garbage being passed off as history is truly a shame. I mean, it might look good in North Korea, but I can’t even believe that we would promote this kind of story in our own country.
“Using history as a weapon in this way to wipe out and demonise a particular community is politically very dangerous in a multi-religious country like ours. You are playing with fire when you do things like this,” concludes Mukherjee.