Challenging saffronisation

Print edition : September 15, 2001

Several Chief Ministers rally behind the growing campaign against some of the recent retrogade decisions of the Union government in the domain of education policy.

UNION Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi's invitation to the nation to partake of his adventures in antiquity was decisively rebuffed at a gathering of Chief Ministers on September 2. It then received sustenance from an unlikely quarter, when Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh endorsed astrology as a worthwhile subject of study at the university level. This intervention has perhaps muddied the waters in the campaign that was building up against the Union government's recent decisions in the domain of education policy.

Bihar Education Minister Ramachandra Purve, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit, Meghalaya Chief Minister E.K. Mawlong, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, at the meeting in New Delhi that discussed the issue of saffronisation of education.-RAJEEV BHATT

The September 2 meeting in New Delhi was held at the initiative of West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. There was some early uncertainty regarding the likely participation of Chief Ministers from the Congress(I)-ruled States. But an intervention from the office of Congress(I) president, Sonia Gandhi ensured that the party shed its inhibitions about participating in an event hosted by a government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). This clarification came rather too late to secure the participation of more than one Congress(I) Chief Minister; though most States where the party is in authority were represented by their Education Ministers.

An exception was Kerala, where the Congress(I) rules as part of a coalition in which the education portfolio is handled by the Muslim League. When queried about his reticence on the matter, Kerala Chief Minister A.K. Antony, in the heat of political contestation with the CPI(M), dilated upon the "hurt" that could be caused to religious sensibilities through the pejorative use of the word "saffronisation". The term was inappropriate, he said, though he had little reserve about endorsing all moves to safeguard against the "communalisation" of education.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu was also hard put to explain away his absence. He first offered the alibi that he had not been invited. But when this was shown to be factually incorrect, he quickly affirmed that as an external prop of the ruling coalition at the Centre, his party did not think it advisable to participate in an event sponsored by the CPI(M). However, his commitment to a secular and inclusive vision of education remained undiluted.

Two allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party - one at the Centre and the other at the State level - had no such qualms about participation. Mohammad Shafi, Education Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, was unconstrained by the fact that his party, the National Conference, is an integral part of the ruling coalition at the Centre. Again, Meghalaya Chief Minister E.K. Mawlong, whose United Democratic Party is part of a coalition with the BJP and the Nationalist Congress Party, thought that participation in the cause was more important than any simulated display of loyalty to his political allies.

The other Chief Ministers who participated were Manik Sarkar of Tripura, Sheila Dixit of Delhi and Rabri Devi of Bihar; representing the CPI(M), Congress(I) and Rashtriya Janata Dal respectively. Education Ministers from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Assam were also present, leading their respective delegations.

The resolution adopted at the meeting was unsparing in its criticism - State governments had not been consulted in recent policy decisions, and the Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE), which has been accorded a "pivotal position" in matters related to the sector, had been "totally ignored". A "National Curriculum Framework for School Education" had been drafted and to all intents and purposes, accepted by apex educational institutions at the Centre, without the courtesy of broad-ranging discussions among all interested sectors. And the proposal to introduce subjects such as Vedic astrology (Jyotir Vigyan) and Vedic ritual (Paurohitya) for study at the university level, flew in the face of the principles and values enshrined in the Constitution.

Since education was not the exclusive preserve of any one party, the meeting of Chief Ministers demanded that all further policy decisions should be put on hold. Discussions should be initiated towards a "consensus among the Union and the States cutting across narrow political and party considerations". The CABE should be reconstituted and all the proposed changes put through its scrutiny. This should be followed by a meeting of all the Education Ministers and then by a reference to Parliament of the new policy directives.

Murli Manohar Joshi was meanwhile keeping up the refrain that he had not done anything contrary to the policy guidelines laid down by Parliament in 1986 and revised in 1992. There was nothing outlandish in the idea of studying astrology at the university level, he insisted, since there was already a worldwide trend in this direction. And the needs of the moment, he contended, dictated a return to traditional values, rather than a blind acceptance of alien notions.

Digvijay Singh's intervention came as much-needed solace for the embattled Union Minister. Although known for his religious piety and faith in astrology, Digvijay Singh clearly seemed unaware that he had crossed a crucial line in transferring his personal convictions into the realm of public policy. To a letter of protest from the cultural organisation Sahmat (the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) - which had organised a major three-day convention in New Delhi early in August to protest the intrusion of communal tendencies into education - Digvijay Singh took the plea that he was only interested in ensuring that the education system offered the widest range of choice. "Let a hundred flowers bloom," he said, in a rather incongruous paraphrasing of the words of the communist legend Mao Zedong. And in a still more bizarre flight of fancy, he insisted that Jyotir Vigyan was not to be confused with the vapid predictions of astrology. Rather, it was closely connected to the respectable academic science of astronomy.

The Congress(I) was rather flustered by the manner in which a campaign that seemed to be gathering momentum after the personal intervention of the party president in the recent parliamentary debate, had been so rudely deflated. Anand Sharma, party spokesperson, sought to brush away suggestions of internal discord by insisting that Antony's reservations were only terminological in nature, while Digvijay Singh's intervention was fully in tune with the spirit of democratic choice. He had little to say on the absurd inversion of priorities and suggestion of political escapism, inherent in the decision to begin university level instruction in astrology. The Congress(I) now finds itself arrayed on the side of the BJP in propagating the notion that worldly problems arise in the cosmos, for which it is futile to search for solutions in politics.

Meanwhile, a challenge was mounted in the Supreme Court, in the form of a Special Leave Petition against a judgment of the Andhra Pradesh High Court, which declined to quash the directive of the University Grants Commission (UGC), introducing astrology as a subject of graduate study. The Bench hearing the petition has issued notice to the UGC and the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development, seeking their response in the matter.

The three petitioners from Hyderabad - P.M. Bhargava, Chandana Chakravarti and K. Subhash Chandra Reddy - are scientists of standing. Their plea was not taken up by the Andhra Pradesh High Court on the grounds that the judiciary had no competence or jurisdiction to intervene. The courts, which were "ill-equipped as regards such matters", should adopt the "doctrine of self-restraint" and leave such matters to the assessment of experts, said the High Court. And even if such an expert opinion should become a matter for dispute, an appropriate forum should be found for resolving it outside the court-room.

The petitioners have submitted that this ruling evades the responsibility of the judiciary to strike down a policy decision by the government that is "unconstitutional, illegal, mala fide, illogical, irrational and passed without any basis or passed on untenable premises and is against the larger public interest." The absence of a constitutional basis arises from the duty enjoined on the state under the Constitution, to cultivate the spirit of scientific inquiry. Ample testimony to the illogicality of astrology has come from the Indian scientific community, which has almost unanimously condemned the UGC's proposal as a great leap backwards. And the irrationality of the UGC proposal is established by its own directive, which holds out the extravagant claim that "Vedic astrology can help to see the unforeseen" and thereby relieve "worries, tensions and frustration (sic) in life."

It is perhaps unusual for a judicial forum to determine these issues, but the arbitrary manner adopted by the UGC and the Human Resource Development Ministry seemingly leaves the scientific community with no other recourse. All objective accounts point to a clandestine and conspiratorial procedure by which the UGC introduced the astrology proposal into its agenda at a meeting in October 2000. Once the item was smuggled into the agenda, approval was obtained through the pugnacity of its sponsors and the meek acquiescence of those who may in other forums, have expressed reservations. Murli Manohar Joshi and his confederates in the Hindutva fraternity, who now occupy strategic positions in the educational domain, could not have been unaware that a vigorous challenge would soon be mounted against their unilateral actions. But they evidently believe that having sneaked in the seeds of their obscurantist programme, propagation will be assured, if rather slow.

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