Textbook strategy

Each time there is an election on the horizon, the Indian political parties play out a great game. In the last few years this game has been enacted along the following lines: the BJP attempts to push through an agenda it knows will be termed foul, sectarian and anti-minority by the ´secular´ parties. Sometimes it succeeds, but when it doesn´t, it uses that opportunity to point out that ´anti-communal´ has now come to mean ´anti-Hindu´.     With assembly elections due in four states, one could have ignored the farce this time around had it not, regrettably, been about education. The distressing irony is that the real farce being played out in the country is in primary education. To talk about "spiritualising, nationalising and Indianising" education, without providing teachers, blackboards, books or class rooms, is rather like debating the contents of a cookery book for the really poor. It is so vile that one recoils in horror to think what the bjp will think of next.

Manohar Joshi, the human resource development minister and RSS voice, was arranging an education ministers conference when he came up with the idea that there should be in the discussion papers a note – the origins of which can be traced back to Vidya Bharati (the education wing of the RSS) – which delineates exactly how the Indian education system should be changed. Its recommendations included compulsory Sanskrit in schools.

To further spice up the meeting, Joshi decided that he would begin it with Saraswati Vandana (in praise of the Hindu goddess of learning). The expected happened. It was like a scene from parliament; walkouts and protests, including by those from the Akali Dal and the Telugu Desam (both BJP allies), forced Joshi to withdraw his agenda, while the prime minister apologetically explained that his esteemed colleague should not be misunderstood, and that his minister had no plans of pushing through a sectarian agenda.

That is where the prime minister went wrong. Joshi did plan to do exactly that. Vidya Bharati, the provider of the ideol- ogy for the discussion papers, uses in its schools, textbooks in which the map of India includes Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Tibet. This it calls "Punyabhoomi Bharat". These books contain questions like "Name an island which touches the feet of India?" The answer? Sri Lanka. There is a section on the Babri Masjid followed by questions (and a detailed answer key) like "Who was the first Muslim to plunder Ramjanambhoomi shrine, how many times, who built this temple and why is it not a Masjid?" Or better still, "Why is 2 November the blackest day in the history of the country?" to which the answer is "That day kar sevaks were attacked in Ayodhya". This is what is being taught to 10-year-olds.

Indian school curricula were created at a time when socialist intellectuals wanted to create the building blocks for a pragmatic society that drew its inspiration from the Utopian socialists. Even colleges use texts that still retain the "original socialist flavour", capitalism for instance is taught from a book written by Maurice Dobb (a pragmatic socialist).

The bjp´s argument is that the existing system is "rootless" and that it attempts to create an identity that goes against the natural grain of the spiritual Indian. They start with the assumption that the Indian is naturally spiritual, and therefore Indian-ness, and by extension nationalism, has to be taught through spirituality. This inevitably ties in with the concept of a unified identity under the Hindu umbrella. They would do better to leave the question of identity and spirituality to the social environment in which the child is reared. In other words, let the parent decide where to "root" early attempts at planting identity.

The solution lies in empowering the NCERT (National Council for Educational Research and Training) to bring together from each state historians, teachers, writers, and teacher-trainers to review texts and make recommendations. The NCERT must be revitalised and its workings made completely autonomous. Its recommendations must then be taken seriously and its state-level committees must clear standard texts for all government schools. Private schools that follow the All India Board (and therefore uses NCERT textbooks) should be made to fund this project. It is not difficult to convince a 10-year old that there is an unbroken continuity in the spirit of India, which stems from its remarkably pure Hindu past and, which was preserved by valiant individuals and childhood heroes like Shivaji, Rana Pratap, Ahilya Bai and Laxmi Bai. It is easy to follow that argument to its logical conclusion and single out the invaders and marauders. If they don´t believe you, show them the book. Children want to believe the written word; it is purer than anything they touch. The word is the easiest thing to exploit. The RSS know that well: they have been in the education business for a long time. They also know how important it is for teachers to be trained. The students´ attention span, their interest, and their desire to stay on at school depend on the abilities of their teachers. Imbue the teacher with the correct message and it is sure to permeate down to the classroom. There is a lot at stake, and the only people who seem to realise this are the ones who believe that students will be more Indian once their history books confirm which ones among them are the really pure ones.

Now that the Saraswati Vandana has been ´desecrated´, the BJP has something to go to the polls with. When the elections are over, predictably this fracas will die down. But the issues that have been raised merit serious attention.

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