Saffron: The Changing Colors of Indian Education
The BJP government on Thursday made another attempt at appropriation of a cultural identity that had never resonated with theirs. Spokesperson of the UP government announced that Indian jurist and prominent Dalit icon of the freedom struggle, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar will be referred to as Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar- Ramji being his father’s name- in all official documents and records owing to his Marathi lineage.
This attempt has been vehemently criticized by Dalit leaders as an act of appropriation of an individual who was opposed to Hinduism as a religion itself, due to its discriminatory caste hierarchy. Despite protests, the ruling BJP is going ahead with the convolution of the memory of one of the foremost egalitarians of the 20th century. While most acts have received enough media traction to attract an opposition, BJP at the center has quite calmly continued another agenda left unfinished during its NDA tenure- revamping of school curricula.
India's Minister of HRD Mr. Prakash Javadekar.
Why change Curriculum?
While the BJP has of late attempted to manage a comfortable relationship of convenient ambivalence with the RSS, one ideology it has consistently worked in tandem with it is that of saffronisation of education through change in school curricula. Since their coalition government in the late 90s, BJP has firmly believed in the perpetuation of pride and patriotism towards one’s nation along with a national consciousness of culture and identity as the end goals of education. They have thus sought to revamp the “liberal-left curriculum” followed by the Congress, to create a sense of national unity dating back to a common lineage for all- a Hindu lineage.
Murli Manohar Joshi, the HRD Minister of India under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government (1998-2004). Mr. Joshi is widely criticized for his role in effecting wide reaching changes to curriculum in the Vajpayee government.
The 2014 Reset
Since 2014, a series of systemic changes have been made in the field of education and culture by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). The primary focus of the changes being a complete modification of the existing education system has led the government to make substantive changes at the most nascent stage of regulating education itself – research institutes.
Over the past four years, several research institutes have been given over to pro-BJP individuals to run as heads, without them displaying their capabilities such as academic competence and distinction on any public platforms. Professor Y. Sudershan Rao was appointed the head of Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), despite his strong opposition to Marxist and western scholars and advocacy of superior Hindu values reflecting themselves in the caste system. Girish Chandra Tripathi was appointed Vice Chancellor of Banaras Hindu University (BHU), and Chandrakala Padia was made chairperson of Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla. Each of these appointments was criticized for lack of academic experience and repute. Many heads of education or research related institutions have also been sacked because of being at loggerheads with the government. All of this has received harsh criticism from academics across the country.
With structural changes in place, BJP has sought to create an entirely new curriculum through a Hindutva reinterpretation of history and a glorification of RSS and BJP leaders during their tenure. This has manifested itself largely in the way history is being re written. All religious minorities such as Muslims and Christians have been termed as the “other” or “foreigners” who invaded the country. The manifestation has also been in terms of appropriation of different cultures, identities and events to bring them all under the Hindu fold or atleast, delegitimize their importance to the native cultures.
One of the first attack was on Christmas. Soon after coming to power in 2014, the BJP designated December 25 as Good Governance Day, with mandatory attendance in schools. Their justification was that the date coincides with the birthday of former BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Vajpayee himself is widely viewed in India as a statesman who was able to shed his image of a radical Hindu leader in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid riots of the early 1990s to become a consensus building politician. The same year also saw the replacement of German with Sanskrit as third language in Kendriya Vidyalayas.
A Government of India advertisement about Good Governance Day 2014.
In 2016, several changes in state syllabi were seen. It began with the removal of Jawahar Lal Nehru’s (India’s first Prime Minister and a widely revered statesman, often seen as second only to Gandhi) name from class 8 social studies textbooks in Rajasthan. The chapter on national movements didn’t name Sarojini Naidu and Madan Mohan Malaviya either, two other tall educationalists who advocated liberal values. It is interesting to note that Malaviya was associated with the Hindu Mahasabha, an organization to which the BJP traces its ideological lineage. This was followed by diminishing the role of Mahatma Gandhi in the freedom struggle by denying him credit for landmark movements such as the Quit India Movement, Non-cooperation Movement etc. His assassination by Nathuram Godse didn’t make it to the textbooks either. Similar changes were made in Gujarat and Haryana where Gita was introduced in schools for classes 6 and above as an entire chapter.
In the latest row of changes, UP government in 2017 decided to include the BJP ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyay in school curriculums of classes 9 and above. His ideology ‘Ekatm Manavaad’ was to be taught in schools separately.
All of these changes have more or less proliferated in all existing school curricula, though their degree of reinterpretation may vary. Most CBSE (the largest education board in India) schools have deviated from following the guidelines proposed by the National Curriculum Framework (NCF). Moreover, attempts have been made to make changes to the framework of the NCF which has resulted the mysterious ousting of its chief, Parvin Sinclair on grounds of financial irregularities. It is also worth noticing how this resignation hampered the syllabus improvement process in its last stage of execution.
The second front on which this revamping has taken place is in all RSS run private schools i.e. the Vidya Bharti chain of schools. The curriculum of these schools is notorious for providing a wide array of “facts” ranging from Qutub Minar being constructed by Samudragupta, to the Aryans being the beginning of humankind, to stem cell research and cars being invented in ancient India without any conclusive proofs or readings regarding the same.
Ms. Smriti Irani, India's HRD Minister (2014-2016). She was replaced by Mr. Javadekar, something many speculate was a result of her mis-handling of the education system of the country.
Why is the BJP doing this?
BJP as a political party has always followed the Hindu nationalist ideology whose guiding principle is Hindutva. Hindutva as a principle aims to transform India from a Hindu majority nation to a Hindu nation in exclusivity. For the country to take up a purely Hindutva identity, it is important to shed off all other identities associated with communities/groups other than the Hindu majority which can happen only through the alienation or ostracization of Christians, Muslims and other minorities. In a country as diverse as India, the only way one can seek to achieve that is through a wiping off of the present narratives and creating an entirely different collective memory through a systematic rewriting of history, which is exactly what the BJP has tried to do.
The Sangh Parivar has been a staunch advocate of the Aryan theory, but selectively. They believe the Aryans to be the foundation of Indian civilisation but discard the second part of the theory which claims that they came from Central Asia. They want themselves to be known as the indigenous race while othering all others as “foreigners”. Romila Thapar, an eminent historian has argued that to make this happen, they are implementing the new history at two levels,
“One is the level of projecting this kind of history through research institutions and the other is through the school curriculum. It has taken on the dimensions of a campaign with the full involvement of the agencies of the Human Resource Development Ministry.”
-In Defence of History, Romila Thapar
Prominent Historian and academic Ms. Romila Thapar.
Are such changes normal?
From the 1960s, every government in power has been accused of trying to modify history to a certain extent so as to make it politically beneficial for them. But since no party has explicitly advocated Hindutva ideology other than BJP, contrasting voices have always existed within them, which has prevented the governments from taking any extreme measures. A proof of this can be seen in terms of the credibility that the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) held because of minimal or no changes in its draft framework during all its policy changes before the BJP government came into power.
Major attempts to change the Indian history through saffronisation of education have come to light only in the two BJP terms. First, an attempt was made to revamp all NCERT books during the BJP led NDA government’s tenure in 2004. This was the time when books by Romila Thapar and Bipan Chandra by the names Medieval India and Modern India, respectively, were changed, only to be replaced again by the UPA government following severe criticism of the move. Second, as mentioned already there has been a consistent attempt to incorporate religious texts such as Vedas and Upanishads in the syllabi of classes 8th and above in the present tenure of BJP.
What the government is doing right now is an attempt at a complete “Indianisation” of education throughout the nation by criticising the inefficiency of previous governments in saving our culture and bringing back ancient ideas of morality and spirituality through texts and scriptures. This attempt is a follow up on a mission that couldn’t be completed during its previous tenure.
What is this Saffronisation leading to?
The saffronisation of education has resulted in significant harms not just to the minority communities and the diversity of varying cultures of the nation, but also to the representation and growth of the Indian history and the education system itself.
The minorities are being ostracized and alienated systematically, and the minds of our young generation are being constantly moulded to relate to and take pride in a history that never existed. This is leading to a curbing of religious, cultural, linguistic and all other forms of diversity by treating every identity different from the mainstream as foreign. This is also taking away avenues of interpretation of a theory through a lens different from the one used by the mainstream, pushing everything into a yes/no binary of insider/outsider, friend/enemy, national/anti-national and the like.
The historical renaissance that India moved towards in the 1970s has fallen flat and is struggling to survive due to the drastic change in patterns of Indian history. It started with a shifting the focus from dissemination of information about dynasties and their glorious deeds to a broad study of social forms. This form of recording of history, that took people of all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds under its wing, proved to be a breakthrough for India. But, with the whitewashing of facts and a creation of an almost alternate history based on lies and misinterpretation, the renaissance has come to a halt. As long as we don’t find answers to these questions and act upon them with efficacy, the future seems bleak.
About The Author
Hiba Ahmad is a student of Literature at Hansraj College, Delhi University, India. She is the President-elect of the Hansraj College Debating Society (Class of 2019) and has worked with NGOs such as CRY. She is also a recipient of an award by the Kalam Foundation.