One of the first things that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government embarked on when it came to power was to ‘rectify’ the various institutional anomalies that had allegedly crept into the sphere of education and research during the tenures of previous governments in India. Pursuing this agenda zealously is the RSS loyalist and Hindutva hardliner, Murli Manohar Joshi, heading the union Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry which controls education in India. Joshi also has additional charge of Science and Technology.
The ‘rectification’ programme that was started had two aspects to it. One involved the reconstitution of various committees and the replacement of heads of research, educational and scientific institutions. The other was changing the very content and intent of broad educational objectives. Therefore, committees were reconstituted and heads changed in the case of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (GNCA), the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR), National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and the University Grants Commission (UGC).
There were other bodies as well that had to bear the impact of the ideological preference of the BJP. Committees of the Council for Advancement of People’s Action in Rural Technology (CAPART) were reconstituted, and the prestigious Indian Institute of Advanced Studies at Shimla given a new director regarded as a sympathiser of the BJP and its ideology. Those institutions which resisted changes were victimised with denial of regular funds. The Gandhian Institute of Studies (GIS) in Varanasi is a ready example. The ICSSR, which channels government funds to institutes under its control, has been instructed not to give funds even for salaries of employees with the GIS. This vendetta was apparently prompted by the government’s inability to install a nominee of the HRD minister as the institute’s director.
Regarding the content of education, despite opposition from several teachers’ bodies and reputed scientists, the HRD Ministry has gone ahead with the plan for introducing vedic sastrology at the university level. Together with this, the popularisation of Sanskrit at various fora has been taken up with a missionary zeal. Teachers’ bodies have been critical of this chauvinistic support for a language which the Sangh calls a “world language”. At the same time, because the government has reduced funds to universities, departments of modem Indian languages all over are dying from lack of financial support.
The most glaring changes, however, have been made in the area of school education. The NCERT which designs the curriculum and recommends changes in almost every aspect of school education in the country, has been at the centre of controversy ever since the BJP came to power in 1998. Curriculum revision was long overdue. The last time it was done was in 1988. This was just the opportunity for the government to take advantage of. A draft curriculum document was circulated, which was criticised by educationists for its undue stress on ‘value education’ or religion. “Values and their emotional dimension”, whatever it was supposed to mean, had to be considered, asserted the draft document. Indeed, the draft is peppered with alternatively meaningless or value-laden statements like: “Values are powerful emotional commitments”, and “Along with globalisation, localisation is also going to have a tremendous impact on the future society.”
The draft also suggested an integrated social science course at the secondary level (classes 6 to 10) which could be done by “reducing the content load discreetly in the concerned subject areas…” The overall thrust of the document is to ‘indigenise’ education and to emphasise India’s greatness in relation to the rest of the world. According to the draft, revision of syllabus is necessary because “while our children know about Newton, they do not know about our own Aryabhat … they do know about the computer but do not know about the concept of zero”. This document on education also goes to the extent of erasing the distinction between verified knowledge and superstitious belief. The section discussing the curriculum content on Science, Technology and Values for the Elementary and Secondary stages, says: “Science education will also have to impact to the students the spirit of enquiry and experimentation even in the areas where scientific evidence is not so far available to sustain some popular traditional faith and which have been rejected outright because of impatient rationality and motivated cynicism.” Thankfully, its eccentric proposals for correcting the “definition of secularism” were finally dropped from the revised curriculum document after objections were raised.
The new document was released on 14 November 2000 by the HRD minister himself. Simultaneously, a Journal of Value Education was also released. It was perceived to be the brain-child of the union Education Secretary, M K Kaw, who used the platform provided to air his obscurantist views in the journal. As a senior bureaucrat, it was especially improper on his part to claim that the greatest damage to intellectual freedom in India has been caused by traditional religions, especially by those which have a single holy book from which they derive their authority. When his musings be came public, the National Commission on Minorities took notice and compelled Kaw to is sue an apology. However, those passages and other equally damaging statements are yet to be expunged from the journal. Neither has the NCERT, which publishes the journal, dissociated itself from the contents.
Never before had the question of religion, spirituality and its relevance in school education been taken up so seriously. Moral science as a subject had existed in Indian school syllabi for long but this emphasis on value and spiritual education, is fraught with problems since it would exclude anything other than Hindu ideals. Moreover, various departments in the NCERT were not taken into confidence before the draft curriculum was finalised. The draft itself did not have the approval of the Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE), which is the supreme body on all such matters. The meeting of the CABE was never called. Senior officials in NCERT also claim that all state councils had passed the d raft. But nobody seems to know much about how the proposals and amendments were effected.
After the criticism poured in, some of the suggestions pertaining to correcting the “definition of secularism”, and science to be used to “sustain traditional faiths” did not feature in the new document. The satraps at NCERT were not to be held back, however. They had, after all, promised to have a course of integrated social science for the secondary level of education with history, geography or economics/civics forming separate components. This was what was meant by reducing the “content load discreetly”.
History was specially targeted. Works by well-known historians like R S Sharma, Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra and Satish Chandra, which have been around for nearly 30 years, had become an eyesore for the ruling dispensation. So history was seen to be the best place to start in correcting the “imbalances”. There were voices within NCERT which insisted that these books had been updated and revised since their inception, and the only thing that was objectionable was, if anything, the ideological opposition of these historians to the BJP and its Hindutva agenda. But those voices were drowned. Some of these historians had been part of an expert committee group on text books, but now they were removed to make room for what was officially termed as “younger faces”. However, as it turned out, the reconstituted committee was peopled by octogenarians, as well as individuals with very average credentials. Not only has history as a separate subject & been done away with, gone are the established’ names associated with it. The new integrated social science will most likely come into effect from next year.
These and other moves to “saffronise” education have been raised time and again both in the media as well as Parliament. Left members of Parliament and a section of the Congress(I), especially the Rajya Sabha MP Eduardo Faleiro, have been consistent in their criticism. But to little effect. The latest move of the legislators opposing Murli Manohar Joshi’s agenda, has been to form a Parliamentary Forum on Education and Culture, and the first thing it has taken up is the goings-on at NCERT. Whether this builds up enough pressure will have to be seen, but as of now, the Indian government is bull dozing its way through in the area of education-a saffron bull in the china shop of secular learning.