Slow to act

Print edition : July 16, 2004

At a convention of Sahmat, historians voice the demand of secular-minded forces to undo the damage done to NCERT textbooks during the rule of the BJP-led coalition at the Centre.

in New Delhi

Professor Irfan Habib speaks at the convention organised by Sahmat on June 11. Among others, (from left) Prabhat Patnaik, Rajeev Dhawan and D.N. Jha.-COURTESY: SAHMAT

WHEN the Congress-led government took charge at the Centre, it was assumed that one of the first things it would do would be to withdraw the textbooks for secondary and higher secondary education, which were revised during the tenure of the previous Bharatiya Janata Party-led regime. The textbooks, brought out by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), had got mired in controversy on account of the communal, plagiarised as well as erroneous information they contained. Schools under the Central Board of Secondary Education stream use NCERT textbooks, which also serve as models for preparing textbooks for schools under State boards and other examination boards.

The new Union Minister for Human Resource and Development, Arjun Singh, is proceeding with a kind of a caution that appears to many as unnecessary. This is in stark contrast to the haste with which the previous government set about systematically "removing" and "replacing" textbooks authored by historians who it chose to label as "Left". The removal of the textbooks was ostensibly done to reduce the burden on children and to make education relevant. The social science textbooks in particular turned out to be, as a historian put it, "tremendously anti-Left in character".

The HRD Ministry, of course, made some interventions but none of them has been of the hard-hitting kind that would indicate that the government means business. It has set up a three-member committee comprising Professors S. Settar, Barun De and J.S. Grewal to look into the controversial textbooks and suggest corrective measures. There is no timeframe for the committee to submit its report though it is learnt that it will do so within a few weeks. Secondly, the Ministry has started looking for a successor to J.S. Rajput, the present Director of the NCERT whose tenure comes to an end on July 15. Thirdly, it has nominated four new members, all with impeccable secular and academic credentials, to the executive committee of the NCERT. They are Professor Chandrakant Deotale, writer and scholar; Mridula Mukherjee, Professor of History and a member of the Delhi Historians Group; Professor Anita Rampal, Department of Education, Delhi University; and Dr. M.P. Parameswaran, founder-director of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad.

The setting up of a committee to look into the controversial textbooks is no doubt a politically prudent move, but any delay in restoring the status quo ante can have an adverse impact. The academic session for 2004-2005 is already under way and any decision regarding the introduction of new textbooks has to be done expeditiously. Students and teachers would find it difficult if it were done half way through the session.

The government must show some urgency, feel historians and other academics. The Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat) had as early as May 20 (soon after the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance was routed) demanded that the present textbooks in history and social science be withdrawn immediately.

The Delhi Historians Group, led by Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), issued a statement that "as an immediate first step, the textbooks replaced by the NCERT must be brought back forthwith and reprinted so that students starting school after the vacation are not forced to read the dangerous trash now circulated...in short, the secular formations must now take on the communal challenge on a war footing."

ON June 11, at a detailed Sahmat convention historians Irfan Habib, Surajbhan, D.N. Jha and Aditya Mukherjee, Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court Rajeev Dhawan, economist Prabhat Patnaik and educationist Anil Sadgopal underscored the need to act immediately to restore the earlier textbooks with any updating that may be required.

Prabhat Patnaik stressed that there should be no political interference in the writing of textbooks. History, he said, should be left to historians and the writing of textbooks should be based on vigorous research; the books should impart to the students some basic values.

Aditya Mukherjee, Professor of History from the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, said that the BJP had appropriated some icons of the Indian freedom movement; the scholars selected by the previous government to revise the history books portrayed the national movement more as a religious movement than as a reaction to colonialism. He said: "The entire section on contemporary India had only references to Muslim communalism and not Hindu communalism." Making a strong plea for the withdrawal of the "illegitimately introduced National Curriculum Framework" (NCF) and the implementation of the recommendations of the National Steering Committee on textbook evaluation, he said that the government must ensure that no student is exposed to hatred and bias. "Communalism is not just about bias. It is not a Left or Right issue. It is like anti-Semitism or racism," he said. Education, he stressed, was not just about increasing budgets or government expenditure; but the elimination of communal bias through education was a civilisational and constitutional imperative.

Arjun Dev, former head of the Department of Education in Social Sciences and Humanities at the NCERT, said that a disinformation campaign was on to stall the replacement of the textbooks. There is a deliberate attempt to plant the impression that new textbooks could be introduced only after the constitution of the Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE). He said: "It is strange that the previous government framed a national curriculum which did not take the CABE into account at all." The NCF was national only in name, said Arjun Dev, as at the two general body meetings of the NCERT, several participants including State Education Ministers denied that they had approved the framework. The new government, he said, should declare the NCF of 2002 as null and void.

Historians, academics and teachers feel that the errors listed out by an Indian History Congress (IHC) report should have been sufficient reason for the government to initiate action. The IHC, the sole national body representing the country's historians, had found fault with the textbooks. In its Calicut University session in December 1999, it expressed its reservations. It passed a resolution at its Kolkata session in 2001 questioning not only the manner in which history was treated in the school curriculum but also the way "values" were being linked to "education in religion". In 2002, four new textbooks were published, two each for Classes VI and IX, which had units assigned to History; two other textbooks, on Ancient and Mediaeval India for Class XI, were also published. Taking cognisance of the new approach to History, the executive committee of the IHC at its 63rd annual session held at Amritsar in 2002 resolved to arrange for a scrutiny of the textbooks.

A three-member committee comprising Professors Irfan Habib (Aligarh), Suvira Jaiswal (Hyderabad) and Aditya Mukherjee (Delhi) was asked to examine the books and give a report to the IHC. In June 2003, the committee submitted a 130-page treatise titled "A Report and an Index of Errors". The report observed that errors appeared to have been caused by an eagerness to present history with a very strong chauvinistic and communal bias. It held: "The textbooks draw heavily on the kind of propaganda that the so-called Sangh Parivar publications have been projecting for quite some time... with such parochialism and prejudice as the driving force behind these text-books, it is clear that these cannot be converted into acceptable textbooks by a mere removal of the linguistic and factual errors pointed out in our Index. In many cases, the basic arguments in the textbooks are built on these errors of fact, and so the errors cannot be removed without changing the main ideas behind the textbooks."

Any review of the textbooks would have to go beyond a mere correction of the errors, both factual and grammatical. As Rajeev Dhawan put it: "The government should call a meeting of the CABE. Any decision it takes should be between now and the end of June." He wondered how another edition of the current textbooks could be printed when the corrigenda (as compiled by the IHC) ran into more than a hundred pages.

The most scathing criticism came from Irfan Habib, who said that the textbooks ought to be removed, as they were completely hostile to the idea of a "composite culture". There was a total negation of the legacy of the national movement, he said. "This kind of a thing should not be taught in schools," he said. Irfan Habib could not understand why the government had set up another committee to look into the textbooks especially after the detailed "treatise" brought out by the IHC.

D.N. Jha from the University of Delhi, who chaired the Sahmat convention, cautioned against the squandering of the secular mandate.

The Sahmat convention adopted a statement that opined "not a day should be lost in withdrawing the curriculum framework of 2000 and recalling the textbooks, especially those of history and social sciences prepared under it". The government should initiate steps to restore the NCF of 1988 and reissue the old textbooks with the necessary updating, it stated. The convention was emphatic that the changes ought to be effected from the current academic session itself.

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