Politics Behind the Removal of Mughal History From Textbooks Say Academics

The removal of Mughal history from textbooks is seen as a political move which downplays the rich diversity of the Indian subcontinent. This artwork stems from this period. Credit: Govardhan. Jahangir Visiting the Ascetic Jadrup. ca. 1616-20, Musee Guimet, Paris
The removal of Mughal history from textbooks is seen as a political move which downplays the rich diversity of the Indian subcontinent. This artwork stems from this period. Credit: Govardhan. Jahangir Visiting the Ascetic Jadrup. ca. 1616-20, Musee Guimet, Paris
  • by Ranjit Devraj (new delhi)
  • Inter Press Service

The Mughals, who ruled much of the Indian sub-continent between the 16th and 19th centuries, left behind an indelible stamp on science, art, culture, and overall development. Their legacy is visible today mainly in a number of monuments recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the Agra FortFatehpur SikriRed FortHumayun's TombLahore FortShalamar Gardens, and the Taj Mahal.

UNESCO’s India representative, Hezekiel Damani, said the organisation advises that the curriculum represents a conscious and systematic selection of knowledge, skills and values that shape the way teaching, learning and assessment processes are organised by addressing questions such as what, why, when and how students should learn.

“Therefore, a quality curriculum must pave the way to the effective implementation of inclusive and equitable quality education,” Damani says. “Subject-specific curriculum development, reform and revision are entirely the decision of member states; they must be conscious of today’s curriculum, and future needs while making any intervention.”

“The issue here is that Mughal rule does not align well with present-day politics — it is no surprise that chapters that refer to that period are being deleted by the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT),” says Ruchika Sharma, who teaches history at the Delhi University.

Sharma says that from an academic point of view, the Mughal period presents a well-researched part of Indian history because of the rich documentation they left behind. “Removing an entire chapter dealing with such an important period of history from class XII textbooks would certainly affect students' career choices — they will see a mismatch between visible legacy and the curriculum.”

Sharma referred in particular to the chapter titled ‘Kings and Chronicles, the Mughal Courts,’ from the NCERT history book Themes of Indian History-Part II, which describes how the Mughals encouraged peasants to cultivate cash crops such as cotton grown over a "great swathe of territory that spread over central India and the Deccan plateau."

The Mughal period saw India becoming the world’s biggest exporter of cotton as well as cotton manufactures such as calico and fine muslins that were shipped to the European markets by the Dutch and English East India Companies that were allowed to set up ‘factories’ or fortified trading posts along the Indian coasts.

Other revenue-generating crops included sugarcane and oilseeds such as mustard and lentil that were grown alongside staples like rice, wheat and millets, the deleted chapter said. The section on ‘Irrigation and Technology’ noted that under the Mughals, cultivation rapidly expanded with the help of artificial irrigation systems and the introduction of crops from the new world, such as tomatoes, potatoes and chilli.

Swapna Liddle, historian and author, says that much of India’s built heritage, language, arts, agriculture and land tenure systems are a legacy of the Mughal period. “It is important to study how India was also progressing in the scientific fields during that period,” says Liddle.

The Mughal period saw a flowering of the sciences, especially astronomy, mathematics, medicine, architecture and engineering, that had an impact long after the dynasty ended in 1857. Akbar’s reign (1556—1605), for example, saw the establishment of medical schools and dispensaries, while his successor, Jehangir, patronised the study of mathematics and astronomy.

On April 7, a group of ‘Concerned Historians’ issued a statement saying: “We are appalled by the decision of the NCERT to remove chapters and statements from history textbooks and demand that the deletions from the textbooks be immediately withdrawn.”

“The decision of the NCERT is guided by divisive motives. It is a decision that goes against the constitutional ethos and composite culture of the Indian subcontinent. As such, it must be rescinded at the earliest,” said the statement, which has been endorsed by hundreds of academics.

According to the statement, the textbooks were designed to be inclusive and provide a sense of the rich diversity of the human past both within the subcontinent as well as the wider world. “As such, removing chapters/sections of chapters is highly problematic not only in terms of depriving learners of valuable content but also in terms of the pedagogical values required to equip them to meet present and future challenges.”

The director of the NCERT, Dinesh Kumar Saklani, has stated that the chapters were removed as part of “rationalisation aimed at reducing the burden on schoolchildren following the COVID-19 pandemic.” He claimed that the rationalisation was vetted by experts and denied that there was any political agenda behind the move.

Says Ajay K. Mehra, a political scientist currently attached to the independent think tank, the Observer Research Foundation: “It would have been far better to modify the chapters on the Mughal and Islamic periods than delete them altogether — this way a very large and important period of mediaeval Indian history is going to be lost to impressionable young students and to future generations.”

The changes to the textbooks, says Mehra, are deliberate and part of a larger, declared political agenda to restore the past glory of Hindu dynasties that existed before the arrival of Islam in India. This can be seen in the renaming of roads and cities, he said, citing the renaming of Allahabad city in 2018 to Prayagraj to reflect its importance as a Hindu pilgrimage site at the confluence of the sacred Yamuna and Ganges rivers.

“What is lost here is the fact that Mughal rule saw enormous economic advancement that lasted three centuries because of a compact with Hindu Rajput (princely) feudatories. “Rajput princes not only led Mughal armies but also entered into marital alliances — two of the important Mughal emperors, Jehangir and Shah Jahan, were born of Rajput princesses, for example,” Mehra said.

Makkhan Lal, distinguished fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation, a think tank considered close to the government, says that there is a case for the Mughal period getting “disproportionate description and allotment of space” in history textbooks and this needed to be rectified.

Lal, who has taught history at the Banaras Hindu University and worked with the NCERT, said the “correction being made now is a step in the right direction and should have been taken earlier.”

Apart from academics, leaders of opposition parties have also denounced the changes to the textbooks. Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India, said the changes made to class textbooks were regrettable because of India’s diversity.

“The lands of India have always been the churning crucible of civilisational advances through cultural confluences,” Yechury says.

Pinarayi Vijayan, who leads a communist party government in the southern Kerala state, Tweeted: “They resort to rewriting history and masking it with lies. So, we must strongly protest the decision of the BJP government to delete certain sections from NCERT textbooks. Let the truth prevail.”

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