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Edit Page, The Times of India

September 19, 2006

Leave Those Kids Alone

Keep politics out of the classroom

Nina Martyris

As the nation went through the paces of Teachers’ Day this year, the mood in many staffrooms was grim. A section of the academic fraternity even boycotted the celebrations and wore black armbands to protest the brutal murder of a professor by BJP-affiliated student rowdies on an Ujjain campus during college elections. Just two months ago, a senior lecturer at Mumbai’s Wilson College had his face blackened and was dragged through the streets on a distinctly fishy sexual harassment charge by Congress-affiliated student goons.

Even as India strives to become an economic world power, its most fundamental civilisational block, the classroom, is under attack as is its keeper, the teacher.
The series of political degradations steadily visited upon the classroom have debilitated it both in body and spirit. The incursions have been at every level from primary school to higher educational institutions, the line of attack both surreptitious and shrill. From the fracas over saffronised and de-saffronised textbooks, the debate on the patriotic value of Vande Mataram, and finally and most worrying, the hate-filled reservations schism that has set student against student and plunged the country into a caste war, it is dangerously evident that this is not education’s finest hour.

There is an elephant in the Indian classroom clad in the whitest khaddar whom we can no longer ignore: the patriot politician with his truncheon of chauvinism. As society’s first sentinel in a child’s life, it is the teacher who must be alert to this invisible agent provocateur so set on sowing the seeds of divisiveness. The patriot politician has become the unlettered but fierce custodian of Bharatiyata, a tradition he is completely ignorant of but of which he will brook no criticism. He has zeroed in on the classroom as the perfect place to plant his flag and flex muscle.

The resulting sense of siege, overt in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat, where Hitler is held up as an exemplar in textbooks, is being progressively felt even in a state like Maharashtra, known for its culture of academic debate. That image has been grievously compromised in recent years after a number of violent attacks on professors and institutions that a craven government has winked at, worse, condoned. The nadir of cowardice was the mindless pillaging of Pune’s Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute by the Sambhaji Brigade (whose parent organisation has the tacit support of Sharad Pawar) in 2004 on the specious grounds of defending Shivaji. Not only did the state do nothing, home minister R R Patil in a display of perverse justice said he would take action against historian James Laine, whose book on Shivaji had triggered the controversy. Equally dismaying was the Maharashtra Higher Secondary Board’s astonishing decision to suspend five paper-setters who had chosen a passage on the saint-poet Tukaram for an examination paper. The reference to Tukaram’s simple-mindedness offended political hoodlums who, claiming they were Warkaris or disciples of Tukaram, barged into the board office and beat up the chairman. The board bent over backwards to apologise.

The growing attack on intellectuals was the subject of writer-activist Githa Hariharan’s 2003 polemical novel, In Times of Siege. In the book, Shiv Murthy, a liberal history professor, is threatened by fundamentalists of the Itihaas Suraksha Manch whose sentiments have been hurt by his writings on the 12th-century radical poet Basava, who challenged the caste system. Significantly, the attack comes not just from the fundoos who ransack Shiv’s office but also from colleagues in his department, who, like their real-life counterparts, are eager that he apologise and placate the ruffians. But in an unexpected act of courage, Shiv decides to take a stand and not be bullied by this sullen, intolerant nationalism.

It is unfortunate that the state of education has sunk so low in a country whose founding fathers took utmost care to set up an integrated system where the school would be a secular temple of learning, an equal space where the best ideals and values would be coded into a child’s mind and heart to help build a modern, more rooted India. Thanks to those enlightened minds, India was truly ahead of its times: in 1947, the US still had segregation in its schools, an apartheid demolished only by the historic Brown vs Board ruling of 1954; in Israel, Arab and Jewish children still study in separate school systems sealing them off from each other’s cultures and beliefs and promoting the suspicion that comes from ignorance; while in Iran today, ‘secular and liberal’ teachers are being purged in a repressive move to impose a national Islamic identity.

The schoolteacher must set the nation’s moral compass and undo the prejudices that a child may have picked up from the environment around. After all, the school is the first social laboratory that a child steps into after the familiar womb of his family, and any orientations and mindsets learned here are learned for life. Generations of Indian students who have been blessed with good teachers in progressive, enlightened schools where, for example, the Lord’s Prayer was taught alongside a Sanskrit shloka, and Diwali, Christmas and Id all celebrated with a shared togetherness, know the immeasurable worth of an inclusive, liberal schooling. This is where the fight against terrorism really begins, the good fight in which there are no losers and the only one capable of kneading this spectacularly diverse country together. It is this intangible heritage that should underpin every syllabus, and one that we must protect and preserve.

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