If the masters can play at a game, the followers can play it better. This appears to have been the rationale behind the replacement of Premchand’s novel, Nirmala, by a novel by another author in the Class XII Hindi syllabus by the Central Board of Secondary Education. Replacements are welcome in a syllabus, the principle in itself is forward-looking. But the replacement in this case was considered a shoddy one. The newly-prescribed novel is by Ms Mridula Sinha, the president of the Central social welfare board and a Bharatiya Janata Party leader. Unfortunately for the CBSE, Ms Sinha’s work has been criticized as far inferior to Premchand’s. Experts in Hindi literature have been unequivocal in stating that a replacement can only be made with a work of equal quality, and what the CBSE had done is an insult to Hindi and to the intelligence of students. Also, the CBSE had not taken the usual route of providing an option between two novels, and had thrown out Nirmala altogether.
The rescue came from unexpected quarters. The human resources development minister, Mr Murli Manohar Joshi, who has so far routinely ignored all criticism of changes in the syllabi produced by the National Council of Educational Research and Training, evidently felt uncomfortable with this change made by the CBSE. Allegations by the opposition that the alterations by the NCERT in history text books were meant to promulgate Hindutva had left Mr Joshi unmoved. In this case however, it was not so much the opposition as heavyweight Hindi critics who were the most vocal. The fact that the CBSE made the change on its own steam since it is empowered to do so may have irked the minister. But it is perhaps more a question of crossed loyalties. The BJP has a stake in the cultural excellence of Hindi. And Premchand’s fame is not limited to India alone. Ignorant fiddlings in this area go against certain deeper interests of the Hindutva band. Mr Joshi’s irascible prodding has ultimately led to a “reinstatement” of Premchand in the syllabus — as an alternative to Ms Sinha’s novel. Although an embarrassment has been avoided in this case, the trend is a worrying one. Literature and culture are areas through which opinions and attitudes can be formed from a very young age. The government’s interest in syllabi-writing is suspicious in itself. There should be no scope to debate whether a history text leans to the left or to the right. Both are unacceptable. There are experts enough in the country who can decide what the syllabi should be, without various governments breathing down their necks.