As the coronavirus crisis causes unprecedented disruption to India’s education system, an ideological battle over the country’s history and identity is being fought using school syllabuses and textbooks.

Back in June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government began revising nationwide curriculums to reduce student workloads. The move was announced as a way to mitigate challenges posed to educational institutions by Covid-19 restrictions. Since then, individual Indian states have taken additional steps to pare down examination requirements and accommodate remote learning.

But the material being excised from syllabuses and classroom resources suggests that the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is using the pandemic as an opportunity to further an ongoing project to redefine the country’s history.

In July, the Central Board of Secondary Education removed chapters from high school political science textbooks focusing on federalism, citizenship, secularism, diversity, caste and gender. This prompted some 500 historians and academics to petition for their restoration.

Last week, the northeastern state of Assam trimmed down its examination requirements for political science and history, focusing on a number of sensitive topics. The cuts included three chapters on Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and a leading architect of the secular nationalist ideology.

Also axed from the Assam curriculum are sections on the Gujarat anti-Muslim riots of 2002 and the Ayodhya dispute, a decades-long conflict between Hindus and Muslims over a contested religious site.

While the pandemic has presented new opportunities to act, these latest moves are just part of a long-running program of revisionism. In 2002, the previous BJP government faced criticism for cuts made to textbooks on Indian history, including the removal of material related to caste oppression and other inconvenient historical facts.

For Vinay Sitapati, a political scientist at Ashoka University and the author of a forthcoming book on the history of the BJP, reshaping perceptions of India’s past in the classroom is a logical strategy for Modi’s party. 

“Since learning lessons from history is a key component of Hindu nationalism, influencing how it’s taught is a key component of their ideology,” he said.

Following Modi’s election in 2014, the BJP’s drive to reshape education gathered momentum once again. That year, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — a nationalist paramilitary group closely affiliated with the BJP — set up a committee to draft suggestions to “Indianize” the education system. Since then, Modi’s administration has amended syllabuses at both national and state levels.

Changes have included rewriting the outcome of a historical battle to claim that a Hindu king defeated the Mughal emperor in 1576, and downplaying the importance of independence movement leaders such as Gandhi and Nehru.

Pankaj Pushkar, an opposition-aligned member of the Delhi legislature, was a member of the committee that created the political science book to which cuts were made by the Central Board of Secondary Education. In a telephone conversation, he lamented that “textbooks are seen sometimes as a political weapon rather than as a pedagogical tool.”

Pushkar added there is a consensus among academics and researchers that politicizing education in this way jeopardizes “children’s right to discover knowledge for themselves.” He also said that the committee’s members were not consulted regarding which sections should be removed.

Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, the minister responsible for the cuts, has stated publicly that he spoke to educationalists about the changes. However, after filing a recent Right to Information request to determine who he had consulted with, activists have been told that no record exists of any such meetings.