Debating India


Taking Hindutva to school


Wednesday 3 December 2003, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar , PANDE*S.K.

Article paru dans Frontline, vol.15, n?23, Nov. 07 - 20, 1998.

The BJP-led Government is forced to back down on one attempt to impose the Hindutva ideological agenda on policy-making in the sphere of education, but the battle is far from over.

in New Delhi

IN their engagement with liberal and secular opinion, the top leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party display a range of attitudes. Atal Behari Vajpayee is, by all accounts, at ease in the liberal social milieu, where he enjoys a certain degree of acceptance. Lal Krishna Advani is perhaps equally at home in such a milieu, although he affects a sense of distress that his strong views on culture and politics have been interpreted as a variety of extremism. Murli Manohar Joshi, in contrast, wears his lack of acceptance in liberal circles as a badge of honour.

When the BJP assumed control of the Central Government in March 1998, keen observers detected a special focus on two Ministries - Human Resource Development and Information and Broadcasting. These were two Ministries which were of pivotal importance in any kind of ideological project and they were the only Ministries where both the senior and junior Ministers appointed were from the BJP. In particular, the induction of Murli Manohar Joshi as Cabinet Minister in charge of Human Resource Development, with Uma Bharati as Minister of State, was read as a signal that the BJP was fully cognisant of the importance of the portfolio. Although Joshi and Uma Bharati had been on opposite sides of bitter factional animosities within the BJP, they had both distinguished themselves during the Ayodhya campaign in crafting the hardline ideological idiom of Hindutva.

For one who was until recently an integral member of the BJP’s leadership troika - he was president of the party from 1991 to 1993, in which year he was replaced by Advani - Joshi remained curiously inconspicuous through the early process of Ministry formation in March. He did not say or do much all through the days of initial crisis that the BJP-led coalition went through. The former Professor showed his hand partly in a radical revamp of the country’s premier research sponsorship agencies - the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR)and the Indian Council of Social Science Research(ICSSR). He also brought in favoured nominees into the governing body of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla. But it was only when the conference of State Education Ministers and Secretaries came in late October that the full scope and sweep of the Hindutva agenda and Joshi’s own intention to pursue it were revealed.

IN the agenda papers circulated to State Education Ministers well before the conference, the Human Resource Development Ministry put forward a set of intentions, going over well-trodden ground, reiterating certain obvious priority areas of action in the grossly neglected area of education in the country. The sting, it transpired, was retained in the tail. An annexure to the agenda papers set out a number of goals and priorities that had the non-BJP Ministers participating in the conference in a state of agitation.

West Bengal Education Minister Kanti Biswas took the initiative in alerting his counterparts in other States about the unwarranted intrusions into the agenda for the conference. Under the garb of discussing the report of a "group of experts" on the education sector, the Human Resource Development Ministry had inserted a number of fairly tendentious items into the agenda. These were supposed to be presented to the conference by P.D. Chitlangia, an industrialist from Calcutta who was not exactly distinguished for his role in the education sector, although he seemingly held an important position within the Vidya Bharati, the educational chain controlled by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

In its essential details, the report of the "group of experts" arose from an all-India conference of the Vidya Bharati in August. How this report came later to enjoy the official authorisation and sponsorship of the Union Human Resource Development Ministry is a mystery. Joshi’s rationalisation of his decision to present the report to the Education Ministers’ conference was curious - in a democracy, every individual and organisation had a right to be heard by policymakers, he argued. For Chitlangia to present a particular shade of "expert opinion" to the State Education Ministers was in this respect completely exceptionable.

Few of the participants at the conference were prepared to give any credence to this line of argument. It was one thing for an officially empowered expert group to put forward recommendations for their consideration, quite another for a shadowy political organisation of pronounced illiberal tendencies to seek an audience on the strength of the patronage it enjoyed from the Minister.

Among the many recommendations made by the group of experts was one that the content of education from the primary level to the higher education stage should be "Indianised, nationalised and spiritualised", and that courses at all levels, including vocational training courses, should incorporate the "essentials of Indian culture". This recommendation seemed premised upon an understanding that the curricula followed in the education system today is in some way un-Indian in its inspiration. It showed the unmistakable inspiration of the RSS’ well-known ideological barb, that the governing virtue of secularism in India has only been the denial of the indigenous national culture.

The curricular requirements touched upon the very core of national life, in necessitating a reinterpretation of the Constitution. Disingenuously taking its cue from a Supreme Court verdict dealing with a case of electoral malpractice, the expert group advocated the incorporation of the Vedas and Upanishads into basic curricula. This would not fall foul of the constitutional prohibition on religious instruction in schools funded by the state since the "Supreme Court has already defined Hindutva as a way of life and not as a religion," said the expert group.

Other proposals with a direct bearing on the content of education included one to make Sanskrit learning obligatory for students between Classes III and X, and another to introduce "moral and spiritual education" that would inculcate "desirable social and national values". And while the curricula would not differentiate on grounds of gender at the primary stage of education, girls at higher levels would be given training in "home keeping".

The RSS and its affiliates have always viewed the special permission granted to the minorities for the sustenance of educational institutions as a tacit act of discrimination against the Hindu religion. This constitutional right guaranteed to the minorities provides part of the substance to the gibe of "pseudo-secularism" that Advani in particular has sought to popularise in recent times.

Joshi’s "expert group" seeks to operationalise these sentiments in terms of an amendment to Article 30 of the Constitution. Where at present the Article is a special dispensation for the minorities, the proposed amendment would make it an enabling provision for all religious groups: "Every section of citizens, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice." The expert group sums up the social impact of this proposed amendment with the most complacent self-satisfaction: "It would be seen that the above amendments would remove a cause of considerable tension without in any way taking away or diluting any of the rights of the minorities..."

The argument verges on the bizarre - a constitutional exemption granted to the minority communities as a salve to their sense of insecurity is to be generalised so that religious instruction becomes the rule rather than the exception. And this is justified on the ground that it would better ensure social harmony. Ample illustration that the ideological component of the Vidya Bharati plan was a virtual minefield, even without taking into account some of its practical details - such as the restriction of access to higher education in the interests of raising "academic standards" and lowering costs.

THE whistle was blown on Joshi’s game-plan well before the Education Ministers’ conference began, partly on account of the advance intelligence that Kanti Biswas had tirelessly disseminated. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh was among the first to take up the issue, querying Prime Minister Vajpayee about the propriety of "thrusting" the recommendations of the Vidya Bharati on the education conference when it was known that the body’s views were "to say the least, highly controversial". Educational policy, as laid down in the 1986 statement and then as amended in 1992, had evolved through national debate and it was "unfair to the country to stifle such a debate," said Digvijay Singh.

The Minorities Commission soon followed with its own set of objections. Making explicit the pursuit of his mandate as head of a statutory commission, Minorities Commission Chairman Tahir Mahmood characterised the expert group’s recommendations as violative of a 1958 Supreme Court ruling that the rights guaranteed under Article 30 of the Constitution are "absolute" and cannot be undone by any legislation. The proposal to introduce compulsory religious education in schools maintained or aided by the state would be contrary to yet another constitutional provision, said Mahmood. And the alibi that "Hindutva is a way of life" will simply not wash, since that ruling is itself under review by a higher bench of the Supreme Court.

ASIDE from the substance of discussions at the conference, Joshi had also introduced certain telling changes in form. The intrusion of an unauthorised "expert", who changed his identity very rapidly when put under media scrutiny - from Vidya Bharati representative to crusader for tribal education and empowerment to just a plain manufacturer of plywood in Calcutta - was only the beginning of these departures from convention. Another crucial change, suffused with Joshi’s own sense of symbolism, was the supersession of the national anthem by a hymn venerating the goddess of learning in the inaugural session.

In the days leading up to the conference, Education Ministers from various States sent out signals that they would not be party to the proceedings unless these reservations were assuaged. Until the eve of the conference, Joshi remained defiant. Apart from upholding the "democratic" right of any individual or organisation to address an official conference, he also made much of the cultural symbolism of the hymn sung to the glory of the Hindu goddess of learning, the Saraswati Vandana.

All the bravado evaporated on the day the conference began. No fewer than 15 State Ministers made it clear that they would rather kick the table over and depart than be part of an occasion that seemed solely intended to legitimise the intrusion of the divisive ideology of Hindutva into formative educational influences. Prime Minister Vajpayee made his introductory speech after several moments of bewilderment at the vehemence of the protests he witnessed. But in declaiming against bigotry in the educational process, Vajpayee did little to shore up Joshi’s ostentatious sense of cultural chauvinism.

The retreat followed shortly afterwards. With over half the quorum having chosen either boycott or abstention as the fitting option, Joshi was compelled to make a climbdown. The Vidya Bharati annexure to the conference agenda was withdrawn, Chitlangia’s speech was cancelled, and the Saraswati Vandana was substituted by the national anthem as the invocatory theme of the conference.

The conference then proceeded without undue incident. It is doubtful, though, if any matter of substance was discussed after the acrimony of the first day. Speaking to the media after the conclusion of the conference, Kanti Biswas was heavy-handed with his irony. He said: "I thank the Union Human Resource Development Minister for having upheld the traditions of secularism." Biswas said that Joshi had, by his abject retreat on multiple fronts, proved that he was deeply committed to a secular vision of India.

Murli Manohar Joshi was untouched by the irony and unrepentant about his intentions. Where not sanctioned by democratic principles, all departures from convention were justified by the accepted practices of official cultural events, he argued. Prime Minister Vajpayee, for his part, sought to undo the damage he had caused to his Cabinet colleague’s cultural crusade; he characterised all objections to the Saraswati Vandana as an "insult" to the nation. In its intention, Vajpayee’s evocation of this theme - which inaugurated the BJP campaign for the Delhi Assembly elections - was an effort to turn adversity to advantage. In political substance, it is unlikely to be very successful, simply because the BJP’s effort to summon a sense of cultural resentment is in collision with its record of ineptitude in governance. Ideology clearly does not serve a political purpose if it is completely divorced from material reality.

In flaunting his disdain for liberal political opinion - particularly picking out the Left end of the spectrum for special attention - Joshi has shown little concern for the independence or integrity of institutions within his ministerial domain. Just a few months back, he caused serious outrage in independent quarters - and massive embarrassment within his own flock - by packing the ICHR with historians and archaeologists who had either sponsored or connived at the falsification of evidence over the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, taking their abuse of professional ethics so far as to earn the unequivocal condemnation of the World Archaeological Conference. He later dispensed with the entire apex membership of the ICSSR, the premier sponsor of social science research. He gave few explanations, but economists of the eminence of Amiya Bagchi and A. Vaidyanathan were sent on their way without the courtesy of an explanation, and individuals of dubious credentials were brought in to replace them.

The exercise of reconstituting the ICSSR departed from convention in dispensing with an entire collegial body at one stroke, flouting the practice of maintaining continuity by retaining a definite proportion of the membership through successive changes. Since then, the Human Resource Development Ministry has reconstituted the governing body of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study and the Indian Council of Philosophical Research. Drastic changes have been introduced, which threaten a disruption of established values and patterns of research.

JOSHI’S endeavours have caused an acute sense of disquiet among all those concerned over the integrity of the process of education. Against the backdrop of his more aggressive moves to alter the content of educational instruction, another project has been proceeding which seeks to operationalise the fundamental duties that every Indian citizen is obliged to perform under the Constitution. These obligations were inscribed into the Constitution by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency regime, but they remain largely unexceptionable in terms of their intents and purposes. Aside from the general idea of duties which overwhelm rights, there is little that the Hindutva proponents can gain by way of ideological inspiration from this amendment to the Constitution.

Yet the composition of the committee which is supposed to suggest the means to operationalise the fundamental duties has given rise to certain misgivings. J.S. Verma, the former Chief Justice of India, responsible for the finding that Hindutva is a "way of life" rather than a religion, heads the committee. He is assisted by Karan Singh, who has since going into political oblivion sought a renewed lease of relevance by championing Hindu religious causes. And a third member of the five-man committee is L.M. Singhvi, who as Indian High Commissioner in London survived four changes of regime in Delhi before finally making the rather convenient decision that his loyalties lay with the BJP.

The fundamental duties committee is expected to delve deeply into the content of various educational courses and then arrive at its recommendations. Aside from statements of a purely admonitory nature, it is not likely to have very much to suggest by way of amending established educational policy. Policy formulated in 1986 already seeks the practical operationalisation of the doctrine of fundamental duties. The Human Resource Development regime has chosen to bring in the Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) as a member of its committee of fundamental duties. The objective clearly is to gain a foothold in the NCERT, which has until now been a holdout against the Hindutva family’s effort to doctor educational content to the requirements of its sectarian agenda. Recent experience shows, perhaps, that when this effort does not backfire, it is only likely to wander into a dead-end.

IN retrospect, it is clear that Joshi’s most recent ideological adventure was destined to come a cropper. Apart from the parties that are in overt opposition to the BJP, even allies and electoral partners such as the Akali Dal and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and those parties which extend qualified support to the Government - such as the Telugu Desam Party and the National Conference - found the Human Resource Development Ministry’s effort to doctor the agenda of the recent conference repugnant on grounds of procedure, content and intent. Joshi was quick to sound the retreat, although he remains committed to the long-term perpetuation of the Hindutva ideological agenda. That project, indeed, has been proceeding on a variety of fronts, notably through the quiet and insidious spread of the RSS’ institutional network in the education sector. A crude and unsubtle effort officially to consecrate this growth and perhaps quicken its pace has been foiled. But there is clearly no basis for assuming that the danger has abated.

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