Imparting prejudice

Print edition : February 02, 2002

By introducing a new history syllabus that glorifies ancient India and de-emphasises the medieval period, the NCERT continues to promote the political project of the current establishment.

THE National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) released the much-awaited revised school syllabi on January 21. The low-key nature of the affair was in sharp contrast to the fanfare that marked the press conference on October 4, 2001 when NCERT Director J.S. Rajput, accompanied by R.K. Dixit, the head of the Curriculum Group, gave sketchy details of the syllabi, with special focus on history (Frontline, October 26, 2001).

J.S. Rajput, Director of the NCERT.-M. LAKSHMANAN

The controversy that followed the press conference was not so much over the decision to revise and review the curriculum and the syllabi as over the NCERT's, particularly the Human Resource Development Ministry's, zeal to purge material written by Left historians. What began ostensibly as a mission to reduce the curricular load on students gradually became an attempt to cut drastically the history component of the social sciences. The National Curriculum Framework for School Education had highlighted the need to trim the history syllabus and make it relevant and less burdensome.

Critics of the move said that the overall purpose of the restructuring of curriculum was not to instil a spirit of critical inquiry in pupils but to correct perceived imbalances in the textbooks and create a nation of mindless patriots in the name of "pride and love for the country". The constant evocation of India's tradition and "spiritual quest" was seen not as an indication of any special soul-searching but as one of attempts by obscurtantist elements to take control of the school education system.

The NCERT press release said that the revised history syllabus for the higher secondary stage had struck a regional balance by giving adequate importance to the northeastern and southern regions and the small kingdoms. The social science syllabi, said the press release, aimed at developing a sense of citizenship among pupils.

The new history syllabus does not contain the suggestions made by D.N. Jha, Professor of History in the University of Delhi, who had been appointed Convener of the Committee of Courses for History by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). His comments on the draft history syllabus for Classes XI and XII were sent to the CBSE on September 10. Jha said that several rubrics in the syllabus were incongruous with the generally accepted understanding of history. For instance, in the syllabus for Class XI, the broad rubric of ancient India had sub-rubrics such as 'eternal India' and 'a traditional history of India', he said.

According to Jha, sub-rubrics such as 'spiritual and religious life', 'yogic figures', 'Siva worship', 'aesthetics' and 'Vedic connection' under the major theme of Harappan civilisation have been given special mention, which they do not deserve. These, he said, could be brought together under a broader sub-topic, though 'aesthetics' still did not make sense in the Harappan context. Moreover, the references to "the antiquity of the Vedas and the Vedic people" under the Harappan rubric revealed the preconceived notions of the syllabus framer, Jha said. The title of a unit, 'Germination of High Philosophy', implied that all other philosophies were "low", he said.

Jha said that there was nothing in the new syllabus about the social milieu in which Buddhism and Jainism grew. Caste is mentioned for the first time in the portion dealing with the period 300 B.C.- A.D.300, as if caste did not exist prior to 300 B.C. Jha told Frontline that the new syllabus was not different from the draft syllabus. In his comments to the CBSE, he had summed up that the framers of the course had no idea of the chronology of Indian history and that the syllabus framed by the NCERT "experts" offered a good example of the communal perception of India's past. For instance, he cited the absence of any reference to the cultural and scientific developments during the medieval period.

There is also undue emphasis on India's relations with the outside world (especially South-East Asia) at the cost of other important aspects of history. As a Professor of ancient history, Jha objected to the juxtaposition of the Paramara-Chandella-Chahmana kingdoms with the advent of Muslims in India. Jha called it a "long monkey jump". He said that the draft syllabus should not be adopted by the CBSE. "How can one accept such a syllabus? By cutting down the quantum in medieval history, they are trying to deny the contribution made during medieval times," Jha said.

In its attempt to correct certain perceived imbalances in the textbooks, the NCERT seems to have introduced a grave imbalance in the length of the course structures of Ancient India and Medieval India. While the former has as many as 15 rubrics, the latter has only three. Also, while the social and cultural life of ancient India is extensively discussed, there is only a brief reference to these aspects of medieval India.

Even in the sections on the medieval period, Jha said, the sense of chronology was "horrible". The rise of the Cholas preceded the Delhi Sultanate but the rubrics have been arranged differently in the syllabus. Similarly, in "People and Society in the Ancient Period", an exercise meant for project activity for Class VI pupils, the Konark, Lingaraja and Nataraja temples, which belong to the 13th century A.D., whereas Ancient History ended around the 8th century A.D, Jha said.

One of the stated aims of the revision was to reduce academic burden, but the new syllabus makes heavy demands on them. For instance, under an exercise titled "Learning Outcomes", an upper primary student is expected to "appreciate India's contribution to world civilisations in the areas of science and technology, language and literature, art and architecture". Another "learning outcome" expects 11-year-old children to "explain the rise and decline of kingdoms and empires in India and appreciate their contribution in the fields of polity, economy, society, art and culture". The load does not appear to have reduced substantively. Moreover, there is an attempt to project all that is Indian as glorious.

Arjun Dev, a Professor of History who was associated with the NCERT earlier, said that there used to be some component of India and the world in the upper primary stages. For instance, Class VI pupils were exposed to ancient Indian history with some introduction to world history as well. "The treatment of history, and in particular India, was such that never was India's influence on other countries exclusively singled out. The interconnections were always talked about," he said. Under the new syllabus, a child who drops out after Class VIII would be ignorant of the First and Second World Wars. Neither would he or she know about the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the impact it had on Europe and other parts of the world. While the course is titled "People and Society", there is hardly anything about the living conditions of people in that period.

The syllabus for Class X does not have any history at all. History recommended for Class X appears under the broad theme "Heritage of India". The periodicity of this heritage is not mentioned. All that the children are expected to do is to familiarise themselves with the richness of the natural and cultural heritage of India, appreciate the country's diversity and underlying unity, and develop an awareness of the need to maintain and protect the heritage sites.

Commenting on the component of history for the upper primary stage, K.M. Shrimali, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Delhi, said that while the history courses for Classes VI to VIII involved the study of people and society in the ancient, medieval and modern periods, any discussion of "people" or "society" was missing. Shrimali expressed surprise over the featuring of Pallavas in the history of both ancient and medieval periods. He also found it difficult to understand why ancient India was depicted as a period of the rise of kingdoms and empires while the medieval period is shown as having had only small kingdoms. Shrimali was also surprised to note the absence of a reference to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the history course for Class VIII. Under the broad nomenclatures "People and Society in the Modern Period" (Class VIII) and "India in the Twentieth Century World" (Class IX), there are sections dealing with national movements and events between 1927 and 1947. While the birth of the Muslim League is mentioned , there is no reference to the RSS. "As a layman not familiar with modern Indian developments, the omission strikes one as malicious," said Shrimali. Shrimali also expressed surprise over the elimination of the role of the Brahmans in the Varna system.

Responding to these criticisms, Rajput claimed in a statement that reports about the dilution of the history of medieval India were baseless. The new history course, he said, was planned most scientifically; hitherto-ignored parts had been added to India's collective past, he added.

Rajput defended units like "Germination of High Philosophy", stating that no reading of Indian history can be complete without an understanding of India's literature in "spiritual times". Justifying the removal of certain portions from the textbooks - such as those referring to Aryans eating beef and questioning the antiquity of Jainism - Rajput said that those memories had been needlessly raked up. The NCERT's decision to delete those paragraphs was generally appreciated and henceforth due importance would be given to all points of view on any contentious issue, he said.

Despite Rajput's claim on all points of view being taken into account, he has turned a deaf ear to the protests of historians whose books may not figure at all in the school curriculum in the coming years.

The National Human Rights Commission has issued notices to the Human Resource Development Ministry and the NCERT following a petition by four educationists expressing concern over the secrecy about the authorship of history textbooks as well as the school syllabi. The petitioners are Janaki Rajan, Director of the State Council for Educational Training and Research; Kum Kum Roy, Associate Professor of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University; Sanaya Nariman, educationist; and Ashwini Cariappa, an activist belonging to a non-governmental organisation. In a petition filed on January 8, they said that the revision of textbooks was likely to affect adversely the development of children and may distort their personality.

The contents of the new textbooks, they said, were apparently a secret, for no State Boards, Education Ministries, Directorates of Education, children or parents had been privy to them. They said that the NCERT's view on Indian history and society was at variance with reality, that deletions of historical facts were made on the plea of "not hurting the sentiments of certain religious groups", and that the views of those who were consulted and who later dissented were not reflected in the final version of the curriculum framework. The petitioners contended that history textbooks that were prepared with "this undemocratic, non-secular and sectarian approach" could only lead to the creation of "obscurantist, fundamentalist mindsets in our children".

The petitioners sought the NHRC's intervention to ensure the continuance of the old textbooks until historical reality and facts were brought into the exercise of rewriting history textbooks.

Meanwhile, two former Directors of the NCERT have expressed their reservations over the manner in which the curriculum framework was designed and planned. In an article published in a national daily on January 24, P.L. Malhotra and A.K. Sharma commented on the sidelining of the Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE). They also lamented the erosion of the autonomy and credibility of the NCERT.