Those who turn into economists during demonetisation and military strategists when China attacks India are now seen as authors of enough repute to be imparting knowledge to our future generations, writes Congress legislator Priyank Kharge.

A collage of Priyank Kharge wearing a black Nehru coat, with Basavaraj Bommai wearing a tri-color scarf on his rightCredit: Priyank Kharge official website, Facebook/ Basavaraj Bommai
Voices Politics Saturday, June 11, 2022 - 16:12

Over the past year or so, the ruling right-wing establishment in Karnataka has been more provocative than ever before. As supposed fringe elements take over, targeting minorities using hate speech, calling for their economic boycott, denying young women an education under the guise of uniforms, and even pressuring the state government into drafting and tabling an anti-conversion Bill, the state’s elected government like a nodding puppet on a string has assented to it all. CM Basavaraj Bommai, a politically weak Head of State, has only himself to blame.

BS Yediyurappa, when Karnataka’s Chief Minister, though mired in controversy and corruption, was a strongman of his own fiefdom who kept a check on all extremes. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and other ‘fringe’ groups, though existed and thrived, were not at the forefront or allowed to dictate policy. They were not the face, though right under the surface. But with a weak CM at the helm, the game plan in Karnataka has changed. Now, it is the ‘fringe elements’ that decide the direction that the state should be heading in, and a part of their master plan starts with rewriting our history. 

Take a deeper look at the workings of the Sangh Parivar and their modus operandi is apparent. They are not overt in their functioning, but instead manipulate people based on their cultural leanings or through emotive propaganda. The RSS has done this at their shakhas for years now, catching hold of children at a very young age, implanting in them the story of a narrow ‘Akhand Bharat’, killing their scientific temperament and replacing it with extreme edicts — an action plan entirely based on the idea that young brains are more malleable. They seek to gain hold of a person’s mindspace culturally first, and eventually intellectually as well. So if the Sangh wants to implement this project at a larger scale, what better place to do it than schools? This is exactly what we are currently seeing with the state’s ‘textbook review’ endeavour.

Diversity out the window

Even a cursory glance at the new changes brought into the school textbooks makes their agenda clear. This is a well-planned venture to erase history as we know it, impart coloured literature and systematically impart a history favourable to the Sangh. The first step was to nominate a Karnataka Textbooks Revision Committee almost entirely composed of a single community, but more so with a similar mindset which is exclusionary to the masses. In a country defined by its differences and empowered by its secular fabric, how can the decisions on school textbooks — which are supposed to reflect and represent our democratic values — be made by a group composed solely of one community with massive homogeneity of world view and experiences? Even if the members of this panel had arrived at the table with the best of intentions, they were still bound to fail at making choices that will help underscore the value and significance of this country’s diversity, because they are all people hailing from similar, privileged backgrounds. Furthermore, history of the ‘other’ or subaltern history and literature is an area which is not only of wonderful importance to the people of this country, but it also essentially highlights the idea of inclusivity, justice and equity which the children of our state should learn.

While history is actively being modified, the high handed attitude of the government with reference to the committee showed all of us the manner in which they wanted to bulldoze their decisions through. When the Opposition questioned the government as to why Rohith Chakrathirtha was named the chairperson of the committee, the government’s silence spoke volumes. Though he himself initially claimed that he was appointed because he fulfilled all the criteria put forth by the government, when a clarification was sought on the criteria, neither he nor the government had an answer. In an even worse turn of events, Minister for Primary and Secondary Education BC Nagesh resorted to dilly-dallying when asked about the committee chairperson’s qualifications. The minister even claimed that Rohith had the experience of teaching at an IIT, which was contrary to what Mr Chakrathirtha himself had stated earlier. Under mounting pressure, the latter later came out and clarified that he was not an IIT professor, but was training students for competitive exams. Compared to the literary luminaries of before, it is suspect why such a man was chosen for this post of great import. 

Unfortunately, whatever be his qualifications, Rohith’s biggest achievement has been that he is a troll. He has a history of making derogatory and sexist comments on social media, having once equated watching a cricket match with watching pornography, besides denigrating the entire feminist movement in another instance. Even more importantly, he has also attempted to defame the state’s literary icon Kuvempu, one of the greatest writers the country has seen, by sharing a distorted version of the Kannada ‘nadageethe’ (state anthem) penned by him. So when we have a troll with a twisted mind trying to form the curriculum for school children from Classes 6 to 10, one can imagine the quality of the syllabus that is going to be released. It comes as no surprise that the photographs of Kuvempu were removed from the Class 7 textbooks. 

The why and how of textbook revisions

The revision of school textbooks is not the problem. Change is the only constant, and it also becomes a necessity as time passes. However, any committee that reviews a textbook has the responsibility to make it better than the previous one, to further the progressive nature of the lessons. The former Congress government too had formed a textbook revision committee, headed by Prof Baraguru Ramachandrappa. But how that committee differed from the current one was with regard to the comprehensiveness and transparency of the process.

Under Ramachandrappa’s committee, 27 sub-committees were formed with the involvement of subject experts and other stakeholders, and each of the committees conducted their own set of discussions and deliberations on their respective subjects. Further, to check any errors that may have filtered through despite the sub-committees’ monitoring, higher committees were formed. These higher panels held more than 30 meetings with other stakeholders, including teachers’ associations, principals’ associations and various literature groups, before it was finally brought to the government. The government then tabled it in the Assembly, where it was debated and discussed before it was passed. The entire process spanned around two-and-a-half years.

On the other hand, one has to note that it has not even been two months since the current BJP government’s committee released their textbook, but it has already headed to the printing press. The government is saying it has disbanded the committee now. But what is the use? The textbooks have already been printed. There is no room for discussions, consultations or rectifications anymore. 

Apples to oranges

There are a few things common about the people whose writings have been dropped from the school curriculum by the new textbooks revision committee. Women, authors belonging to Dalit or other backward communities, or even those leaning towards the Left, those that have consistently upheld the constitutional values of the society, preached equality in their writings, and have a scientific temperament have been ignored. Now take a look at the people whose writings have been newly added to the textbooks, and it is comparing apples to oranges.

Besides RSS founder KB Hedgewar, texts by contemporary Hindu nationalists like Chakravarti Sulibele — whose only qualification is that he is a BJP proponent — have been included in the syllabus. Our students are expected to learn the lessons written by the same people who claimed that the new Rs 2,000 notes which came in during demonetisation had microchips in them. Those who become economists during demonetisation, and military strategists when China attacks India are seen as authors of enough repute to be imparting knowledge to our future generations. Chameleons of convenience who connive to further propagate one world view and one agenda have made the cut.

The question which begs to be asked, is why is a person with no area expertise writing about a revolutionary hero like Bhagat Singh? It is not like we are deficient of academicians who have actually done proper research on the freedom fighter. In fact, it was a chapter by one such scholar, G Ramakrishna, that was dropped to be replaced with Sulibele. 

Erasure of all things non-Hindu

Besides these apparent transgressions against academic integrity, the committee has also made sure to wipe out all traces of important philosophers who historically moved away from the fold of Hindu dharma. For instance, the text on Narayana Guru, who preached equality and led a reform movement against the caste injustices in Kerala, was dropped from the books. Then you have Basavanna, the 12th century philosopher who formed the Lingayat religion. The new textbooks alludes that Basavanna underwent an upanayanam (a brahminical ritual for a boy’s ‘initiation’ into adulthood), following which he received a ‘lingadeekshe’ in the presence of a Shaiva guru, before developing the Veerashaiva Lingayat math. But this is a clear distortion of history, because Basavanna never received an upanayanam. Besides, he had established the Lingayat Dharma as a separate religion like Buddhism and Jainism, unlike the story they are trying to propagate through these textbooks — that Lingayatism is a sub-sect of the Hindu dharma. There is also no mention of how Basavanna was against the Hindu caste system or how masses of Lingayats were massacred for their beliefs.

Religions such as Jainism and Buddhism have also been appropriated by the revision committee, their fight against caste stand erased. The books address these religions as “mathas” (schools or areas of religious thought) and not dharmas, in an apparent attempt to indicate that they come under the same umbrella of Hinduism, which is not just a distortion, but blatant falsehood. They seek to establish the idea that these religions are all just branches under the Hindu fold, directly going against the Constitution of India, which explicitly states that Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism are all separate religions.

This disparity is even apparent in the semantics used. If philosophers like Sankarachaya and Madhavacharya who cater to a particular ideal are treated with utmost respect, the textbooks refer to someone like Gautama Buddha by his name and using singulars (avanu, ivanu, etc which denote lack of respect). The former, however, are referred to as ‘avaru’ (plural). This is insulting to say the least. 

Reductionism of Dr Ambedkar

While their handling of ancient history and pre-Independence history is an insult to our great diverse multicultural nation, the manner in which the committee has treated the subject of the architect of the Indian Constitution, Dr BR Ambedkar, is deplorable. While glorifying BN Rau’s role as an advisor to the Drafting Committee, they have chosen to significantly underplay the role of Ambedkar in the creation of the Constitution. If he was referred to as the creator of the Indian Constitution in the previous textbook, Ambedkar is reduced to his role as the chairman of one of the many drafting committees involved in the process here, a subtle attempt to indicate that the revolutionary Dalit leader cannot be referred to as the father of the Constitution.

Besides this, the references to Ambedkar’s parents and their history has also been removed from the books, which was essential to show the struggle through which his world view was shaped. They have also removed references to his views on the Hindu caste system, his role in the 1927 Mahad Satyagraha where he fought for public access to drinking water, and the 1930 Kalaram Temple Satyagraha seeking entry of Dalits into the shrine. To add insult, they have also dropped Dalit writer Chennanna Walikar’s poem ‘Nee Hoda Marudina’ on Ambedkar from the Class 6 Kannada textbooks. What they instead seek to do is normalise regressive texts like the Manusmriti propagated by the RSS, while step-by-step erasing every other ideology that can be a threat to the constitution of the Hindu rashtra.

It is rank irony that the government, which has appropriated Babasaheb as a tool to oppose the Congress in its political discourse, is trying to erase all traces of his contribution from public memory, especially of the next generation of children. 

A rot that runs deep

If one had initially assumed that the mentions of Tipu Sultan were being removed from the textbooks as part of the efforts to further the RSS Hindutva narrative, it is hard to fault them. But to continue to think so even at this point would be naive at best. The Sangh’s plan for Karnataka is no longer just about Tipu Sultan or furthering the Hindu-Muslim divide. A jingoist who refuses to call a person who had fought three wars against the British a freedom fighter, but instead refers to the man who killed Mahatma Gandhi a desh bhakt, will not shy away from calling Gandhiji an anti-national soon. This rot runs much deeper, and if not uprooted, a Kannadiga’s identity will be questioned next.

It is most unfortunate that a seemingly liberal mind like Bommai is being manipulated by the RSS. His love for power is costing our children their future, and I do not say this just as a Congressman. The severity of the issue goes beyond petty politics, and it has reflected in the way in which every progressive mind and even community organisations have banded together to protest the revision of the textbooks. From our foremost thinkers and philosophers to matha seers, from historians and writers to caste leaders, they have all written to the Chief Minister to express their disappointment with these developments. It is unprecedented in the history of Karnataka for people to come together in such a manner for a cause, and this is happening because all of them realise that tampering with our education system with an unscientific temper is going to have an irrevocably negative impact on the state’s future.

Whether it be in terms of employment or investment, why is Karnataka in a better position than Uttar Pradesh or Bihar? The quality of our education is the answer. It is for this exact reason that our human resources are high in demand across the globe, and we have arguably become the fourth largest technology cluster in the world. Meddling with a system such as this is bound to have a long-term impact on not only the social fabric of the state of Karnataka, but also its scientific fabric. If we are going to lose that edge over vested political interests, we have to do it at our own peril.

I have a number of questions to ask the government at this juncture. Are you ready to sacrifice the state’s future for political gain? Are you fine with tampering history and our youngsters’ scientific temper over the illusion of a Hindu rashtra? Is it a set of zombies with no potential to think for themselves and contribute back to the society that you are seeking to create? At a time when the world is progressing at a rapid pace, let us not let India go back to the antiquated times of the past.

Priyank Kharge is the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee spokesperson and the MLA for Chittapur. He has formerly served as the Karnataka minister for Social Welfare, as well as Information Technology and Tourism.

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