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Rewriting textbooks in India, a hidden agenda?

A debate has broken out over attempts by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to “Hinduize” the educational system, root out liberal influences and in some cases to re-write history. Murali Krishnan reports from New Delhi.
A concerted move is underway in the north Indian state of Rajasthan to revamp the education syllabus in schools in hopes to usher in major changes in text books covering Indian culture, moral science and would include stories of “mahapurush” or great Hindu leaders.

“Children need to be aware about Indian culture and values. They need to instill some moral lessons. The new syllabus will be distributed to students in over 83,500 schools,” the state’s Education Minister Vasudev Devanani told DW from the state capital Jaipur.

Ironically, Asaram Bapu, a self-styled godman who is now serving time in jail on charges of alleged rape, has been named as a “famous saint” in a primary school textbook in the state. Bapu is listed alongside personalities like Mother Teresa, Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism and Swami Vivekananda, the Indian saint.

Tinkering with textbooks

Several states ruled by the Hindu nationalist BJP are aggressively pursuing a project to propagate an agenda in the name of inculcating “Indianness” in the minds of young students.

Similar schemes are at work in the western state of Gujarat, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi comes from. School children are now reading books that offer the following – stem cell technology should be credited not to the Americans but to the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. And that automobile technology existed in India’s Vedic times and that Indian culture is not a mixed one and not drawn from different regions.

Dina Nath Batra, 85, a former principal of a school and the founder of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (Save Education Foundation) is the architect behind the move in Gujarat.

Eight books, written by Batra several years ago, were resurrected by the Gujarat government and prescribed as supplementary reading across 42,000 schools. All eight carry forewords by then chief minister and now Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“Education of every country should be rooted in its culture and wedded to its growth. I’ll write whatever evokes nationalism in children,” declared Batra unapologetically.

It was Batra’s civil suit in 2014 that led to the pulping of American scholar Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism, titled The Hindus: An Alternative History.

In the northern state of Haryana, adjoining the Indian capital New Delhi, Batra’s services have been requisitioned and he has authored six textbooks, titled “Naitik Shiksha,” (Moral Education) for classes VII to XII following a request from the state education department.

All the books begin with a salutation to the Hindu Goddess Saraswati, known for knowledge and wisdom and will have essays, couplets, stories and poems to inculcate Indian values.

RSS footprint in new project

Civil society activists and liberals fear that the BJP could overhaul the nation’s educational system given the huge mandate it won in 2014.

Many also believe that it has always been the pet project of the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP, to tinker with the educational system and try rewriting Indian history to fit into its world view.

“Much of their agenda is incorporated through moral education and general knowledge texts that concentrate on inculcating a Hindu consciousness and pride in being a Hindu,” says Nalini Taneja of Delhi University.

Just last month, Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma stated unequivocally that the BJP-led government will not be deterred by criticism that it was trying to promote RSS ideology.

His department is already chalking out a roadmap where lessons from epic Hindu literature such as the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Bhagavad Gita would soon be taught in schools and colleges to rid the country of “cultural pollution” and inculcate “values” among young minds.

The party’s view is that till date a one-sided view of history had been presented only to glorify members of the Gandhi-Nehru family and not really acknowledge the vast contributions made by various other Indian leaders.

The main Opposition Congress party has accused PM Modi’s government of hatching a conspiracy to change the face of education by appointing people with RSS backgrounds to head premier educational institutions across the country.

“This government is playing politics with the educational institutions in the country. It is pursuing a hidden agenda to rewrite history to suit their fascist ideology and we have to stop this,” said Shobha Ohja, the president of the women’s wing of the Congress party.

The controversy is still simmering. But what India is witnessing is a renewed battle to win the hearts and minds of the next generation of students.

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