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Hundreds of scientists protest the Indian government's changes made to textbooks

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Hundreds of scientists in India have expressed concern over the removal of topics like the theory of evolution and the periodic table from 10th-grade textbooks. The latest omission is one in a series of changes made this year, including in history textbooks. Critics say that it's part of the ruling BJP government's agenda to replace Western scientific concepts with traditional Hindu theories. From Delhi, Shalu Yadav reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SATYA PAL SINGH: (Speaking Hindi).

SHALU YADAV, BYLINE: "For thousands of years since we've been hearing stories from our grandparents, no one has ever said that they saw someone go into a forest and seeing a monkey that turned into a man. Darwin's theory is scientifically wrong."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SINGH: (Speaking Hindi).

YADAV: Those were the words of India's ruling BJP party MP Satya Pal Singh in 2017, rubbishing Darwin's theory of evolution and advocating its removal from school curriculum. Six years on, his wish has come true.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: A certain circuit went on to say that there is a banning evolution in India.

YADAV: English naturalist Charles Darwin's theory that states that humans shared a common ancestor with apes has been removed from grade 10 science textbook. The government justified the move by saying that the theory is still a part of grade 12 syllabus, but the reality is that only a small fraction of students choose the science stream beyond grade 10, and even smaller fraction of those choose biology. And so the exclusion of this theory from grade 10 syllabus means that millions of students will never get to read about it. The chapter on periodic table has also been scrapped.

AMITABH PANDEY: We are trying to compete with China. We are trying to compete with the U.S. But how is it possible without scientific temper, without scientific worldview?

YADAV: Amitabh Pandey is one of the hundreds of scientists who wrote an open letter protesting the government's decision. He says depriving students of basic scientific knowledge is dangerous.

PANDEY: I'm afraid this is taking India backward. Last decade, we have lost almost two generations. But world is going ahead. Nobody will wait for us. Nobody will care for us.

YADAV: The belief that ancient Hindu practices are superior to modern science is not new in India. It existed way before the Hindu nationalist BJP government came to power in 2014. But this viewpoint, which used to be on the fringe, is now taking the center stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Speaking Hindi).

YADAV: This is the voice of India's Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, claiming that the world's first plastic surgery was performed in India thousands of years ago on a Hindu god, Ganesha, who sports an elephant trunk on his face. He also claimed that genetic science existed in ancient India. Taking a cue from the prime minister, many ministers and government officials have made similar unscientific claims.

MEERA NANDA: That whole business of ancient Indians being the first scientists is part of that whole agenda of making India great again. You know, it's Trumpian in that sense. You know, make India great again by making it Hindu again. That's sort of thing is going on.

YADAV: Scientist and author Meera Nanda says that pseudoscience is systematically being formalized in the Indian educational setup.

NANDA: Since the BJP has come to power, major research centers have been taken over by the foot soldiers of the Hindu right. There, the project is to reinterpret Indian history as a golden age in which all scientific advances took place, which preempted the discoveries of, let's say, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin - the very pillars of modern science.

YADAV: The Indian Constitution says that it's a fundamental duty of every citizen to develop scientific temper and the spirit of inquiry and reform. But that spirit, critics say, is now shrouded in ancient and sometimes archaic belief systems.

For NPR News, I'm Shalu Yadav in Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shalu Yadav

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