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A different war on education

December 29, 2014


The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

GOING to school is a hugely risky proposition for children and teachers across the world. We don’t realise how difficult and hazardous getting an education is till it hits us in the face: the bloody assault in Peshawar, the disappearance of a busload of schoolboys in Mexico, the abduction of almost 300 girls in Nigeria. Such outrages get the headlines but what happened to Malala Yousafzai is repeated in different ways in at least 70 countries — and in 30 of these the violence is systematic.

A report compiled by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack lists the figures of assaults on schools carried out for political, military, ideological, sectarian or religious reasons between 2009 and 2013. Pakistan, along with Afghanistan, Colombia, Somalia, Sudan and Syria, is among the countries most seriously affected with 1,000 or more attacks documented during this period. India, too, is among the 30 countries that suffered direct attacks on a school or resulted in the killing of teachers, students or academics.

But something more insidious than such naked violence is happening in India (and, perhaps, in other countries, too). The long-running project to capture school curriculum by right-wing Hindu supremacist groups affiliated with the BJP is more worrying because it has found fresh wind with the Narendra Modi government firmly ensconced in Delhi. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an aggressive frontline organisation in the BJP’s ‘saffron’ network, may be keeping the TV channels and seminar mills churning with its brazen ‘re-conversion’ programme but the more fundamental changes are taking place away from the public glare.

Leading the charge to “nationalise, Indianise and spiritualise education” is Dina Nath Batra, an old warhorse of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological fountainhead. Batra, 84, a retired schoolteacher, has made quite a career of getting publishers to withdraw books that “hurt the sentiments of the Hindus”, sentiments that easily bruise against the hard facts of history. He campaigned against the well-known poet A.K. Ramanujan for his essay which dilated on the diversity of the Ramayana tradition. He also got academic Megha Kumar’s book Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad since 1969 withdrawn because he disagreed with its thesis. The cleansing of anti-communal thought and scholarship by the BJP is not new but the efficiency with which it is being conducted speaks volumes for the clout the saffron brigade now enjoys.

The long-running project to capture school curriculum by right-wing groups has found fresh wind with the Modi government.

Even the most powerful of publishing houses has been humbled by Batra. Not only did he get Penguin to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History and pulp the remaining copies, he managed to do so without even going to court. Buoyed by that victory, Batra went after another Doniger book, On Hinduism, published by Aleph, but has left the case for more important battles.

Batra has stated he would rather focus on “larger issues related to the [school] curriculum”. Batra heads the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti which, ironically, translates to Save Education Campaign. It is this enterprise that fills academics and educationists with dread because it is the spearhead of the BJP-RSS combine’s larger agenda to bring about substantive changes in the educational content of schools and officially approved cultural nationalism.

Call it a big step or a small one, this mindset is reflected in such things as obliterating practices and rituals related to other religions. Christmas was obliterated this year from schools, colleges and other institutions of higher learning. In a directive issued by Smriti Irani, minister of human resource development which is in charge of education, Dec 25 was observed as Good Governance Day in a range of central government-run educational institutions.

It’s instructive to have a glimpse into what Batra, who was the general secretary of Vidya Bharati, the education enterprise of the RSS for decades, believes schoolchildren should be taught. Predictably, he harks back to a mythical past of an imagined India that has a larger geographical spread than it does now — its borders include Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Tibet, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka — to make some astonishing claims that rival those made by Prime Minister Modi about ancient India’s prowess in plastic surgery and genetic manipulation.

Eight of Batra’s books have been made additional course material in Gujarat schools from this academic session. And among the gems that the young students in rising India will be imbibing is that the motor car was originally manufactured in India; the very first aeroplane in the world was flown in India (the proof being the pushpakaviman that ferried Ram to Ayodhya in the epic Ramayana); that pathbreaking scientific discoveries of the ancient sages were appropriated by Western science, that taking care of cows eliminates infertility. Gujarat school textbooks have been lethal for quite a while. They were rewritten some years ago to flaunt Hindutva’s virtues while categorising religious minorities, the Muslims, Christians and Parsis, as ‘foreigners’. These also extol various aspects of Nazism and fascism.

Education has, and continues to be the prime target of the RSS. Starting in 1950, when it began setting up a parallel school system under the Vidya Bharati Akhil Bhartiya Shiksha Sansthan, the RSS now runs over 23,500 schools under various names such as the Saraswati Shishu Mandirs. Vidya Bharat has no use for Western concepts of scientific evolution based on Darwin’s theory but lays maximum emphasis on something it terms ‘Bharatiya psychology’.

Three stints of BJP rule at the centre have allowed Vidya Bharati to spread its tentacles across India, particularly in the rural and tribal belts. Today it has an unfettered path, with no coalition partners to put brakes on its ambition of controlling education and the minds of the young.

It is difficult to see how such an agenda fits in with India’s grand ambition of becoming an economic superpower. One of Modi’s pet themes is to turn the country into a manufacturing hub. Perhaps, the ancient skills in making the pushpakaviman and the motorcar will stand it in good stead.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, December 29th, 2014