How textbooks teach prejudice

First Published on: October 1, 1999

Forget RSS-run Shishu Mandirs and Muslim madrassas. Textbooks prescribed by even ‘secular’ central and state education boards in the country promote religious, caste and gender prejudice

What we learn and teach about history and how the process of this learning has been crafted or developed, shapes our understanding of the events of the past. This understanding of the past influences our ability to grapple with the present and therefore also the future. Such knowledge, if both rich and varied, can also make and break convictions of both the teacher and the taught.

In 1947, India made a historic tryst with destiny. Independent yet partitioned, after extensive and careful deliberation, we opted for a democratic structure outlined in the Indian Constitution. Whether state –
directed or autonomously ensured, education in such a democratic polity should have been committed to free enquiry, fair and equal access to knowledge, both quantitative and qualitative, inculcation of the right to debate and dissent. The only restrictions and limits to when and at what junctures what kind of information could be shared with the child should have been pedagogical.

In short, the equality principle in any democracy simply must extend to education. In quantitative terms, this means the right of every Indian child to primary and secondary education. UNICEF figures shamefully record how we have failed, having as we do 370 million illiterates (1991), half a century after we became independent. 
But qualitatively, too, the equality principle within the Indian education syllabus, especially related to history and social studies teaching, in state and central boards, is sorely wanting. 

Wedded to the equality principle, the democratisation of our history and social studies syllabus should have meant a critical revision of both the periodisation, approach and content of the material taught because, pre-Independence, history writing under the British was infested with colonial biases. This has not happened. As a result, in most of our texts and syllabi we continue to perpetuate the colonial legacy of portraying ancient India as synonymous with the Hindu and the medieval Indian past with the Muslim. We have, over the years, further accentuated the colonial biases with sharp and more recent ideological underpinnings linked with the rapid growth in the political sphere of the Hindu Right. 

Hate language and hate-politics cannot be part of history teaching in a democracy. But, unfortunately, prejudice and division, not a holistic and fair vision, has been the guiding principle for our textbook boards and the authors chosen by them.

Over the years, our history and social studies texts, more and more, emphasise a prejudicial understanding and rendering of history, that is certainly not borne out by historical facts. Crucial inclusions and exclusions that are explored through abstracts from state board texts, ICSE textbooks and college texts as well, quoted extensively in stories accompanying this essay, bear this out. 

What the RSS and other rabid organisations with a clearly political objective would have us believe about history has been succinctly summed up by the accompanying abstract of an NCERT (National Council for Educational Research and Training) report. The report enumerates instances that clearly reflect the bias of the organisation that has sponsored them.

Hate language and hate-politics cannot be  part  of the history project in a democracy

What is far more worrisome and needs careful and equally studied examination is how the textbooks in use in most of our states under the ambit of the state textbook boards, as well as the texts of prominent national boards, echo the same historical precepts, misconceptions and formulations. Sometimes in a diluted or scattered form, but more often with the same resultant damage.

The dangerous patterns woven through the syllabus in general and the history and social studies curriculum in particular, for the young mind, need to be traced carefully. They reveal how the average Indian text looks at the historical and present question of caste-based discriminations, community-driven stereotypes and, as significantly, what we teach students about the status of women, then and now.

These patterns, distorted and prejudicial as they are, will open our eyes to the process that has actually contributed to mainstream secular space being dominated by the discourse dictated by the Right. We will then begin to understand how certain manipulated discourses and imageries that have been pulled out for public consumption over the past decade–and–a–half find instant and widespread resonance in civil society.

What am I referring to? How come the crude allusions to Muslims as ‘Babar ki aulad’ in the mid–eighties and the charge of ‘forced’ conversions against Christians in the late nineties finds a silent acceptance in the marketplace of popular ideas, and even dominates the media? This is because many of post–Independent India’s textbooks have been unable to offer a clean, holistic, rational and multi–dimensional vision of the past that includes a historically honest portrayal of how different faiths arrived on the shores of this sub-continent. Our textbooks are, similarly and suspiciously, silent on the motives behind thousands of Indians converting to different faiths over generations. Instead, through allusions and exclusions, they strengthen the false claim that in a vast majority of cases these conversions happened under force. 


Are we, as citizens, concerned about whether our education system encourages the creative and thought processes, develops the quality of thinking in our young, whether our attitude to learning and teaching engenders the processes of inquiry? If yes, we need to examine whether our school textsbooks tackle the question of free inquiry, dissent and debate.  We need also to pay attention to specific inclusions and exclusions within the content of these texts.

Other crucial questions also need to be raised.  How do Indian texts specifically deal with the fundamental question of race, origin, culture and faith on the sub–continent?

It is surely impossible to speak about apartheid in the world context without linking it to the birth of South Africa under Nelson Mandela as an independent nation. or to understand slavery in the modern context without knowledge of the role of colonial powers in Africa or, equally pertinently, the whole phenomenon of the American War of Independence and Abraham Lincoln. But do Indian textbooks reflect the ability to examine social inequality, specifically the caste system, as it emerged and was legitimised historically and how it continues to exist today, perpetrating an exploitative and unjust social order? 

Can a young student of social studies really seek to understand the caste system without, first of all, being informed of modern–day social and economic apartheid that 16–17 per cent of the Indian population continues to be forced to live under today? There is hardly any Indian text that honestly and candidly sketches out the indignities that continue to be perpetuated on Indian Dalits today.

The life–sketch of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar is restricted to his contribution as the ‘architect’ of the Indian constitution. The serious challenges he posed to the pre–Independence struggle and the Brahmanical order, or his radical conversion to Buddhism as a method of ‘social and political emancipation’ (10 lakh Dalits converted to Buddhism on October 14, 1948) find scant or no mention at all in ‘secular’ Indian textbooks. 

This blinkered vision of Indian social disparity extends to the fashion in which Dr. Ambedkar is portrayed for the young and the struggles that he led are depicted. On December 25, 1925, Ambedkar burnt copies of the Manu Smruti at Mahad village in Maharashtra. This was a strong political statement against the domination suffered by Dalits, epitomised in this Brahmanical text that has laid down the code of a social order which regards ‘shudras’ and ‘women’ together as deserving of no rights. The incident finds no mention at all in any Indian school textbook, revealing a sharp upper caste bias that has excluded real inquiry into these events and movements. There is no attempt at a critical look at texts like the Manu Smruti that have, since their being written several centuries ago, reflected the attitudes of vested interests. In fact this Brahmanical text itself receives favourable mention in Indian school textbooks.

As extension of the same argument, some of our average Indian textbooks continue to label Christians, Muslims and Parsees as ‘foreigners,’ and moreover depict Hindus as “the minority in most states of the country”. They selectively speak about the “immoral behaviour of Catholic priests in the middle ages” while exonerating the Brahmins and the Indian ruling classes. What is the message that we send out to the growing child with these factual misrepresentations and deliberate exclusions of some historical events and modern day social realities when it comes to the conduct of the Brahmanical elite? 

Our textbooks are, similarly and suspiciously, silent on the motives behind thousands of Indians converting to different faiths over generations. Instead, through allusions and exclusions, they strengthen the false claim that in a vast majority of cases these conversions happened under force

The same college textbook in Maharashtra that speaks at length, and with a fair degree of venom, about Islam and its violent nature is silent on what many ancient Indian kings did to Buddhist ‘monasteries’ and bhikus during the ancient period. (King Sashanka of Assam is reputed to have destroyed several monasteries). What then are the conclusions that a critic needs to draw about the motivation behind these selective inclusions and exclusions?
Exclusion is a subtle but potent form of prejudice. If, therefore, the average Indian textbook is silent on the motivations of many a ‘Hindu’ king who employed officials to raid and destroy temples in the ancient and medieval periods, simply because he could be certain to find wealth there (King Harshadev of Kashmir is one such, referred to by Kalhana in his Rajatarini), is there a not–so–subtle attempt to allow the popularly cherished belief that temple breaking was the ‘Muslim’ rulers favoured prerogative, to fester and grow? 

Rabid observations on Islam and Christianity are overtly visible in excerpts of the books conceived by the RSS and used for ‘teaching’ in the Shishu Mandirs. For discerning observers and educationists, this commitment to indoctrination that pre-supposes injecting small yet potent doses of poison against an ‘enemy other’ is not really surprising when we understand the true nature of the ideological project of these outfits. 

The content of RSS texts has invited sharp criticism by the NCERT committee (see accompanying document). To find blatantly damaging statements within the texts of schools run by the RSS is one thing. But to have ‘secular’ Indian textbooks — ranging from those produced by some state textbook boards, to recommended texts for the study of history at the graduation level, as also some ICSE texts — containing discernible strains of the same kind of caste, community and gender prejudice reflects how mainstream Indian thought has not only swallowed a biased and uncritical interpretation of history but is cheerfully allowing this myopic vision to be passed down to future generations.

Take, for instance, a textbook recommended for the final year Bachelor of Arts students in history in Maharashtra. The chapter titled ‘Invasion of Mahmud of Ghaznavi’ is cleverly used by the author to launch a tirade against Islam itself. The content of this textbook could compare favourably, chapter and verse, with sections of Shishu Mandir texts that, are in other parts, far more direct, having nothing positive to say about Islam or Christianity. 

As critically, how do our history and social studies’ textbooks approach the complex question of gender? What is the underpinning of analysis on critical gender issues within these books? How do our textbooks explain notions of ‘pativrata’(worship of the husband), sati (widow burning), child marriage, burning of women at the stake (called ‘witch hunting’ during the medieval ages), polygamy, polyandry etc. to the child?

There could be no more derogatory references to women than those contained in the Manu Smruti, an ancient Indian Brahmanical text. But it receives uncritical and passing mention in most Indian textbooks.

There is no attempt to outline the oppressive ‘Brahmanical Hindu’ code contained within the Manu Smruti. The code outlined in this text has significantly influenced how women have and continue to be treated within the family structure and in society, as also the base fashion in which treatment to ‘shudras’ has manifest itself in Indian society. 

What were the variegated facts, and, therefore, what is the multi-layered truth behind the emergence of different faiths on the sub-continent? The historical account is not an over-simplified one of Babar ki aulad, armed with swords, forcing reluctant victims to convert and smashing down their temples in the bargain. Unfortunately for proponents of a hate-driven history, facts tell a different story. 

The tale of the often-ruthless methods that Portuguese Christians took to effect conversions in Goa may be more recent but it is by no means the whole story of how Christianity arrived on the shores of the sub-continent and found deep and abiding routes. That is an inquiry that is more complex, more varied and far richer in detail. 

In a Maharashtra college level text, he chapter on Mahmud of Ghaznavi is used as ripe occasion to launch  a tirade against Islam itself

The record of persons opting to convert to different faiths, be it Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity Islam or Sikhism, is a worthy exploration in itself. Honestly told, it could offer vital insights on the impulses of ideas and motives as they have driven humankind over the ages. It is, however, a subject that has been significantly ignored except through banal references to ‘syncretism’ and ‘synthesis’ that are left thematically and conceptually unexplored. 

The subject of shifts and changes to different faiths is educative, simply because if fairly approached, the process will throw up different sets of reasons and varying motivations for these actions, these changes of faith that persons opted for. The differences and variety would depend upon the period when the change took place, the region within India that we would be looking at and, finally, the method employed for the conversion itself.

None of the mainline Indian textbooks really do justice to this subject. We often find a single sentence reference to the fact that Islam first came to the shores of the Malabar coast through the regular visits of Arab traders who enjoyed a long-standing relationship of trade and commerce with India. But the next sentence immediately shifts gear to the other way that Islam came to the Indian sub-continent — through the ‘invasions’ in Sind. From thereon our children are told in graphic detail of the numerous ‘invasions’ but nothing of the coming of Islam through trade and the formations of living communities that resulted. 

Many conversions to Islam or Christianity in the modern period of history have also coincided with the passage of emancipatory laws liberating bonded labour. This allowed oppressed sections the freedom to exercise choice in the matter of faith. These sections, then, exercised this choice, rightly or wrongly, perceiving either Islam or Christianity to be more egalitarian than Hinduism’s oppressive system of caste.

There were several instances of conversions during the second half of the 19th century in Travancore, for instance. Educational endeavours of missionaries and the resultant aspirations to equality of status encouraged many persons of ‘low’ caste to change faith and through this to a perceived position of equality. For example, the first ‘low’ caste person to walk the public road near the temple in Tiruvalla in 1851 was a Christian. Around 1859, many thousands converted to Christianity in the midst of emancipatory struggles that were supported by missionaries in the region: for example, the struggle of Nadars on the right of their women to cover the upper part of their body, a practice opposed by the upper castes!

There are so many fascinating examples. Large-scale conversions to Islam took place on the Malabar coast not during the invasions by Tipu Sultan but during the 1843-1890 period. These were directly linked to the fact that in 1843, under the British, slavery was formally abolished in the region. As a result, large numbers from the formerly oppressed castes, bonded in slavery to upper caste Hindus moved over to Islam, which they perceived, rightly or wrongly to preach a message of equality and justice.

Trade and commerce finds dry and peripheral treatment in our texts as do the impact of technological developments through history. Religious interpretations and explanations often pre-dominate, with little attempt to explain how ideas and thought-processes travelled across continents and borders; the means and modes of communication etc. are hardly explored. 

Our secular texts are completely silent on the ideology that killed the Mahatma despite the fact that the RSS was banned by the government of India following his assassination

Within the Indian sub-continent, this century saw the emergence of different streams of thought that contributed significantly to the struggle for independence against the British. It also saw the emergence on the sub-continent of processes, fully encouraged by the British, of exclusivist and sectarian trends within the broader national movement that chose to articulate their worldview in terms of narrow religious identities.

Within a few years of each other, we saw the birth of organisations like the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League, as also the Akali Dal and the Rashtriya Sayamsevak Sangh. This process of the emergence of different communalisms that contributed in no small measure to the final vivisection of the sub-continent, with all its attendant stories of vengeance and horror is extremely selectively dealt with in Indian textbooks.

Put simply, all these texts speak at length about the birth and misdemeanours of the Muslim League, the Muslim communal outfit that contributed significantly to the politics of the period. No mention is at all made to the birth around the same time of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, both Hindu communal outfits that contributed in no small measure to the sharp polarisations and schisms at the time. 

Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination is fleetingly mentioned without the ideology that drove Godse to kill him being mentioned, leave alone explored. The fact that the RSS had to face a ban on the question, too, is blotted out to the young student of modern Indian history.

With these kinds of interpretations and inclusions of historical facts in our regular texts, coupled with the repetitious discourse within civil society that has, in recent times, taken a vicious form—and which selectively heaps the blame for partition squarely on the Muslim— is it any wonder that communities and citizens of the country continue to carry the burden of being dubbed ‘traitors’ and ‘anti-national?’

The young student of history in India, therefore, can without compunction put the entire blame of the partition of the sub-continent on the Muslim League and Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s shoulders. The bias does not end here. While the Muslim League receives detailed treatment in the average Indian text, it does not give a single line to Hindu communal outfits. 

In furtherance of the same theme, there is no attempt to either explain or detail that the Muslim League enjoyed a limited hold over only sections of the Muslim elite and landed gentry; that many hundreds of thousands of Muslims participated actively in the struggle for Independence against the British; that the idea of Partition was backed by a miniscule section of Indian Muslims; that the artisan class which constitutes a large section of Muslims demonstrated actively against Partition.

In short, if you read an average Indian text, be it from the state or central boards, the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS bear no part of the historical blame for Partition. The crime is worse compounded by the fact that Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination is glossed over, often receiving no more than one sentence in explanation. 
The ICSE History and Civics textbook, Part II for Std. X, devotes a whole chapter to the ‘Formation of the Muslim League’. But there is no mention at all of Hindu communal organisations. 

And to top it all, here is what the same ICSE text has to say about Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination: “Mahatma Gandhi toured the hate-torn land of Bengal, trying to put a stop to the communal frenzy and salvage the people from ruthless communal slaughter. While celebrations and riots were still going on the architect of the nation was shot dead on 30th January by Nathuram Godse”. There is no further comment on the assassination, or the ideology that drove the assassin. Neither is there any mention of the fact that the government of India banned the RSS following Gandhi’s murder because of Godse’s close association both with the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. There is no information on the trial of the assassins of Gandhi, the justification by Godse of his act and so on.

Similarly, the Social Studies text for standard VIII of the Gujarat State Board, has a tiny sub-section titled, “The Murder of Gandhi”. This reads thus: “After Independence there were severe communal riots in India. Gandhiji tried his utmost to suppress it. Many people did not like this. Gandhiji was murdered at the hands of Godsay on 30th January 1948. ”

Again, no words of explanation of the ideology that was responsible for the murder of Gandhi though painstaking efforts are made in this and other texts to explain the ideology that partitioned the sub-continent. 

It appears logical and inevitable for the stated political project of the RSS and its Shishu Mandir-style education to offer such an immutable approach, a series of unquestionable absolutes, to the young mind. How else can the RSS organisation, whether it be at the shakha or the Shishu Mandir level, create a social and political atmosphere where selectively half-truths and blatant falsehoods dominate all discourse? How else does one create an environment where critical questions are never asked, leave alone answered? And, worst of all, prevailing social inequalities, indignities and humiliations are left unaddressed. In short, leave the social and economic hierarchy unchallenged?

But the fact that independent and democratic India’s ‘secular’ texts reflect, with sometimes uncanny similarity, the very same disregard for a growing and inquiring mind, apart from being laced with a series of questionable formulations that hide gender, caste and community–driven bias is what requires urgent and specific attention. And remedy.   

(This article has relied heavily on the research work that the writer has 
undertaken as the Co–ordinator of KHOJ, a secular education project)

Archived from Communalism Combat, October 1999, Anniversary Issue (6th) Year 7  No. 52, Cover Story 1




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