Jun 26, 2008

Tolerance under attack

C. Gouridasan Nair - The Hindu Editorial
Recent events have provided an opportunity for a critical examination of the objectives of school education in Kerala.
Religion has often been a convenient weapon for political vested interests in India. Its use has been brazen on very many occasions in recent times. The nation has been witnessing the insidious arrival of religion in the realm of politics and attempts by vested religious interests to be the handmaiden of narrow political partisanship, their moves threatening to tear asunder the social fabric of the nation.
Kerala, hailed widely for its redistributive and social security achievements and progressive social processes, today faces such a challenge: in the name of protests choreographed by the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and powerful religious groups against what they describe as objectionable content in the Social Sciences school textbook for Class VII. The protests have in recent days taken the form of virtual street battles between pro-UDF student activists and the police, and disruption of preparatory cluster meetings of school teachers across the State.
In the State Assembly, the Congress and its allies have been staging noisy protests over the allegation that the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government is using textbooks as conduits to propagate Communist ideology among schoolchildren. Pro-Opposition teachers’ organisations have declared that they would not teach the controversial lesson. The Christian Church, all the major Muslim groups and the Nair Service Society (NSS), the quasi-political social umbrella of the Nair community, have come out against the textbook, in particular against a lesson that tries to inculcate the renaissance value of religious tolerance in the children (see side-panel). With the rumblings of the Lok Sabha elections already audible, even their protests have acquired a political dimension.
Education Minister M.A. Baby has stood his ground in the face of demands for the withdrawal of the textbook. He has also tried to assuage misgivings in any quarter on the issue by offering to subject the controversial lesson to scrutiny by a panel of eminent experts. But these offers have been of no avail. Defending the book unflinchingly, he argues that the emphasis of the book is on religious diversity and tolerance among different religions. He points out that not even the worst critics of the government would be able to cite any attempt to bring in Communist leaders into discussion in the textbook despite opportunities to do so. He has welcomed a public debate on the subject so that the imagined ghosts could be exorcised from the minds of those who have come up with objections to the contents of the textbook.
The government had changed some textbooks meant for Classes I, III, V and VII, going through an elaborate process involving the work of separate subject committees and the State Level Curriculum Steering Committee headed by the Education Minister and comprising representatives of pro-UDF teachers’ organisations — who have now denied having approved the books despite meetings of the Curriculum Committee having taken place. According to Mr. Baby, the books prepared in Kerala are much more nuanced in their treatment of various subjects as compared to even textbooks prepared by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT).
Interestingly, the message that the controversial lesson seeks to convey is very much there in the NCERT’s Political Science textbook of Class XI, which speaks of Jawaharlal Nehru’s lack of faith in God and religious rituals and goes one step further to identify the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 and the mass killing of Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims in Gujarat as three major onslaughts on secularism.
The lesson in question in Kerala is followed by a portion from Jawaharlal Nehru’s Will where he says no religious ritual should be performed on his death as he does not believe in any such ritual and that he considers participation in them, even as a matter of courtesy, a hypocritical act that would amount to an attempt to intimidate oneself and others. There are also quotations from the Mahabharata, the Bible, the Prophet and Guru Nanak on religious tolerance accompanying the lesson. And the exercise for the children is to collect and display in class news clippings, and notes that narrate the story of tolerant coexistence of religions.
The other units of the textbook provide vignettes from Kerala’s social and political history, dealing particularly with the various struggles to liberate large masses of people from caste oppression and landlessness, and inspiring episodes from the national freedom struggle both at the national and the regional levels in which the Indian National Congress, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were the most prominent players. The controversial lesson itself is just a fictionalised account that reflects one of the seminal teachings of the thinker-savant of Kerala, Sree Narayana Guru: “Whichever be the religion, suffice it if it makes a better man,” a teaching that encapsulates the quintessence of the renaissance values that Kerala prides itself on.
The lesson does not question the rationale behind the existence of religions or try to negate any particular religion. There are those who feel that the lesson lacks subtlety and is insensitive to the social realities of Kerala which is characterised by increasing religiosity. But there is the counter-argument that the kind of religiosity seen in Kerala is only a veneer that hides under it intolerance and obscurantist revivalism. The book is seen by many as a bold experiment to help Kerala break free from the regressive pulls and pressures of institutionalised religion and political vested interests which have often combined with lethal effect as in the infamous ‘Liberation Struggle’ of 1959 that contributed to bringing down the first E.M.S. Namboodiripad Ministry in the State.
Going by conventional wisdom, the fierce debate that the lesson and the textbook have triggered might seem politically costly for the LDF. But it has thrown up a rare opportunity for a critical examination of the objectives of school education and its ultimate objectives.

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