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Subverting Education

By M V Ramana

Daily Times, Pakistan
14 August, 2003

One of the slogans of the all-controlling party in George Orwell's
classic book 1984 was "Who controls the past controls the future: who
controls the present controls the past." Religious fundamentalists of
all stripes in South Asia would agree wholly. And the way they
attempt to achieve this control is by subverting the educational
system. After all children going to school today will be the citizens
of the future.

Since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in India, the effort
to sift the recounting of the past with the sieve of Hindutva has
been under way. The process is much older in Pakistan. A recent
report compiled by Prof. A. H. Nayyar and Ahmed Salim, and aided by a
galaxy of experts, demonstrates how through and following the period
of Islamisation in the 1980s, school curricula and textbooks have
become systematically distorted in various ways, promoting hatred and
intolerance. (See
Controlling the subject matter taught in schools is something all
nations indulge in to varying degrees. If nations are, as Benedict
Anderson contended, imagined communities, then the process of
imagining a new community where formerly there was none inevitably
involves sins of omission and commission. Inconvenient facts - for
example those that derive from conflicts between the ruling and
working classes - are often omitted. Instead some kind of united
identity as citizens of the nation state is devised, sometimes by
postulating conflict with some other nation.

While all states manipulate textbooks, not all manipulations are
equally egregious. The distortions that derive from some form of
secular nationalism are usually less virulent and dangerous when
compared to those originating in religious nationalism. As political
scientist Srirupa Roy has argued, the Indian state initially chose to
define 'India' in terms of its cultural diversity (though selectively
applied) and presented itself as the sole unifying agent capable of
achieving order and stability. This is a much more tolerant and
secular idea compared to the Hindutva conceptualisation of India's
history, which postulates a unitary Hindu population under attack
from various foreign forces - first the Muslims, then the British,
and, to the extent that they want to acknowledge it, the Communists.
The 3 M's (Madrasas, Macaulay and Marx) as they are sometimes called.
This conception then furthers antipathy to Islam and selected
'Western' ideals like secularism and democracy.

Armed with this belief system, the BJP has infiltrated educational
institutions, especially the agencies that set curricula and produce
textbooks, appointing people whose views are sympathetic to its
philosophy. For example, the new textbook for Class XII entitled
Modern India is written by Satish Chandra Mittal, a retired professor
of history. Among his qualifications is a stated unhappiness with
what he called too much emphasis on Hindu-Muslim unity and composite
culture in history books. He has also stated in the Allahabad High
Court that the Hindu deity Lord Rama was not a mythological
personality, but a historical personality, and that he was Lord
Almighty who trod the earth in human form.

These efforts by the BJP have been strenuously opposed. The Indian
History Congress has set up a committee to examine the new history
textbooks brought out by the National Council of Educational Research
and Training (NCERT). Several state governments have decided not to
use the new NCERT textbooks. There have been petitions in the Supreme
Court challenging the new curricula. Regardless of the results of
these challenges, it is clear that as long as the BJP rules India,
its ability to further this process of communalising history and
poisoning young minds is likely to increase.

Some idea of what this process may lead to can be obtained from the
report by Nayyar and Salim mentioned earlier. The report is titled
'The Subtle Subversion', which is both ironical and ominous. Ironical
because to any objective reader the subversion should be all too
obvious with nothing subtle about it. But the fact that it may seem
subtle to some, i.e. the process has gone on unnoticed, is itself
evidence of how far this subversion has permeated national
consciousness; that is truly ominous.

Nayyar and Salim argue that the kind of history taught in Pakistan's
schools 'leave a false understanding of...national experience'. The
definition of Pakistani nationalism in effect excludes non-Muslim
Pakistanis from 'either being Pakistani nationals or from even being
good human beings.' Official school curricula also glorify war and
the use of force, urging students to take the path of Jihad and
Shahadat. (Though not mentioned in the report, one would expect that
the target of the wars and Jihad is India.)

One common feature in these distorted textbooks in India and Pakistan
is the introduction of facts that prejudice students against the
'other' community. In the new NCERT textbook on Ancient India, for
example, there is the intentional introduction of Osama Bin Laden in
a box on 'cultural contacts with the outside world'. There is, of
course, no relevance to this introduction and it seems but a clumsy
effort to tar the entire Islamic community with the brush of
terrorism. Similarly, A H Nayyar points out that statements like 'The
religion of the Hindus did not teach them good things - Hindus did
not respect women...' and 'Hindus worship in temples which are very
narrow and dark places, where they worship idols...' are introduced
in Pakistani curricula to create 'hate and denigration' for Hindus.
The great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun argued that the "inner meaning
of history...involves speculation and an attempt to get at the truth,
subtle explanation of the causes and origins of existing things, and
deep knowledge of the how and why of events." It is such a
conceptualisation of history that should guide school textbooks.
Indeed the larger purpose of education itself should be to promote a
critical understanding of the world, empowering students to make
sense of society and eventually effect progressive social change. At
stake is our common future.

M V Ramana is a physicist and research staff member at Princeton
University's Program on Science and Global Security and co-editor of
Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream