The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The temperature in the political atmosphere has risen a sharp degree or two, all because of a Supreme Court ruling on the new school curriculum. Opponents and critics of the Bharatiya Janata Party grew over-anxious that the new syllabus published by the National Council of Educational Research and Training would be a bid to “saffronize education”. So they jumped the gun, and went with their fears to the Supreme Court even before the new books were out. But the court has seen nothing obviously wrong with the proposed syllabus. Instead, it has rubbished fears about “value-education” by stating that the aim of such education is to spur on a national fight against fanaticism and violence. Teaching children that religions differ not in their basics but only in their practices will help build a tolerant society. This is the stark opposite of what the petitioners believe the BJP intends doing. But they should have thought twice before taking a bundle of apprehensions to court. Irrational opposition is counter-productive, especially damaging when the issue is something as crucial as children’s education.

The legal and technical soundness of the judgment, however, is irrelevant to both the proponents and the opponents of the syllabus. At the moment, the sangh parivar is crowing, and rather foolishly advertising its educational agenda. This does not mean that the textbooks would contain the kind of divisive sentiments the sangh habitually expresses. To assess that, the critics will have to wait till the books come out. Shrill rhetoric is part of the political game, there may or may not be substance behind it.

The BJP has not given its critics any reason to believe that it will not try to further its own political agenda through the new syllabus. But that allegation would stick more or less to all political forces. All parties in power like to have syllabi of their preference in schools, and the BJP’s present sense of victory is particularly directed towards left parties and leftist intellectuals. The real question is a far more basic one. Education in schools is not a political affair, it is not a sphere where political agendas should enter by the side door. Yet that is exactly what has been happening — with a routine blandness that makes it seem perfectly normal. The brazenness of the Hindutva parties and the BJP’s perceived complicity in events and decisions geared to undermine democracy have merely made visible the inappropriateness of an arrangement that predates the BJP’s stint in power. The petitioners’ complaint that the syllabus was made without consulting the Central Advisory Board of Education was overruled by a majority judgment. The CABE is a non-statutory body and therefore need not be consulted. It is perhaps time that a statutory, scholarly body was constituted to plan syllabi and choose textbooks. That would not completely cut out politics, of course, but it would add credibility.

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