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Secular challenge

Print edition : Aug 18, 2001

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A major convention organised in New Delhi gives expression to widespread concerns about the communalisation of education under the National Democratic Alliance government.

EDUCATION is an essential component of the state's ideological apparatus in a class-based society. It acquires even more importance when the state moves in the direction of fascism. The changes that have been introduced by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in the sphere of education have given enough hints about the direction the Indian state is taking of late. A cross-section of concerned people, including the Education Ministers of nine States, was brought together in New Delhi by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat) for a three-day convention from August 4. The participants expressed concern over the communalisation of education and the Union government's failure to take State governments into confidence in matters relating to education.

In October 1998, a State Education Ministers' conference in Kolkata rejected the sectarian proposals made in a document prepared by Vidya Bharati, an educational outfit run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In a move reminiscent of that, the Education Ministers who participated in the New Delhi convention, all of them belonging to States or Union Territories ruled by parties that are outside the NDA, and leading academics demanded the withdrawal of the controversial National Curriculum Framework for School Education (NCF), which has been designed by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT). The Ministers from West Bengal, Pondicherry, Nagaland, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Bihar, Karnataka and Rajasthan rejected the NCF which, they said, was prepared without consulting State governments. They demanded that the Central government initiate a process of consulting the States on national education policy, convene a conference of Education Ministers, and constitute a Central Advisory Board of Education. In a joint statement, the Ministers and other participants demanded the withdrawal of the University Grants Commission (UGC) circular introducing "indigenous systems of knowledge" in university-level courses. Among the other signatories were Congress Working Committee member Arjun Singh, Communist Party of India general secretary A.B. Bardhan, Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury, All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) general secretary Brinda Karat and Members of Parliament Eduardo Faleiro, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Shabana Azmi.

The participants included historians Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, K.N. Panikkar, Satish Chandra, K.M. Shrimali, Mushirul Hasan, D.N. Jha and Suraj Bhan, economists Prabhat Patnaik and C.T. Kurien, former Vice- Chancellor of the Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli, V. Vasanthi Devi, commentator and lawyer A.G. Noorani, Editor of Communalism Combat Teesta Setalvad, and Anil Sadgopal of the Central Institute of Education.

The convention condemned the Human Resource Development Ministry's attempts to steamroll the educational system and fill research institutions with persons with a certain ideological background. Similar attempts were made in the past by Sangh Parivar ideologues but they were not done so blatantly, the convention observed. It alleged that in its pursuit of a single-point agenda, the NDA government appeared least bothered about healthy criticism. The participants pointed out with concern the "stifling silence" of the BJP's partners in power over the HRD Ministry's moves to tamper with the educational system. They reiterated the need to preserve the federal polity and the secular character of the Indian republic by resisting communal onslaughts on education and culture.

Prof. Irfan Habib, former Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research, dwelt at length on the rewriting of history being attempted by the Sangh Parivar. As part of the project, the Parivar not only introduced Vedic nomenclature wherever possible but tampered with the dates of historical texts in order to emphasise their antiquity, he said. Official agencies promoted "new discoveries" of Indian history in an attempt to establish the antiquity of the Aryan civilisation and its superiority over other civilisations, especially the Harappan civilisation. Much of these discoveries lacked historical evidence, he explained. For instance, it is claimed that humankind originally evolved in the upper Saraswati region, that is, northern Haryana, and that India was the original home of the Aryans and other Indo-Europeans, he explained. In order to support the Sangh Parivar's claims it was necessary that everything "Aryan" had to be dated to antiquity; therefore, according to Prof. Habib, the Rg Veda is said to have been composed before 5000 B.C. and not circa 1500 B.C. It is claimed that bronze was "cast" in India by 3700 B.C. and writing originated in India. According to Habib, the Parivar refers to the Indus culture, which was officially named the Harappan culture, as the Saraswati-Sindhu culture, a Vedic nomenclature.

Habib said that given the low esteem that the Sangh Parivar had for Asoka and Akbar, it was possible that the new NCERT textbooks would reflect the biases. As an example for biased history writing, he cited K.S. Lal's book Growth of Muslim Population in Medieval India (1973) in which the author presents a picture of continuous decline of the Indian population owing to massacres of Hindus by Muslims. Lal, known for his ideological affinity to the RSS, does not give any statistical evidence in support of his claim. In The Mughal Harem (1988), Lal talks about the "immoral" ways of Muslims, ignoring the fact that Hindu rulers and nobles too were polygamous. Habib also cited P.N. Oak's claim in the early 1960s that the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort were originally built by Hindus and were misappropriated by Muslims later. There was a deliberate denial of Muslim culture, Habib said.

Like every individual, a country too needed an accurate memory of its past, Habib observed. Unfortunately, according to him, not only history was distorted but science was assaulted. The move to introduce courses in astrology in about 30 universities was a case in point, he said.

Suraj Bhan expressed concern over the attempts at the Aryanisation of the Indus civilisation. He said chauvinistic nationalism and regionalism had caused a perceptible decline in archaeological perspectives and methods and institutional health and these posed a real threat to the discipline of history. One of the reasons for the attempt to identify the Vedic culture with the Indus civilisation was to prove that the former was one of the oldest civilisations in the world, at least as old as the Mesopotamian civilisation. The Vedic culture was glorified because the Vedas were considered the "source of Hindu social, political and economic institutions" and Hindu culture was equated with Indian culture, he said.

Prof. K.N. Panikkar explained how the ideological apparatus of the state was trying to project a new system of education that uncritically privileged the indigenous and celebrated the religious. The system of education in the post-Independence period, though essentially elitist, respected the social plurality and cultural diversity of the country, he said. That education was a subject in the Concurrent List and not in the Central List was a reflection of this diversity, he pointed out.

Panikkar said that a major compulsion behind the attempt to change the content of education was to realise the communal objective of creating a Hindu national identity and a sense of national pride. In this context, Panikkar quoted an article written by NCERT Director J.S. Rajput in the Journal of Value Education, which says: "A sense of belonging must be developed in every individual learner by focussing on India's contribution to world civilisation. It is high time that India's contribution in areas like mathematics, sciences, maritime, medicine, trade, architecture, sculpture, establishment of institutions of learning was emphasised and made known to the learners in order to develop a sense of belonging to the nation with respect and an attachment to the past." Panikkar described the discussion document that preceded the NCF as being full of unfettered nostalgia and proffering an "indigenous" curriculum.

Pointing out that training in citizenship was an integral part of value education in all countries, Panikkar said such education in the Indian context should be rooted in secularism and democracy. However, the NCF's prescription was totally devoid of such political content, he said, and argued that it was a deliberate attempt to foster a national identity derived from religious consciousness and not a secular and composite consciousness. The UGC's Hinduism-oriented courses and the kind of value education the NCERT sought to promote were both part of the wider political project of the BJP-RSS combine, he said.

The changes in the content of education, Panikkar said, were planned in a context of the unfettered entry of transnational capital. He warned that there were grand plans to privatise education and make it serve the needs of capital. According to Panikkar, industrialists Mukesh Ambani and Kumarmangalam Birla have prepared a report on educational reforms (called the Birla-Ambani report), prescribing a market-led and knowledge-driven economy. The state's role, if any, was minimal in the industrialists' scheme of things, he said. He noted that there was essentially a convergence of interests of globalisation and communalisation in that both were opposed to plurality.

Prof. Romila Thapar warned that those who refused to understand the past ended up misunderstanding the present. She criticised the NDA government for setting aside significant events in its obsession with the "Vedic capsule". Absence of rational critical enquiry characterised the policymakers in education today, she said. There was no pedagogical relevance for either yogic consciousness or the spiritual quotient. "These are frills and cannot form the core of knowledge," she said. By giving a single definition to Indian culture and society and by projecting it through the educational system, the Sangh Parivar went fundamentally against the experience of both the past and the present, she argued.

Romila Thapar felt that secularists and others had probably treated the term 'secularism" casually but today there was a need to be constantly alert because Indian society could survive only by practising secularism. The education policy could not be held to ransom by politicians and bureaucrats, she said, and demanded that the names of those who had drafted the NCF be made public. "Educational needs had to be professionally examined and professionally worked out," she said. She emphasised that the education policy should be based on a sensitive understanding of the Centre-region interface because a single syllabus for the entire nation would not work even in States with high literacy levels. Schooling and curriculum should relate not only to local needs and ethos but also to the wider needs of the country, she added.

Speaking on the impact of communalisation on institutions, Prof. C.T. Kurien, Chairperson of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, and Kapila Vatsayan, former Chairperson of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, stressed the need to recognise the principles of diversity and democracy in educational institutions. A.G. Noorani condemned the government's totalitarian outlook which, he said, was reflected in its systematic attempt to pack all institutions, including the judiciary, with "its own people".

Rooprekha Verma, former Vice-Chancellor of Lucknow University, said the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the BJP, had sought to pressure her into renaming the university after RSS leader Balasaheb Deoras. Criticising the UGC's decision to introduce astrology courses in universities, physicist T. Jayaraman demanded that the list of experts who recommended this move be made public. Vasanthi Devi said that history had become the greatest casualty in the cyber age. The communalisation of history amounted to the rejection of history, she said. Arjun Dev, former Head of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, NCERT, criticised the undemocratic genesis and character of the NCF.

In the past, criticism has failed to make the NDA government rethink its policy decisions in the matter of education. It remains to be seen whether the Sahmat convention will effect a change in the trend.

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