Distort Facts, Communalise Minds: Agenda of the New NCERT Textboks

- Kavita Krishnan


Meeting the Saffronisation Challenge Politically

Comrade Swapan Mukherjee attended the meeting of political parties convened by the CPI at Ajay Bhavan in New Delhi on 16 October to discuss the issue of the SC verdict and saffronisation of education. Welcoming the idea of a concerted political move by all Left and democratic forces on this issue, he said that the need of the hour was an extensive as well as intensive campaign going up to an all-India educational strike from the universities to primary schools and even a Bharat Bandh. He also criticised the misleading statements being issued in this connection by some Congress leaders, especially the MP Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, who has not only dismissed the danger of saffronisation but even stopped the widely appreciated popular science education programme run by Eklavya in the state.

In September, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court removed the stay on the new textbooks based on the NCERT’s New Curriculum Framework (NCF). The stay had been obtained after concerned educationists had filed a public interest litigation (PIL) case regarding the overtly communal bias of the NCF. The SC’s removal of the stay was triumphantly and gleefully proclaimed as a vindication against the charge of saffronisation by Murli Manohar Joshi and the BJP. During his latest sojourn in the US, Vajpayee wondered what was after all wrong with saffronisation of education! Saffron, he said, was the colour of culture in India and saffronisation thus merely meant basing education on a strong foundation of Indian culture. Now the first batch of textbooks has been released and the issue is once again up for discussion in the arena of public debate.

Firstly, how far was the SC verdict, in fact, a vindication of the BJP-led government’s communal education policy? In fact, two of the three judges on the panel agreed that the NCERT’s act of bypassing the Central Advisory Board of Education in its preparation of new textbooks and new curriculum was unwelcome, and both recommended that a meeting of CABE should be convened and consulted. Further, the bench chose to ignore or avoid several of the issues raised by the petitioners – and zeroed in only on the question of whether religion should be a source of value in education. Here the judges expressed the faith that the textbooks would be able to draw upon religion as a source of value, without indulging in ‘religious instruction’. It also expressed the confidence that no bias in favour of or against specific religions would creep in.

The BJP has packaged its new educational policy as “value-based” education. But in fact, all textbooks are “value-based”. The question is – what kind of values do Indian children need? Democratic, modern, liberal, rational values? Or chauvinistic, communal, narrow-minded, backward values? The widespread apprehensions that the NCF had paved the way for the new textbooks to undermine the former and peddle the latter have been proved right by the very first set of textbooks released in the market after the stay was lifted.

The two new textbooks are ‘Ancient India’ for Class VI and ‘Contemporary India’ for Class IX. These texts have obviously been hastily prepared by the communal hacks and mythmakers of the RSS, not by professional historians. So it is no surprise that they are laughably full of factual errors, poor language, careless logic, even grammatical and spelling errors. In the English media, and even in discussions organised by groups like Sahmat, the attention has been largely restricted to these “bloomers”, glaring omissions and factual errors.

But it would be dangerous to ignore the method in the apparent madness of these texts, to miss the wood for the trees. Eminent educationist Dr. Krishna Kumar, in a discussion with this writer, warned that it would be shortsighted for a critique of the textbooks to focus on the “errors” alone. He pointed out that NCERT Director JS Rajput had responded to the initial critiques by promising to “correct” all the errors. Dr. Krishna Kumar said the issue was not merely of whether facts were incorporated, but a far more crucial question of how facts are organised? Even if all “errors” were corrected and the language, grammar etc. made perfect, the essential thrust of the texts would not change. They would continue to present facts in a manner calculated to communalise and poison young minds.

Behind the disjointed, clumsy, shoddy surface, the big picture is ominously clear: the unmistakable agenda is to peddle the Sangh’s distorted, fascist worldview as ‘knowledge’. In a meeting of historians, students and educationists, organised by AISA in JNU, some key examples came up for discussion.

Dr. P. K. Basant of the Department of History, Jamia Millia Islamia, compared the treatment of the caste system in the class VI text with its treatment in the earlier text authored by Romila Thapar. He pointed out that whereas the earlier text explicitly discussed the exploitative, oppressive nature of the caste system, the new text uses value-neutral terms to describe it. Its strongest comment is merely that with time, the caste system became rigid, and mobility from one caste to another became difficult. The fact that the system cruelly and inhumanly exploited a section of people on the basis of birth has been conveniently erased, presumably to avoid ‘hurting the sentiments’ of the upper castes!

Dr. Vishwa Mohan Jha of Delhi University showed how the same text book lumps Harappan civilization under ‘Vedic Civilization’, to claim that the Aryans belonged to India: a myth designed to show that the ‘original’ Indians were Hindus, while Muslims and Christians are ‘outsiders’.

The class IX text on contemporary India repeatedly states that Nazism and Fascism were dictatorial trends that arose in Europe as a reaction to ‘Soviet Communism of Joseph Stalin’, which was the dictatorship of a particular class (the proletariat)! Speaking of the period between 1757-1857, it mentions the Widow Remarriage Act as one of the sources of ‘Indian unrest’ against the British, along with ‘encouragement to Missionaries’ and unemployment. The text carefully avoids any mention that the Act came about as a result of social reformers’ demands to abolish Sati.

Repeatedly, this textbook tarnishes the image of Muslim participation in the freedom struggle. It asserts that Muslims participated in the 1857 struggle only because they dreamt of restoring Mughal rule. It also states that Muslims, as a community, “withdrew from the non-cooperation movement” when Khilafat was abolished in Turkey.

This text holds only Muslim communalism responsible for the partition and riots, and completely avoids all mention of Hindu communalism as a trend, so much so that it even fails to mention that Gandhi was killed by Godse. But even if Rajput incorporates this fact in new editions, one can imagine how this assassination will be represented as a tragic ‘reaction’ to Muslim communal violence!

Professor Aditya Mukherjee of JNU, speaking at the meeting, pointed out that even in this text authored by the BJP’s own people, the authors have not yet mustered enough confidence to bluff about any instance of RSS participation in the freedom struggle!

The BJP has tried to pose the issue as a debate between ‘Indianised’ perspective versus the hitherto hegemonic ‘Leftist’ view. But in fact, the issue is not about “Leftist vs. Indian” or even “Leftist vs. Rightist” history. The issue, in fact, is of whether democratic values or communal fascist values will prevail as the guiding principle of Indian education. Even in earlier textbooks, several communal or patriarchal biases were to be found. But these were not part of a systematic programme to inject such poisons in children’s minds – they were more of a reflection of the flawed notions and biases that were part and parcel of the state-sponsored ‘secular common-sense’. The democratic worldview of those texts certainly needed expansion and should have been subjected to vigorous debate and change.

Eminent historian Prof. Bipan Chandra, in an interview published in the Indian Express explains the context in which he and other professional historians were persuaded to author school texts. Following the Jabalpur riots in 1959-60, as well as riots in Kanpur, a National Integration Council (of which, incidentally, A. B. Vajpayee was a member) was constituted which concluded that the text books based on colonial historians were full of communal biases which were a contributing factor in the riots. Bipan Chandra and Romila Thapar were then requested to write texts from the point of view of modern, secular India. Chandra points out that the new curriculum’s approach of labeling Hindu communal violence and riots during Partition as a ‘reaction’ to Muslim communal violence would encourage the RSS-Modi logic which seeks to justify the Gujarat carnage as a ‘reaction’ to Godhra.

Speaking at the JNU public meeting, veteran historian Prof. BD Chattopadhyay emphasised that the ongoing battle was a political one, rather than a debate between contending academic perspectives, or even merely between good vs. shoddy academics. So, only a political challenge can actually stall the saffronised curriculum and texts. Truly, the time has come for a countrywide agitation of teachers, students and parents to reject these bigoted texts.