A writer is known by the enemies he makes. I was therefore interested to hear from a friend in Delhi that I had been attacked in an editorial in Organiser, the English mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh.
I went online and found the editorial. This argued that ‘the likes of Ramachandra Guhas and Romila Thapars who talked about “change” but benefited from the status quo are the people who coined and abused the term “saffronisation”. Without getting into their malicious intentions, one needs to take an objective stand on connecting education to Indian realities’.
I was mystified to read this. For, I played no part in coining the term ‘saffronisation’. In fact, I have been careful not to describe the ideology of the Sangh Parivar as ‘saffron’. Here I follow the late UR Anantha Murthy, who pointed out that saffron was a beautiful colour, associated with purity and renunciation throughout Indian history. Like Anantha Murthy, I am loath to cede the colour and all that it signifies to the RSS.
After charging Professor Thapar and myself with ‘malicious intentions’, the editorial in The Organiser argued that ‘Indianising education based on our socio-cultural roots is the only way to transform India’s population into a human development hub’.
What does it mean to ‘Indianise’ education? As Shivarama Karanth once pointed out, it is impossible to talk of ‘Indian culture as if it is a monolithic object’. ‘Indian culture today,’ he continued, ‘is so varied as to be called “cultures”. The roots of this culture go back to ancient times: and it has developed through contact with many races and peoples. Hence, among its many ingredients, it is impossible to say surely what is native and what is alien, what is borrowed out of love and what has been imposed by force. If we view Indian culture thus, we realise that there is no place for chauvinism.’
In the RSS view of the world, all that is Western is to be suspected. The Organiser editorial characteristically attacks ‘Anglo-Saxon’ values and education methods as ‘not in tune with our culture’. Let me posit, to this xenophobia, the warnings of an Indian writer even greater than Karanth. In an essay published in 1908, Rabindranath Tagore observed: ‘If India had been deprived of touch with the West, she would have lacked an element essential for her attainment of perfection. Europe now has her lamp ablaze. We must light our torches at its wick and make a fresh start on the highway of time. That our forefathers, three thousand years ago, had finished extracting all that was of value from the universe, is not a worthy thought. We are not so unfortunate, nor the universe, so poor.”
A hundred years on, the world is even more inter-connected than in Tagore’s day. India still needs a robust interaction with the West, but also with China and Japan, Africa and Latin America. In these mutual exchanges we may get something of value from them, and they something from us. We must keep our windows open, letting in winds from across the world, without, as Gandhi once said (provoked in part by Tagore) being blown away by any.
While school and college students in India must be encouraged to look outwards, they must also be instructed to look within. Here, in fact, I am on the same page as The Organiser, except that I have a more disaggregated understanding of our ‘socio-cultural roots’. In my view, a constructive way to ‘Indianise education’ is to more strongly place the school curriculum in its local or regional context. Students must go outside the classroom into the field to study the flora and fauna of their district (or state), its forests and water bodies, its agricultural and craft practices. They must also document the district’s built heritage, listing old temples, mosques, churches, gurudwaras, forts and homes.
A major consequence of unregulated economic development has been the destruction of the natural environment and of historic buildings. Making environmental knowledge central to school education shall make young Indians more aware of what needs to be done in this regard.
If school students need to understand the extraordinary cultural and natural diversity of India, college students must be exposed to the diverse strands of political argument that have gone into the making of the Republic. The RSS is right in suggesting that for too long has modern Indian history been presented through the lens of the Congress, the hegemonic party in the freedom struggle. But where it treads dangerous territory is in seeking to replace the Congress idea of India with one based on the ideas of its own icons, VD Savarkar and MS Golwalkar. For, those thinkers mistakenly (some would say maliciously) saw Indian culture as monolithic, as containing a so-called ‘Hindu essence’, which it became their privilege to define, and for their followers to enforce.
Fortunately, the spectrum of political opinion in India is far wider than that constituted by the BJP or the Congress. Consider the recent controversy over the ban on a student group in IIT Madras that went by the name of the ‘Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle’. The ban has only led to the proliferation of study groups named after Ambedkar and Periyar, two thinkers remarkably open to ideas from the West, as well as opposed to the reduction of India’s diverse cultural heritage to a single or singular ‘Hindu’ essence.
With the great sociologist Max Weber, I believe that ‘universities must not be allowed to become vehicles of indoctrination, promoting a particular political or religious point of view’. This pluralism is, alas, antithetical to cultural commissars, whether the Lefists, who once dominated university education, or the Rightists, who now strive to supplant them.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha
The views expressed are personal