The removal of Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi from Delhi University’s BA (Honours) semester 5 English syllabus has kicked up a fresh row over education and curriculum in India.
In a freewheeling conversation with Vikas Pathak, Chandra Bhushan Sharma, who was Chairman of the National Institute of Open Schooling from 2015 to 2020, defends the University’s decision.
The University of Delhi’s oversight committee has deleted Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi from the curriculum. Do you think this is justified?
We first need to understand the purpose of a curriculum. In school curriculum, for instance, the purpose is to form character of children to be nationalists. Compare the Indian curriculum with the British curriculum. British history books teach that Britain pulled out of India after World War II because the economy had fallen and it could no longer support colonies. They say Britain wanted to bring good culture and civilisation to various parts of the world but because of the World War, the economy was in a bad shape and it had to pull out. This is entirely untrue but what is the reason behind teaching this? Now come to India. The Hindu – or Indian, as Hindu is a way of life – view has been that the world is one. Now, let us come to higher education, as you asked about Mahasweta Devi. What should we prescribe in a curriculum? Do we prescribe things that say we are such a bad country, we are such a bad people, we are oppressors? Do we teach this? There might be aberrations in society and writers react to it. But you don’t prescribe that in the curriculum with the seal of the government or the university on it. When we prescribe a text, we say this is our stand. So, removing Mahasweta Devi’s story is perfectly justified. It should not have been on the curriculum. It is a story about an aberration. Indian society is not primarily oppressive. If you prescribe such a story in the curriculum, it means you have some malice in mind.
You talk about malicious intent. Are you trying to blame some group or ideology in particular? We are an independent country. Then how do you explain your claim that the inclusion was because of malice?
The curriculum is decided by the board of studies of a department or a university. Education is at one level a political act. How you respond to situations is dependent on what you have been taught. After independence, a certain ideology worked on it and took over universities and institutions….
Which ideology are you talking about?
I am talking about the left ideology. The Congress was in government and it had no interest in universities. But the left had interest. So, the left deliberately pushed its people in the academia and manipulated the curriculum. How did textbook writing with such a slant start? A bunch of professors from JNU wrote to the ministry that books should be written by experts. They were all from left. The government gave them the charge to write textbooks. I don’t know for what reason this ideology believes that we are all segregated; that we are not one community. We are not Indians. We are divided. We started teaching all this to children right from school. Read the textbooks of Bengal even today. See what they are teaching. How can you write in a textbook that the central government, which is of the BJP, is oppressive? When this government came in 2014, people demanded that textbooks be reviewed. People have fought cases up to the Supreme Court. And in up to more than 100 cases, the court has said that this be changed. We have not been oppressive. The concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – the world is one family – has been given by us.
But it is widely held that these left scholars are globally renowned. If their professional competence in a peer-reviewed sense is accepted, was it wrong on the part of any Congress government to make them write textbooks?
I am reminded of an article by my professor HS Gill, who wrote about the myth of the great professor and the brilliant student. You make somebody a member of the Central Advisory Board of Education and that person becomes a celebrity. Or you confer the Padma Shri on someone. Today people living in villages are getting the Padma Shri. It wasn’t so in the past. Please don’t tell me that left professors were big people. They were made big through official appointments.
But NCERT textbooks had since the 1970s on their panels professors of top universities like JNU and DU. These universities still rank high in the NIRF rankings of this government. Was it wrong to make them write textbooks?
The process through which they got into those positions should be examined. They were made great through official appointments. Now let me ask you a question. How is it that those who were teaching in universities decided the curriculum for schools despite the fact that they had never taught in a school? Let me answer this myself. Because they did not have people of their ideology in the school sector, they pushed people of their worldview from the higher education sector to decide on school curriculum. In textbooks they brought examples that were just social aberrations as the norm. In the US, a white policeman strangulated a black American. This was an aberration. Will the US use this example to tell its children that the country is racist? The left in India inserted all kinds of aberrations in the curriculum as examples to show it as the essential nature of Indian society. The purpose of school curriculum is to help create citizens and human beings who can think for humanity. But you have been teaching that this community is bad and society is bad. You are not creating global citizens by doing this. It is, thus, important to look at the curriculum and prune out those things that are not proper representations of the Indian society. They have made education a political act. We had a national curriculum framework in 2000. The life of a curriculum is normally 10 years. But as soon as the government changed in 2004, they decided to bring a new curriculum framework. Why? Is a change in government a license for agenda setting?
You have been a member of the educational establishment under the present regime. So, you have to confront the central question as to why BJP governments more often face the heat around curriculum changes.
The Congress had little interest in the academia. The left has great stakes in the academia. What will be the future society of India will be decided by the academia and educational campuses? This only a political party with a sound ideology will understand. For decades under Congress governments, the left, which had interest in education, filled the academia. Whenever there is a non-Congress government, they start digging out aberrations in the curriculum. Every time the BJP or its allies come to power, they want to bring changes in the curriculum to create citizens who are proud of being Indians. I don’t know why but when Congress governments come to power with the left dominating the academia, they want to teach children to be critical of their own society. Education ministers under BJP governments have been proud of their Indian ancestry and, so, changes in curriculum become important for them. There is a serious problem. Some people want to propagate through the curriculum that this country has been oppressive. Please bring the truth in textbooks. There are aberrations, like the one in Mahasweta Devi’s story. If you or I see an accident on the road and see the person not being attended to by anyone, if we are poets or storytellers, we may express our pain through poetry and say what kind of country and society are we. But this does not mean that this poem should be taught to students as part of the educational curriculum. Why not teach that we are a great nation that gave the Vedas thousands of years back? The purpose of a curriculum is not just of giving jobs but to create good and proud citizens.
However, I maintain that the government should not make the curriculum, whichever party may be in power. There should be an independent school education commission to put in place the curriculum for schools. It should be independent of the government. Hand it over to academicians, to those who care for children. Let it be a nationalist curriculum. Do not politicize it.