Growing up in the nineties, as a student of a Central Board school in Chennai, I knew Gandhi as the Father of the Nation, the self-sacrificial drinker of goat milk and spinner of wheels.
Thanks to our textbooks, we subscribed to his euphemism for Untouchables – Harijans – unaware of the patronising nature of that designation. We weren’t taught about his racial prejudices, and naturally, we didn’t have a clue about his experiments with celibacy.
Most importantly, we didn’t read about his – or Nehru’s – role in the partition of India, and the war over Kashmir in 1947-48, in which they called for intervention from the United Nations when India was on the brink of victory.
It seems that, since Independence, Central and State governments have been manipulating history through schoolbooks, eliminating and embellishing particular incidents in the lives of their leaders, and the nation.
We were taught that the British were cruel, but they generously gave us the post and railways – without the East India Company, we would have been flying pigeons and riding horses! It made me wonder at the time whether people who thought of roadways as far back as the Indus Valley civilisation couldn’t have come up with railways, if left to themselves. Later, it made me wonder whether those textbooks – which were updated every few decades – weren’t India’s baby steps at building a rapport with developed countries.
Perhaps because Jawaharlal Nehru wanted to foster unity among religions, we only knew that Mughal invaders built monuments, not that they had destroyed temples. We learnt of the magnanimity of kings, not of their brutal conquests and claiming of women as war bounty, or of the Shaivite-Vaishnavite wars that saw them razing down each other’s temples. We didn’t read about the Chinese conquest of Tibet. Come on, Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai.
World history was remarkably rounded, though. We knew Hitler could have spent his life painting canvases instead of building gas chambers if his father hadn’t forced him into technical school. It’s rather bizarre that students who could resolve the artist-fascist conflict couldn’t be trusted to make their own judgments about the rulers of India in earlier times.
The issue is now in close focus in Tamil Nadu, where, for nearly two months, over twelve million students have been attending school without textbooks, while the ruling ADMK government and the ousted DMK regime fight over the syllabus.
While former Chief Minister Karunanidhi claims the new textbooks introduced under the Uniform School Education (USE) system enhance “social justice and quality education”, his successor and ADMK leader Jayalalithaa says they eulogise DMK leaders, including Karunanidhi and his daughter, the 2G scam accused Kanimozhi. The Madras High Court has ruled that the USE must be implemented this year, and the government has appealed in the Supreme Court.
But the glorification of politicians from the state in textbooks isn’t new either.
My exposure to the state syllabus came through my ‘Second Language’ – Tamil. Our lessons included flattering biographies of Dravida leaders, most of whom were known by epithets, such as ‘Periyar’ (Elder/ Great One), or, in Karunanidhi’s case, ‘Kalaignar’ (Artist), coined by sycophantic party workers.
Later, we would find out that these ‘leaders’ cemented the barriers between castes by building vote banks. The goons of some of these politicians chased down members of the so-called ‘upper castes’ to tear off the sacred threads that were perceived as caste-identifiers.
Should generations of Indian students spend their school years believing politicians to be heroes, especially given that most of the current crop’s claims to valour comprise two-hour fasts, complete with air coolers, lime juice and ambulances?
It’s hard to separate politics from anything in India, but education needs to be pulled out of the grasp of the politicians.