Earlier this month, the international press reported with incredulity that revisions to textbooks in India will mean that large numbers of schoolchildren in the country can complete their high school education without being taught about foundational scientific concepts and ideas, including the theory of evolution. 

In response, India’s national council overseeing the curriculum claimed that the revisions were a routine exercise intended to ensure that material was introduced at the “appropriate stage.” It did not explain how the textbooks were edited or by whom.

Much of the current debate in India is similar to debates that have taken place for over a decade in the United States, over intelligent design for instance — which argues that the world was created with intent and is dubiously presented as an alternative to evolution theory — and how politicians and state legislatures shape what is taught in public schools.

In 2018, a minister in the Indian government said that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was “scientifically wrong” because “nobody, including our ancestors, have said they saw an ape turning into a man.” A year later, the same politician said that he didn’t “want to offend people who believe that we are children of monkeys but according to our culture we are children of rishis.” A rishi is a Hindu sage or saint.

Controversy over textbook revisions in India are mostly about excisions from history, political science and sociology textbooks, as political parties in power seek to influence curriculums at both state and national levels. Science textbooks, however, have generally been spared. Indeed, an amendment to the Indian Constitution made in 1976, lists among the “fundamental duties” of every Indian citizen the obligation to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”  

On June 15, 33 Indian political scientists who have contributed to school textbooks wrote to the director of the national education council to demand that their names be removed as authors because “this creative collective effort is in jeopardy.” The omissions and deletions, they argued, had violated the “core principles of transparency and contestation.”

They had taken their lead from Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palsikar, eminent academics — Yadav is now a politician — who had complained just days earlier that the textbooks they had worked on, “once a source of pride,” were now a “source of embarrassment.”

I spoke to Palsikar on the phone and asked him about the politicization of Indian schooling and the intent behind textbook revisions.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Following the spate of recent changes to textbooks, you’ve withdrawn your name as an author. Why did you do that?

When the most recent round of edits began last year, I warned that students wouldn’t benefit from these sorts of selective redactions. The edits subverted what Yogendra [Yadav] and I were trying to do when we contributed to the textbooks. We had to distance ourselves from the whole exercise.

The deletions are specific and seem to fit the governing party’s agenda. Though the official reason for revising textbooks is that the Covid pandemic has forced a reassessment of course loads, would you agree that there is an ideological motivation behind the revisions?

Yes, this is what we’ve been saying in our public expression of protest. If you closely follow the majority of the changes being made to textbooks in sociology, history and political science, they are being made to appease a certain political mindset. The revisions are ideological and partisan. They’re intended to satisfy the agenda of the ruling party. 

We don’t know who the people are who are making the edits, even though the textbooks display the names of prominent academics as authors and editors.

Yes, you’re right. Our names are on the books although we had nothing to do with the revisions. Students who read these books will think we’ve made these changes. That’s a lack of transparency. It appears as if our names are on the books to legitimize the process. We helped prepare these books back in 2006. We faced some objections and protests for political reasons, but no changes were made to our work. Now changes are being made to suit the demands by certain groups, and the national council that produces and monitors the textbooks is not being transparent. 

Do you think that the textbooks are being edited to appease the government’s “Hindu-first” nationalism?

‘Appeased’ is a mild way to put it. The edits are increasingly aggressive. In my view, the next step will be to overhaul the syllabus completely and to rewrite these textbooks under a new education policy. 

When you helped write the textbooks, there were strong passages about anti-Sikh violence in Delhi in 1984 and anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002. Studying these riots were a part of the curriculum. But the public conversation about such issues now is so polarized.

Textbook writing and curriculum formation have always been very contentious issues. What we tried to do was remain as objective and factual as possible in our treatments of controversial, hotly disputed topics, such as riots or the suspension of civil liberties. Our thinking was that these are textbooks for 12th grade students. They’re going to be voters. We wanted to introduce them to debates in Indian political history and contemporary Indian life without being partisan. We thought that a model had been created in which you appointed experts and let them treat the subject with autonomy.

In 2006, we were shielded from any direct state interference because there was a monitoring committee between us and the government. There was some discomfort in government circles, but we didn’t face a backlash as long as the facts were accurate. My colleague Yogendra Yadav has written about a meeting we had with the education minister at the time. ‘You do your job,’ he told us, ‘and the government will do its job.’ Nobody asked me to change anything in the text.

Do you think you would have the same autonomy under the Modi government?

It’s a hypothetical question, so my answer is presumptuous. But I would argue that these recent redactions show that the national education council has lost its autonomy. I don’t have any experience of working with this present government, so I’m basing my assessment on my observations of the pressure I believe is being put on the media and on academia. This government is interfering far too much. It is trying to control culture, and I doubt if I would be allowed to work on textbooks now with the autonomy I had in 2006.