‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’
― George Orwell, 1984.
In recent times, quoting George Orwell to comment on the prevailing socio-political scenario has reached the point of banality. As you scroll through your social media feed, you are bound to encounter bits and bobs of Animal Farm or 1984 littered across your timeline.
The ubiquity of Orwell’s well-worn words often dulls their impact but if we allow ourselves to stay with them for a moment – engage with the ideas they express – then soon enough, their astonishing prescience becomes evident. And you also begin to recognise that the dystopian and foreboding themes he explored in his works almost a century ago, have come to define the world we live in today. So much so, that our reality – typified by burgeoning authoritarianism, the shrinking space for dissent, and the reshaping of history – is best described by a term that is equal parts homage and warning: Orwellian.
The revision of social sciences textbooks by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) is the latest example of such Orwellian ideals at play. A recent report in the Indian Express, delving into the edits made in the history, sociology and political science texts for students of Classes 6 to 12, made a number of worrying revelations. A paragraph in the Class 11 sociology book mentioning the Gujarat riots of 2002 in the context of communal violence and ‘ghettoisation’ was found to have been deleted, thereby, removing all references to the Gujarat riots from the NCERT social science textbooks.
Details surrounding Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, the dislike he invited from “Hindu extremists” for his “steadfast pursuit of Hindu-Muslim unity”, and the banning of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the wake of Mahatma Gandhi’s death, have all been excised. Chapters pertaining to the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal empire have not (yet) been fully erased, but large chunks are reported to have been lopped off. And in a bizarre twist dripping with irony, the passages discussing the controversies surrounding the Emergency and abuse of state power have also been removed.
Although the updated textbooks have only been released now, the revisions had been proposed by the NCERT last year as part of a ‘rationalisation’ exercise. Indeed, the latest changes are a continuation of the overhaul of NCERT texts carried out in 2022, which had resulted in the deletion of references to caste-based discrimination and critique of sedition law, among other alterations. The intent, ostensibly, was to “lessen” the burden on students who had to re-orient themselves academically in the post-pandemic era. But it is difficult not to view the pruning of the NCERT textbooks as yet another attempt to suppress, or subvert, the past.
Earlier this year, the BBC released a two-part documentary on the Gujarat riots titled India: The Modi Question. The documentary was believed to have cast a “critical glare” at the prime minister (who was the chief minister of Gujarat at the time of the riots) and was derided by members of the ruling dispensation. The Assam Assembly even passed a resolution against the BBC for its “malicious and dangerous” agenda.
The government, in response, directed the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to remove links to the documentary from YouTube and Twitter. A few days later, the offices of BBC India were “surveyed” by the income tax department, reportedly as part of an investigation pertaining to tax evasion.
While the controversy surrounding the BBC documentary was a fresh reminder of the authorities’ ability to muzzle any discourse on unsavoury events from the past, scholars have long bemoaned the increasing manipulation of historical figures to foment religious antagonism.
Centuries may have passed since their tryst with power but Mughal rulers – a convenient proxy for a religious minority – continue to remain in the cross hairs of Indian politicians. Time and again, incendiary statements are made to underline the notion of Mughal rule being “exploitative, barbaric”, and as having “harmed Indian civilisation and traditions.”
Historical dramas produced by Bollywood, like Padmaavat, only serve to reinforce these stereotypes, as they caricature the Muslim Sultan as a ravenous villain. From demands for changing names to removal of graves, politicians who claim to detest the Muslim rulers of yore, seem to keep finding ways to revive their memory in public consciousness.
Inevitably, political exigency has led to the spread of this insidious polemic from the heart of the erstwhile Mughal empire to all corners of the country. For instance, in the lead-up to the assembly elections in Karnataka, the rhetoric surrounding Tipu Sultan has been growing shriller. Once revered as a hero who fought valiantly against the British East India Company, he has of late been recast as a tyrant and a “mass murderer” of Hindus.
A nuanced discussion of Tipu (and other Muslim rulers) as being products of their times – who could resort to both political pragmatism and violence – has been made difficult in a climate where politicians raise wolfish cries asking their supporters to “send Tipu’s descendants back home”. But it is, at least, a discussion that is possible. When we begin to erase history altogether, we leave no room for any discussion at all.
Therefore, if school textbooks are being modified to present an amputated version of our past, it is the responsibility of civil society to ensure that what is deleted from the curriculum today, is not forgotten tomorrow. We owe a duty to the future generations of citizens to remember, to share our memories, to engage in dialogue, and to keep the public spirit of inquiry alive. For if we fail, the Orwellian may well become the norm.
Rohan Banerjee is a lawyer in Mumbai. Views expressed are personal.