Researchers in India are concerned that the decision by the country’s apex school body to drop evolution from the Class X syllabus is in tune with other moves by the Narendra Modi government that they say curb unfettered research and imperil young people’s capacity to question.
Against the backdrop of such concerns in Indian academic circles, British biologist and author Richard Dawkins referred to the decision on evolution in a tweet on Thursday and said: “Modi’s BJP is a tragic affront to India’s secular beginnings.”
Only students who opt for the sciences and biology in Classes XI and XII will formally learn about the theory of evolution under the syllabus change made by the National Council of Educational Research and Training. Scientists say they are worried that this will — as one researcher put it — create “a generation of young people who do not ask questions”.
Depriving students at the Class X level of knowledge about evolution is akin to “forcing our children to become myopic”, said Partha Pratim Majumder, a population geneticist and a former president of the Indian Academy of Sciences. “Enabling our children to learn the concept of evolution goes beyond its power as a scientific explanation.”
Dozens of scientists and educators from across the country had in April decried the NCERT’s decision to drop evolution from the Class X syllabus, arguing that evolutionary theory was critical to matters beyond biology and was key to developing a rational worldview.
The changes to the Class X science textbook also include the axing of 15 pages that dealt with natural resources and sustainable management.
The NCERT has explained the changes as part of efforts to rationalise the content and lower the burden on students.
Some scientists say it is unclear whether the decision to drop evolutionary theory, sustainable management, and the periodic table of elements was driven by any specific agenda. “It could be incompetence, an inability to understand what they’ve done,” said a physicist in Bangalore.
But topics such as evolution and sustainability provoke thought and questions from students, said Anindita Bhadra, a biologist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Calcutta.
Knowledge about evolution, scientists assert, encourages critical thinking, while sustainability exposes students to issues of choices and ethics. “If you don’t want children to grow up into thinking and questioning adults, you can begin by removing such topics from the school curriculum,” Bhadra said.
Alongside and preceding the Class X syllabus changes, some researchers say, the steps taken by different government departments in recent years to promote “Indian knowledge systems” have the potential to twist historical facts.
“This is a matter of concern — the steps being taken to promote Indian knowledge systems appear aimed at cultivating unquestionable belief in an imaginary glorious past where aircraft flew over India centuries ago,” said Soumitro Banerjee, professor of physics at IISER Calcutta.
Other government departments too have curbed unfettered research, researchers said. In February 2022, the social justice and empowerment ministry decided that students from socially deprived groups receiving a national scholarship for higher education in foreign universities should not pursue topics related to Indian culture, heritage, history or society.
The rules impose restrictions on students opting for the scholarship to pursue research in foreign universities on the caste system in the Hindu religion, gender equality in India, Brahminical cultural traditions, and poverty in the context of caste, among other topics.
In 2018, the human resource development ministry — now the education ministry — had identified broad themes for which the government would provide research funding, entrusting the Indian Council for Social Science Research with assessing proposals received for research.
The themes include democracy, urban transformation, governance, innovation, public policy, growth, macro-trade and economic policy, agriculture and rural development, health and the environment, science and education, social media, politics, law and economics.
Scholars familiar with the proposals funded say none of them related to caste atrocities, the conflict in Kashmir, or unemployment in India.
Abha Dev Habib, a former member of Delhi University's executive council and a faculty member at Miranda House College, said the government can promote research through grants and scholarships.
"But the government should not prescribe research areas to universities. Research cannot and should not be restricted," Habib said.
"Also, the fact that students availing certain scholarships are not allowed to work on topics related to Indian society, history or culture can only be understood if you see how syllabi at all levels are being modified in line with BJP-RSS propaganda. The Government probably wants to control research in certain areas with the same intent," she said.