Sunday, June 7, 2015

Ramachandra Guha - What does it mean to Indianise education?

NB: A timely comment by Ramachandra Guha, and it is not surprising that the RSS should be attacking him. Since the RSS behaves as if it is the sole arbiter of what is or is not 'genuine' Indian culture and thought, it is time to make this observation. What is outstanding in their state of mind is the habit of deceit - chhal-kapat, in Hindi. It is often difficult to discern whether they actually believe in what they say; rather, they have perfected the art of speaking in different voices at the same time. This is why the several RSS 'front organisations' can say whatever is convenient on workers rights, women's issues, Gandhi's assassination, economic policy, etc. Unravelling the tangled web of Sanghi deceit would require vast research, but one means of approaching this issue would be to ask for A K Ramanujan's Three Hundred Ramayanas  to be made compulsory reading for the RSS 'karyakartas'. This scholarly essay is a celebration of Indian culture, and should therefore please the sanchaalaks, in addition, Ramanujan was not a leftist and Marxist. Would the senior RSS intellectuals care to participate in a public debate about their reasons for demanding that this text be removed from the DU syllabus? Such a debate, if it ever happens, will demonstrate that the RSS has confused wisdom with cunning. They would do well to remember Draupadi's utterance in the Rajsabha during the vastra-haran: Truth which is pierced by deceit, is not truth- DS

A writer is known by the enemies he makes. I was therefore interested to hear from a friend in Delhi that I had been attacked in an editorial in Organiser, the English mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. I went online and found the editorial. This argued that ‘the likes of Ramachandra Guhas and Romila Thapars who talked about “change” but benefited from the status quo are the people who coined and abused the term “saffronisation”. Without getting into their malicious intentions, one needs to take an objective stand on connecting education to Indian realities’.

I was mystified to read this. For, I played no part in coining the term ‘saffronisation’. In fact, I have been careful not to describe the ideology of the Sangh Parivar as ‘saffron’. Here I follow the late UR Anantha Murthy, who pointed out that saffron was a beautiful colour, associated with purity and renunciation throughout Indian history. Like Anantha Murthy, I am loath to cede the colour and all that it signifies to the RSS. After charging Professor Thapar and myself with ‘malicious intentions’, the editorial in The Organiser argued that ‘Indianising education based on our socio-cultural roots is the only way to transform India’s population into a human development hub’.

What does it mean to ‘Indianise’ education? As Shivarama Karanth once pointed out, it is impossible to talk of ‘Indian culture as if it is a monolithic object’. ‘Indian culture today,’ he continued, ‘is so varied as to be called “cultures”. The roots of this culture go back to ancient times: and it has developed through contact with many races and peoples. Hence, among its many ingredients, it is impossible to say surely what is native and what is alien, what is borrowed out of love and what has been imposed by force. If we view Indian culture thus, we realise that there is no place for chauvinism.’

In the RSS view of the world, all that is Western is to be suspected. The Organiser editorial characteristically attacks ‘Anglo-Saxon’ values and education methods as ‘not in tune with our culture’. Let me posit, to this xenophobia, the warnings of an Indian writer even greater than Karanth. In an essay published in 1908, Rabindranath Tagore observed: ‘If India had been deprived of touch with the West, she would have lacked an element essential for her attainment of perfection. Europe now has her lamp ablaze. We must light our torches at its wick and make a fresh start on the highway of time. That our forefathers, three thousand years ago, had finished extracting all that was of value from the universe, is not a worthy thought. We are not so unfortunate, nor the universe, so poor.”

A hundred years on, the world is even more inter-connected than in Tagore’s day. India still needs a robust interaction with the West, but also with China and Japan, Africa and Latin America. In these mutual exchanges we may get something of value from them, and they something from us. We must keep our windows open, letting in winds from across the world, without, as Gandhi once said (provoked in part by Tagore) being blown away by any.

While school and college students in India must be encouraged to look outwards, they must also be instructed to look within. Here, in fact, I am on the same page as The Organiser, except that I have a more disaggregated understanding of our ‘socio-cultural roots’. In my view, a constructive way to ‘Indianise education’ is to more strongly place the school curriculum in its local or regional context. Students must go outside the classroom into the field to study the flora and fauna of their district (or state), its forests and water bodies, its agricultural and craft practices. They must also document the district’s built heritage, listing old temples, mosques, churches, gurudwaras, forts and homes.

A major consequence of unregulated economic development has been the destruction of the natural environment and of historic buildings. Making environmental knowledge central to school education shall make young Indians more aware of what needs to be done in this regard.

If school students need to understand the extraordinary cultural and natural diversity of India, college students must be exposed to the diverse strands of political argument that have gone into the making of the Republic. The RSS is right in suggesting that for too long has modern Indian history been presented through the lens of the Congress, the hegemonic party in the freedom struggle. But where it treads dangerous territory is in seeking to replace the Congress idea of India with one based on the ideas of its own icons, VD Savarkar and MS Golwalkar. For, those thinkers mistakenly (some would say maliciously) saw Indian culture as monolithic, as containing a so-called ‘Hindu essence’, which it became their privilege to define, and for their followers to enforce.

Fortunately, the spectrum of political opinion in India is far wider than that constituted by the BJP or the Congress. Consider the recent controversy over the ban on a student group in IIT Madras that went by the name of the ‘Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle’. The ban has only led to the proliferation of study groups named after Ambedkar and Periyar, two thinkers remarkably open to ideas from the West, as well as opposed to the reduction of India’s diverse cultural heritage to a single or singular ‘Hindu’ essence.

With the great sociologist Max Weber, I believe that ‘universities must not be allowed to become vehicles of indoctrination, promoting a particular political or religious point of view’. This pluralism is, alas, antithetical to cultural commissars, whether the Lefists, who once dominated university education, or the Rightists, who now strive to supplant them.

NB: This is an exposure of the RSS agenda. It is not Yoga or ancient Indian wisdom, that interests them, but compulsion - in thought and culture as per their interpretation. First, an observation on the objections by the self-appointed representatives of 'the Muslim interest' and interpreters of Islam. To reduce any aasan to its origins in prayer is incorrect. (Muslim clerics in Rajasthan have adopted the same position). I have practiced yoga for over 30 years; and this includes surya namaskar. At no time did I imagine myself to be worshipping the Sun God – I was performing a physical exercise of value to my health. To treat yoga as some kind of religious ritual is ridiculous. It is now accepted the world over as an excellent aid to longevity and physical health.

But no one forced me to learn yoga.  I did so of my own free choice.  In this regard, the SIO statement is proper. It’s the compulsion that is the problem, and I agree with them.  The RSS and its representatives in government consider their positions as a means to enforce their view of Hindu culture.  Actually their motives run deeper than that. They are least bothered about Indian culture (read Purushottam Agrawal'insightful essay on this.) Their foremost concern is power and the acquisition of means toenforce their wishes and whims. It could be argued that their ultra-nationalism and nation-worship is a form of right-wing atheism. Why were A K Ramanujan's works dropped from the new DU history syllabus in 2011? Ramanujan was no atheist, and even if he was, would not the study of that essay have broadened the understanding of Indian culture? But their representatives in Delhi University campaigned for its removal, even after the SC-appointed expert committee wholeheartedly approved of the author’s scholarship. Mukul Kesavan’s op-ed piece on the controversy is worth reading again:

The expert committee appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate the matter had four members, three of whom endorsed Ramanujan’s essay without reservation. The fourth, while praising the essay’s scholarship, came to the conclusion that it would be difficult for college lecturers to teach with sufficient context, especially those who weren’t Hindu.

This is the basis for the politics and world-view of the RSS. This is their view of Indian unity (an imperium, to be enforced by an armed Hindu nation). It extends to their view of the Ramayan as well as to surya namaskar. In a word, the compulsory unification of thought and culture. The RSS are no different from the ayatollahs and maulanas whom they love to hate. They wish to lay down the law (and defy it as per their convenience), to define culture, to define how India may remain united, how women and children may behave. Such is the inner universe of our sanghis. It became most apparent when the BJP's victory was seen by them as a means of justifying the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. 

It is a self-defeating project, gentlemen. If decades of deceit have not completely erased your powers of self-reflection, please ask yourselves why you were so anxious to remove Three Hundred Ramayanasfrom the DU reading list. Are you capable of an honest debate on this? For example, it is my view that you wished to underline your self-understanding as the 'true representatives' of Hindu culture, to re-iterate that only you and no one else could comment on the Ramayana. You couldn't ban the essay, but you insisted on its removal from the syllabus. Your student wing used intimidation in the process, to make it clear what you could do to re-inforce that status. Here are some readings on that controversy:

A word of advice to the karyakartas and sanchalaks - please awaken from your ideological stupor, and rejoin the ranks of ordinary mortals. We will learn yoga, not to please you, but for our own good health. And the so-called leaders of Indian Muslims may please desist from puerile religious interpretations of yogic postures, and concentrate on improving the social well-being of Indian Muslims, as indeed, of all Indians. We have had enough 'representation'. Lets be ourselves for a change. DS