Debating India

EDUCATION

Gently Turn The Leaf

Poornima JOSHI

Monday 7 June 2004, by JOSHI*Poornima

HRD ministry pussyfoots on ’tainted’ NCERT books

"De-communalising" education overnight may be top of the Left’s agenda but first indications from new human resources development minister Arjun Singh’s office don’t point to any immediate overhaul. Arjun has only cancelled the extension granted to NCERT chairman J.S. Rajput, the man at the forefront of implementing Dr Murli Manohar Joshi’s ’saffron’ agenda; he will be allowed to retire gracefully at the end of his tenure on July 15. The ministry will only then have an "independent" academic heading the National Council for Educational Research and Training. This could mean that any decisive action on the "error-ridden" History and Social Sciences textbooks the NCERT produced during Dr Joshi’s tenure will have to wait till then.

"The ministry can’t be seen as vindictive. We have to follow procedure," says Arjun Singh.

Arjun’s incremental approach doesn’t come anywhere near satisfying what Left-oriented academics had insisted on in their charter of demands within a week of the election results. Under the banner of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust

(SAHMAT) which has waged a war against Joshi’s "communal agenda in education", the academics had demanded on May 20 that the education system be "cleansed" without further delay. Speaking from the SAHMAT platform, historians D.N. Jha, Arjun Dev and jnu economist Prabhat Patnaik had spelt out their demands:

* An immediate inquiry into the current make-up of the NCERT, the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), the Indian Council of Social Sciences Research (ICSSR) and the Indian Council of Philosophical Research (ICPR).

* Immediate withdrawal of the controversial History textbooks.

* An expert committee to review the NCERT school syllabus.

* An inquiry into appointments and promotions in academic institutions made with the aim of implementing the BJP agenda.

The official Left position is clear. As CPI(M) MP Nilotpal Basu puts it, "The government has to detoxify the education system." But Basu also agrees that the new minister has to be given time to function in accordance with official procedures. Still, there is widespread scepticism within about whether Arjun Singh will take the road of total ’ethical cleansing’.

Says Prof Arjun Dev, who almost single-handedly exposed the NCERT textbook controversy: "J.S. Rajput violated all norms and aligned himself totally with the BJP/RSS. He shouldn’t be allowed to just walk into the sunset after the way he’s destroyed the NCERT. There should be an inquiry into the way autonomy of all academic institutions was eroded and corrupt individuals were allowed to use government machinery to implement their communal agenda."

The minister, however, is a cautious man. Speaking to Outlook, Arjun said he will not take any decision that smacks of vendetta. "I am aware that academic institutions cannot be viewed with suspicion. The new government can’t be seen to be vindictive. We’ve to follow procedure."

So will proper procedure take into account the fact that a prestigious body like the Indian History Congress has roundly criticised every textbook produced by the NCERT? The minister is non-committal: "We’ll do all that is essential to bring back the prestige of these academic institutions. But there should be no ad-hocism involved. I’m going to deal with all these controversial issues within a fortnight. But that doesn’t mean the government will change everything overnight."

Interestingly, Arjun has always endorsed the demands for de-saffronising education, even attending a SAHMAT organised national convention against communalisation of education in ’01. He had even given his signature to a statement with a far more radical stance: "The HRD ministry and particularly the NCERT have been engaged in attacking the secular and scientific content of school curriculum, promoting obscurantism under the garb of value education..." it had said.

Can Arjun Singh now afford to go slow just so he doesn’t appear to be vindictive? Not, it seems, if the Left has its way.

P.S.

in Outlook India, Monday, June 7, 2004.