India appears to be witnessing a renewed battle to win the minds of the next generation of students. From Health Minister Harshvardhan's reservations about sex education to Dinanath Batra's books being introduced as supplementary texts in Gujarat; from efforts by Sangh Parivar to 'correct' the study of the past to intensifying polarization among academics, the politics of pedagogy is back.
In the past, the BJP accused school books being driven by 'Marxists'. When Murli Manohar Joshi became the HRD minister, a key critique of the left and liberal intelligentsia was that NDA was 'saffronising education'.
These groups subsequently lobbied with the UPA regime to revise the curriculum. Many considered this a fair and rigorous process but it came under attack by the right-wing. Subsequently, Dalit groups objected to a cartoon depicting B R Ambedkar in the new books, which led to the government apologizing. With the NDA back in power, the Sangh Parivar is reported to have already set up a body to push the saffron agenda.
Why are textbooks such sites of confrontation?
Aniket Alam, a left-leaning historian who is now executive editor of Economic and Political Weekly, told HT that this is not unique to India. "In US, there is a debate on whether to highlight creationism or evolution theories about the origins of life. In UK, there is a debate on how to look back at the colonial era."
He added that what may be distinct in India is that many cultural battles are still being fought. "In US, no serious scholar will say racism or slavery is good. But in India, you still have people claiming caste is good."
Rajiv Malhotra, a US-based author with strong sympathies for the Hindutva agenda, says it is only right that there is contestation because history-writing has always 'been controlled by those in power'. "Even when the facts cited are valid, there is subjective choice in selecting what gets included, the priorities assigned, and the interpretive lens that is used." This was rampant, he alleges, 'in the secular era of power…as part of political manipulation of votebanks'.
But Alam points to the remarkable diversity in curriculum in India – there are NCERT Books used in central and CBSE schools, a fraction of which is written by Marxists; there are ICSE schools; and then there are the majority of schools following curriculum of different state boards.
"In the new NCERT books, in Class 6, my daughter was introduced to caste through a letter written by a man to Ambedkar narrating a personal experience of discrimination. What is Marxist about it? It is very creative."
The real issue is academic merit. Alam agrees that textbooks need to be periodically reviewed by experts and the issue is not about 'left or right narratives', but 'battling irrationality'.
Malhotra too accepts that any revisions must be 'subject to due diligence in public forums and debates among experts, in order to filter out any chauvinistic claims'. He adds that a 'larger diversity of perspectives can be included rather than just one absolute view'.
Ultimately, the battle obscures the fact that the books need to be a product of collaboration between 'experts in the subject and experts in children's pedagogy'. It ought to open up children's minds, make them inquisitive, show them ways to look at the world, and ask critical questions. Unfortunately, political parties see education merely as a tool to make people more amenable to their worldview.