[Reader-list] History text books debate in India

ravikant at sarai.net ravikant at sarai.net
Thu Jun 3 01:13:45 IST 2004

This is for those who do not access Times of India, with apologies to those
who do.



Educational Reforms: What Is Not To Be Done  
 [ WEDNESDAY, JUNE 02, 2004 12:00:07 AM ]

With an erstwhile professor of economics now as our prime minister, there
is great expectation among teachers at all levels of the educational
pyramid. All those who dirty their hands with chalk-and-duster, whether in
manicured management institutes, or the stable-like lecture-rooms in most
universities across the land, are visibly relieved. The dark phase of
thought control, the arrogation of educational wisdom to a handpicked
coterie of under-qualified academic bureau-crats, the systematic slandering
of our tallest scholars as inadequately Bharatiya, the throwing of muck,
often quite literally, at some of the most distinguished foreign scholars
of India’s cultural and religious past — all this is mercifully over,
for five years at least. So we hope. 
The common minimum programme, while promising to take up universal
elementary education seriously, goes on to assure autonomy for university
and professional institutions. There is talk already of an urgent need for
‘detoxification’ of school and college curricula. This is
understandable. No doubt there is a need to undo the ‘wrongs’ done to
our institutions, to  our children, to our teachers. But let us press ahead
only after due deliberation; let the urgency of the task not become an
excuse for the darning of frayed ideas and the regurgitation of old
mantras, unmindful of their past efficacy and present suitability. 
Those in charge of the education ministry — a far  better term than the
fluffy acronym HRD — must learn to get over the control-centralise itch
that seems almost to go with the job. We’d also do well to remember that
some of the most odious diktats emerging from the HRD over the past five
years, were very often the redeployment of weapons of surveillance
developed in the early and mid-1970s. The mindless control over the grant
of visas to foreign or foreign-based Indian scholars on grounds of
‘sensitivity’, and the totalitarian control that the HRD sought to
exercise over international scholars wishing to speak in India , were not
necessarily the creation of the last government. They date back to an
earlier and different, though by no means intellectually less debilitating,
consensus on what was properly national. 
Not that tax-paying bona fide Indian scholars were necessarily given more
leeway, if the myrmidons of state-funded bodies thought, in their fawning
wisdom, that they had somehow crossed the academic Lakshman-rekha. As we
move to free education from the fist of smug, sectarian certitude, let us
not hurry over the fact that there once was a well-placed intellectual
component of the now-discredited licence permit raj. 
Some 30 years separate 1974 from 2004. During this period, the world, India
included, has hurtled through calendrical time at an astonishing pace. Were
we to limit ourselves to picking some high points and potholes from the
field of education: There has been a phenomenal increase in the
international market worth of IIMs and IITs, combined with a
hyper-inflation of indifferent regional universities; while most metro
universities have held their own under the pressure of a rush of student
intake, many premier universities of yesteryears have sunk into second-rate
teaching shops; tuition, coaching, tutoring, entrance tests, all these have
usurped the place of class room pedagogy: the Great Education Bazaar is now
flooded with all manner of indifferent and inferior goods, some of these
attractively packaged by branch outlets of overseas institutes and
colleges. And then there is the great rush to study in the US . 
The new educational dispensation will  no doubt address these and several
other pressing problems — there is talk of a new education commission. It
is not my aim to prepare a laundry list for such a commission. Suffice it
to say that this government would do well to involve many more actual
teachers, irrespective of rank and age, rather than fall back, as a matter
of habit, on academic bureaucrats and retired pedagogues. 
The other area of immediate concern would be the issue of middle and
secondary school text-books, especially history text-books, which were
hurriedly re-scripted in the last regime, so the argument went, to correct
the ‘leftist’ bias of the 1970s history primers. Here again greater
deliberation is called for, and a new consensus, which takes into account
the developments in the discipline of history more generally and Indian
history writing specifically,  arrived at. Educationists have recently
drawn attention to the fact that an obsessive Arjun-like concentration on
the eye of the targeted-bird — in this case the Indian nation-state —
in school books is to rob both the child and the discipline of history of
an informative, yet critical perspective on the relationship between our
past and our present. 
History text-book writers need to take all this into account. They might
also like to mull over the forthright enunciation in December 1947 by
professor Mohammad Habib, one of the doyens of Indian history: ‘The
writing of histories should not, as a rule, be directly subsidised by the
state... Under the old regime we wrote in a spirit of constraint... Our
national leaders should now be willing to pass on to us a fraction of the
freedom they have obtained. A state-dominated interpretation of history is
one of the most effective means of sabotaging democracy’. Strong words
indeed, given that they were uttered on the eve of the Nehruvian consensus,
and doubly salutary for a fractured polity that is India today. 
(The author teaches at the University of Delhi .) 

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