Indian textbooks delete Nelson Mandela, Jawaharlal Nehru

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An independent education panel in the Indian state of Rajasthan caused a firestorm by almost completely erasing the legacy of the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, from a draft school textbook, the Indian Express reported.

In an omission akin to deleting George Washington or Thomas Jefferson from American history books, a new secondary school textbook posted online contains a few scant references to Nehru but no discussion of his role securing India’s independence from Great Britain or overseeing the country’s tumultuous early years as a new democracy, the report noted on Sunday.

The secondary education board in the state — led by India’s governing conservative Bharatiya Janata Party — earlier removed the work of Western poets like John Keats and T.S. Eliot and excised a chapter on Nelson Mandela from its textbooks — calling it “meaningless.” The Mandela chapter was replaced with writing on India’s tribal communities, according to the Times of India.

Leaders said that they wanted to bring the work of Indian authors closer to students.

“It is strange and unfortunate Rajasthan students have been reading chapters on Africa and poems by foreign authors while they are ignorant about our own tribals and poets. These textbooks giving undue importance to foreign authors and chapters are meaningless,” a senior committee member told the Times of India.

The move comes as the country’s central government is set to unveil a new national education policy which some historians and educators fear could bring similar changes. India’s education minister, Smriti Irani, came under fire in recent days for a plan for India’s ancient Sanskrit to be taught in its prized engineering and technical universities, whose alumni include Google’s Sundar Pachai, among others. She later said it would be taught as an elective.

Changing or rewriting Indian history has long been a source of controversy and political debate. A similar effort occurred during the last Hindu nationalist-led government of 1999-2004, where educational texts were rewritten to celebrate the lives of Hindu Kings over the Mughal emperors. Hindu nationalists have long argued that much of Indian history has been written from a Euro-centric, colonial perspective and needs to be adapted.

Back then — and now in Rajasthan — the assassination of Mohandas K. Gandhi, regarded as the father of the nation, was glaringly omitted from textbooks. Gandhi was assassinated by a member of the Hindu right wing in 1948 by a man who believed his policies had appeased Muslims.

The man, Nathuram Godse, had briefly been a part of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu nationalist group closely associated with the B.J.P., the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Not surprisingly, India’s Congress Party leaders — led by the descendants of Nehru, including vice president Rahul Gandhi, his great-grandson — were not pleased by the move.

Congress party leader Sachin Pilot said in a tweet that deleting Nehru from textbooks was a demonstration of the party’s “petty thinking.”