India takes a distressing retreat from democracy

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Not long ago, a 12th-grade political science textbook in India informed students about the 2002 Gujarat riots. Triggered by the death of Hindu pilgrims in a train fire, a violent rampage killed nearly a thousand Muslims. The chief minister of the province was Narendra Modi. The school textbook noted that the government was criticized for failing to control the violence, and told students that the events “alert us to the dangers involved in using religious sentiments for political purposes. This poses a threat to democratic politics.”

But future classes will not read this passage. Mr. Modi, now prime minister of India, is attempting to impose a Hindu-led majoritarianism upon the country, including on its school curriculums and textbooks. Two pages about the Gujarat events were slashed, and other events in the long history of India’s 200 million Muslims deleted. India’s schoolchildren and its democracy are the worse for it.
India’s National Council of Educational Research and Training has been working since last year on the revised curriculum. According to The Post’s Anumita Kaur, the changes will be felt in thousands of classrooms in at least 20 states. The deletions are wide-ranging. Chapters on the country’s historic Islamic rulers are either slimmed down or gone; an entire chapter in the 12th-grade history textbook, “Kings and Chronicles: The Mughal Courts,” was deleted. Millions of students across India will know of the iconic Taj Mahal, but their textbooks will not delve into the Mughal Empire that constructed it.

According to the Indian Express, which first detailed the cuts last June, four chapters in different grade levels about democracy — and the making of India’s renowned democracy — have been sliced. For example, a chapter titled “Key Elements of a Democratic Government” in the sixth-grade political science text was dropped. The Express reports this is the first detailed introduction to the concept of democracy in middle school and describes critical elements that influence the working of a democratic government, including people’s participation, conflict resolution, equality and justice.

State governments led by Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party have for years been rewriting local school textbooks, but now the effort has been extended to the national level. This is a discouraging development for the world’s most populous democracy. A healthy democracy must be prepared to re-examine its past without airbrushing out unpleasant events. It must accommodate different views and disparate peoples in open debate. Erasing the story of India’s Muslims from textbooks is just as outrageous as Russia airbrushing out the history of Joseph Stalin’s repressions or China suppressing mention of the Tiananmen Square massacre. What’s more, indoctrinating children now will ensure that a warped version of history lingers for generations.

There are other disturbing signs of retreat. The BBC recently aired a two-part documentary, “India: The Modi Question,” shown on television only in Britain. The film is focused on the prime minister’s role in the Gujarat violence. It describes a previously unpublished report, obtained by the BBC from the U.K. Foreign Office, claiming that Mr. Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that enabled the violence. (The United States also banned Mr. Modi from entering the United States for a decade because of his actions. It was lifted when he became prime minister in 2014.) Mr. Modi has rejected the accusation, and a Supreme Court panel said there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute.
But as soon as word of the documentary began circulating in India, Mr. Modi’s government reacted harshly, attempting to block people from streaming it. Then Indian tax agents raided BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai. This is an intimidation tactic most commonly used by China, Russia and other dictatorships to silence the news media. It is hardly appropriate for a democracy.

India has now surpassed China as the world’s most populous nation. Its role in the world, a counterweight to China’s, remains a vital concern of the United States. The Biden administration has chosen not to speak loudly about Mr. Modi’s distressing retreat from democracy. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo described Mr. Modi recently as “unbelievable, visionary.” The administration should be just as vocal about his backsliding.

“Modi is attempting to impose a Hindu-led majoritarianism upon the country, including on its school curriculums &textbooks. Two pages about the Gujarat events were slashed,& other events in the long history of India’s 200M Muslims deleted”: Washington Post

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