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Edits to Indian textbooks anger historians

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Historians in India have expressed outrage over changes in 12th grade textbooks, especially references to the extremist ideology that's believed to be the reason behind the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Called the father of the nation, Gandhi is known globally for his nonviolent campaign for India's independence. Critics see this as an attempt to appropriate the government's pro-Hindu agenda. From Delhi, Shalu Yadav reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

SHALU YADAV, BYLINE: I am about 70 miles from Delhi, in the northeastern town of Meerut, a group of men are paying their respects to the statue of Nathuram Godse - the man who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, one of India's most revered leaders.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

YADAV: This is a part of their daily routine where they start with prayers and slogans glorifying Godse. They are members of a far-right Hindu nationalist group called Hindu Mahasabha, to which Godse belonged. They accuse Gandhi of betraying Hindus by being too pro-Muslim and also for the partition of India in 1947, which led to the creation of the neighboring Islamic nation Pakistan.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

YADAV: After the prayer ends, one of the members, Abhishek Agarwal, tells me he's proud of what Godse did.

ABHISHEK AGARWAL: (Through interpreter) Scores of Hindus were killed by Muslims during partition because of Gandhi. Someone had to come forward to punish the man responsible for those killings. It is because of Gandhi that we still have so many Muslims living in India.

YADAV: But the founding fathers of post-colonial India had always argued that the country's diversity could only survive under a secular umbrella. And for generations, Godse had been portrayed as a criminal and even a Hindu extremist, who was hanged after a lengthy trial in 1949. But these narratives are changing, and they start from the 12th grade history and political science textbooks. I've come to a market just at the outskirts of Delhi where students are buying these textbooks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And they are (inaudible) class 12, political science and history books.

YADAV: I've just found the old and new versions of the same textbook. The paragraphs in the latest version are much shorter after the alterations. The older version says that Gandhi's steadfast pursuit of Hindu-Muslim unity provoked Hindu extremists so much that they made several attempts to assassinate him. This version also says that after Gandhi was killed, the government banned right-wing organizations like the RSS, or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. But in the new version, this line is nowhere to be seen.

Before joining the Hindu Mahasabha, Godse had also been a member of the RSS, which is now the ideological frontier of the ruling Hindu nationalist party, the BJP. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has been a longtime member of the group. The RSS denies its involvement in the assassination of Gandhi. Ram Madhav, a prominent member of the RSS, defended the move and called the textbooks changes, quote, "only a rationalization."

RAM MADHAV: It's only a rationalization. No historical person's contribution have been ignored or undermined. Syllabus has only been rationalized so that too much repetition doesn't happen, which leads to too much burden on the students.

YADAV: But it's not just Gandhi's legacy that has been weakened in the new textbooks. The contribution of India's first education minister, Maulana Azad, a Muslim, for example, is no longer mentioned. Some references to Mughal rule in India have been removed. References to the 2002 deadly riots that killed hundreds of Muslims in Gujarat, where Modi was the state's top leader, were reduced to one line.

MRIDULA MUKHERJEE: Imagine that in the United States you had a history which wiped out the history of slavery, which wiped out the history of Blacks, which didn't tell you about Martin Luther King, which didn't tell you what he fought for, really, or why he was assassinated.

YADAV: These alterations worry historians such as Mridula Mukherjee. She blames the ruling BJP government for trying to reshape India into a Hindu-first nation.

MUKHERJEE: We cannot blind ourselves to the fact that these are part of a pattern - and a very dangerous pattern. These are not just things happening by chance.

YADAV: Tushar Gandhi, the great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, agrees. He fears that a secular country that his ancestor once fought for is slowly losing the pluralistic values as the country is being turned into a Hindu-majoritarian nation.

TUSHAR GANDHI: The voices of truth have to be raised. Otherwise, we will lose his legacy. And that will be a greater tragedy than his murder in 1948.

YADAV: A greater tragedy for a tolerant democracy that India has been known for. For NPR News, I'm Shalu Yadav in Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shalu Yadav