Detoxifying texts – Frontline

The panel constituted by the Human Resource Development Ministry to examine the history textbooks introduced by the NDA government identifies the basic problems with the texts and suggests far-reaching alternatives.

in Bangalore

THE promise to “de-saffronise” and “de-toxify” education, particularly in respect of history taught at the school level, was part of the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) mandate in the last general elections. There was, therefore, some concern when the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) constituted a panel of reputed historians to examine the entire set of school textbooks introduced in 2002 by the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT) with instructions to perform a “quick review” of the books with the limited purpose of making the necessary changes for the books to be used for the coming school session. The crop of NCERT textbooks for history and social studies, published during the regime of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, had received serious criticism for their lack of quality and scholarship, and their strong communal bias, from several quarters including the Indian History Congress (IHC), the premier body of professional historians in the country. The HRD Ministry’s proposal to have just the necessary first aid done on the textbooks and keep them in circulation for another academic year caused a ripple of alarm in academic and historical circles.

S. Settar, former Chairman, ICHR, at the 24th Session of the South Indian History Congress in Kozhikode.-S. RAMESH KURUP

The report of the panel, recently submitted to the HRD Ministry, has put that concern at rest. The three-member panel of historians was headed by S. Settar, former Director, Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), with J.S Grewal and Barun De as members. The panel made it clear that the textbooks were of such substandard academic quality, and so crudely saffronised that they could not be recommended for use. “It would appear that the substandard scholarship of these books must have made a major contribution towards the defeat of the NDA programme,” said Settar. The interim report of the panel contained a listing of some of the errors and manifold deficiencies in the books.

The report broadly identifies three kinds of problems with the books: poor content and shoddy presentation, an overload of irrelevant information (like discussions on whether the people of the Indus Valley civilisation were Aryans), and extreme ideological bias. These are not the only flaws, according to the report. The textbooks have a focus on the history of the Indo-Gangetic plains to the near exclusion of the entire peninsula and the northeastern region. Out of the 89 pages on history in the social studies textbook for Std VI, not even nine full pages are spared for the history of peninsular India. Tamil Nadu and Karnataka together have preserved a corpus of over 50,000 inscriptions, a unique written record that is not even mentioned in the section on sources. “For students in around 1,058 CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) schools in the four southern States and two Union Territories the text has nothing to offer about the land in which they are born and brought up and in which a majority of them will spend the rest of their lives,” says Settar.

For the next academic year, the panel recommended that schools, in consultation with their history teachers, choose from textbooks that are available in the market, broadly conform to the syllabus and are free from the bias that the panel has drawn attention to. They have short-listed the history textbooks published by five or six publishers (including Oxford University Press, Tata McGraw Hill and Madhuban) as suggested reading material. Arguing that only three per cent of the roughly 47.5 million schoolgoing children use NCERT textbooks, the panel has recommended that the government make it clear that the NCERT textbooks are not mandatory for all students, teachers or schools “within its ambit”.

Nearly 40,000 copies of each of the prescribed NCERT textbooks have already been sold, and parents will face the financial burden of repurchasing non-subsidised, often expensive, privately published textbooks. This, the panel recognises, is an inconvenience, but one that must be borne. The alternative – that of retaining the old texts – is infinitely costlier in the long run in terms of the damage it can do to impressionable minds.

Schools have been urged to choose textbooks from outside the list of alternative readings suggested by the panel, provided the books conform to the syllabus. The content and standard of textbooks will vary amongst the schools and this will lead to varying levels and standards of information amongst students who will finally have to take a common examination. Therefore, the NCERT must set certain quality norms, particularly in a situation where the private sector will be allowed entry. The panel has, therefore, recommended that model question papers, both for teaching and examinations, be prepared through a series of workshops held by the NCERT for teachers and experts. The process of compiling question banks must be complete by mid-August 2004 so that regular teaching may commence without too much delay.

A question that will doubtless be raised by the community of teachers and historians is why the expert panel did not recommend the re-introduction of the NCERT textbooks that were withdrawn by the NDA government on the grounds that they were too Left-oriented. These are of an exceptionally high standard and were crafted by some of India’s leading historians like Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra and Satish Chandra. This might have been the easiest interim solution to the present textbook crisis. The interim report is silent on the previous NCERT history textbooks, and has not even included them in its list of suggested reading.

“The panel has neither barred nor recommended the previous NCERT history texts,” said Settar. There were several reasons for not recommending them, he said. First the history textbooks written for Classes 6 to 10 cannot be used, as history has been integrated into social studies in the new syllabus. Secondly, a number of textbooks have long been out of print. Thirdly, the books were written three decades ago and the panel could not recommend them without ensuring major revisions in them for which there was no time. In the case of the textbooks for Standard XI and XII, the panel did not suggest alternative reading material as there was none in the market. “For these classes the teachers may have to go back to the pre-NDA NCERT textbooks, and if they feel they are good enough we really have no objection to their using them,” he said.

FINALLY the panel has recommended that the preparation of textbooks be made a collective effort and be entrusted to a team of writers, with guidance from a panel of experts representing different areas of specialisation. This will rectify regional imbalances and other distortions in the treatment and focus of history. The preparation of such “sound secular and accurate textbooks written in elegant prose” with their translations into major Indian languages based on a new syllabus must be initiated by the end of 2004, so that they can be made available to students by early 2005. The historians on the panel feel that they have offered the best solution in the circumstances. The involvement of teachers has helped to democratise the whole process of textbook selection and preparation of question banks.

The HRD Ministry is yet to respond to the recommendations of the expert panel. A strong basis for a “sound, secular and accurate” approach to history is already contained in the textbooks that were in use prior to the NDA sponsored textbooks. They now need to be updated with the findings of new historical research to meet the knowledge requirements of a plural and diverse country.

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