Never shy about courting controversy, the Hindu nationalist government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has removed references to Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution from some school textbooks, specifically those used in ninth and tenth grade science classes in Indian public schools.
This startling decision was recently announced by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), a government organization tasked with choosing textbooks and set curricula for India’s 256 million students.
For the 2021-22 school year, questions about evolution were removed from ninth and tenth grade examinations in India, although the topic was still taught. But now evolution has been officially expunged from the science textbooks that students in these grades read, putting it on the list of forbidden topics.
Representational image of a censored textbook. The Hindu nationalist government is removing references to Darwinian evolution from textbooks in India. ( gopixa / Adobe Stock)
Scientists React to Removal of Darwinian Evolution from Textbooks in India
Indian scientists have been quick to speak out against what they consider the politicization of science by the Modi regime, which is aligned with the Hindu nationalist movement that rejects evolution on mostly religious grounds.
“The country’s scientific community is seriously dismayed to see that the theory of biological evolution… has been dropped,” India’s nonprofit Breakthrough Science Society said in a statement quoted by Science Insider . “Students will remain seriously handicapped in their thought processes if deprived of exposure to this fundamental discovery of science.”
The Breakthrough Science Society has collected signatures from more than 4,000 scientists and researchers in an open letter that implores NCERT to reverse their decision and return evolution to the list of approved subject matter for early high school students.
Meanwhile, as a representative of the Jawaharlal Nehru Center for Advanced Scientific Research, evolutionary biologist Amitabh Joshi has called the removal of evolution from science textbooks “a travesty of the notion of a well-rounded secondary education.”
As of now, students who choose to study biology as an elective in the 11th and 12th grades will still use textbooks that discuss evolution. But this has not stemmed the tide of criticism the Modi government has faced for its interference in science teaching, for reasons that have nothing to do with science.
“Evolution is perhaps the most important part of biology that all educated citizens should be aware of,” Joshi said, decrying the fact that students who don’t choose a biology elective will not be taught about this topic. “It speaks directly to who we are, as humans, and our position within the living world.”
Another academic criticizing the decision to delete Darwinian evolution from textbooks is the former head of NCERT, Krishna Kumar, who served in that position before Narendra Modi and his nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rose to power in 2014.
“No one knows the full extent of deletions from the textbooks,” he told Al Jazeera . “Can you imagine a student passing 10th standard without knowing who Darwin was?”
While rejecting Darwinian evolution, nationalist Hindu groups are promoting an alternative theory of evolution that sees the various forms of animal and human life as avatars, or living embodiments, of the Hindu creator god Vishnu.
In this theory, there are ten Vishnu avatars that have manifested on Earth overall, representing different groups of life forms, and collectively they are known as the Dashavatara in Hindu scripture. The avatars appeared on Earth in different stages, with each successive set of life forms they created being more complex than those that came before, essentially recreating the steps of traditional evolutionary theory.
Dashavatara cards depicting the ten avatars of the god Vishnu, as mentioned in Hindu religious texts. Nationalist Hindu groups have rejected Darwinian evolution in India in favor of promoting this alternative theory of evolution. ( mitrarudra / Adobe Stock)
Indian History Under Attack By Hindu Fundamentalists
The attempt to shape school curriculums to bring them more into alignment with Hindu fundamentalism and Indian nationalist rhetoric hasn’t stopped with the altering of science textbooks. NCERT has made changes in other types of texts as well, deleting passages that make Hindu nationalists uncomfortable from political science and history books used at various grade levels.
For example, in 2020 NCERT removed two sentences from 11th and 12th grade political science texts that discuss the beliefs and achievements of the great Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi . One deleted sentence noted that Gandhi “was convinced that any attempt to make India into a country only for Hindus would destroy India,” while a second deleted sentence reported that “steadfast pursuit of Hindu-Muslim unity provoked Hindu extremists so much that they made several attempts to assassinate Gandhi.”
The Hindu nationalist educational reformers that currently run NCERT have also taken aim at the country’s more ancient political history, specifically seeking to delegitimize or ignore the accomplishments and contributions of Muslims. They’ve ordered the deletion from Indian history textbooks of whole sections devoted to the Mughals, an Islamic people whose leaders ruled the Indian subcontinent from the 16th through the 19th centuries.
At the height of its power the Mughal Empire stretched from southern India into the lands of modern Bangladesh and Afghanistan as well. Schoolchildren are now being denied the right to learn about the achievements of this empire, and about an important time in Indian history.
All of these censorious actions have been heavily criticized by academics. But few expect the Indian government to reverse course. “Will [the protest] make any difference?” asks biologist Satyajit Rath, the former president of the All India Peoples Science Network. “Given the recent trajectories of such decisions of the government of India, probably not, at least over the short term. Sustained progressive efforts will be required to influence the long-term outcomes.”
At the same time NCERT has been tinkering with textbook content, Hindu nationalists have begun pushing for changes in curriculums that would include fictional stories about how the Hindus have been historically repressed by India’s Muslim minority (Muslims currently comprise 14 percent of the Indian population).
They also want scientific history to be rewritten, to include tales about how ancient Hindu scientists carried out stem cell research and invented machines that could fly into space long before modern science had conceived of such things.
Scientists in India, and throughout the world, stress that all educated citizens should be aware of Darwinian evolution in the study of biology. ( frank / Adobe Stock)
When Challenges to Science Go Wrong
Scientifically-based challenges to Darwinian evolution, or any other current prevailing theory, should be welcomed in academic settings at all levels. Even critiques that include a religious or spiritual element, but are still grounded in evidence and scientific reasoning, should be included in the conversation.
But what is happening in Indian schools does not seem to be rooted in a respect for scientific diversity. It is instead motivated by popular fashions in Indian nationalist politics and by reactionary religious fervor.
“The school curriculum is badly brutalized,” Krishna Kumar stated, summing up his feelings about the recent actions of Modi’s National Council of Educational Research and Training. “It is so unfortunate that an entire batch of students will turn out to be completely ignorant about important concepts of science and history.”
Top image: The teaching of Darwinian evolution is under threat in India. Source: Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde
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