Saffronising education

Twisted texts

Print edition : December 26, 2014

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is welcomeed by Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani on Teachers' Day in New Delhi on September 5. In the name of reforms, the government wants to fill up top educational posts with people ideologically acceptable to it. Photo: Vijay Verma/PTI

NCERT director Parvin Sinclair, who has been shown the door.

Y. Sudarshan Rao, who has eulogised the caste system, has been appointed chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research. Photo: M. Murali

Tejomay Bharat, a textbook published by the Gujarat State School Textbook Board, seeks to present myths as history.

Arjun Dev, Professor of History. He feels the study of classical languages could be taken up at higher education levels. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A series of steps taken by the government in the name of reforms lay bare its motive to saffronise education and educational institutions at all costs.

THE ROLE OF EDUCATION in social transformation is indisputable. That the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) takes education very seriously is equally indisputable. What is contentious, however, is the prescription for its brand of educational reform, which will not necessarily translate into any meaningful social change. Rather, the party attempts to create an aura of superiority based on facile assumptions and erroneous positions.

What began with the trashing and pulping of a book on gods and renewed litigation against an Indologist has now taken a more distinct shape in terms of the approach to education itself, most of which seems to project an obscurantist and insular India even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi is busy forging bonds outside the country. The manner in which the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government went about rectifying the “errors” in National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks, with the aim of purging them of alleged Marxist and Macaulayan influence, left no one in doubt that school textbooks would once again be a target of the present government in the name of correcting historical wrongs.

An educationist goes

While NCERT textbooks are yet to come under the scanner, the Union Human Resource Development Ministry (HRD) has dispensed with the services of NCERT Director Prof. Parvin Sinclair, who took over the post in January 2012. Although she was asked to leave over some alleged irregularities in the purchases made, the reasons for her removal lay elsewhere. There was no inquiry. The executive committee of the NCERT raised the issue of procedural lapses, but there was no charge sheet against her. The Ministry just relieved her of her duties. It is clear that the government’s idea was to bring in someone of its choice. A joint director will head the NCERT until a new director is appointed.

Parvin Sinclair had ordered a review of the reports of the focus groups on various subjects, which were to form the basis of the drafting of the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005. She had set up groups to review the old documents, a process that people acquainted with the NCERT processes pointed out was quite normal. When she was teaching at Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), Parvin Sinclar, a mathematics professor, herself chaired the focus group on mathematics in the run-up to the preparation of the NCF. While a fresh review of the NCF was due and the government would have ordered it had the NCERT, which is fully empowered to undertake such reviews, not done so, the manner in which the director was shown the door before her term ended came as a surprise.

Barring the one instance in 1977, when the then NCERT director put in his papers voluntarily when the Janata Party came to power, no other director has been told to leave before his/her term ended. In fact, insiders pointed out that even J.S. Rajput, who was the director during the NDA regime and continued a little into the United Progressive Alliance’s regime too, demitted office only after completing his term. That he was not given another term is another matter.

The HRD Ministry has declared that it will take a fresh look at New Education Policy 1986, which, it says was framed by a small group of people. The NEP, based on the recommendations of the Kothari Commission on education of 1968, was the first comprehensive policy on education and was adopted by Parliament after a lot of discussions. The recommendations of the Kothari Commission itself were adopted only after a resolution was passed in Parliament.

Mother of all languages

The government does seem to be serious about taking a relook at most aspects of education, guided as it seems to be by the notion of restoring “national” pride even if it borders on the chauvinistic. The most recent controversy in which the HRD Ministry and the government have found themselves in is the decision to introduce Sanskrit in place of German for Classes 6 to 8 in the 700-odd Kendriya Vidyalayas on the grounds that teaching German had violated the Constitution, the NEP and the three-language formula. The decision was taken in October at a board meeting of the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sanghatan (KVS), chaired by HRD Minister Smriti Irani. On November 10, a circular stating, “Teaching of the German language as an option to Sanskrit will be discontinued forthwith. Students studying German as an option to Sanskrit in classes 6-8 shall be given an option to study Sanskrit or any other Modern Indian Language of his or her choice.” It was, however, clarified later that students could learn German as an additional language.

The three-language formula had tried to integrate within one policy framework the teaching of a local language, the national language and English. The main thrust of the formula was the emphasis on learning a modern Indian language other than the mother tongue and English, with national integration as the underlying aim. For example, for Hindi speakers, opting for a non-Hindi language among the modern Indian languages was considered a desirable option and objective. It is a different issue that most schools do not have the infrastructure in terms of learning material or teachers to teach these languages. Hence, the promotion of south Indian languages in north India and vice versa, maybe, was conceived as the ideal situation, the larger objective once again being national integration and the promotion of regional languages as well as the enrichment of general linguistic abilities among children.

From 1937 until 1967-68, Tamil Nadu witnessed several anti-Hindi agitations, first against making the teaching of Hindi compulsory in schools and later against attempts to make Hindi the sole official language of the country. Even as the Centre pushed for the three-language formula—the regional language, Hindi and English—in other States, Tamil Nadu followed a two-language formula. According to the NEP, State governments were asked to adopt and implement the three-language formula, which included the study of one modern Indian language, preferably one of the south Indian languages, apart from Hindi and English in the Hindi-speaking States and of Hindi along with the regional language and English in the non-Hindi-speaking States. Twenty-two languages, including Sanskrit, are listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution.

There were two things inherently wrong in the HRD Ministry’s move to replace German with Sanskrit. First, the timing was awry, as the decision was taken in the middle of the term, and second, Sanskrit was not listed as a modern Indian language as laid down in the Constitution. The introduction of Sanskrit also violated the three-language formula. In the Eighth Schedule, many languages such as Konkani, Mythili and Manipuri were included and some of them were official languages as well. But it was not axiomatic that they had to be taught. In fact, the argument that teaching German violated the Constitution was facile as what it had at best contravened was, maybe, the language policy, and the manner in which it was introduced, through a memorandum of understanding (MoU), could be disputed. “Language policy was not a part of the Constitution,” pointed out an expert. The NEP had envisaged the teaching of some classical languages in addition to the three-language formula in the school system. And with globalisation came the emphasis on teaching foreign languages.

While the process of introducing a foreign language through an MoU, as was the case with German (a three-year MoU was signed between Goethe Institut, Max Mueller Bhavan and the KVS in 2011), may not be the correct way of doing things, the introduction of Sanskrit at this juncture seems equally ad hoc. In fact, the MoU was legally challenged by an organisation, the Sanskrit Shiksha Sangh, in the Delhi High Court on the grounds that it violated the three-language formula.

The study of classical languages, said Arjun Dev, the Professor of History who was head of the NCERT’s Department of Education in Social Sciences and Humanities, could be taken up at higher education levels. “For a person doing research in Hindi literature in the 19th century, yes, the study of Sanskrit will be handy but only at that stage. Sanskrit is not a medium of instruction; it is not a language of communication; neither is it a language of literature. When Hindi was sought to be imposed in the southern States, the then Prime Minister had to rush to assure them that it would not be done,” Arjun Dev told Frontline.

In fact, there have been protests already from some NDA allies such as the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) in Tamil Nadu, which urged the Prime Minister to revoke the decision. The Supreme Court too has asked the government to reconsider its decision to introduce Sanskrit in the middle of the academic year. But the government seems keen to promote what is now being labelled as the “mother of all languages”, however questionable this assertion might be.

In response to a question in the Lok Sabha, Smriti Irani said that the Central government had requested all the Central universities that did not have a Sanskrit department to explore the possibility of setting up one. As for Sanskrit being the mother of all languages, it has been pointed out that a language cannot produce another language, it can at best influence other languages. Even so, Sanskrit can be said to be one among a group of Indo-European languages, not necessarily having parented any of them. “As Sanskrit came to India through Iran, it can well be said that Persian is the mother of Sanskrit. There is no certainty about the origins of the Indo-European languages. The manner in which the debate is being conducted has no educational purpose,” said a historian.

Ashok Agarwal, an advocate who has campaigned hard for the right to education, also heads the All India Parents Association. He has written to the Prime Minister and the HRD Ministry, asking them not to remove German as it was against the best interests of children. According to him, the KVS Board of Governors, based on the recommendation of the Academic Advisory Committee, approved the introduction of foreign languages as an optional subject. The KVS introduced German, French, Spanish, Chinese, etc., as an optional subject for classes 6 to 8. The introduction of foreign languages as an optional subject did not imply the replacement or removal of Sanskrit from its curriculum, he points out.

Agarwal’s letter also quotes from the guidelines laid down on teaching of foreign languages in the National Curriculum Framework (Para 2.8.5 on “Organisation of Curriculum of Elementary and Secondary Stages”) where it says, “In view of the fast-increasing international interaction and cooperation in socio-political, educational, cultural and economic fields, a growing need for learning more and more foreign languages like Chinese, Japanese, Russian, French, German, Arabic, Persian and Spanish has recently been felt. These languages cannot be accommodated within the Three-Language Formula. However, depending on the demand for the study of any number of these and the infrastructural resources available with the schools, these languages may be offered as additional options at the secondary stage.”

While the Ministry appeared to have accepted the idea of offering foreign languages as additional options, it seemed resolute about introducing Sanskrit.

Of historical truths

While the NCERT director’s demitting of office remains clouded, the appointment of the chairperson of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) seems equally mystifying. Though known as a gentle personality, Yellapragada Sudarshan Rao, author of a controversial blog adulating the Indian caste system, does not seem to have sound academic credentials. He was the president of the Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana and headed its Andhra Pradesh chapter. The Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana, according to available information, was started in 1978 as the brainchild of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) leaders Babasaheb Apte and Moropant Pingle and among its objectives are the writing of history from a “nationalist” perspective and the promotion of Sanskrit.

In a 2007 blog titled “Indian Caste System: A reappraisal”, Sudarshan Rao wrote that the caste system had worked well in ancient times with no complaints from any quarters against it and that it was often misinterpreted as an exploitative social system for retaining the economic and social status of certain vested interests of the ruling class. In interviews given to mainstream publications, he has stated that the existence of Rama, Sita and Ravana are consistent with history and that Rama’s existence need not be proved. He is also of the view that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are not myths and are truthful accounts of actual events. He is known to be involved with the Mahabharata project sponsored by the Sanatana Dharma Charitable Trust.

Sudarshan Rao, who taught history at Kakatiya University in Warangal, Andhra Pradesh, was a member of the ICHR’s council in the NDA’s first tenure. His very first event after assuming charge, of organising the eighth Maulana Abdul Kalam Memorial Lecture, became controversial. The lecture, delivered by S.N. Balagangadhara, director, Comparative Sciences of Cultures Centre, University of Ghent, Belgium, on “What do Indians need, a history or the past? A challenge or two to Indian historians”, with its focus on the adhyatmik truth of the epics and references to the Nehruvian contempt for Indian culture and its traditions that historians shared, stirred up a controversy.

Venkat Subramaniam, former member secretary of the ICHR, said: “I really cannot say much about the ICHR chairperson as I have not read anything much written by him in the long course of my own teaching career of 40 years. Unless he writes something, we cannot be sure. He has not given us an opportunity to know his mind.” He said he knew Sudarshan Rao as a member of the Indian History Congress but the “gentleman was quite innocent of the developments in historiography over the last 30 years”. The ICHR council is going to be reconstituted early next year and it is felt that the agenda of the government, if any, will unfold then.

In fact, this is hardly surprising if placed in the context of some recent pronouncements made by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and quoted in a report in the November 10 issue of Organiser, the mouthpiece of the RSS. Delivering a lecture on “Tasks for activists in the field of education” at a two-day meeting of the Vidwat Parishad (academic council) of Punarutthan Vidyapeeth at Maharshi Vyas Sabhagrih, Reshambag, Nagpur, he said: “Today, all are seeking change in the education system. Those who are opposed to the RSS school of thought also talk of changing the education pattern. But there seems to be an absence of a common programme for effecting that change. In such a situation there is a need to bring all such individuals and organisations together and channel their thinking to re-introduce values in the education system. Time is ripe enough and we all must grab this opportunity to bring about the desired change at the earliest.” The report quotes Bhagwat as saying: “In the past 1,200 years our mindset has been polluted and influenced by the values of people and forces that attacked Bharat and ruled over her. We need to wipe out this influence completely by decolonising our mindsets with sustained and consistent efforts…. And that once this prerequisite was achieved [decolonising mindsets], only then we would be in a position to proceed to the second stage of introducing and establishing an education system based on our culture, life values and ethos.”

Parivar Science

While the purported aim of the government is reform that is couched in the language of cultural nationalism and notions of superiority, some of the recent pronouncements on stem cell research or plastic surgery from none other than the Prime Minister himself are disturbing. There are textbooks prescribed in government schools in Gujarat which state that an Indian surgeon who has a United States patent on stem cell research was inspired by the Mahabharata. Tejomay Bharat, a textbook published by the Gujarat State School Textbook Board, is taught in schools. It claims that the aborted flesh from Gandhari (the mother of the 100 Kaurava princes) was preserved by Rishi Dwaipayan Vyas in a cold tank. The mass of flesh was divided into one hundred parts and kept separately in a hundred tanks full of clarified butter (ghee). After two years, one hundred Kauravas were born from it. The book also mentions that television was invented by Indians and that the seers possessed divya drishti, or divine vision, with which the battle of Kurukshetra was telecast to the blind king Dhritarashtra.

The book is prescribed as supplementary reading in Gujarat schools. It has chapters such as Adhyatmik Bharat (spiritual India), Akhand Bharat (undivided India), Vigyanmay Bharat (scientific India), and Samarth Bharat (competent India). The book’s advisors are associated with the Vidya Bharati, the educational chain controlled by the RSS. But this is not all. Modi, at a meeting in Mumbai, dwelt on India’s historical role in medical science. Citing the mythical replacement of Ganesha’s head with that of an elephant, he said plastic surgery was known and practised in ancient India. Former Uttarakhand Chief Minister and now BJP Member of Parliament, Ramesh Pokhriyal, echoed the Prime Minister’s views on plastic surgery and even added that an ancient sage had conducted a nuclear test.

Several years ago, a similar assertion had been made by former RSS chief Rajju Bhaiya that people in India had produced nuclear weapons and that there was an NPT (nuclear non-proliferation treaty) in place. “When Bal Gangadhar Tilak wrote that there was some evidence of the Aryans having originated in the Arctic, this could not be refuted as after all Tilak was a Brahmin with deep learning. Instead, Golwalkar, in his A Bunch of Thoughts, wrote that Tilak was not wrong but that the Arctic was a part of India. If an entire continent can be shifted, transplanting a head is nothing compared to that,” Arjun Dev quipped.

The attempts to project Aryans as indigenous by describing the unicorn on the Harappan seals as a horse having been exposed, the need for newer myths, however preposterous they might sound, is understandable. In a larger context, if the genesis can be about the Big Bang and Mona Lisa can be an Indian sketch, as a spoof in a comedy serial showed, tales of mythical decapitation and “head replacement surgery” can certainly qualify as plastic surgery.

Reforming education and educational institutions is definitely high on the agenda of this government as the battle is one of ideas. The question is whether these ideas inculcate a scientific temper based on principles of tolerance or spawn obscurantism and bigotry. At the moment, the trends indicate the latter.