The current agitation in Kerala demanding withdrawal of the class vii social science textbook has turned murderous. James Augustine, 45, a headmaster of a primary school was killed in an attack by the Indian Union Muslim League youth activists on a training program. And this was done even after the announcement by the Kerala government that it had decided to remove the controversial portion of the textbook. Will this utterly meaningless death of the teacher at their hands stop the agitators in their track? Will we allow warriors of different shades of identity politics a free run? Or, will the sacrifice of a life turn into an occasion for all of us to once again ponder over issues related not only to the politics of textbooks but also the principles on which textbooks in a diverse country like India should be prepared?
It is very easy to see that the allegation on this particular book that it promotes atheism cannot be substantiated as the text in question closes with the response of the parents of Jeevan, who belong to different religious identities that he would be free to choose his religion when he grows up. It only shows that they are very relaxed about his identity and are ready to give him freedom to decide on his identity. Surely the agitating groups are neither sure nor relaxed about their relationship with the members of their denominations. Do they fear that texts like the one dealing with the religious identity of Jeevan can give ideas to children about their right to take decisions in the matters of marriage and identity? Even if we leave this aside, the charge leveled by the opposition that the book is substandard deserves a reasoned discussion. It needs to take into account the role textbooks are expected to play in a country like India, the process of textbook writing, the implication of the federal character of India for school education in general and textbook writing in particular.
Do we realize that textbooks are the only resource for the crores of children of our country who have gained entry into the school space for the first time in their communities? In other words a textbook is like midday meal for them. It has to be nourishing, wholesome and yet should have the ability to awaken the taste buds of the children. Textbooks bear a huge responsibility in our country, to make up for the parents with whom the child could share her queries and anxieties, for books that should have been at her call to supplement the discussions in the classroom. Their role is to help teachers create an anxiety free classroom situation which would be inviting enough for a first generation learner to make him/her feel at home in the space of the school which has been traditionally an alien place for her.
Ideally an average Indian classroom should represent the rich diversity obtaining in India. Unfortunately sixty years of our Independence have witnessed rich and middle classes segregating themselves from the resource less population and creating their own special educational zones. In a strange and cruel manner governments after governments have only helped these zones getting fortified, creating boards which only help in legalizing the principle of inequality in the field of education in a country which claims to be socialist. You have elite CBSE and ICSE looking down upon the state boards. Usually schools outside the state periphery are affiliated to these two boards. Then the government has created Kendriya Vidyalayas, Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas and now there is scheme waiting in the wings under which hundreds of schools with private partnership would be opened all over India on the pattern of the JNVs. It is the NCERT which prepares textbooks for this system. It would be surprising for many of us to know that it caters to only 3 percent of the school going children, even if it gets a lot of space in our national media.
The majority of our children depend on the state run boards. In many states it is the SCERTs which like the NCERT prepare textbooks, but there are states which have separate boards to prepare textbooks. Multiplicity of the agencies dealing with different aspects of school education have different ideas about what quality in education means. You have therefore, teachers being selected and trained on an educational understanding which is quite different from the one informing textbooks, which again would differ and in no small measure from the educational principles on which examination papers would be prepared. We have not yet thought about the experts who come from fields like environment, disaster management and AIDS prevention with huge money and influence who seek to create new disciplines around these concerns which means additional textbooks for the children. The poor teacher is subjected to host of trainings round the year ranging from family planning, Aids prevention, disaster management, communal harmony, gender, etc. Experts from these fields have little knowledge of or sensitivity to the special nature of school education. Rarely do they familiarize themselves with the specific educational needs at different levels. All of them place huge demands on the teacher, classroom and textbooks. It is not difficult to see that this is an instrumentalist approach to education.
The modern nation state is unique because it is a huge educational apparatus. It takes it upon itself to educate huge populations into certain national principles. Schools become very crucial in this whole scheme as there is a realization in the ruling classes that majority would be leaving the field of planned education after they have completed their school education. In countries like ours we also legitimize while planning our curricula different exit points for children coming from different sections of the society. Education is, therefore, not treated as a continuous process. Since it is treated as a mere tool for socializing the child into citizenship, political groups and other formations having their own notions of it, want it to be represented at every level because they are not sure at which stage the child would drop out of this mechanism and would therefore be deprived of their ideas. That is the main reason for them treating each class separately and not caring to look for interconnectedness between different levels and different subjects. An uproar on a class vii social science textbook without uttering a word on what the class vi or class viii book is doing results from this myopic view of school education. Each class and each textbook is a closed world, which does not have any relation with other classes and other textbooks.
We also think that textbooks are syringes filled with curative or magical potions which are to be injected into the bodies of the children. The textbook programme resembles the immunization scheme devised by modern medicine to keep the child free from diseases hovering around her. Many a time they are also asked to give an artificial sense of strength to the child and they end up acting like doses of cortisones. A child at the end of her 12th class with 98% marks fails to understand why communal riots take place or why is it that majority of the children failing the examinations belong to certain caste or religious groups. Our social science textbooks fail in their main task of helping them gain an understanding of the structure of our society. Instead of asking our textbooks to perform this task we ask put wrong questions to them. While it is not unimportant to ask whether Gandhi or Nehru or Bhagat Singh have been included or excluded, what is more important is to know if the textbook opens up windows to different streams which were active in freedom struggle and enable the child and the teacher to discuss their roles critically.
We should be asking these questions when discussing the Kerala textbook controversy. We should also be asking, as an educationist friend told me that how is it that children and their parents studying in more than 600 schools across Kerala are simply untouched by this whole controversy as they do not have anything to do with these books written originally in Malyalam as they live in the safe CBSE heavens reading books written in English based on new pedagogic principles in the light of the educational philosophy enunciated by the New curriculum Framework 2005. The Kerala SCERT claims that it has sought to follow the constructivist philosophy the critics of the Kerala schoolbooks should ask if the SCERT books have been able to do that. A close look at the class vii social science book would tell anybody interested in education that it has sincere intentions but suffers from a hurry, which do not let them translate them into the reality of textbooks. For example, doing away with the authentic narrative style, it tends to become episodic and fragmentary. It lacks intersectionality which makes it very difficult for the child to make a sense of it. It tries to integrate history, political science and geography into a one single book. It ignores the debate in the national focus group on social sciences which came to the conclusion that we are yet to evolve strategies to bring these different subjects under one fold and at this it would be wise to have separate books for them. Doing anything otherwise would only confuse the teacher and the student.
It is legitimate for a state to develop its own curricula and textbook. But care has to taken that decentralization does not get reduced to a mere slogan. Does a Kerala book discussing freedom struggle depict the same Gandhi-Nehru-Bhagat Singh iconography or could it find some other way to make it more Kerala specific? If the book fails mechanically follows the principles of constructivism, it only kills their spirit. But these are difficult questions, which would demand a fundamental change in our approach towards different aspects of school education.
Our political parties should also ask if they care for standards to be maintained in textbook writing if we sufficient budgetary allocation is made for training in textbook writing. If textbooks are not something to be memorized and reproduced in examinations faithfully, it would mean giving our teachers opportunities to reorient themselves accordingly which has huge implications for the teacher training institutions and concerned departments. It would mean giving freedom and dignity to the textbook, to give it autonomy and at the same time extending the same dignity and autonomy to the teacher and student who are not expected to treat the class room as a space for initiation into some ideology, however progressive it is but as an opportunity to question the given truths of the state. We know that an insecure nation state, which keeps on enacting extraordinary laws to save itself from falling apart, which fears its people cannot even dream of such a space let alone make provisions for it. But should it stop us from asking this question?
This article has also appeared in the Tehelka.