Volte-face by NCERT?
On July 20, 2004, the Union Human Resources Development ministry decided to retain the NCERT history textbooks brought in by the previous NDA government despite the fact that these books were part of a substantive campaign to not only re-write history but also de-democratise it. Now only those sections that were ‘offensive’ are to be replaced by sections from the earlier texts.
The ostensible reason behind this volte-face by the UPA government is the teaching and student community’s apprehension that in some parts of the country they had already started using the earlier set of books three months ago. However, with the UPA government’s decision to retain the much-criticised new texts it has reneged on its post-poll promise, reiterated in the CMP, that it is committed to reverse the communalisation of education that was a legacy of the previous government.
We reproduce below a note circulated by SAHMAT to the panel of historians set up by the HRD ministry to examine and evaluate the issue before they had arrived at their decision.
We had submitted a note to the Members of the Panel when they met on June 23-24, 2004 to consider the issues referred to the Panel by the MHRD. In that note, we had focussed on what we thought were the core issues before the Panel. We notice from newspaper reports that the Panel has already formulated its views on one major issue and has conveyed its recommendation to the MHRD – to withdraw the history component from the social science textbooks and the history textbooks for Classes XI-XII brought out by NCERT during 2002-04 – some other issues still remain to be resolved.
If newspaper reports are to be believed, the Panel seems to have decided to consider recommending reading material available in the market as an ad hoc step as well as propose the preparation of model question papers for the use of students and teachers. It also appears that the Panel has either altogether ignored or deferred to the next meeting the question of considering the reprinting of the history textbooks of NCERT, which were in use up to the academic session 2001-02.
While we reiterate what we had stated in our earlier note for the consideration of the Panel, we wish to draw the attention of the Panel, in addition to what we had stated earlier, to the following:
‘Reprinting of pre-2002 History textbooks of NCERT
‘This issue, in our view, is central to the remaining work of the Panel. The restoration and reprinting of these books (history textbooks which were in use for Classes VI to XII up to the academic session 2001-02), in our view, is the next essential logical step to recommend, after the withdrawal of the books which had replaced them has been recommended. It may be recalled that these books were withdrawn for the same reason for which new books were prepared, that is to advance the communal agenda of the RSS-BJP through the instrumentality of NCERT (and CBSE). It is not necessary for us to dwell on the quality of these books, which brought much prestige to NCERT as an academic body. Some of these books, in their earlier versions, were in use when the Janata Party, with the strong presence of BJS in it, came to power and an attempt was made to withdraw them from school curriculums under pressure from RSS-BJS elements. The attempt was foiled by the Indian History Congress and the almost unanimous academic opinion in the country as well as by secular parties and groups. Only one of the books was actually withdrawn – Professor RS Sharma’s Ancient India – and that too not by NCERT but by the CBSE, on direct orders from the then Ministry of Education, and that book was restored as soon as the Janata Party went out of power. It may also be recalled that the National Integration Council on various occasions recommended that these history textbooks should be used all over the country.
‘The campaign launched by the BJP-led government and various ‘educational’ bodies of the RSS, and by the NCERT director, who had become a virtual spokesman of BJP-RSS ideology in the area of education, particularly history, was seen by academics and secular opinion throughout the country as a communal assault on history and was condemned by all secular parties. Neither the government nor the NCERT ever brought out any academic review of these books.
‘In October 2001, NCERT’s letter to CBSE deleting certain statements and paras from four of these books was issued by the CBSE as a circular to all its schools, without mentioning any reason whatsoever, the grounds, historical or otherwise, why those deletions had been ordered. The sole reason, which was repeated ad nauseam, was that all these books hurt the religious sentiments of the people. Professor Satish Chandra was alleged to have hurt Sikh sentiments because his book mentioned, among others, what ‘later Persian sources’ had said about Guru Tegh Bahadur. Professor Sharma was alleged to have hurt sentiments of Jains in his description of the early history of Jainism. (Even the most orthodox follower of Jainism would find this allegation absurd if he was to read the last edition of Ancient India, which was published in 2001 and withdrawn with effect from 2002.) Professor Thapar was alleged to have hurt the sentiments of many communities by referring to Akbar’s matrimonial alliances with Rajputs. And so on.
‘Out of nine history textbooks which were in use till 2001-2002, deletions were ordered in only four. In fact, three textbooks, one for Class VIII and two for Class XII were in use till academic year 2002-03, (the Class VIII book was, in fact, in use during 2003-04 too – the ‘new’ book was published recently for the 2004-05 academic year).
‘In view of the above, if the Panel does not recommend the restoration and reprinting of the pre-2002 history textbooks of NCERT, it would be seen as the Panel indirectly justifying the BJP-led government’s decision to withdraw those books (and the unstated but known grounds that lay behind their withdrawal) and legitimising that decision.
‘In case the Panel, after due consideration, does not find it appropriate to recommend the restoration and reprinting of these books, it should clearly state its reasons for doing so. This means that the Panel should review these books and provide academic and historical reasons for rejecting these books, for not recommending their restoration and reprinting would mean rejecting them. Also, unlike in the case of the ‘new’ history books, there are no comprehensive reviews or Indices of Errors of these books for the Panel to depend on and, therefore, it would be necessary for a fresh exercise to be taken up.
‘It has been sometimes said that the pre-2002 books are outdated but in what respects they are outdated has nowhere been pointed out. If they are found to be outdated, the out-datedness should be brought to light. These books have undergone several editions and every new edition has been an updated version. In most cases, revisions were made in the late 1990s and in some, as mentioned earlier, in 2001.
‘The contents which were discovered by the RSS-BJP elements to be hurting religious sentiments were, in every case, there in the first editions – in the case of Professor Sharma’s book, since 1977, in the case of Professor Satish Chandra’s book, since 1978, in the case of Professor Thapar’s book, since 1967, etc. – though the religious hurt began only after the BJP-led government came to power.
‘It can be argued, legitimately, that we should endeavour to prepare better books with greater regard to various pedagogical issues. The beginning for that exercise will need to be taken up with the preparation of a new curriculum framework and new courses (syllabuses) and not by scrapping, before preparing better alternatives, books which are generally recognised to be the best available at present.
‘The new set-up in the NCERT will, we hope, surely consider the entire question of textbook preparation afresh and will take up programmes to prepare educational materials that will meet every requirement of teaching-learning based on researches in every discipline and in pedagogy.
‘We would like to emphasise that the misuse of history is integral to the ideology of communalism, as it is to the ideology of fascism and every form of chauvinism and obscurantism. The ‘old’ history textbooks of NCERT, in terms of their academic content, were seen to be perhaps the best available in the country. They were also viewed as the best in terms of providing secular perspectives to the study of the past – this is testified by the hostility they aroused among communalists of all hues. It was, therefore, natural for people committed to secularism to expect that with the coming to power of the UPA government comprising parties for whom the defeat of communalism was the most important election issue, the communalised textbooks, which were also extremely substandard besides being plagiarised, would be immediately withdrawn and replaced by secular history books, which the BJP-led government had withdrawn.
‘The CMP adopted by the UPA referred to the immediate steps that the UPA government would take to reverse the communalisation of education which had taken place under the previous government. Among the ‘immediate steps’ that were and are expected by secular opinion throughout the country to be taken by the UPA government are the withdrawal of the communalised versions of history brought out after 2001 and the restoration of the texts which had been withdrawn for purely communal reasons.
‘As an organisation dedicated to fighting communalism in all its forms as its primary task, among others, we considered it necessary to convey for the consideration of the Panel our views in the matter. In our earlier note, we have indicated in some detail the way the various practical problems involved in implementing what we have proposed can be dealt with, without causing any serious dislocation to the process of education in schools.
‘Identification of Reading Material
‘According to press reports, the Panel proposes identifying and recommending suitable reading material available in the market. It is possible that Members of the Panel considered it as an option before it considered the question of restoring the ‘old’ NCERT books. If our view is accepted, it may not be necessary for the Panel to consider other options. We do not wish to go into the question of educational publishing and the role of private publishers. We would, however, like to bring to the notice of the Panel that as a matter of policy in almost every state and in the Union (CBSE), textbooks are prescribed in almost every subject up to Class X and that in almost every part of the country, the textbooks which are overwhelmingly in use at least in government and government-aided schools are those produced by the state textbook agencies. Many private schools, however, use private publishers’ books up to Class VIII and as additional reading materials in Classes IX and X. These books are not ‘authorised’ and schools run by RSS organisations are able to use their own books, which are extremely unsuitable as educational material. However, without going into the merits of the questions, prescribing or recommending private publishers’ books is not a function of the bodies set up by the state governments or the Union governments.
‘When the Delhi government decided not to use NCERT’s ‘new’ books, after the NCERT had refused to give the Delhi government permission to print NCERT’s ‘old’ books, it did not search for suitable books in the market; it decided to prepare and publish its own books. It would be odd, to understate it, for a Panel set up by the MHRD to recommend books brought out by private publishers. This would be contrary to the entire policy framework followed by the organisations and bodies set up by the Government of India and by the state governments. It is not for us to comment on what it should do in the matter of well-established policies followed in the country in this matter.
‘We would also like to point out that any reading material to be recommended for use in schools must be thoroughly reviewed. Such reviews by their very nature require much time and support from suitable academic persons to assist in the task of review. Members of the Panel may be aware of the evaluation exercise conducted by a National Steering Committee in the 1990s, which brought to light the extremely dismal state of textbooks in the country. (Most of the textbooks evaluated were history textbooks.) In case the Panel decides to undertake the task of recommending reading materials, even if the question of policy is not considered important, it would be required to take responsibility for what it recommends.
‘For the XI-XII stage, the books are generally not prescribed; they are recommended. That is the position of the CBSE at least formally. NCERT books are inevitably among the list of recommended books though they are also seen as setting the standard in terms of contents. However, the books to be included in the list of recommended books have to be first comprehensively reviewed by experts and not many are found ‘recommendable’. Evaluating these books, considering their number and volume, it is not unlikely that the Panel would not find it possible to undertake the task, particularly because it would be responsible for what it recommends. This task is better left to the CBSE, who may be advised to set up a group of good experts to evaluate books that are submitted by publishers.
‘Model Question Papers
‘Some press reports give the impression that the Panel is considering holding workshops to prepare model question papers for improving teaching and learning. We do not wish to go into the details of this question in the absence of any authoritative statement by the Panel about what it has proposed except to say that what has been reported in the press has given rise to many misgivings among teachers and many others. Model question papers, which are prepared by various Boards, including CBSE, serve only one purpose and are meant to serve only one purpose, that of indicating to the learner the forms of questions that are likely to be put in the Board’s examination. They are never visualised as aid to teaching or learning. Presenting them as aids to teaching is almost universally regarded as a distortion of the teaching-learning process, making teaching examination-oriented.
‘The entire emphasis in the National Policy on Education has been on de-emphasising the place of examinations in school education and developing various other ways of evaluating children. Developing model question papers, with their very limited objective, is a function of the examination boards and it may not be a legitimate area for the Panel concerned with textbooks in history for use at various stages of school education to make any recommendation with regard to examinations or examination papers.’ n
(SAHMAT is an educational and cultural organisation based in New Delhi).
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