Ever since the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-supported government of Narendra Modi has come to power, the Indian Left has been worried sick about a ‘Right’ turn of education, while the Indian Right claims that the current curriculum is Left leaning.
Evidently, the Left wants status quo while the Right demands a course correction.
This debate has generated many assumptions. The most facile is about the nature of education in India which most, especially the Right – perhaps based on a few weak lessons on interfaith harmony in school textbooks, think is ‘secular’.
Having spent 19 years of my life in the system - from LKG (Lower Kindergarten) to a Master’s Degree (all of it in the state of Gujarat), I believe just the opposite – that education in India emanates from and caters to the Right.
The first problem is of perspective. Social Media trolls and generally well-meaning Indians supporting Prime Minister Narendra Modi blindly, look at Indian politics in the binary – the Congress is evil and the BJP is the knight in shining armour out to save the damsel in distress Bharat Mata. They believe that Indian education is bad simply because it was shaped and run by the ‘pseudo-secular’ Congress.
That, of course, is another assumption – that the Indian National Congress is secular and hence has shaped a secular education. A slight peek into the history and functioning of the Congress Party will show us that a majority of communal riots since independence have had the active blessing and often participation of Congress members, even as the party made a grand show of secularism.
The second problem is that we do not realise that secularism is like pregnancy. You are either secular or you are not. You cannot be a ‘little’ secular or even selectively secular.
Most Indians - and this cuts across religious lines, are inherently communalist, sectarian and casteist. Few have ever managed to get over their narrow sectarian mindsets to become truly non-partisan and inclusive. I am still trying.
Another issue is of sacrificing truth and objectivity at the altar of alleged secularism. E.g. my education taught me nothing about forced conversion of thousands of Hindus by communal minded Muslim rulers like Aurangzeb (much later would I learn as to why despite this, Aurangzeb was not the frothing-at-the-mouth-rabid Islamist that frothing-at-the-mouth-rabid RSS pracharaks make him out to be to further their own divisive agenda) and neither did it teach me that literally millions of Indians over the last 2 and a half millennia actually chose to convert to other religions like Buddhism, Jainism and much later Islam, Sikhism and Christianity on their own accord, inspired by their ideas of equality and to escape brutal and systemic caste-based oppression in Hinduism that kept millions on the edge of starvation and extinction.
These were allegedly not taught to us in the name of a secular education allowing communal elements to fill the void with divisive and incorrect drivel.
The real question hence is not whether Indian education is secular. The question is whether it is just, complete, inclusive and balanced? Sadly, besides a few exceptions like the attempt made by the National Curriculum Framework of 2005, it has rarely even aspired for the ideal.
The politically motivated and rhetorically driven education I received inside this system, was fragmentary, presented incomplete interpretations of events and often entirely excluded important historical waves that changed the nation.
19 years of this left me with lopsided perspectives, incomplete understanding of what constitutes justice and led me to justify dangerous prejudices in myself and others. Thankfully life and experience has since led me to first unlearn a lot of that nonsense and then to look at things in a different, wholesome light. Let me give just one proof of the complete ‘incompleteness’ of my education – the caste system of India.
In school, I first learnt that the caste system is an ancient Indian method for division of labour that – and this was tacitly said and interpreted as such by teachers - had led India to heights of scientific and spiritual greatness.
Later, I would be taught that India had wave after wave of religious, social and cultural reformers. Though young, I could connect the two and wondered why a ‘great’ culture and religion needed so many reformers?
My education also never told me anything about our founding fathers who when drafting the Constitution were so disgusted with the caste system and the suffering it had caused billions through thousands of years of existence, that they unanimously agreed to eliminate it, at least constitutionally.
But this has had little social impact and caste system continues because like Dr. B R Ambedkar, quoting his favourite philosopher Edmund Burke had warned, “There is no method found for punishing the multitude. Law can punish a single solitary recalcitrant criminal. It can never operate against the whole body of people who choose to defy it.”
And what about my education about individuals from the Dalit community? It was vast and appeared for… exactly one full sentence in 19 years. That sentence was: “Dr. B R Ambedkar was the father of the Indian Constitution.”
Even when we had the story of Eklavya from Mahabharata, it was taught from a problematic perspective. Eklavya was a lower-caste tribal boy who when refused education by guru Dronacharya because of his caste, makes a statue of the master imagining it to be his guru, practices archery diligently before it and becomes better than even the upper-caste students taught by Dronacharya himself.
What did the great guru Dronacharya do - he sought payment from Eklavya for his services. He asked for, and got, Eklavya’s right thumb. This story is one of treachery and injustice. In one version of the story, Dronacharya is said to have told Arjuna that he did this to maintain caste-based balance.
But not only were we not shown the story in this light as an example of how misguided even teachers can be, it was twisted around and we were actually told to imbibe the ‘devotional qualities’ of Eklavya, while perhaps teachers could get busy imbibing the treachery of Drona.
And to think that the highest award for teaching (sports) is called the Dronacharya Award!
Away from school, in the society around, I was taught that ‘these bloody Dalits are the ‘jamais’ (pampered son-in-laws) of the government and that reservation has not only led to deprivation for the upper castes (‘are there any seats left for us after endless reservations?’) but also the ruination of the nation because it is against merit and rewarded people for merely being born Dalits.
It would take me years of unlearning to see and laugh at the irony that upper caste Indian who have enjoyed social reservation for thousands of years, were now complaining about a little bit of the same being given to Dalits?
Instead of teaching me that India was consistently great for thousands of years, I could have been taught the truth – that yes we had our moments of greatness, that we have had leaps in science, literature, art and culture but that it is also true that our history is steeped in brutality where discrimination was evolved into a fine art of depriving millions from every form of power – political, social, cultural, educational or financial.
No one taught me that these anti-merit methods undermined the true potential of the nation and it was time to leave them behind and move forward as one nation and one people striving to find peace, equality and growth for everyone.
Many who refuse to open their eyes claim that the caste system is dead. This is a blatant lie because not only has it consistently led to 2 rapes and 3 murders of Dalits every day in the name of caste, but it has evolved with the times and found wings. The British Parliament, alarmed by the caste based discrimination practiced by Indians there, has been attempting to bring an anti-caste bill in their Parliament for a decade now, only to be thwarted by upper caste Hindus there.
Did I learn any of this in the 19 years of my so-called Left leaning, secular education? Nothing. Not one sentence worth mentioning.
How then can you call the education in India secular or evolved when in truth it is from an upper-caste, mostly Brahmin and right-wing perspective, is unsecular, unjust, incomplete and often lack even basic truths despite fantasies and ambitions of being secular and inclusive.
So what will further ‘Hindutvafication’ a la Dina Nath Batra tinkered syllabus do? It will dumb Indian education down to the level of becoming incoherent, gibberish and utter nonsense because you cannot make it more Hindu without breaking it apart into pieces.
That the education system of India needs an overhaul is obvious. But if we are to improve our competitiveness in the world and move confidently into the future, that reinvention would have to be minus any colouring of religion or politics and dictated only by fairness and truth.
Nudging Indian education further Right will only push it off the precipice’s edge and send it tumbling into the abyss from which rescue would be impossible.
Dina Nath Batra obviously cannot be expected to understand this. One can only pray, for the sake of the nation and our children, that Prime Minster Narendra Damodardas Modi does.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is an independent film critic, writer and photojournalist based in Mumbai. His writings on cinema, culture and politics have appeared nationally and globally.)