Volume 5: Number 1, Feb 21 2002
Reading the NCERT Framework
by Balmurli Natrajan, Rahul De' and Biju Mathew
I am proud to be Dr. Joshi's student -Professor J. S. Rajput (Director NCERT)
The Dr. Joshi that the director of NCERT (National Council of Education Research and Training) is proud of, is of course none other than Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, the Human Resources Development minister in the Vajpayee cabinet, and the center pin of the hawk-triad of Advani, Joshi and Singhal in any RSS offensive. Large segments of the Indian media reported the appointment of Prof. Rajput to the position of Director of NCERT as Mr. Joshi putting 'his man' in place for a long run offensive in the domain of education policy in India. Within the logic of the RSS, education is a central aspect of their organizing work and one of the ministries that the RSS would insist on full control over in any BJP-based government. Joshi of course is hard at work. Not only is the appointment of Rajput a clear signal, but other new Parivarite entrants into NCERT, ICHR (Indian Council of Historical Research) and ICSSR (Indian Council of Social Science Research) all point to the effort to take over the educational policy infrastructure. Where that is not possible, new structures are being created and older ones being undermined. The creation of a special panel under the HRD ministry to introduce 'moral education textbooks' from classes I to IX includes in its ranks an ex-director of NCERT with saffron underwear Dr. P L. Malhotra (brother of Jagmohan, minister in the Vajpayee cabinet) and S. V. Giri, the Vice-Chancellor of the Satya Sai Baba Institute for Higher Learning. In as much as education is central to the processes of subject production, its infrastructure is what the Parivar is making a big grab for-an investment in the future.
Some years ago an anti-communal activist from Bombay, Ram Puniyani coined the term 'chronic fascism' to describe the nature of fascism as it unfolds in India. It is an interesting term-one that conveys some of the complexity of how the Hindutva project has been unfolding in India. European fascism rose dramatically, in the context of an intensification of capitalism and a growing socialist sentiment and in spaces where the logic of nation-states was well established. In India, the internal contradictions of the society are itself so multifarious that fascism rises not dramatically but through a series of muddling-through steps-a little at a time, unable to sweep through the nation at one shot but capturing it outpost by outpost. In the process, the incidence of fascism-its crystallization in action-occurs intermittently in different sectors of society. The destruction of Babri Masjid, the Surat rapes, the Idgah controversy, the threats against artists and intellectuals, each is a moment when this chronic fascism makes its appearance. Even in a specific domain like education the appointments of the Rajputs or Malhotras, the takeover of bureaucracies or the undermining of others happens seemingly without focus. However, when these bureaucracies begin to exercise state power they also begin, willy-nilly, to clarify their more systematic project, document their hopes and aspirations, their contradictions and their compromises. The NCERT's new "National Curriculum Framework for School Education" (henceforth referred to as the 'Framework') is one such act of state power where the precise contours of the Hindutva project of subject-production of the Hindu citizen becomes visible. It is this task of analyzing the specificity of the Parivar's idea of a Hindu India and its citizens that is the central concern of this article. (The complete text of the Framework is available online at http://www.nic.in/vseducation/ncert/frame.htm.)
Before we get into the content of the Framework document, a few comments on its form are due. The document is fragmented and uneven. For a national-level policy document, discontinuities in the text are inexplicable. The only possibility is that the committee had to insert language and text into a completed report at the behest of some powerful entity in the State apparatus. We base our speculation on the sudden shifts in the language, tone, and style evident in various sections within the chapters of the document. Career academics and bureaucrats do not like to present an inconsistent and incoherent document as their work. The Framework's disconnected segments can thus only be explained as the product of a process whereby pre-written and unnegotiated segments were inserted into the main document. Recent reports in the media do indicate that such actions are indeed part of the strategy. An unsigned letter on NIE (National Institute of Education) letterhead written in August 2000 pointed to the harassment of 'progressive' members of the NCERT faculty by Professor Rajput. It is this choppy and coerced aspect of the Framework document that allows for a reading of it, where the inserts make visible the ideological thrusts of the Hindutva lobby which can then be traced through the document.
In our view, the prescriptions for education in the Framework emanate from a particular understanding of caste, an endorsement of it, and an implication that the future of India must resemble the past in order to be sufficiently 'indigenized.' Let us consider the attempts to imbue the chapters of the document with saffron. Two clearly marked but interrelated strands of thought run through the document. The first of these invents a past for India that justifies the second-a call for a different future. In this view until the British turned up and spoilt things, India "had an advanced system of education and the world's first universities," was the "most ennobling experiment in spiritual coexistence," and had a "great tradition of diversity, tolerance and humanism," amongst other grand things. Nowhere was there a systematic exclusion of the lower, working, castes-the collectors of human feces, the leather tanners, and the field-workers-from education and participation in the processes of power. Nowhere was there bonded labor or persecution of the untouchable castes. And, of course, never was there oppression of women and their subordination to men via Manu's edicts. In fact, the Framework insists that education in traditional India was free from caste discrimination!
In this caste-free world an idealized village emerges. The village economy emphasized "self-sufficiency and contentment," was based on the "distribution of resources rather than income" and "had very little division of labor or specialization of work." Village life was a "source of fulfillment-material, sensuous and spiritual" and successive generations "followed the occupation as well as the goal sets of the family or the caste at large." Village schools were an "extensive education system, free from caste and religious discrimination."
The Framework's portrayal of traditional (and unchanging) India as a tradition of humanism can only be derived from a Brahminical interpretation of the caste system and a perverse and cynical reading of the terms 'tolerance' and 'humanism.' The Framework ignores the voluminous documentation of the varieties of caste-based oppressions on lower castes as well as gender-based oppressions on all women regardless of caste. Interestingly, it would be quite difficult for our committee to find many Dalits in today's India who would call the caste system tolerant and humane! The fact that the caste system is indeed the referent of the committee's praise of the past is evident if we decode their own vague claim of the "heterogeneity of the social structures." Thus the authors speak of 'traditional India' as a society in which "India's various groups form interconnecting loops, competing and cooperating while forming complex webs of interaction."
What is this vague and circuitous language concealing? What is it that it wishes to speak of but cannot in plain terms? Another extract of a rather outrageous claim needs to be reproduced as it appears in the Framework:
"Such a social design recognized the continuity of psycho-social relatedness, such as nesting of financial roles, as occupation and education in the social structure. A religio-philosophic ethos, centered around self-realization as the main purpose, allowed one to surrender oneself without any feelings of guilt or fear of punishment" (chap.1, p.2).
What could psycho-social relatedness mean in a system where most women and lower castes and all outcastes were denied access to education? To speak of the 'psycho-social relatedness' in such a system can only mean the endorsement of the very traditional argument advanced by apologists of the caste system that everyone does not indeed deserve education. This from the authors of a document that seeks universalization of education! Moreover, the amazing statement on "the need to surrender to this system without any feelings of guilt and without fear of punishment" is a very clear statement of the Brahminical view of the caste system in which the oppressors surrender without feeling guilt (because their superior position is divinely ordained), and the lower castes, women and all other oppressed classes and castes surrender without fear of punishment (because they indeed accept their position as ordained and expect and grow to enjoy their inferior positions). What then is being mourned here as having been destroyed by British colonialism is actually the caste system!
The tolerant past without contradictions and oppressions is the mooring for a system of values that produced such an idyllic world. These values that made possible a world of order and perfection were of course replaced by the 'Western/Modern' under British colonialism. Thus for India to regain its past glory is to regain that system of values that made the glorious past- "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam" and "self-esteem" (read: 'Hindu Education') that would "help the nation fight against all kinds of fanaticism, ill will, violence, fatalism, dishonesty, avarice, corruption, exploitation and drug abuse." The disconnect here is the lack of explanation as to how Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam and nationalist pride can counter the admitted problems-be it avarice or corruption, dishonesty or exploitation. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is the foundational concept for the Brahminical conception of self that connects patriarchy with paternalism. Society read through the metaphor of a family posits a certain basis for its organization-hierarchy and duties-where the social is organized in an hierarchy and one fits into the hierarchy based on duties assigned to one's position in the family. It is a central principle in an organization of society where caste and gender roles are at the core. In an oppositional role to modern liberalism its primary antagonisms are with democracy (vs. hierarchy) and with rights (vs. duties). Thus, instead of eliminating the problems listed-violence and avarice, corruption and exploitation-one could at least argue that the touted core of value education could add systematically to the destruction of the fragments of hard-won democracy that we currently have. Further, the circumscription of the notion of value is critical to understand-'value' in this scheme is to be obtained from religion, not just "religious education but education about religions, their basics, the value inherent therein and also a comparative study of the philosophy of all religions." This education has to be imparted at the very earliest stages of the school curriculum, and has to be carried out on a daily and regular basis. Children have to be taught to "know 'good', love 'good' and do 'good'." The image of the 'westernization' of India (especially the youth) plays heavily in this segment.
"The idea that the Indian society does not approve of promiscuity and that self-control or 'Samyam' is one of the highly valued qualities ought to be underlined. This will generate among the youth healthy attitudes toward sex and respect for members of the opposite sex."
Value Education then will be measured by its impact on the emotional and spiritual quotients of students. How these quotients are to be measured is of course, not specified and the committee simply omits dealing with it. The insistence on Value Education, finally, centralizes one of the core concerns of the Hindutva brigade, the desire for 'indigenization of the curriculum' and to counter or set right its Western bias. This concern drives the need to impart education about religions, the need to address secularism based on Hindu religious discourses, the desire to teach Vedic mathematics (and possibly astrology) as a legitimate discipline in higher education-all critical to promoting a narrow Hindu identity. But locked into the tensions between Western morality and values, self-control and paternalism is a desire to police gender-to hold in place a world where the 'natural' abilities of men as opposed to women are encouraged. If India's past is to be imagined without contradictions in order to regulate the contemporary Dalit/lower caste struggles, then the other side of the coin is control over women.
And yet there is a third trajectory that permeates the Framework document. Hindu fascism and its principles of organization-a glorious past and Value Education-has no choice in the contemporary moment but to respond to and accommodate a force that it has no control over: global capitalism. The world of high technology, science and finance needs to be integrated somehow. At first, it seems that these aims are at odds with each other. How can Brahmincal subjecthood reconcile with the neoliberal capitalism that threatens to tear down everything that comes in its way. The document attempts this reconciliation. Education is to play "a dual role of being conservative and dynamic" in order to bring about a "fine synthesis between change-oriented technologies and the country's continuity of cultural tradition." In a more empirical tone it asserts that education's task is to help students "fight the challenges of drug addiction, violence, teenage pregnancy, AIDS" and also to "make students aware of issues such as consumer rights, questioning the quality of goods and services available to them, writing to the manufacturers… about the quality of goods and services that they expect". Elsewhere in the document the earlier reflection of the directive principles of the constitution- "universal education" -is modified slightly to now read "universal primary education" in an obvious move to accommodate the World Bank's DPEP program. The most telling comment is where the document suggests that education should "be the catalyst for the desire to live together in their own society on the one hand, and the global village on the other."
What we must understand here is that the seeming contradiction is not necessarily irreconcilable. The solution being posited is the core of fascism: deal with the alienation of modern capitalist life through a conservative turn to tradition. It is quite appropriate to point to the numerous studies of European fascism that point to it as a potential completion/ reconciliation of the hitherto incomplete project of modernity. Further, when we bring this last thesis to the ground of a political and economic reality wherein only a small segment of elite Indians will ever have the capacity to participate fully in the global capitalist economy, then Hindutva becomes the ideal mode of structuring a society where a small elite enjoy the benefits of global capitalism while the others play their own assigned menial roles in the new world of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. It is useful here to reproduce what at least one critic of this Framework has to say in this regard. Speculating about the reasons behind the huge stress on 'traditional values' in the Framework, Delhi University School of Education Dean Anil Sadgopal, threw up his hands at such commentary. "Our government knows better than you and I that there will be no jobs," Dr. Sadgopal says. "And so when you hear about education, we are talking about the top 15 percent. That is the emerging India. In the emerging India, you've got info-tech for 15 percent, and Hindutva values for the rest. Listen to what the elders say: Be obedient, sacrifice, be compliant."
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