No Mughals in Maharashtra

The Maharashtra government has decided to revise the state curriculum in history textbooks for Class VII. The most notable revision is the omission of the Mughals in India and Muslim rulers before them, such as Muhammad bin Tuqhlaq and Razia Sultana, while keeping Shivaji as the focal point of the medieval period.

A simple way to bring a long-term ideological shift in a country is to alter the curriculum in school textbooks. However, removing the Mughals from textbooks has deeper meanings.

Mughals represent Muslims in India, and in the current political climate, Muslims are the “other” who do not fit in with the majoritarian idea of India. Take the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 that seeks to award citizenship on humanitarian grounds to persecuted minorities from six countries on the basis of religion — excluding Muslims and Jews. There are instances of the police arresting consenting adults on the basis of their religious identity for committing a “crime” called “love jihad”. There are lynchings of Indian citizens on the basis of religion and instead of aggressive reassurance and tighter law and order enforcement, one observes a stoic silence or token condemnation by the current leadership.

A government whose mandate was pegged to “sabka saath, sabka vikas” often finds itself clashing with the idea of the “other” — anything that differs from its definition of Indian identity. Erasing the Mughals from India’s past is delegitimising the history of Muslims in India, and invalidating its impact on the broader contours of the country. It is an attempt to whitewash the ramifications of an era, seen scattered across Indian cities in the form of monuments, heard in the lilt of Dilip Kumar’s Urdu dialogues in vintage Bollywood movies, tasted in flavours of Indian wedding cuisines.

This state government’s decision was defended on the grounds that it looked at history from a “Maharashtra-centric point of view”. A similar argument was made by the Rajasthan government in 2015, when it dropped the writings of progressive Urdu writers such as Ismat Chugtai from the school curriculum.

The problem with this justification is two-pronged. While local and regional discourses should be a part of state and central curriculum, the purpose of education — especially the humanities and social sciences — is lost if it focuses only on the local just to stay within the confines of context. Second, the influence of the Mughal era is not limited to a single state, but has contributed to shaping contemporary India. It represents a period spanning centuries and excluding it on the ground that it is irrelevant to Maharashtra is flawed.

The attempt is to rewrite history through selective representations, ignoring significant periods and protagonists, and reshaping ideas of nationalism, patriotism and identity. Instead of exposing students to the diversity of India’s past,and to the intricacies that make its people, it is easier to focus on a linear narrative that fits with the political ideology of a ruling party.

Nations led by an identity-obsessed dispensation often erase and rewrite their past or highlight certain events over others. An authoritarian leadership attempts to obliterate the contributions of historical figures whose ideology and politics is dissimilar. This is seen in Turkey, where the government recommended changes to the curriculum in textbooks to reduce the focus on the political principles of the country’s secular first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, while erasing Ataturk’s successor, Ismet Inönü. Both were responsible for separating the state from religious affairs, and bringing a secular ethos into Turkey after the end of the Ottoman Caliphate. Additionally, the government removed the theory of evolution from textbooks because it opposed religious Islamic values.

Russia too is no stranger to the fear of history textbooks, and having them re-written to support a political agenda. Stalin was known to commission and use history textbooks for narrative control, propaganda and to airbrush enemies out of photographs. In 2013, President Vladimir Putin ordered an official account of Russia’s history, under guidelines laid out by historians chosen by the president. The guidelines celebrated Putin as a great leader, omitted mentions of protests or opposition, and were considered soft on Stalin.

An unbiased retelling of an event or a period pegged to facts opens it up to the bedrock of democracy — debate, critique and analysis. Each topic in this discipline brings with it counter points of view and differing schools of thought. Therefore, no academic discipline frightens an authoritarian government more than the history of its own country.

Instead of training school children to critique a significant period and understand the complex personalities who helped shape it, the Maharashtra government wants to wish it away. Instead of owning India’s rich and complicated past that eventually led to it becoming the largest democracy in the world, it is content with writing insular textbooks.

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