Thursday, June 26, 2008

Political lessons from Social Science

The Congress was heading the Kerala government until two years ago. If the State’s voters continue with their present survival strategy, it may have to take charge of the administration again after three years. The Indian Union Muslim League was in charge of the Education department until two years ago. It may be in charge of the department again three years from now. The madness these parties have been displaying in the name of the Seventh Standard textbook in Social Science shows how far removed we are from the concept of a modern democratic society.

Parties which are part of the scheme of power politics have many opportunities to voice their differences over the contents of a textbook. They certainly have the right to agitate if a solution cannot be found through constitutional means. When agitation becomes inevitable, responsible parties must conduct it directly. It is deplorable to drag youth and students organizations into the street instead. When the agitating youths resorted to violence the League leaders distanced themselves from them. No Congress leader had the courage to do the same.

The police forget the newly learnt people-friendly lessons when they saw the agitators. An MLA was among those who were injured. When a Left Democratic Front leader was asked about this in a discussion, he sought to put up a defence by drawing attention to injury suffered by an LDF MLA when the United Democratic Front was in power. That answer explains why there is continuous decline in political standards. When the UDF makes the LDF its role model and the LDF makes the UDF its, there can be no escape from going down. For, each side picks up from the other not its best traits but its worst.

Of the five lessons in the Seventh Standard textbook, the first three are the ones that have invited criticism. The opening lesson looks at the changes that have come about in the agricultural sector. The second deals with some problems relating to caste and religion. The third tells the story of the freedom struggle. Opposition parties and caste and religious organizations have raised objections to these lessons. They allege that the book has been prepared with a view to propagating Communist ideas. They see denial of religion and denunciation of God in it.

In a prefatory note, the director of the State Council of Education Research and Training says the book has been prepared to equip the new generation to intervene in issues that they face in life’s immediate surroundings. So we have to find out if it can achieve this aim. When the lessons which have attracted criticism are analyzed in this light, it would appear that the critics’ fears are misplaced.

Some documents have been included in the book to enable students to understand the changes that have taken place in the farm sector. It then asks them to find answers to some questions. When did the farmer obtain right to the land? What all changes did land ownership make in the lives of the farmer and the farm labourer? What changes occurred in Kerala society after the farmer got the land? These are the questions.

EMS Namboodiripad, who headed the first Communist government, had said that it only tried to give effect to the limited land reform proposals which the Congress had earlier approved in principle. Namboodiripad had to bow out twice without completing the task. Later the legislative process was completed with the support of the Congress and other parties which are now part of the UDF. Why is the Congress afraid of students learning all this? The table given in the book to help understand the changes that occurred as a result of land reform makes it clear that since the 1970s the area under paddy has continually declined. Shouldn’t students know this? This lesson will give them an opportunity to understand the problem of landlessness faced by farm labourers who were ignored at the time of land reform.

The book draws the students’ attention to caste discrimination by presenting a report which refers to caste supremacists killing of a Dalit youth because his sister had drawn water from a public well. Needless to say the incident occurred in some other State. The book also contains some documents which show that various kinds of discrimination were practised in Kerala, too, in the past. It then gives a short account of the social reform efforts in the State. A notable feature of the account is the absence of any reference to Ayyankali or Sree Narayana Guru.

One question raised in this lesson is whether divisions exist among followers of religions. Another is whether there is any ban or curb on mode of dressing. The book asks the students to make inquiries and prepare a note on the subject. Must this disturb religious leaders? Any suspicion of a hidden CPI (M) agenda here can be dispelled by recalling the figure of the bearded, turbaned former party general secretary.

Going by media reports, what has upset religious leaders most are the lessons relating to the son of an inter-religious couple and to Jawaharlal Nehru’s will. Where is denial of religion or denunciation of God in the parents’ decision to leave it to the son to decide his religion when he attains majority? While asking that religious rites be avoided at his funeral, Nehru wanted his ashes to be immersed in the Ganga at Allahabad and strewn over the Himalayas. This reveals his willingness to respect tradition even as he disliked religious rites. Disregarding Nehru’s wishes, Indira Gandhi had got a priest to conduct religious ceremonies. Anyone who knows all this will realize that Education Minister MA Baby’s enthusiasm for this lesson and religious leaders’ fears about it are equally misplaced.

The Congress leaders’ charge that the book gives more prominence to Communist agitations than to the freedom struggle under Gandhiji’s leadership is also not in accord with facts.

In short, the objections raised against the book will not survive an objective scrutiny. At the same time, it has to be said that the book lacks the quality expected of a school textbook. There is reason to doubt whether those who prepared it possessed the necessary qualifications.
Based on column ‘Nerkkazhcha’ appearing in Kerala Kaumudi dated June 26, 2008

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