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Mis-oriented textbooks

Print edition : Aug 17, 2002

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Of school textbooks in Karnataka that are replete with examples of communal bias and errors of fact.

ON May 26, 16 Education Ministers from non-Bharatiya Janata Party ruled States walked out of a general body meeting of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) in New Delhi in protest against the NCERT's controversial National Curriculum Framework for School Education. The document was attacked not only by the State Education Ministers from non-BJP ruled States, but by progressive educators and academics as well for a variety of reasons, including the religious and ideological bias that it sought to inject into school textbooks and classroom teaching. They have argued that the new curriculum framework approaches the study of the social sciences and sciences from a narrow, Hindutva-inspired outlook and that it subverts the progressive, inclusive and scientific vision that guided the writing of school textbooks in the past.

Karnataka is one of the States which has strongly opposed the new curriculum framework. Yet it is apparent that the State has paid little heed to the situation in its own backyard. Although the textbooks conforming to the new guidelines are still being prepared, the books that are already in classroom use appear to conform fully to the letter and spirit of the very curriculum framework that the State government has so stridently criticised in public forums. Schoolchildren in Karnataka enter the exciting world of knowledge and learning armed with books that are replete with examples of communal bias, not to mention inexcusable errors of fact. Notions of nationalism which invoke a glorious though lost past of Hindu achievement and supremacy underpin many a chapter in the textbooks.

"Even the science and mathematics textbooks are not free from this," K. Uma, secretary of the Karnataka unit of the All India Save Education Committee (AISEC), told Frontline. She said: "The textbook writers are creating a communal feeling in the younger generation by stressing the work of ancient Hindu scientists while undermining the contributions of Greek and other scientists from other parts of the world. By this they want to establish the superiority of Hindutvavaad which they hope will fan feelings of jingoism." A delegation from the AISEC is presenting a memorandum to B.K. Chandrashekhar, Minister for School Education, in which they have drawn attention to the "disturbing trend" seen in the textbooks written and prescribed in the State, which strengthens the "saffronisation of Indian education".

From this perspective, the Social Studies textbooks appear to be the most compromised. The changes in the content and slant in school textbooks have been of an incremental and insidious nature. Pet theories of Hindutva historians, discredited in academic circles for want of supportive evidence, are floated in the textbooks of junior classes, where evidence does not have to be cited. Thus for example, in the Social Studies textbook for Standard V, the "Indus Valley civilisation" has become the "Sindhu Civilisation" (chapter heading in Lesson 4). It is not clear what the rationale is for using the term Sindhu civilisation instead of the Indus or Harappan civilisation, which has been the term hitherto used. Apart from its historical importance, the Indus Valley civilisation, which flourished in the basin of the Indus and its great tributaries, is also a valued symbol of the shared historical legacy of the countries of the subcontinent. Hindutva historians have tried to lay a spurious nationalist claim to that legacy by arguing that a majority of the excavated sites of the Indus civilisation are within the borders of present-day India. These historians have in recent times used the phrase "Sindhu Civilisation" because the Rig Veda refers to the Indus as the Sindhu. But the use of the word "Sindhu" implies more than just an innocent return to linguistic purity. It represents an attempt to link the Rig Veda to the Harappan civilisation. The Rig Veda was a text that emerged in a historical context that was far removed in place and time from the Indus civilisation. It was composed between the mid-second and early first millennium B.C. in a geographical and cultural setting far removed from the Harappan civilisation. By linking the Indus civilisation with the Rig Veda, the writers are preparing the ground for the entry into textbooks (perhaps in subsequent editions) of yet another discredited theory - which is that the Indus peoples were in fact the Aryans.

The same chapter also introduces the term "Sindhu-Saraswati civilisation" as another name of the Indus civilisation. This once again seeks to reinforce the association between the Rig Vedic and Indus cultures to establish greater antiquity for Vedic culture and dharma. The chapter is replete with references to the ancient Saraswati, a mythical river mentioned in the Rig Veda which is believed to have got submerged. It notes that many of the Harappan sites, including Kalibangan in Rajasthan, were located on the banks of the Saraswati. This would suggest that there is evidence that the river existed during the Harappan period, a historical 'fact' that has not been established scientifically. Which trusting child or teacher would know or question this?

The Social Studies textbook for Standard VIII follows the same line of argument but with more details. The book has a map of the Harappan civilisation that actually draws the course of the Saraswati, as it purportedly flowed in ancient times. In the chapter on "Vedic Civilisation", the theory (attributed to "many Indian and foreign historians") that the Aryans were an indigenous people is introduced with no qualifying comments.

Children are not introduced to medieval or modern Indian history until Standard IX. The explanation offered for shutting the door to at least a few highlights in the fascinating sweep of Indian history (including, incidentally, the freedom movement) is that it would clutter young minds. The section here on Ancient India, however, would be an imposition on any child, filled as it is with dry details of various dynasties, major and minor, and the military achievements of their rulers. The section on civics only compounds the Social Studies infliction for 10-year-olds, reading like a department brochure listing various social welfare schemes of the Central and State governments, followed by the structure of panchayat institutions.

The medieval period in Indian history is introduced only from Standard IX. The "trial" text for Standard IX is replete with spelling errors, ungrammatical English usage and wrong punctuation. The whole period has been presented as a dull and dry history of dynasties, cluttered with the names and military conquests of kings, followed by brief acknowledgements of "social and cultural life", "art and architecture", "revenue administration", and so on. The entire Mughal period (1526-1707) is disposed of in six pages, ending with an explanation of the decline of the Mughal empire, a historical process attributed primarily to Aurangazeb's Islamic zeal.

Does not the children have the right to be exposed to the many theories on the Mughal empire's decline, a good number of them more authoritative than this? The writer makes it a point to put all place names of Persian or Arabic origin in brackets and use Sanskrit names instead, such as Vaihand (Peshawar), Ayodhya (Avadh), Kasi (Varanasi) and Devagiri (Daulatabad). Seen through Hindutva glasses, Muslims and Hindus are two distinct social groups, in cultural and religious opposition to each other. There is no recognition of the social and economic stratification within the groups. Thus, in a section on social and religious life in the Delhi Sultanate (page 34), the author says: "Due to religious and cultural differences there was no understanding between the Hindus and Muslims initially. But without the cooperation of the Hindus, the Muslim rulers could not organise efficient administration. The Sultans, despite the opposition of their ministers and officers, sought the cooperation of the Hindus. Thus cultural synthesis was slowly invoked... But to check conversions, the Hindus tightened caste regulations."

AISEC has drawn particular attention to the Mathematics and Science textbooks for Standards VIII and VI respectively. Several chapters in the Mathematics text have box items which highlight the discovery of "Hindu" mathematicians, like the concept of zero, which has been described as "a jewel from the Hindu Mind". What is of concern is the celebratory tone in which these tidbits of information are presented, the thrust being on proving prior knowledge in Hindu society of concepts and theories that are popularly believed to be the contribution of "foreign" scientists. AISEC has drawn attention to this trend in its memorandum. It says: "But distortion of facts, by sieving out Indian achievements and projecting them, while minimising the Arabic and European contributions to knowledge, is tantamount to historical distortion which instills false pride in the past and an immature sense of nationalism. It impedes the development of a scientific temper and has to be strongly discouraged." The Science textbook for Standard VI stands in a class by itself, with numerous gaffes and English usage that is so incorrect as to make the text incomprehensible. Public protests through the media resulted in the State Directorate of Textbooks issuing a set of errata to all schools in respect of this book, and sending each school a set of two to three corrected and reprinted versions for use by teachers.

HISTORY and Social Studies remain the subjects that are of utmost concern to educators and to groups like AISEC as they are the most prone to distortion. A generation ago, history often used to be the average schoolgoing child's bugbear, presented as it was as a long and boring account of kings, battles and dates. In the 1970s much of that changed when the NCERT brought out a set of history books for school children written by leading university-level historians. The textbooks changed the whole approach to history as a social science. Textbooks were re-peopled, and children were taught to understand the social and economic circumstances under which people lived and worked, kings and queens functioned, and great art and architecture flourished.

History textbooks were the first to be targeted by the BJP-led government when it came to power. Well before the BJP-mandated NCERT guidelines were formalised and formally incorporated into textbooks, several States, particularly the BJP-ruled ones, rewrote history textbooks. The leitmotif of the official view of history is the primacy of Hindu civilisation. It thus reverses the inclusive perspective that imbued the earlier textbooks.

But that is not all. The scholarship base of many of the recent textbooks is so weak that it has had to fall back on the utterly outdated approach of telling the historical story, as a progression of dynasties, and the record of battles fought by each king.

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