After a controversial engagement with the history taught in schools, the National Council for Educational Research and Training has set for itself the task of 'Indianizing' the English literature syllabus. On the face of it the effort to replace dowdy Byrons with homegrown Vikram Seths seems necessary and even timely. Only recently, Amitav Ghosh reopened the debate on literaure and national boundaries by refusing his nomination for the Commonwealth Writer's Prize. Also, during the last three decades, the success of Indo-Anglian literature in the West has redefined India's position vis-à-vis British or American literature. Given this, some of the centuries-old English writers and poets found in school textbooks look out of place in the changed socio-cultural context of our classrooms.
Conquer their imaginations
In early 19th century, when English studies hadn't acquired a canonical status in its home country, the colonial policy-makers introduced a selection of literary texts in the British Indian curriculum. Modern postcolonial studies have shown that this was done to conquer the psyche of educated Indians, to produce - as Macaulay prescribed - a 'class of persons Indian in colour and blood, but English in tastes, in opinions, in moods and in intellect'. Almost two centuries later, some of those same texts, and more important, the ideological basis of their selection, have survived. Although the 20th century has seen some remarkable developments in the field of literary criticism, it has scarcely affected the methodology of teaching and evaluation.
To the layman, English literature still conjures up the misty-eyed teacher clutching an anthology of Romantic poetry. The English literature syllabi in most of our universities must be a vestige of the colonial baggage. But that is hardly surprising with the bureaucratic control over the education system, where the key official is called the director of public instruction - a post that reeks of Macaulayan presumption.
Value addition, then and now
As things stand, any move towards purging the literature syllabi of outdated British texts and incorporating some of our desi authors who wrote in English is welcome. But NCERT has professed a greater undertaking. It wants to promote Indian values and ethos in classrooms through a selective study of Indian literature. And this is going to bring the project onto slippery ground as it did when, a few months ago, the council tried to tinker with the history syllabus at the higher secondary level. Ever since, there has been a move to saffronize the central educational bodies, 'Indian values and ethos' now means a reductive and retrogressive reading of the vast complex culture of the subcontinent. We see this when the University Grants Commission plans to introduce university-level courses in astrology, or when the NCERT thinks of removing Premchand's writings from textbooks on the ground that they no longer reflect Indian social reality.
But using literature as a tool to disseminate 'Indian' values in classrooms has deep ironical underpinnings. In British India, English literary studies were part of the imperial mission of educating colonial subjects in the literature and thought of England. To dismantle it and replace it with a 'nationalist' mission would mean the continuation of the same cultural hegemony, different in content but similar in form and style. And that would be a gross disservice not only to young minds, but to the cause of literature as well.