[WSMDiscuss] How Textbooks Sanitise Slavery, Make Caste Invisible

Subhash Gatade subhash.gatade at gmail.com
Sun Aug 22 02:50:40 CEST 2021

How Textbooks Sanitise Slavery, Make Caste Invisible
India must reassess school textbooks so that the country stops perpetuating
old hierarchies through the education system.
Subhash Gatade <https://www.newsclick.in/author/Subhash%20Gatade>

21 Aug 2021


The first-of-a-kind study of textbooks taught in the government schools in
Odisha has discovered a strong bias
the oppressed castes in school curricula. The findings corroborate, with
evidence, what many have said: School curricula erase Dalit and non-elite
caste histories and live

A research group comprising ISI Bengaluru and IIT Hyderabad experts
analysed ten literature and social sciences textbooks taught to classes IV
to VIII in Odisha schools. It found that only three of ten books ever
mention Dalits, or only five per cent of the total pages that present
Indian social life. The finding underlines the near invisibility of Dalits
in our school curricula.

Textbooks, especially for the humanities, formally open up the world for
learners. That is why what they include is as important as what they
exclude. In other words, the silences in our textbooks hold lessons for
teachers, students, families and society.

Autobiographies such as Om Prakash Valmiki’s *Jhoothan* and Kancha Ilaiah
Shepherd’s *Why I Am Not a Hindu* speak volumes about the struggles of
first-generation learners who belong to underprivileged families and
communities. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds experience culture
shocks when they enter formal schooling and find no familiar voices in what
they are supposed to learn. Now it is clear that even government-approved
textbooks let them down. Mostly, the dominant caste
<https://www.newsclick.in/Mob-Lynching-Hatred-India> is the norm in their
school texts. The stories in their textbooks do not have a single character
who resembles their intimate ones.

Though the study focuses on schools in Odisha, there are hints in it that
the situation in many other states is no different. The absence of Dalit
characters distances the texts from reality. It may also teach students to
adopt a hierarchical approach in social interactions. In India’s social
life, which is based on exclusion, notions of purity and pollution get
enforced with (overt and covert) violence against the less powerful. The
study refers to school texts in Gujarat, which call the caste system
benign. In Rajasthan, too, caste is described as a good system based on
professional differences.

When late Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister two decades ago,
textbooks were re-written to depict Muslims and Christians
<https://www.theguardian.com/world/2000/jan/25/stephenbates> as “alien
villains”. At the time, there was tremendous resistance against
introducing these
biases. The journalist Stephen Bates had written in the newspaper, The
Guardian <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2000/jan/25/stephenbates>,
about how a social studies text in Gujarat called the caste system the
ideal way to build society. “*Of course, their [lower castes’] ignorance,
illiteracy and blind faith are to be blamed for lack of progress because
they still fail to realise the importance of education in life,*” the book

If more studies are undertaken across states, rampant biases in curricula
against castes, communities, religions, and genders will emerge. Already,
the fourth annual Global Education Monitoring Report
UNESCO from 2020 showed how women and girls are under-represented in school
textbooks the world over. They are also shown in more traditional roles.
There are fewer images of women in texts compared with males. Women are
represented in “less prestigious occupations” or as “passive and
introvert”. The silver lining is that many countries are attempting to
remove gender stereotypes by, for example, showing men and women share
the household

Will India go the same way is the question. In 2019, the NCERT issued a
circular announcing
culling of three chapters from its Class IX history textbook under a policy
to rationalise courses. The topics were clothing and caste conflict,
cricket history, and the impact of colonial capitalism on peasants. This
would mean that the struggles of the Nadar women of Travancore in the early
19th century to wear upper body clothes to cover their breasts, or the
discrimination against the talented cricketer Palwankar Baloo to lead the
Indian cricket team as he was a Dalit, would not be spoken of in textbooks.

A 2019 study
how caste was communicated through textbooks for Class 6 and 10 students has
found some improvements compared with twenty years ago. Today, NCERT
textbooks address caste in a more explanatory way. The author of the study,
journalist Sumit Chaturvedi, credits the National Curriculum Framework
(NCF) 2005 and the Draft Learning Outcomes for elementary education, a
document prepared by the NCERT in 2017, which spoke of sensitising students
towards caste. Yet, Chaturvedi also notes some problems. The books focus on
vulnerable caste groups and their lived experience, whereas dominant caste
identities or the logic of the caste system is not interrogated. The
perception is also created that caste is an issue of the vulnerable only,
which supposedly indemnifies the dominant castes. Third, he notes, the
books still allow the youth to claim they are “casteless”.

Though caste reinvigorates itself over time, it is often taught as “history
<https://www.newsclick.in/we-also-made-history>”, a thing of the past that
has no relation to or continuity with what happens today. It allows the
dominant castes to distance themselves from recognising that caste-based
exclusions and violence are an existing malady. It thus facilitates denial
of the lived experiences of the Dalits
perpetrates violence against those who experience caste discrimination and

Maybe some answers can come from the experiences of another democracy, the
United States. While India is debating caste and its impact, the United
States is discussing race and its attendant biases. The Guardian recently
studied some private schools, especially Christian schools, to reveal a
sinister tendency. The history taught at these schools is not only inaccurate
but also racially biased

The newspaper’s review of dozens of textbooks produced by the popular
Christian textbook publishers Abeka, Bob Jones University Press and
Accelerated Christian Education found slavery described as “black
immigration”. Some of the books say that the South African anti-apartheid
crusader Nelson Mandela helped move his country to a “radical affirmative
action” system.

The problem with how these books frame both slavery and affirmative action
is evident. Slavery refers to the transatlantic trade in humans which
brought the first enslaved blacks to the United States starting in the 16th
century. However, “immigration” is an entirely voluntary
 decision to cross national borders. Further, affirmative action connotes
positive steps to increase the representation of historically excluded
sections of society, such as women or persons of colour, in education, jobs
and culture. Its radical avatar could involve preferential selection based
on gender, race, ethnicity, etc. However, the opponents of affirmative
action conveniently stigmatise the whole idea by calling it “racist,
sexist”, and so on. In other words, these American textbooks are part
of attempts
to sanitise slavery and stigmatise the historic anti-apartheid struggle in
South Africa.

The intense ongoing conversation about race and equity in public schools
naturally raises uncomfortable questions about the deafening silences on
race in America. Private schools, which receive thousands of dollars in
public funding, are whitewashing slavery and project Native Americans as
lesser individuals, and blame the Black Lives Matter
for “sowing racial hatred”. The parallels with India and its struggles with
caste are not hard to find. Both India and America need to introspect on
their school courseware so that the historically excluded do not continue
to be sidelined, whether today or in the future.
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