The politics of stupidity
John Stuart Mill famously described the Conservative Party as ‘the stupid party’ (Considerations on Representative Government, 1861, chapter 7). Mill actually writes ‘stupidest’ but the superlative degree is not relevant to my present purpose. On being asked what he meant, he clarified – he did not mean that all conservatives are stupid, but that stupid people are generally conservative.
This has a direct bearing on the educational antics of our own ‘stupid party’, the BJP. The current history scandal, in which ‘offensive’ sentences are being deleted from textbooks that have been in circulation for decades, even as a new set of textbooks is being prepared by alleged scholars whose names are a closely guarded secret, has consequences that, designedly or otherwise, go well beyond short-term electoral calculations.
It is not immediately apparent what is the best way of engaging with the issues raised by the distinctly un-engaging Mr. Rajput and Professor V.K. Malhotra (HT, 14 December 2001). One might of course see the critique mouthed by these greasy operators as quasi-Foucauldian, alerting us to the complicity between knowledge and power, inadvertently seeking to mitigate the cognitive certainty of a particular variant of history. But it is unlikely that they could have got their slippery minds around such complex ideas.
However, what they do have is a street-smart understanding of power. Thus they reason that if some other people – products of what the Leonardo of the ‘stupid party’ called ‘Macaulay, Marx and madarsas’ – imposed their own selection from the historical record on a generation of students, there is no reason why this lot, and their unnamed accomplices, shouldn’t impose their selection now.
Malhotra was careful to exempt graduate and post-graduate textbooks from the requirements of such censorship – apparently it is only the tender minds of school students which need to be protected from certain kinds of historical truth. Tender schoolboys must not encounter anything sharp or controversial. They must be reared on a thin, invalid diet of rashtriya gaurav – a careful selection from the historical record, embellished by appropriate mythology.
But the schoolchildren I know and remember are particularly sensitive to the lies and designs – the designing lies – of crooked adults. An educational strategy of this kind – sanitized, airbrushed, with all the contentious and difficult stuff hidden away – will only deepen the students’ contempt for the whole educational process. But, the current custodians of education might argue, there’s no great harm in that. Either the students will turn their back on such education, or they will become little chaddiwallas. And, either way, the Sangh Parivar wins, right?
Of course, a school textbook must, necessarily, be selective – and I am happy to agree with my distinguished colleague, Professor Malhotra. (He’s not a magician, is he?) I believe that the mere factuality of facts is not a sufficient condition for inclusion. Factual authenticity is a necessary condition – so will someone please stop this Lord Rama business, please? – but the selection from the historical record must have some further justification. However, the principles governing the selection should be made known and also be in consonance with the Constitution of India.
I am quite certain that the authors of the impugned NCERT textbooks, and their numerous consultants and advisers, had an agenda: it was, within their lights, to provide the intellectual resources that would, hopefully, induce students to become progressive, secular, liberal citizens of the Republic of India. What is the agenda of the secret makers of the new textbooks?
However, the question of the deletion of certain sentences from the textbooks raises a different range of pedagogical questions. Thus, leaders of ‘communities’ are to have a veto on whatever they find offensive, so that the resultant text can reasonably be expected to be entirely inoffensive, except to those few educationists who still remember that the purpose of education is not to provide a minimum common diet of rashtriya gaurav, but rather to assist in the making of rational, critical-analytical minds. For this pedagogic purpose, it is essential for young minds to engage with facts and opinions that grow out of and address their everyday experiences – of caste oppression and poverty and communal discord, among other things.
The history classroom is the pedagogical space where they are trained to trace the connections between these everyday experiences and the historical past. Controversy and conflicting opinions, indeed, the rational-discursive engagement of and with different opinions – different from each other, different from their everyday and commonsensical prejudices – is the crux of this educational strategy. It will be the direct – and perhaps intended – effect of such ‘deletions’ to sever all links between the sanitized and glamorized world of the history textbooks and the hard, ugly real world which the student will be required to negotiate, but without the skills with which education, ideally, equips its beneficiaries.
The purpose of the traditional strategy, which is evidently beyond the grasp of the semi-literate charlatans of the Sangh Parivar, is not to imbue students with, or instil in them, any particular package of ‘right’ ideas, but rather to equip them with the capacity to analyse, examine and evaluate all ideas – and, indeed, echoing a famous educationist, to distinguish between ideas and bullshit.
That last takes us to the educational heart of the present move to delete some – ‘only some’, we are assured – sentences from the history textbooks. There is of course the short-term electoral strategy that every cynical citizen can see through instantly. They are eyeing, we know, the forthcoming elections in U.P., hoping to nobble Sikh and Jat voters, who are evidently presumed to be stupid enough to trade their political loyalties for a little textbook silence. This is really beneath contempt. But the educational design is something far more sinister.
This has to do with something called ‘sentiments’. These are easily ‘hurt’; thus, good Hindus get hurt when told, on unimpeachable evidence, that our Aryan ancestors were partial to rice cooked with beef; Sikhs get hurt when told that certain Persian commentators did not hold their Gurus in the same high regard as they do; Jats get hurt when they are reminded that their hard-pressed ancestors weren’t above a little looting and violence... But of course the Sangh Parivar should know that such ‘sentiments’ are not givens: the fact is that even ‘sentiments’ have a history.
After all, there was a time, not so long ago, when the Babri Masjid was just the site of an obscure property dispute. The ‘sentimental’ insistence that a ‘Ram temple’ must be built at that precise site – which is alleged to be the site not merely of another, earlier temple but also, grown men declare, the birthplace of the god Rama himself – has a rather brief history. The Sangh Parivar has reaped a rich electoral harvest from the ‘primordial Hindu sentiment’ which it manufactured so skilfully.
The educational effect – and, I believe, intention – of an educational strategy which is determined by such ‘sentiments’ is precisely the creation of a political domain in which rationality has no appeal, since ‘sentiments’ are, by definition, beyond reason and argument and even, we are told, the law. So long as the business of accommodating ‘sentiments’ is confined to textbooks, of course, the matter is easily resolved – you just remove sentences, paragraphs, whole chapters even, who cares? Education will be sabotaged but then, stupidity is their greatest resource.
It is important not to confuse this ‘stupidity’ with ordinary illiteracy. Thus, people who, for one reason or another, don’t go to school at all, perforce develop intellectual skills to deal with the complexity of the real world. We all know people who, although they are illiterate, are nevertheless insightful and wise. The ‘stupidity’ that forms the crux of my argument is the product of a special, perverted kind of education: just enough to make the student arrogant, but not enough to make him thoughtful and humane. The resultant may rightly be described as semi-literate.
However, in the real world, where conflicting and disharmonious ‘sentiments’ cannot all be accommodated by the expedient of deletions, these matters can only be settled by political processes. And the politics of ‘sentiments’ is, consciously, a politics that has abandoned the world of reasoned discourse. Since you can’t reason with ‘sentiments’, you can only count the numbers of people who harbour, or can be alleged to harbour, particular ‘sentiments’. This is the connection between the textbook controversy – which has to do not with the propagation or inhibition of particular ideas, whether leftist or rightist, but the eventual subversion of the place of reason in public discourse itself – and the very real danger of a ‘sentimental’, irrational, majoritarian, fascist politics.
The question should really be addressed to the good middle class people who thought they would ‘give the BJP a chance’, and not the members of the Rajput-Batra gang who are only the symptoms of a disease. The educational disaster that will be the entirely predictable consequence of these dark deeds, and the resultant ‘stupidity’, will of course be an inexhaustible resource for the practitioners of the politics of stupidity. It will ensure the conservative prolongation of the present empire of poverty and degradation and injustice and, as an inevitable consequence, of blind, unending violence. But will such systematically-induced, self-inflicted stupidity really be compatible with the millennial, international, global aspirations of the same good bourgeois? Perhaps it will.