Friday, August 22, 2008

Textbooks, Religion and Politics

An opportunistic opposition sets alight passions in Kerala, merely to embarrass the ruling Left coalition.

The class VII textbook controversy in Kerala has brought back memories of the Vimochana Samaram (liberation struggle) agitation that resulted in the dismissal in 1959 of the E M S Namboodiripad-led government by the Nehru-led Congress government in the centre. At that time it was a combination of religious groups along with the main opposition, the Congress, leading an agitation against an education bill that sought greater control for the government over the administration of educational institutions. Today it is the text of a chapter on religious tolerance and secularism in a social sciences school textbook that has brought similar groups together in opposition to the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government.

The textbook presents concepts in social science in a critical and reflective manner and introduces students to social issues through various analytical exercises – all this apart from learning from history. One could ask if the contents, which are supposed to be part of the first of a series on social science, are presented too early in school learning. But having posed that question there is nothing in the contents that justifies the irrational and inflammatory passions that have been aroused by the political opposition in the state.

The chapter (in Malayalam school books) talks about a schoolboy, Jeevan (“life”) whose parents belong to two separate religions. At the time of Jeevan’s admission to school, his parents have not declared any religion for him and they suggest that he will be free to decide his religious faith when he grows up. Following this lesson is a series of quotes from history from a variety of sources: Jawaharlal Nehru’s will, and from religious texts about tolerance, and exercises for the students. The reaction to this chapter by the various forces such as the opposition Congressled United Democratic Front, some church organisations, Muslim groups and caste bodies has been a vociferous demand to withdraw the book, and street protests, in one case leading to the murder of a school headmaster in Areekode.

The government’s constitution of a committee headed by senior academic K N Panikkar to review the textbook ultimately led to some changes in the controversial chapter (the lesson was renamed ‘Freedom of Faith’ instead of ‘Jeevan with No Religion’ as in the original), amendments to correct errors in the quotations, and the inclusion of sayings on tolerance by other social reformers such as Sree Narayana Guru. These changes were more than token alterations and they went even further than what the Congress Party and its motley allies had initially demanded. They could even be seen as a mild rebuke of the LDF government. Though the government has accepted the recommendations of the committee, they have been rejected by the opposition who have now chosen to raise questions about the membership of the committee and have raised other irrelevant issues. The opposition has constituted its own “committee” and has also produced an “alternate” textbook. What else does this response say other than that the issue is not about a so-called state interference in faith but an insistence on fanning communal and religious passions to embarrass the ruling coalition.

The presence of normative values such as tolerance and the freedom to choose one’s faith as expressed in the Jeevan chapter has been interpreted by the opposition as an attempt by the LDF government to instil “atheism” and “communism” in the students through textbooks. Such an interpretation is plainly indefensible. Even if one considers that Kerala’s society is a mosaic of various religions and people are now showing increasing religiosity, the opposition to the textbook can be only seen as regressive, revealing a communal fear of religious tolerance.

The agitations on Jeevan have brought to the surface the traditional discomfort among religious and communal institutions in the state with the Left. Be it the issue of education reforms involving controls over self-financing institutions or efforts by the government to reform certain practices such as entry of women into certain temples, all these have been opposed by communal and religious groups. The dependence of the Congress Party and its allies on communal-caste organisations for support is now there for all to see. Yet, it is also a fact that after more than half a century the Left in Kerala has not yet learnt how to relate to the subterranean passions on religion and caste.

The question one can ask is how is it that a state like Kerala, which boasts of high social development indicators, can still arouse so much anger about the inculcation of values such as inter- religious marriage and freedom of expression of religion. Surely, this must be attributed to the lack of sufficient political work to defeat the obscurantist revivalism led by organised religious and caste groups in the state. Even the left organisations in the state have at times tempered their radical political discourse, so as to not to antagonise the entrenched religious outfits because of electoral considerations.

The relative defiance of the left led government in the textbook issue against the concerted efforts of a regressive opposition should be a good precedent for those who want to continue the social renaissance of Kerala, but more political work is required to halt the increasing influence of communal organisations in the state.

Editorial written for Economic and Political Weekly

1 comment:

Ranjith said...

I too read this particular chapter about ‘Jeevan with No Religion’ and I find nothing much wrong with the chapter. The chapter discourages kids from mentioning their religion; So far so good.

Now consider the following: In kerala, the left government announced about 5000 scholarships for Muslim students a couple of weeks ago(only for muslim students, based on religion, and nothing else). I find this is kind of a double standard.
A poor Hindu/Christian kid could wonder: why am I not getting any scholarship from the shcool, while my friend is getting it,just because he/she is a muslim! You must note that, in kerala, KSSP study has shown that, in fact, Hindus are more economically backward than Muslims.
A poor "Jeevan with No Religion" will not get any scholarship either!

Now let us leave religion and come to "politics". In kerala, even in primary schools, kids are often forced to join SFI. I was asked to buy SFI membership when I was in the fifth standard. Typically, all CPM guys tell their kids to join SFI -- just like a religion.

Why should we force/encourage a kid to join SFI at this young age(in primary school)? Why can't we wait till kids grow up so that they can choose an organization of their choice when they are adults ?

In Kerala, as far as i know, everybody except CPM wants to get rid of student organzations affiliated political parties from schools -- but CPM wants kids to join SFI at the earliest !