Content related to socio-political reformers and movements being erased from school textbooks directly challenged structures upheld today by the RSS — structures of caste, patriarchy, religion.
Recent changes in school textbooks in Karnataka, proposed by the Rohith Chakrathirtha Committee, have sparked protests across the state. Students, prominent educationists, and political and religious leaders are resisting the BJP-led state government’s attempts to ‘saffronise’ education.
Saffronisation is not, however, the only agenda at work in these changes and a closer analysis of the targeted redactions and telling additions to syllabi makes apparent the underlying shift in approach to education as a whole. In the past year alone, education boards in Rajasthan, Haryana, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh have ensured similar revisions to their History and Social Science syllabus in particular, each state citing the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020’s emphasis on “ancient Indian knowledge systems” to defend their case.
The people’s struggle for a representative, counter-hegemonic history has been a long drawn one. As Amulya B writes in the Deccan Herald, “There never has been a time when Kannada textbooks represented Kannada literary culture accurately. Be it Kuvempu or Basavanna, the selected works were presented devoid of their caste context and revolutionary potential.” And yet, the latest textbook revisions have taken this erasure to a whole new level. Twentyseven Dalit writers including prominent representatives of the Bandaya literary movement have been removed from syllabi. The poems of Siddalingaiah, Chennanna Walikar, and Mudnakudu Chinnaswamy were deleted from textbooks in Class 4, 5 and 6 respectively. Entire chapters on women social reformers such as Akkamahadevi, and on women freedom fighters such as Kamala Chattopadhyay, have been wiped clean from Class 7 Social Science syllabi. The plan, it appears, is for future generations to grow up with no knowledge of the likes of Narayanaguru, Periyar, or even Kanakadasa. Instead, it intends for them to grow up learning Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologues such as VD Savarkar and KB Hegdewar, Chakravarthy Sulibele along with factually-skewed maps of Akhand Bharat.
These changes lay bare the hypocrisy of the RSS-BJP regime. On the one hand, the regime is investing in the patronage of revered figures such as Basavanna, eyeing the Lingayat vote. Union Home Minister Amit Shah himself paid tribute to the social reformer on Basava Jayanti this year, and soon after, CM Bommai sanctioned Rs 700 crore for the reconstruction of the historical Anubhava Mantapa in Basavakalyan. On the other hand, they know that Basavanna’s teachings pose a direct challenge to the very fundamentals of their ideology, rooted as it is in both caste and communalism. Thus, in critical edits made to the school lessons on Basava, his anti-caste perspective is conveniently dropped.
Said to be the first religious parliament in the world, Basavanna’s Anubhava Mantapa was a space founded on principles of inclusivity and rationality, and the awareness that progress is only possible if counter-hegemonic ideas are encouraged. It was meant to nurture dialectical practice and debate on equal footing, and produce future generations filled with the likes of Allama Prabhu and Akkamahadevi. This was possible because their research topics were not subject to scrutiny by the Union government, the way ours will be by the National Research Foundation envisioned by the NEP 2020. It was possible because the dissenting views of students were encouraged, not torn down by bulldozer regimes or shot down on the streets.
Each and every campus in our country has the potential to be an Anubhava Mantapa of this kind and the likes of CM Bommai and Education Minister BC Nagesh know this. They are afraid of it and that is why they search for the Mantapa beneath Peer Pasha’s dargah instead. That is why they use the Hijab ban to push out Muslim women from higher education, despite the fact that only 15.8% of them had access to it in the first place. That is why they wish to take away the Post Matric Scholarship (PMS) funds allocated for SC/ST students and divert them for infrastructure maintenance instead.
The socio-political reformers and movements that are being erased from school textbooks directly challenged structures upheld today by the RSS — structures of caste, patriarchy, religion—and of education itself. For their vision of education was entirely different from the commodity it has become today. Be it the first women educators Savitribai Phule (removed from Class 7 Kannada) and Fatima Sheikh, or Babasaheb Ambedkar (removed from Class 8 and 9 Social Sciences), they saw education as a tool for social reform and progress. An opportunity for our collective liberation, education was seen as key to the propagation of modernity and the dismantling of backward socio-economic structures. These were popular aspirations raised during the Indian freedom struggle. This is why the DS Kothari Commission, a parliamentary committee set up to reform education after 1947, could propose a Common School System to replace the private-government hierarchy in primary education — a seemingly unimaginable proposal today.
But values of social, political and economic justice have very conveniently been left out entirely from the NEP 2020. “India’s traditional knowledge” under the NEP 2020 does not include the scientific advancements made by toiling people, their everyday interactions in society and with nature or the struggles of social reformers against caste, gender-based and religious oppression but an imagined past based on Brahminical supremacist history and myth.
In its push for privatisation, the NEP 2020 lays the basis for the government to abdicate its responsibilities of providing free, equal and scientific education for all. Through ‘self-financed courses’, promotion of ‘skill training’ as per market demands, granting of financial (and not academic) ‘autonomy’, scuttling reservations for historically oppressed groups and encouraging FDI in setting up of foreign universities in India despite all the talk of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, it seeks to dismantle the few existing publicly-funded educational institutions and ideas of social justice promised by the Constitution. This is in line with the BJP regime’s newly-introduced Labour Codes, which seeks to promote a flexible labour regime where ‘hire-and-fire’, Fixed Term Employment contracts and lack of social security nets are justified as necessary for generating employment.
Education which is sold as a service by the ruling elite is merely the mindless training of students to be good bricks in the wall, foot soldiers for fascist mobs and a poorly-paid workforce for the corporates. Shaheed Bhagat Singh wrote that an education system that is fit only for producing ‘clerks’ and which reproduces an exploitative social order deserves to be challenged. The influence of such revolutionaries on Indian society had led to progressive ideas entering school textbooks in the first place. If struggles inspired by them are weakened, we cannot expect our education system to promote liberatory ideas any longer. Students and youth today must reclaim not only the progressive histories and ideas sought to be erased by the RSS-BJP regime, but also the liberatory role of education itself.
(Shalom Gauri is associated with COLLECTIVE Bangalore, a progressive students’ organisation.)
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