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SHOULD Bal Gangadhar Tilak be described as a hard liner, Khudiram as a militant, Uddham Singh as a terrorist? What of Gandhi – as the Mahatma or a bourgeois politician? For years, historians have debated the various strands that went into the making of our national movement and the terms they might deploy to describe the many individuals who played key roles in the struggle for independence. Expectedly, the debates are heated, in part because the terms we favour are more than description – they also reflect personal and collective moral and political stances.

Scholarly discussion in fat tomes or professional journals often goes unremarked, though as we saw recently in the David Laine book on Shivaji, the fact that few have read the text is no guarantee against controversy and violence. So when school texts, that too prepared by the NCERT, engage with contentious issues, noisy scenes in Parliament are par for course. At the centre of the current controversy are both elements of fact and interpretation.

Equally, there is concern about the proposal to deal with more recent happenings, each contentious and ‘divisive’ – the Emergency, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and the Gujarat disturbances of 2002. Parliamentarians, across party divides, seem agitated about the decision to introduce such topics in school texts, apprehensive that the approved version may reflect bias, not just of the individual authors but of the party currently in power.

Without underplaying the partisan character of the Parliamentary debate, there are other serious issues that those responsible for preparing school texts must consider. For one, none of these events are anywhere close to a ‘closure’; as unsettled concerns they generate deep anxieties. Given the passions they generate even among seasoned scholars, would it be wise to expose young, impressionable minds to divisive debates? Moreover, in the absence of an agreed version of these events, and since textbooks constitute the primary resource for examinations, will we not privilege one particular version of history? How we understand events and personalities changes, partly a reflection of better data and revised methodologies, but equally because of shifts in national/global consensus. Unsettled debates can be a nightmare for a writer, even more for someone preparing a school text.

But does this mean that school texts, particularly of modern history and political science, should steer clear of all controversy? There was a time when pedagogues and officials responsible chose to be conservative, with the result that most of our textbooks were dull and bland, hardly capable of engaging young minds with questions and issues which were otherwise hotly debated in society, Further, the pressure of model texts, questions and answers used by examiners to grade students contributed to a dumbing down of our school system. No wonder, most educationalists despaired about our collective inability to prepare enquiring minds.

This is one reason why so many welcomed the new National Curriculum Framework prepared by the NCERT last year. As a nation, we finally seemed willing to experiment, take risks, encourage a plurality of views and enable a wider public-private participation in our school education. Even more enthusing was the fact that the exercise of preparing the NCF and the class-wise subject-specific curricula associated a wide spectrum of subject experts and school teachers. And though the process of producing the textbooks was unnecessarily rushed, resulting in both indifferent production quality as also errors, many of the books have been welcomed as breaking new ground.

It would thus be extremely unfortunate if this pedagogic experiment is cut short, merely because of apprehension about possible bias in the handling of contentious issues. Highlighting the challenges/dangers in preparing a nuanced text, one that demands reformed classroom practices and stretches both the students and teachers is welcome. One must also be alive to the danger of differential practices across schools and regions given the variations in school infrastructure and teacher quality. But permitting the ‘fear of the possible’ to constrain and force us back on a ‘tried and tested’ path is only likely to foreclose a valuable opportunity.

As the prime minister, responding to Parliamentary concerns about the Indo-US deal on civil nuclear cooperation, reminded us, the future is invariably unpredictable. But those unwilling to take risks are also unlikely to gain anything.

Harsh Sethi

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