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THERE clearly is no escape from the theatre of the absurd. Ever since Murli Manohar Joshi assumed the stewardship of the HRD Ministry charges of saffronisation have sullied the academic atmosphere. And nowhere is the discord sharper than in the domain of historical research and textbooks.

The early salvos were directed at the functioning of the ICHR. Its Board was reconstituted and the prestigious ‘Towards Freedom’ project under the coordinatorship of the late Professor S. Gopal scrapped. Around the same time, Arun Shourie, then not a minister, came out with a ‘blistering’ expose of the corruption and cronyism marking the institution – the charge being that Marxist fellow travellers had captured the Council and manipulated historical imagination and records to foreground their own role while denigrating Hindu nationalist contributions.

The goings-on in the higher academe, however, do not move many. The real terrain of struggle is the school texts for it is these which mould the minds of future generations. Little surprise that texts on ancient, medieval and modern India, prepared by some of the country’s most eminent historians and in use for well over two decades, were dropped. The NCERT, the national body mandated to evolve school curricula and advise on pedagogic matters took the cue and initiated the process of preparing new texts.

It has never been, and cannot be, anyone’s case that textbooks, no matter how good, are sacrosanct. Few remember that these books were episodically revised, but through a formal process involving the authors and after taking cognizance of criticisms and suggestions by school teachers. This time around the NCERT shrouded the exercise in secrecy, even keeping the identity of the proposed authors hidden, as if the matter involved national security.

Simultaneously, the Council released a revised national curriculum for school education, allegedly loading it with its newly discovered love for value and religious instruction. Worse, despite education being a concurrent subject, the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE), a non-statutory body comprising not only the Central and state ministers and officials but independent experts, was not consulted. The stage was set for confrontation with non-BJP, non-NDA regimes up in arms against perceived distortions.

The matter was even taken up to the Supreme Court with a stay being granted on the introduction of new texts and curricula. For months, neither students nor teachers were in the know as to what books they work with and study. A couple of months back the Supreme Court dismissed the petition challenging the legality of the NCERT decision and vacated the stay on the introduction of the new texts, a move that the current dispensation has hailed as a great victory.

Now, as the revised texts hit the market, complaints about shoddy research and factually incorrect information are rife, forcing the NCERT leadership on the back foot. What has further complicated the already murky scenario is the decision by non NDA regimes and parties to instruct their administrations to ignore the NCERT textbooks and not introduce them in schools under their control.

It is insufficiently appreciated that NCERT books are used as textbooks only in schools affiliated to the CBSE. In numbers, these account for less than five per cent of the secondary and higher secondary schools. Further, these texts are only recommendatory, not mandatory. In theory, schools have freedom to decide on the books they will use.

The real nub of the problem lies in the association between the CBSE, the body responsible for conducting the examinations and the NCERT, responsible for designing curricula and preparing textbooks. It is because question setting and correction depend so heavily, if not exclusively, on NCERT texts and because the CBSE is the most ‘valued’ Board, that this issue has assumed importance.

The PIL in the Supreme Court had argued that the neglect of the CABE was unconstitutional and that an infusion of religious-value education would undermine the country’s secular character. Both contentions are debatable, and in any case have been turned down by the court. Unfortunately our educational activists have not focused adequate attention on the working of the CBSE and the need to revise our mindless system of examination and evaluation.

Equally, what is needed is a proliferation of new texts, both better researched and written and more child friendly, so that school administrations can choose not to be captive to the NCERT texts. Setting up a confrontation between ‘secular’ and ‘communal’ regimes will do little to rescue our school children from the soul corroding education they are currently subjected to.

Harsh Sethi