School textbooks are being changed secretly: Is there a ‘saffron’ design in it?

A representative image of students in a classroom

It’s high time we revived the public discourse on school textbooks which was started by the Yashpal committee report in 1993 and NCERT’s exercise to formulate a national curriculum

School textbooks are undergoing changes surreptitiously. Nobody would have had an inkling if Ritika Chopra of Indian Express had not taken the trouble of painstakingly comparing the new textbooks with the ones published earlier. Somewhat predictably, no ‘national’ mainstream newspaper other than The Indian Express published a follow-up, leave alone publishing three reports on three consecutive days on the front page as the Express did.

There is little hope, however, that the painstaking research would trigger any meaningful or major public debate on textbooks. But be as it may, this does provide an opportunity to have a renewed discussion on school textbooks.

Public memory being proverbially short, few will recall the recent controversy in Rajasthan where a ‘handbook’ or a guide to follow a textbook prescribed by the Rajasthan School Board for English medium schools described Bal Gangadhar Tilak as the ‘father of Indian terrorism’. The shoddily produced book by an Agra-based publisher had taken liberal help from Wikipedia and followed it up with a clumsy attempt to modify certain words. In the process, ‘father of Indian unrest’ turned into ‘father of Indian terrorism’.

This naturally upset not just the successors and descendants of Tilak but also those who claim to have inherited and appropriated his legacy. The comic slip could have generated a serious discussion on the quality of textbooks prescribed for schools in Rajasthan. But the opportunity was lost.

If we talk to students or teachers, most of them complain that textbooks in India put a premium on information, half baked or otherwise, with which the textbooks are put together. Information without any insight, analysis or comparison is often not very helpful in forming an understanding. What’s more,in this country school textbooks are treated like a royal decree which is final and not subject to any questioning.

Why indeed should students be forced to seek the help of a ‘guidebook’ to follow a textbook? Some might argue that in English medium schools run or approved by the government, there is no other way but to translate Hindi textbooks into English.

But then the question would arise why in that case the Government itself did not take the responsibility of publishing textbooks in English rather than entrusting dubious private publishers the job of producing indifferent and flawed guidebooks or handbooks. Yet another question is whether schools should be allowed the independence and autonomy to follow textbooks of their choice?

It is instructive to find the public discourse on school textbooks hovering around the trivial and the salacious. The mass media revel in discussing historical distortions creeping into textbooks or when controversial statements, facts or half-truths about well-known personalities find place in them. Curiously the entire nation appears absorbed in such mundane issues and not the more substantive issues around the role of textbooks in shaping the nation. Nor are questions asked why discussions on school texts remain largely confined to History. Indeed, are history textbooks meant only to eulogise our supposedly great, ancient culture?

A textbook is very different from other books. But there are very few people who appreciate this difference. If we talk to students or teachers, most of them complain that textbooks in India put a premium on information, half baked or otherwise, with which the textbooks are put together. Information without any insight, analysis or comparison is often not very helpful in forming an understanding. What’s more, in this country school textbooks are treated like a royal decree which is final and not subject to any questioning.

A third feature of textbooks in this country is their tendency to treat students as delicate, vulnerable or half-retarded or mentally undeveloped people who cannot be exposed to serious criticism or controversy.

The Yashpal committee report released way back in 1992-93 had raised these issues. It had called for freeing the textbooks from the overload of information. There was no reason for us to fear, it said, that our children would lag behind others globally in terms of information. The report pointed out that what was of concern was our complete indifference to developing the ability of students to deconstruct the text and form their own opinion and interpretation.

Influential sections in the Government and the bureaucracy buried the Yashpal committee report. The fact that influential sections of the society did not favour independent thinking by students was a pointer to the socially powerful to control ‘thought’, ‘knowledge’ and perception of children.

The concern was revived in 2005 when the renewed discourse on a national curriculum stressed that the object of school education was not to produce regimented and patriotic citizens but to help produce creative minds. The emphasis should be to introduce students to different schools of thought and different methodologies followed in different ages and in different countries to study the same subjects.

The NCERT’s exercise in 2005 to formulate a national curriculum and textbooks was an important landmark. It is generally accepted that textbooks are tailormade to suit the interests, outlook and philosophy of the government Of the day. But despite the fact that UPA Government in the saddle at the time, several textbooks produced around the period published critical assessments of the Emergency and anti-Sikh riots, to cite an example.

Evidently, the task was far from easy. But the idea was to involve the best minds and that is why one can find names of celebrated public intellectuals like Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Ramchandra Guha, Kukum Roy, Yogendra Yadav and Hari Vasudevan.

Textbooks prepared with the assistance and guidance of these scholars are now being altered without any reference to them. The official explanation being given is that the changes are being made following comments and suggestions the textbooks elicited.

The question is whose suggestions? from which quarters did the comments emanate? Who suggested that Gujarat’s anti-Muslim riot in 2002 be described just as violent rioting? Is there a design in describing the Narmada Bachao Andolan or agitation against the Tehri Dam as just an environmental protest?

Really, the only way to ensure that the painstaking work done by The Indian Express does not go in vain is to resume the stalled debate on school textbooks.

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