The removal from school textbooks of chapters covering the Mughal period of India’s history, spanning three centuries, has raised a storm of protest from scholars in the country.
By Ranjit Devraj
The Mughals, who ruled much of the Indian subcontinent between the 16th and 19th centuries, left an indelible mark on science, art, culture and overall development.
Their legacy is visible today, notably in a number of monuments recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, the Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb, the Lahore Fort, the Shalamar Gardens and the Taj Mahal.
Unesco’s representative in India, 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, addressing questions such as what, why, when and how students should learn.
“A quality curriculum must therefore pave the way for the effective implementation of inclusive and equitable quality education,” he said.
But he pointed out that the development, reform and revision of subject-specific curricula is a decision for Member States alone, who must take into account the current curriculum and future needs when intervening.
“It is not surprising that the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) is deleting the chapters referring to this period,” said Ruchika Sharma, professor of history at Delhi University.
Sharma says that from an academic point of view, the Mughal period represents a well-known part of Indian history because of the rich documentation they left behind.
Removing from textbooks “an entire chapter devoted to such an important period of history would certainly affect the career choices of students, who would see a mismatch between the visible legacy and the curriculum,” she said.
The historian specifically referred to the chapter titled Kings and chronicles, the Mughal courts, in the NCERT history textbook, titled “Topics in Indian History-Part II”, which describes how the Mughals encouraged peasants to cultivate commercial crops like cotton in a “large swathe of territory stretching across central India and the Deccan plateau”.
During the Mughal period, India became the world’s largest exporter of cotton and its manufactures, such as calico (cotton with some taffeta) and fine muslin, which Dutch and English East India companies, allowed to establish factories or fortified trading posts on the Indian coasts, shipped to European markets.
Other revenue-generating crops were sugar cane and oilseeds such as mustard and lentils, which were grown alongside staples such as rice, wheat and millet, according to the deleted chapter.
The section on irrigation and technology noted that under the Mughals, cultivation expanded rapidly with the help of artificial irrigation systems and the introduction of crops from the Americas, such as tomatoes, potatoes and chilli peppers.
Swapna Liddle, a historian and writer, says much of India’s architectural heritage, language, arts, agriculture and land tenure systems are inherited from the Mughal period. “It is important to study India’s scientific progress during that period,” she said.
During the Mughal period, sciences flourished, especially astronomy, mathematics, medicine, architecture and engineering, which had an impact long after the no end of the dynasty in 1857.
In the reign of Akbar (1556-1605), for example, medical schools and dispensaries were established, while his successor, Jehangir, encouraged the study of mathematics and astronomy.
On 7 April, a group of Concerned Historians issued a statement saying, “We are dismayed by the NCERT’s decision to remove chapters and statements from history textbooks and demand that the deletions be removed from textbooks immediately.”
“The NCERT’s decision 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 reversed at the earliest,” says the statement, which has been endorsed by hundreds of academics.
According to the pronouncement, the textbooks were designed to be inclusive and give an insight into the rich diversity of the human past, both in the subcontinent and the rest of the world.
Therefore, deleting chapters or sections of chapters is highly problematic, not only because it deprives students of valuable content, but also because of the pedagogical values needed to prepare them to face present and future challenges.
NCERT director Dinesh Kumar Saklani said the chapters were deleted as part of a “rationalisation” aimed at reducing the charge on schoolchildren in the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic. Saklani claimed that this “eationalisation” was examined by experts and denied that there was a political agenda behind the move.
Since coming to power in 2014, Prime Minister Nerendra Modi has been gradually imposing Hindu supremacy in the country, marginalising ethnic and religious minorities, especially the largest of them, Muslims.
The marginalisation of India’s Mughal history, therefore, is seen as a new chapter in the direction of eliminating the rich diversity that lies behind the country.
Ajay K. Mehra, a political scientist currently attached to the Observer Research Foundation’s independent think tank, opined that “it would have been far better to modify the chapters on the Mughal and Islamic periods than to delete them altogether”.
“Thus, a very large and important period of medieval Indian history will be lost to impressionable young students and future generations,” he lamented.
The changes in the textbooks, Mehra claimed, are deliberate and part of a larger and 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 the city of Allahabad in 2018 to Prayagraj to reflect its importance as a Hindu pilgrimage site at the confluence of the holy Yamuna and Ganges rivers.
“What is lost here is the fact that Mughal rule underwent a huge economic breakthrough that lasted for three centuries thanks to a pact with the great Hindu feudatory clans.
The Rajput (princes of those Hindu clans) came to command the Mughal armies and also entered into matrimonial alliances. “Two of the most important Mughal emperors, Jehangir and Shah Jahan, were born to Rajput princesses, for example,” Mehra said.
Makkhan Lal, a distinguished fellow of the Vivekananda International Foundation, a think tank close to the Modi government, on the other hand, believes that “the Mughal period is given a disproportionate description and space in history textbooks and this needs to be rectified”.
Lal, who has been a professor of history at Banaras Hindu University and has worked with the NCERT, said “the correction being made now is a step in the right direction and should have been done earlier”.
Besides academics, opposition party leaders have also denounced the changes in the textbooks. Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India, said the changes in the textbooks were regrettable as they obscured the diversity of India’s history.
“The lands of India have always been the troubled melting pot of civilisational advances through cultural confluences,” he said.
Pinarayi Vijayan, who heads the communist party government in the southern state of Kerala, tweeted: “They resort to rewriting history and masking it with lies. Therefore, we must strongly protest the BJP (Indian People’s Party) government’s decision to remove certain sections from NCERT textbooks. Let the truth prevail.