12/16/2014, 00.00
INDIA
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Catholic activist against handing education over to Hindu fundamentalists

by Santosh Digal
AsiaNews interviews John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council who looks at the influence of radical Hindu Sangh Parivar groups on the educational policy of India's new Union government. "To demonize western and Islamic contribution to the evolution of the India we know today, is an exercise in futility, and very fraught with dangers."

New Delhi (AsiaNews) - Rewriting Indian history is a danger when the government tries to "introduce ideologies and positions contrary to religious minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians, labeled as foreign aggressors in textbooks and teaching methods used in some government schools. We risk producing a whole generation of young people who are taught to hate Muslims and Christians, not to mention the absolutely obscurantist views on women," said Dr John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council and former president of the All India Catholic Union.

Dr Dayal spoke to AsiaNews about Hindu ultranationalist groups who hope to reform the education system of India, now that Narendra Modi is the federal prime minister, in order to "saffronise" it (in Hindu tradition, saffron's orange colour is the same worn by Hindu ascetics).

Q: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) appears to be consolidating its influence on education in India.

John Dayal: The right wing, and often militant and violent Hindu hyper nationalistic group collectively called the Sangh Parivar had a major role in polarizing the country during the general elections earlier this year. They have quite vociferously claimed credit for the victory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and are now claiming the mandate was as much for Mr. Modi's electoral plant of "development" as for their slogan of making India a Hindu nation. They quite correctly point out that the BJP was created by leaders of the RSS as its political and electoral wing. Many of their senior cadres are now not only elected members of parliament, but are in Mr. Modi's council of ministers.

This gives them an extraordinary clout, not just in policymaking but also in action on the ground where they are assured of police and administrative impunity.

Many of our states, or provinces, have been ruled by a BJP government for two or three decades. That has also enormously helped the RSS to grow, especially in Central India and in Delhi.

Q: The Human Resource Development Ministry stated that the government will bring a new 'holistic' approach to education policy next year, replacing the existing 48-year-old policy framework (based on the 1968 Kothari Commission). What is the need for such policy now?

JD: The Sangh now runs about 57,000 educational institutions, over 54,300 of them in villages in Tribal and Dalit areas. The students number over 1.6 million. Their target is to have a Sangh school, called Ekal Vidyalayas, or one-teacher school, in every major village. India has a total of about 600,000 villages, two thirds of these with sizable populations. These schools outnumber those run by Christians or Muslims, or even the corporate sector. The Union and State governments are still the major force in the education.

The danger lies in the government trying to introduce the Sangh's ideology and position against religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, labelled as foreign aggressors, in the pedagogy and textbooks used in government-run school. We risk producing an entire generation of young people who are being taught to hate Muslims and Christians, apart from absolutely obscurantist views on women.

The Union Minister for Human Resource Development, the former TV actor, Mrs. Smriti Boman Irani, is strongly supported by the RSS top leadership. In the six months she has been in office, she has made it very clear that she would like to see the Indian education sector promote "Indian cultural and social values" as propagated by the RSS, with students imbibing a strong background in the Hindu scriptures. Other ministers have supported this, and the Minister for External Affairs, Mrs. Shushma Swaraj, in fact has called for the Hindu religious test, the Gita, to be declared the "National book" of the country.

Mrs. Irani has packed various national groups, including the Indian Council for Historical Research, with people with a strong Hindu nationalist worldview.

We have to wait and see the outlines the National Education policy document takes, but from early signals, I fear there will be a demolition of the non-parochial roots of the Indian system, especially at the junior school level where young minds are vulnerable.

Q: RSS-affiliated groups want to reintroduce a "nationalist discourse" into the education. Bharatiya Shikshan Mandal, an RSS-affiliated education body, has prepared an education policy that wants to indianise the current education system, with early vocational training to replace the existing 48-year-old education policy based on 10+2+3 pattern. The new policy, as reported in the media, is meant to change the existing pattern, but also incorporate some key changes in the way school education has been imparted so far. According to it, there would be compulsory learning until grade 8 in the mother tongue, while taking up a classical language like Sanskrit, Arabic, Greek, Latin or Hebrew, for next year four years. What is your critical appraisal of this process.

JD: What they call a nationalistic discourse is religious nationalism in which religious, cultural and ethnic minorities have no place.

It does not really matter if there is a new stress on vocational studies, though experts can best define at which age level this should be introduced, and which would be the vocations that will find favour. A very large number of Muslims are engaged in the weaving, metal and carpet sector. Will these crafts be taught in some schools? That is a big question.

The controversy of having German as a subject with Sanskrit in special schools run by the Union Government is a case in point. I do not see it as a focus on learning India's classic languages, like Pali and Prakrit. It is in defining Indian cultural heritage based singularly on one religion, leaving out even Jainism and Buddhism whose founders - born into ruling families in ancient India, rebelled against the stranglehold of Vedic theology - sought reforms in the system, and eventually founded two religions, each of which is about 2,500 years old.

Sanskrit is an important ancient classic language, on par with Hebrew, Greek and Latin, and for that matter, Chinese. Learning it is a good thing. The focus is on its religious connotations.

In addition, there seems to be a yearning for religious mythology, which among other things, speaks of travel by air, medicinal plants and humans with heads of various animals grafted by ancient plastic surgeons, much as they exist in Egyptian and Greek lore but without referring to any ancient surgeons, but this time as facts with a historical certitude. This, many scholars and scientists have cautioned, can leave to a stunting of a scientific temper, and an unhealthy nationalism that will put Indian students at a disadvantage in the globally highly competitive fields of science, technology and research.

Q: Mandatory teaching of vocational subjects and introducing flexibility in education while doing away with entrance exams to engineering and medical colleges are some of the key factors of policy debated and prepared by the Sangh body. What is your take on this?

JD: The concept of vocational teaching is quite old in the Indian education system. Those who did not want to study beyond high school had the option of going into Indian Training Institutes to earn diplomas in fields like mechanical engineering, electrician and plumber, and many other trades. But this cannot take the place of formal education for the poor and marginalized sections on the population.

Doing away with examinations to screen students for admission to professional colleges is fraught with dangers. For want of a listing of meritorious students, the poor but brilliant students are disadvantaged as compared with those who have money or are children of parents in positions of power. It can also be misused for preferential admission by the comparative advanced sections among the Dalits and Other backward Communities as compared to poorer students who may be academically better accomplished.

There is no rationale for these changes other than fulfilling the political agenda of the party now in power. The RSS theology is an integral part of the BJP's make-up, and the professed thinking and policy of almost all its senior leadership.

Q: BMS is going to hold an international conference on "Education Policy for Strong Nation" on 17-18 January at University of Rajasthan, Jaipur, to debate its new policy unveiled and engage with the government when it starts meeting with stakeholders. Your comments, please.

JD: any organization is free to hold local, regional, national or international conferences for an exchange of ideas with experts and other stakeholders. The question is whether the government will consult all stakeholders, including civil society, on this critical issue. If they do not, civil society will protest, and may take legal recourse to stop this blatant political agenda to saffronise education.

Q: The saffronisation of education spearheaded by the RSS is seen by many as a threat to Indian secularism; the coercion of the church in Bastar is very problematic for many reasons. Could the Church revisit its mandate on education? What approach should it undertake?

JD: Saffronisation is a political reality and the church is incapable of challenging it and getting it stopped without the support of civil society and without the involvement of all religious minorities. This is not an issue that can be left to the Bishops alone. As it is, they are stressed because of the real threat to their licenses under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) for assistance from European and American groups, including Missio and Miserio. FCRA permits have to be renewed in the spring of 2015. The government is in reality using this as a threat to coerce the Church and non-governmental organisations into silence. Challenging the government can have consequences.

But there really is a need for the Church to revisit as well its mission in education with respect to reaching out to the poor.

Q: Arabic or German may be useful for other purposes, but can they be really equated with Sanskrit in this modern age. It is argued that teaching Sanskrit is to decolonize the Indian mind.

JD: German is a modern and internationally very useful language. Arabic is the language of any commercial interaction with the Mid-east and North Africa, including the oil producing nations. Learning them can be of great help to competitive young Indians seeking opportunities abroad. Sanskrit is a classical language, as much as Latin is in the West. Knowing Sanskrit is useful in reading and understanding Vedic texts in the original, and will be useful for academics researching ancient India. It will not help students who want to become doctors, or business managers, for instance. Comparing languages is not a useful exercise, anyway.

Decolonisation of the mind is a never-ending process. India was a free country in 1947. The Freedom struggle was led by Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and many others who were educated in the United Kingdom and in the United States of America, as Dr B R Ambedkar was. Many of their colleagues were trained in Indian universities in colonial times. Despite this western, European influence, they won a peaceful war of Independence. This is something that Indians living in a globalized world need to understand and accept. Modernity has to be rooted in the soil of India, but must evolve in a manner that eschews the evils of the past. Caste is one such evil, which seems to have the concurrence of Holy texts.

Decolonisation has to be seen as a much larger process - liberation from the shackles of both external and internal bondage. We need to remember that in the distant past, education was the preserve of a few upper castes, and the learning of Sanskrit was the hugely guarded preserve and privilege of only one caste, with the lower castes, including the Dalits, subjected to brutal punishment if they dared learn or even speak it. Rewriting Indian history to buttress these norms and demonize western and Islamic contribution to the evolution of the India we know today, is an exercise in futility, and very fraught with dangers.

Q: Education helps individuals become good human beings, contributing thereby to nation-building. Do you think the new proposed education policy fulfil this?

JD: The government must evolve a modern education policy that builds on the foundations of universal education laid down by Macaulay, and even under Muslim rule when learning of Arabic, and then Urdu in madrasas was mandatory for all of their faithful, poor or rich. At least everyone could recite from the Holy Quran. Kabir and the Sufis also brought the message of universal brotherhood and piety to rich and poor, low caste and high caste. Education policies must guarantee education for everyone from the age of five until as far as the student can go by his natural and God-given talent.

Education must also help nurture the languages, culture and traditions, the heritage and the group memory of those religious, linguistic and religious traditions, which do not trace any link to Sanskrit and Vedic roots.

Therefore, this must involve necessarily consultations with all stakeholders, including religious, ethnic and linguistic minorities, women's groups, labour and peasantry groups, as well as educationists, the legal fraternity, specialized professionals, and broader civil society.

An education policy drafted by any other means, or under the influence of one political group, and which does not inculcate a scientific temper and a culture of enquiry and universal brotherhood, will not only be unacceptable to most of us, but will be so deeply flawed as to be utterly useless.

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