POLITICS

Inside The Surreal Battle For Mind Control Playing Out In Rajasthan's Classrooms

From history to politics to math, text books are throwing caution to the wind, as teachers grow divided.

02/08/2017 9:32 PM IST | Updated 03/08/2017 3:17 PM IST
Wikipedia/Getty/HuffPost India

JAIPUR, Rajasthan -- For someone who is courageously speaking truth to power, 51-year-old Mahavir Sihag is exceedingly soft spoken. On occasion, you have to remind him to speak louder, so that you can hear.

"Why can't Akbar and Maharana Pratap both be great? Why are we made to feel that we must choose between them, between Rajputs and Mughals, between Hindu and Muslim?"

Sihag is a school teacher in Rajasthan who is raising his voice against what's happening in the state's classrooms and textbooks--a highly politicised revision (or correction, depending on who you ask) of history.

"You know Akbar's general was a Hindu and Maharana Pratap's general was a Muslim?" he said. "I blame the Congress for this division. They were in power for years, and all this time, the battle between the two kings has been written in our history books as a battle between two communities. Now, the BJP is making it worse. Not only are they distorting history, they are just filling textbooks with lies and half-truths."

The history textbooks meant for Rajasthan's school children are now at the confluence of some fierce, and wider, contemporary forces. One, a rise in assertive Hindu nationalism, which harbours deep animus towards medieval Muslim invaders and the religion they helped spread in India. Second, the deeply-held belief by India's political right that its rightful electoral ascent has been delayed by decades of domination among the intelligentsia and academia (not to mention the media) by the ideas of the Left.

While activists and academics in Rajasthan have spoken out against the 'saffronisation' of education in the state, Sihag is among the few government school teachers currently in service to have raised his voice against the changes introduced in school textbooks after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Rajasthan in December 2013.

Some academics have accused the Vasundhara Raje government of practically launching a campaign to tutor an entire generation in the BJP's political philosophy of Hindutva, while discouraging critical thinking. In the words of Rajasthan's education minister, Vasudev Devnani, changes to the school curriculum will ensure that "no one like Kanhaiya Kumar is born" in the state.

The Udaipur-based State Institute of Education Research and Training (SIERT), which prepares textbooks for the Rajasthan Board of Secondary Education (RBSE), is supposed to be an autonomous body. Over the past three years, however, the education minister, an adherent of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), BJP's ideological parent, has set the tone for a different approach to the school syllabus. He wants the textbooks, in his words, to "evoke nationalism."

"Why can't Akbar and Maharana Pratap both be great? Why are we made to feel that we must choose between them, between Rajputs and Mughals, between Hindu and Muslim?"

HuffPost Staff
The Rajasthan Board's Social science textbook for Class 10 says that Akbar did not win the Battle of Haldighati in 1576.

So, the RBSE books no longer refer to Akbar as 'Akbar the Great'. Devnani prefers to call the Mughal emperor "Akbar the invader." Turning history on its head, the social studies book for Class X now says, "Akbar did not win the Haldighati battle against Maharana Pratap." Rajasthan University has also revised its syllabus to portray Maharana Pratap as the victor of the famous battle fought in 1576 in Haldighati, a mountain pass in the Aravalli Range, about fifty kilometres from Udaipur. Students in every other state in the country learn that the battle had the opposite outcome.

Rajasthan Board textbooks are mostly used in Hindi-medium government schools where children usually come from socially and economically marginalised sections. Sihag believes that underprivileged children are most susceptible to Hindu nationalism or Hindutva indoctrination--and that is why he wants teachers to take a stand against what he calls the "lies and half-truths" in the revised textbooks.

"The students we teach come from very poor families," he said. "They have no one else looking out for them at home. If we as teachers fail them, we will be doing a great disservice to the country. They will not understand the diverse character of our freedom struggle. They will always look at things through the lens of Hindu or Muslim, us versus them."

Sihag, whose subject is math, has been teaching for more than two decades. Dressed in a khadi kurta over white pajamas, he sounded determined, even over the din in the cafe we were in. "The changes they are making to the syllabus are the worst in our history," he said in a raised voice. "I'm frightened for the future. If this continues, the unity of our country is under serious threat."

The changes they are making to the syllabus are the worst in our history. If this continues, the unity of our country is under serious threat.

But "fighting back" against these changes, as Sihag put it, is not going be easy. As the General Secretary of the Rajasthan Teacher's Association, he knows just how divided teachers in the state are over the changes made to the syllabus under the BJP dispensation.

Government schoolteachers that HuffPost India spoke with admitted that when it came to rewriting school textbooks, politics have taken precedence over scholarship. The state's teaching community appears split along ideological lines.

'No Problem'

One government school principal in Nagaur district believes that most teachers were happy with the changes. "No one here has a problem," the principal said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Only the media does, because this time it involves the BJP. What about the Congress? Have they not glorified their leaders for decades? Have they told the whole truth about them?"

Teaching students about food and nutrition, too, has not escaped "saffronisation." Asked if it was okay to teach students that eating meat was bad for the body, given the nutritional benefits of animal protein for children, a school teacher in Jaipur replied: "I'm not sure about that one. There are several wise people who say that eating meat is bad for you. Look at the prime minister, he is a vegetarian, but he is full of energy."

India has no precedent of schoolteachers challenging the government over objectionable course material. Professor of Hindi at the University of Delhi, Apoorvanand, who led a comprehensive review of the Rajasthan textbooks last year, told HuffPost India: "School textbooks and schoolteachers are instruments of the state.... Children are not thought fit enough to have their own thoughts. Teachers are not allowed to examine the textbooks critically. Many are themselves believers in the nationalist ideology," he said.

Prominent educationist and former director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) Krishna Kumar said: "Schoolteachers are subservient civil servants."

School textbooks and schoolteachers are instruments of the state... Schoolteachers are subservient civil servants.

HuffPost Staff
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the father of Hindutva, features prominently in the Class 10 social science textbook of the Rajasthan Board.

Alternating narratives

School textbooks since Independence have been treated as tools for political jockeying, with each passing government advancing its idea of the nation. Over the years, both the BJP and the Congress have treated schools as a kind of battlefield where they glorify their respective leaders, push their own ideologies, and conceal their errors.

Rajasthan has had alternating BJP and Congress governments since 1990, resulting in revisions in school textbooks every five years or so. According to academics in Rajasthan, both parties in the state have failed to produce a progressive curriculum that would qualify as being anti-casteist, anti-patriarchy and anti-communal. But even longtime observers say that the extent of the current education minister's interference is unprecedented. They feel that changes introduced over the past two years pose an immediate threat to values of secularism and individual freedom.

One of the most controversial changes has been the introduction of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the originator of Hindutva ideology, as the greatest figure in the struggle for Independence, sidelining even Mahatma Gandhi. Last year, former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was reduced to a few references in the social science textbook for Class VIII.

The social science textbook for Class X states, "There are no words to appreciate the sacrifices that [Savarkar] made for the country's independence." It also states that he was the "only brave revolutionary to be sentenced not just to one but to two terms of life imprisonment ... and he made tremendous efforts to stop the Partition."

The textbook does not mention that Savarkar had begged for forgiveness from the British authorities when he was imprisoned in the Cellular Jail in the Andaman Islands. In a mercy petition to the British, he wrote, "The Mighty alone can afford to be merciful and therefore where else can the prodigal son return but to the parental doors of the Government?"

Ram Swarup, a political science teacher in Rajasthan, is not looking forward to teaching his class. "I'm sad about it. Even if political parties make changes, there has to be some balance, some logic. How can you compare Savarkar's contributions to that of Gandhi's or Nehru's?" he said.

How can you compare Savarkar's contributions to that of Gandhi's or Nehru's?

The principal from Nagaur, however, felt too much ink had been wasted covering the Nehru-Gandhi family. "I remember there used to be a letter Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to Indira Gandhi printed in school textbooks for many years. It was of no relevance whatsoever. Why did no one object to it?" the principal said.

In addition to rewriting history, as several critics have described the changes, the new textbooks uncritically laud the various schemes undertaken by the Modi government, along with its foreign policy.

In the political science textbook for Class XII, last year's demonetisation has been hailed as a "historical decision" that beat corruption. There is no mention of the crippling cash crunch that affected millions, especially the poor, or its impact on the economy.

HuffPost Staff
The Class 10 English textbook of the Rajasthan Board says "the victory of the lotus as the victory of Indian culture."

The English textbook for Class X features a poem titled The Lotus that describes "the victory of the lotus as the victory of Indian culture." Coincidentally, the lotus flower happens to be the BJP's electoral symbol.

The health and education textbook for Class X also asks students to recite a Sanskrit mantra before meals. The Hindi textbook for Class V includes a letter from a cow as a "mother." The social studies textbook for Class IX refers to the culture of the Indus Valley Civilisation as Sindhu Saraswati Culture.

There is no mention of the 2002 Gujarat riots when Narendra Modi was the state's chief minister. There is also no mention of Nathuram Godse, the Hindu extremist who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi

When HuffPost India asked a government schoolteacher in Jaipur about the absence of Godse from the textbooks, she shrugged and said, "What is there to write, everyone knows what happened."

When it was pointed out that it was perhaps too important a historical fact to omit from school texts, she said, "But do we ever present the correct picture of any historical figure? Is it enough just to write that Godse murdered Gandhi? Do we ever talk about the mistakes Gandhi made? Do we teach students that he did not help save Bhagat Singh?"

Do we ever talk about the mistakes Gandhi made? Do we teach students that he did not help save Bhagat Singh?

The BJP had tried to saffronise education the last time it was in power at the Centre from 1998 to 2004, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister. However, its efforts petered out because other political parties were ruling most states at the time. That is no longer the case. Other BJP-ruled states, including Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana, have either made or are planning similar changes to their school textbooks now.

Last year, Minister of State for human resource development Ram Shankar Katheria said that "saffronisation" of education will take place.

Some academics believe the party is turning an entire generation into foot soldiers of Hindu nationalism to fight its battles in future elections. "It will be a potentially violent force in the 2019 election," said Rajeev Gupta, a retired sociology professor at Rajasthan University, who was part of the team that reviewed the textbooks. "They won't tolerate anyone who questions or challenges the status quo. This generation will support a totalitarian state."

Gupta believes that the saffron thrust in school education benefits the BJP in other ways too. It distracts many in its constituency enough to not dwell on the failings of the Modi government, especially its failure to create jobs so far. "Development no longer has to be an issue when you have blind followers," he said.

Development no longer has to be an issue when you have blind followers.

HuffPost Staff
The Class 10 Physical and Health Education textbook of the Rajasthan Board says that eating meat is bad for the body.

Debating Savarkar

Sihag wants teachers to take a stand against the politicisation of textbooks. The math teacher is planning to organise rallies and seminars to protest against the changes. He estimates that among the 3.5 lakh government teachers in Rajasthan, only a few thousand will join him.

"The major problem lies with the teaching community," he said. "We have been selfish. We have fought for better salaries and other economic issues but no one has cared for what we our teaching our children. We are the ones who have to teach this material. We have to care more."

In the staffroom of a government high school on the outskirts of Jaipur, history and political science teachers sat around a long table on a sweltering afternoon.

At HuffPost India's request and on the assurance that their anonymity would be maintained, the political science teacher kicked off the discussion on whether Savarkar was presented fairly in the textbook that she would soon be teaching her class.

"Savarkar did a lot for the Independence movement and children should read about it," she said, wiping the sweat off her brow. "Why should the Congress have the monopoly over promoting their leaders?"

"Why do we not hear more about other freedom fighters such as Hemu Kalani?" she added, referring to the Sindhi freedom fighter who was executed by the British in 1943.

When Savarkar's letter begging clemency was mentioned, a history teacher countered by asking whether the media held the Congress Party to the same standard. "Do they write about the negative sides of their leaders?" she demanded.

"Perhaps he [Savarkar] was trying to fool the British," another teacher reasoned. "We don't know what was going on in his mind. It could simply be a ploy to get out of jail."

Why should the Congress have the monopoly over promoting their leaders?

Asked if it was fair to say the first crop of Congress leaders were elites who had no connection with the people and wanted to strengthen the British Raj, one middle school teacher said, "No, that is wrong. When something is wrong, we should say it is wrong."

The others remained silent.

The middle school teacher said no matter what was written in the textbooks, teachers should try and present a fair picture to their students. The political science teacher didn't agree. She felt it was inadvisable to stray outside the prescribed material.

"It will only harm the children," she said. "The questions in the examination will come from the text and their papers will go outside the school for checking. If they don't reply in a set way, they risk failing."

At this point, a nervous-sounding vice-principal stopped the discussion and asked everyone in the room to join in on the school's ongoing "Skill Development" celebrations. "Modi ji has given a lot of impetus to skill development," he said. "We are giving good training in health care. We have an excellent automobile laboratory."

In a classroom across the courtyard, around 50 girls dressed in blue and white salwaar-kameez sat on the floor. Asked how people could improve their health, several hands shot up. Nikita, who sat in the front, confidently replied: "By maintaining personal hygiene and yoga."

A similar discussion unfolded in the staffroom of another school the next day, this time in the heart of Jaipur. Many teachers were sitting around a table, but it was the 'head teacher' who monopolized the discussion.

In a loud voice, the elderly teacher said it was impossible for government teachers to challenge the government over the course material. He added that he was not interested in joining any protest.

He spoke candidly -- in fact, astonishingly so. "I do care about the children," he said. "I will admit that as a Brahmin, I care about the Brahmin children a little bit more. In our time, the Brahmins have become the persecuted lot. The truth is that I have one year to retire to my farmhouse in Noida. I can't afford to get into trouble with the government at this stage."

I can't afford to get into trouble with the government at this stage.

On the wall behind him hung portraits of Mahatma Gandhi, BR Ambedkar, Rajendra Prasad, Subhash Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore and Bhagat Singh. Images of Swami Vivekananda, Jesus Christ, Guru Nanak and Goddess Saraswati hung on the other side.

I asked him if he would like to add a photo of Savarkar to the collection. "If the government asks me, I will," he said.

The atmosphere in the room had become a little tense and the young school headmistress intervened to ease things. The head teacher whispered into my ear, "She belongs to the scheduled castes."

The headmistress spoke about the approach she would take to teach a lesson on Savarkar. "Well, I would teach that he was a leader of the independence movement," she said. "I would just leave out the 'only' from the 'only brave revolutionary'."

"Problem solved," she said with a broad smile. Her colleagues burst out laughing.

HuffPost Staff
NCERT political science textbook for Class 12: Anti-Muslim riots to be called Gujarat riots.

When There Was Change

It is easy for political parties to fiddle with school textbooks because no one really cares what students are taught in schools. While the teachers are indifferent, most parents are concerned with marks irrespective of whether their children are learning that Akbar defeated Maharana Pratap or the other way around.

The level of indifference is even higher in government schools that are filled with first-generation students from poor families. Many parents send their children to school only for the free meal provided under the midday meal scheme. When they return home, most children are put to work.

However, there have been a few attempts to protect "academic integrity" in school textbooks. One big push came in 2005, when the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) was overhauled under Prof Krishna Kumar, the director of NCERT (National Council for Educational Research and Training), from 2004 to 2010.

The Congress-led government at the time did not interfere with the working of the NCF Committee, Kumar said. Topics such as the Emergency, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the Ayodhya dispute, and the "anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat" were included in the political science textbooks prepared by NCERT.

Kumar told HuffPost India that NCERT then acted like a "professional body" that produced textbooks free of ideology, which some BJP-ruled states, including Chhattisgarh, are still using till this day. "Otherwise these would have been unacceptable to the BJP. The textbooks were above party lines," he said.

Since "education" is in the Concurrent List of the Constitution, state governments can come up with their own school syllabi or follow the material prepared by the NCERT and used in Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) schools across the country.

NCERT then acted like a "professional body" that produced textbooks free of ideology.

The Modi government has for the past three years let the NCERT material run without altering it. But that could change. Earlier this year, a committee with members from the CBSE and the NCERT decided to change "anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat" in the Class XII political science textbook to the "Gujarat riots".

Komal Srivastava of the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti , a Jaipur-based NGO, said textbooks prepared under the NCF framework had come into circulation in Rajasthan before the present BJP government set about revising the syllabus. "The books prepared by NCERT under the NCF model were exploratory and forward-looking," she said. "There were even cartoons of Nehru..." she recalled.

The cartoon that Srivastava mentioned depicted BR Ambedkar, a Dalit leader and chairman of the committee that drafted the Constitution, riding a snail, with Jawaharlal Nehru standing behind with a whip in his hand. Political cartoonist Shankar created it in 1949.

Six years after it appeared in the political science textbook of Class XII, the cartoon rocked Parliament, with Dalit lawmakers calling for its removal. The Congress government gave in, forcing the NCERT to drop it. Five other cartoons were removed, including one showing Indira Gandhi setting fire to a hut with a pig trapped inside (the hut depicting the Congress and the pig its "Syndicate"), and another one of Gandhi crowning Kashmiri politician Sheikh Abdullah.

Betwa Sharma/HuffPost India
Mahvir Sihag, a math teacher in Rajasthan, at his school.

Vedic Math

Sihag teaches math in a cramped Hindi/Urdu-medium school that runs out of a nondescript mosque inside the walled city in Jaipur. Its 650 students belong to the poorest Muslim families in the locality, where sewage runs through open drains and a faint smell of garbage lingers.

Since there is not enough space for separate classrooms, most students sit on bedsheets laid out on the floor of a long balcony. When classes are in session, voices of teachers and students rise together, making it impossible to hear anyone clearly. The teachers cannot ask the owners of the mosque for more room because the state government hasn't cleared the rent for the school for the past few years.

In the 20 years that he has worked as a teacher in government schools, Sihag's enthusiasm for his job has rarely waned. But he admits that for the first time, teaching has become joyless to him. It is with a heavy heart that he teaches Vedic Math, a subject recently introduced by the BJP government.

"It has absolutely no utility for children in the modern world. It is painful because it is such a colossal waste of time," he lamented. "So, why are we teaching it? Because it has the word 'Vedic' and the government likes the word?"

It is painful because it is such a colossal waste of time.

A team of prominent academicians who reviewed the Rajasthan Board textbooks had this to say about Vedic Math: "These books even dwell in Vedic mathematics, which as is well known, has nothing to do with the Vedas, instead was developed in the fifties as methods at best as short cuts to solving mathematical problems but not instilling conceptual clarity."

Sihag prefers to be candid with his young students. "I make it clear to them that I don't believe in its utility, but we have to learn it because it will appear in the exam. We owe it to them to tell the truth," he said.

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