DISTORTING THE PAST: While the science text books claim India had the technology to build planes and nuclear weapons, the history books glorify Rana Pratap Singh and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar
In Rajasthan, textbooks are being re-written to confirm to Hindutuva notions of Indian greatness at ancient times and a post-truth version of the present. Nehru is a footnote, demonetization a “historical decision” that beat corruption, the cow is your mother and as for Godse — who’s that!
By Betwa Sharma
FOR someone who is courageously raising his voice against what’s happening in the state’s classrooms and textbooks, 51-year-old Mahavir Sihag, a school teacher in Rajasthan, is exceedingly soft spoken.
“Why can’t Akbar and Maharana Pratap both be great? Why are we made to feel that we must choose between them, between Rajputs and Mughals, between Hindu and Muslim?” Sihag is fighting a highly politicised revision (or correction, depending on who you ask) of history. “Do you know Akbar’s general was a Hindu and Maharana Pratap’s general was a Muslim?” he asks. “I blame the Congress for this division. They were in power for years, and all this time, the battle between the two kings has been written in our history books as a battle between two communities. Now, the BJP is making it worse. Not only are they distorting history, they are just filling textbooks with lies and half-truths.”
While activists and academics in Rajasthan have spoken out against the ‘saffronisation’ of education in the state, Sihag is among the few government school teachers currently in service to have raised his voice against the changes introduced in school textbooks after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Rajasthan in December 2013.
Some academics have accused the Vasundhara Raje government of practically launching a campaign to tutor an entire generation in the BJP’s political philosophy of Hindutva, while discouraging critical thinking. In the words of Rajasthan’s education minister, Vasudev Devnani, changes to the school curriculum will ensure that “no one like Kanhaiya Kumar is born” in the state.
The Udaipur-based State Institute of Education Research and Training (SIERT), which prepares textbooks for the Rajasthan Board of Secondary Education (RBSE), is supposed to be an autonomous body. Over the past three years, however, the education minister, an adherent of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), BJP’s ideological parent, has set the tone for a different approach to the school syllabus. He wants the textbooks, in his words, to “evoke nationalism.”
SO, THE RBSE books no longer refer to Akbar as ‘Akbar the Great’. Devnani prefers to call the Mughal emperor “Akbar the invader.” Turning history on its head, the social studies book for Class X now says, “Akbar did not win the Haldighati battle against Maharana Pratap.” Rajasthan University has also revised its syllabus to portray Maharana Pratap as the victor of the famous battle fought in 1576 in Haldighati, a mountain pass in the Aravalli Range. Students in every other state in the country learn that the battle had the opposite outcome.
Rajasthan Board textbooks are mostly used in Hindi-medium government schools where children usually come from socially and economically marginalised sections. Sihag believes that underprivileged children are most susceptible to Hindu nationalism or Hindutva indoctrination — and that is why he wants teachers to take a stand against what he calls the “lies and half-truths” in the revised textbooks. “The students we teach come from very poor families,” he said. “They have no one else looking out for them at home. If we as teachers fail them, we will be doing a great disservice to the country. They will not understand the diverse character of our freedom struggle. They will always look at things through the lens of Hindu or Muslim, us versus them.”
Sihag, whose subject is math, has been teaching for more than two decades. “The changes they are making to the syllabus are the worst in our history,” he said in a raised voice. “I’m frightened for the future. If this continues, the unity of our country is under serious threat.”
But “fighting back” against these changes, as Sihag put it, is not going be easy. As the General Secretary of the Rajasthan Teacher’s Association, he knows just how divided teachers in the state are over the changes made to the syllabus under the BJP dispensation.
Government schoolteachers that HuffPost India spoke with admitted that when it came to rewriting school textbooks, politics have taken precedence over scholarship. The state’s teaching community appears split along ideological lines.
One government school principal in Nagaur district believes that most teachers were happy with the changes. “No one here has a problem,” the principal said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Only the media does, because this time it involves the BJP. What about the Congress? Have they not glorified their leaders for decades? Have they told the whole truth about them?”
Teaching students about food and nutrition, too, has not escaped “saffronisation.” Asked if it was okay to teach students that eating meat was bad for the body, given the nutritional benefits of animal protein for children, a school teacher in Jaipur replied: “I’m not sure about that one. There are several wise people who say that eating meat is bad for you. Look at the prime minister, he is a vegetarian, but he is full of energy.”
School textbooks since Independence have been treated as tools for political jockeying, with each passing government
advancing its idea of the nation. Over the years, both the BJP and the Congress have treated schools as a kind of battlefield where they glorify their respective leaders, push their own ideologies, and conceal their errors.
Rajasthan has had alternating BJP and Congress governments since 1990, resulting in revisions in school textbooks every five years or so. According to academics in Rajasthan, both parties in the state have failed to produce a progressive curriculum that would qualify as being anti-casteist, anti-patriarchy and anti-communal. But even longtime observers say that the extent of the current education minister’s interference is unprecedented. They feel that changes introduced over the past two years pose an immediate threat to values of secularism and individual freedom.
ONE of the most controversial changes has been the introduction of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the originator of Hindutva ideology, as the greatest figure in the struggle for Independence, sidelining even Mahatma Gandhi. Last year, former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was reduced to a few references in the social science textbook for Class VIII.
The textbook does not mention that Savarkar had begged for forgiveness from the British authorities when he was imprisoned in the Cellular Jail in the Andaman Islands. In a mercy petition to the British, he wrote, “The Mighty alone can afford to be merciful and therefore where else can the prodigal son return but to the parental doors of the Government?”
Ram Swarup, a political science teacher in Rajasthan, is not looking forward to teaching his class. “I’m sad about it. Even if political parties make changes, there has to be some balance, some logic. How can you compare Savarkar’s contributions to that of Gandhi’s or Nehru’s?” he said.
In addition to rewriting history, as several critics have described the changes, the new textbooks uncritically laud the various schemes undertaken by the Modi government, along with its foreign policy.
In the political science textbook for Class XII, last year’s demonetisation has been hailed as a “historical decision” that beat corruption. There is no mention of the crippling cash crunch that affected millions, especially the poor, or its impact on the economy.
The English textbook for Class X features a poem titled ‘The Lotus’ that describes “the victory of the lotus as the victory of Indian culture.” Coincidentally, the lotus flower happens to be the BJP’s electoral symbol.
The health and education textbook for Class X also asks students to recite a Sanskrit mantra before meals. The Hindi textbook for Class V includes a letter from a cow as a “mother.” The social studies textbook for Class IX refers to the culture of the Indus Valley Civilisation as Sindhu Saraswati Culture.
There is no mention of the 2002 Gujarat riots when Narendra Modi was the state’s chief minister. There is also no mention of Nathuram Godse, the Hindu extremist who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi
Asked about the absence of Godse from the textbooks, a government schoolteacher in Jaipur shrugged and said, “What is there to write, everyone knows what happened.” When it was pointed out that it was perhaps too important a historical fact to omit from school texts, she said, “But do we ever present the correct picture of any historical figure? Is it enough just to write that Godse murdered Gandhi? Do we ever talk about the mistakes Gandhi made? Do we teach students that he did not help save Bhagat Singh?”
THE BJP had tried to saffronise education the last time it was in power at the Centre from 1998 to 2004, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister. However, its efforts petered out because other political parties were ruling most states at the time. That is no longer the case. Other BJP-ruled states, including Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana, have either made or are planning similar changes to their school textbooks now.
Last year, Minister of State for human resource development Ram Shankar Katheria said that “saffronisation” of education will take place.
Some academics believe the party is turning an entire generation into foot soldiers of Hindu nationalism to fight its battles in future elections. “It will be a potentially violent force in the 2019 election,” said Rajeev Gupta, a retired sociology professor at Rajasthan University, who was part of the team that reviewed the textbooks. “They won’t tolerate anyone who questions or challenges the status quo. This generation will support a totalitarian state.”
Gupta believes that the saffron thrust in school education benefits the BJP in other ways too. It distracts many in its constituency enough to not dwell on the failings of the Modi government, especially its failure to create jobs so far. “Development no longer has to be an issue when you have blind followers,” he said.
Sihag wants teachers to take a stand against the politicisation of textbooks. The math teacher is planning to organise rallies and seminars to protest against the changes. He estimates that among the 3.5 lakh government teachers in Rajasthan, only a few thousand will join him. “The major problem lies with the teaching community,” he said. “We have been selfish. We have fought for better salaries and other economic issues but no one has cared for what we our teaching our children. We are the ones who have to teach this material. We have to care more.”
On the assurance that their anonymity would be maintained, a political science teacher of a government high school on the outskirts of Jaipur, kicked off the discussion on whether Savarkar was presented fairly in the textbook that she would soon be teaching her class.
“Savarkar did a lot for the Independence movement and children should read about it,” she said, wiping the sweat off her brow. “Why should the Congress have the monopoly over promoting their leaders?”
“Why do we not hear more about other freedom fighters such as Hemu Kalani?” she added, referring to the Sindhi freedom fighter who was executed by the British in 1943.
When Savarkar’s letter begging clemency was mentioned, a history teacher countered by asking whether the media held the Congress Party to the same standard. “Do they write about the negative sides of their leaders?” she demanded. “Perhaps he [Savarkar] was trying to fool the British,” another teacher reasoned. “We don’t know what was going on in his mind. It could simply be a ploy to get out of jail.”
Asked if it was fair to say the first crop of Congress leaders were elites who had no connection with the people and wanted to strengthen the British Raj, one middle school teacher said, “No, that is wrong. When something is wrong, we should say it is wrong.” The others remained silent.
The middle school teacher said no matter what was written in the textbooks, teachers should try and present a fair picture to their students. The political science teacher didn’t agree. She felt it was inadvisable to stray outside the prescribed material. “It will only harm the children,” she said. “The questions in the examination will come from the text and their papers will go outside the school for checking. If they don’t reply in a set way, they risk failing.”
At this point, a nervous-sounding vice-principal stopped the discussion and asked everyone in the room to join in on the school’s ongoing “Skill Development” celebrations. “Modiji has given a lot of impetus to skill development,” he said.
A similar discussion unfolded in the staff room of another school the next day, this time in the heart of Jaipur. Many teachers were sitting around a table, but it was the ‘head teacher’ who monopolized the discussion.
In a loud voice, the elderly teacher said it was impossible for government teachers to challenge the government over the course material. He added that he was not interested in joining any protest. He spoke candidly — in fact, astonishingly so. “I do care about the children,” he said. “I will admit that as a Brahmin, I care about the Brahmin children a little bit more. In our time, the Brahmins have become the persecuted lot. The truth is that I have one year to retire to my farmhouse in Noida. I can’t afford to get into trouble with the government at this stage.”
The atmosphere in the room had become a little tense and the young school headmistress intervened to ease things. The head teacher whispered into my ear, “She belongs to the scheduled castes.”
The headmistress spoke about the approach she would take to teach a lesson on Savarkar. “Well, I would teach that he was a leader of the independence movement,” she said. “I would just leave out the ‘only’ from the ‘only brave revolutionary’.”
IT IS easy for political parties to fiddle with school textbooks because no one really cares what students are taught in schools. While the teachers are indifferent, most parents are concerned with marks irrespective of whether their children are learning that Akbar defeated Maharana Pratap or the other way around.
The level of indifference is even higher in government schools that are filled with first-generation students from poor families. Many parents send their children to school only for the free meal provided under the midday meal scheme. When they return home, most children are put to work.
However, there have been a few attempts to protect “academic integrity” in school textbooks. One big push came in 2005, when the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) was overhauled under Prof Krishna Kumar, the director of NCERT (National Council for Educational Research and Training), from 2004 to 2010.
The Congress-led government at the time did not interfere with the working of the NCF Committee, Kumar said. Topics such as the Emergency, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the Ayodhya dispute, and the “anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat” were included in the political science textbooks prepared by NCERT.
Kumar said NCERT then acted like a “professional body” that produced textbooks free of ideology, which some BJP-ruled states, including Chhattisgarh, are still using till this day. “Otherwise these would have been unacceptable to the BJP. The textbooks were above party lines,” he said.
Since “education” is in the Concurrent List of the Constitution, state governments can come up with their own school syllabi or follow the material prepared by the NCERT and used in Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) schools across the country.
The Modi government has for the past three years let the NCERT material run without altering it. But that could change. Earlier this year, a committee with members from the CBSE and the NCERT decided to change “anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat” in the Class XII political science textbook to the “Gujarat riots”.
Courtesy: Huffington Post