The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting
There is a good deal that is going on in the country that is sordid, but one of the worst is the crude attempt to foist some re-written history texts on school children in the garb of an “Indian system of education”. In the centre of this squalid business is the National Council of Educational Research and Training. This body is trying to push the new text-books which contain material that many historians consider to be distortions and untruths, while those in the NCERT allege that the earlier books were the products of leftist historians who put their own spin on historical events.
The NCERT is not even a statutory body; those appointed to various positions in it are selected by the Central ministry of education, that is, they are selected by the minister, Murli Manohar Joshi. Before him, other education ministers appointed their own people to the NCERT — whether they did it on the basis of politics or academic excellence is anybody’s guess. But it is true that the NCERT, even without statutory authority, was by and large acceptable to most schools, as two former directors of the NCERT, P.L. Malhotra and A.K. Sharma wrote early last year. The acceptability of what it proposed was solely due to what may be called its “moral academic ‘authority’” (a rather confused phrase, but you get what it means).
But by putting together crudely written history texts that have been found by some eminent historians to be full of flaws — which the NCERT historians loudly defend — it is not just that an acrimonious debate has been initiated, where academic integrity and political positions have begun to coalesce. What has happened is that the NCERT’s earlier respect and generally accepted academic independence have been destroyed once and for all. It is now nothing more than one of the many organizations of the education ministry, faithfully doing whatever Murli Manohar Joshi and his Hindutva cohorts want it to do.
This highlights some of the most tragically short-sighted attitudes of the Central government in the years after independence — attitudes that were naïve, and even absurd at times. One of these was the belief that organizations would continue to be independent centres of excellence if the right people were put in charge. So put the right people in charge and hey presto, you have centres of excellence. Look at the mess they made of the Lalit Kala Akademi, the Sahitya Akademi and the Sangeet Natak Akademi by following this childish policy.
Jawaharlal Nehru and Abul Kalam Azad wanted them to be the equivalent of the Royal Academy in Britain; setting standards, recognizing true excellence and honouring it. And in the early years they did that, after a fashion. Then different people came to take charge of these bodies — the “right” people for those in power — and it took just a few years for these bodies to lose whatever standing they had among creative artists, writers and performing artistes. Not that it bothered the education or culture minister; as long as his creatures were in charge, and as long as they gave prizes and awards to those who were found acceptable to the power elite, nothing else mattered.
Of course you had to include, among awardees and fellows, some truly distinguished creative people, lest the akademies became wholly ridiculous, as the Lalit Kala Akademi did become some years ago; and occasionally you did — more by chance than anything else — get a really distinguished person to head one of the akademies, like Girish Karnad being made chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. But all three bodies lost the independence and freedom that Nehru and Azad had fondly, and impractically, thought they would always have.
The NCERT was, as we have seen, never given even a statutory footing, much less any spelt-out autonomy and academic freedom. It earned that because of those who were in it, and because of the people who headed it. A dangerous way to develop academic excellence and independence; dangerous and foolish. Such a body will keep its reputation only if the political boss, the minister, and his creatures, keep their hands off it. But that will depend on the minister, and this one, having been an academic himself, knows just how to handle the NCERT and make it one of his instruments.
But this is only an aspect of the real issue, which is the crucial importance of keeping what we teach our young away from politicians and their compulsions. Why, in the name of all that’s reasonable, should a politician — tarred and soiled by compromise, lying, lobbying and sometimes with even more despicable attributes — determine what children ought to know' And, worse still, why should some scholars, if they have any self-respect, allow themselves to be co-opted by a political or fundamentalist group into distorting facts and events merely to satisfy a political objective' Are they not concerned about what the child is being provided as knowledge'
The fact is that if the system remains what it is, then the politicization of education is going to continue. And let’s not content ourselves by pointing a finger at Murli Manohar Joshi and the Hindutva lobby. Our leftist scholars have, in their own way, done no less in their time, even though they may deny it indignantly.
They’ll declare that they have always presented the truth. But, as Pontius Pilate had asked famously, what is the truth' What, for example, is the education ministry in West Bengal doing' Teaching children about the glorious role played by the communists in the freedom struggle' And as dedicated RSS teachers trained by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and dedicated communist teachers continue to teach children in different states, what are we producing' Is the advancement of an ideological ideal — whether it’s the RSS or Marxist-Leninist vision of India — to be done at the cost of our children' Can we not leave them out of all this, till they’re old enough to determine for themselves what ideology they prefer — if, indeed, they prefer any ideology at all'
What is of utmost importance is that the educational system be insulated from political ideologues, be they politicians or scholars who have a definite political approach to their field of study. The state has a responsibility to ensure this, and to ensure that they fulfil what their real responsibility is: to provide access to knowledge, and the funds to establish institutions where the young can get it. The nature of the knowledge they get must be left to a really independent group; not easy to put together, but not impossible either. A gathering of principals of all schools other than those set up or aided by the state could come up with names — or they may be some other way that can be devised.
Finally, it rests with the education ministers, at the Centre and in the states. They can continue doing what they are doing now, fiddling with the knowledge they teach the young, or they can try to consider an India where the young have knowledge untainted by any slant, and decide for themselves what they find of value in the knowledge they have acquired. Murli Manohar Joshi and ministers in states ruled by leftist governments will protest that this is exactly what they are doing; but in their hearts they will know they would be lying. Perhaps they, or somebody in power, will one day, before it’s too late, think about the children first.