Second letter to the President of India

This letter signed by eleven eminent Indians was written soon after a change of regime (from NDA to UPA) took place in India. It was handed over to Dr. Abdul Kalam by Swami Dayananda Saraswati

 

Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, President of India
Rashtrapati Bhavan
NEW DELHI
12 July 2004
 

Respected Rashtrapatiji,

We wish to draw your attention to an issue that has the potential to needlessly divide large sections of Indians, and also to inflict needless harm on crores of Indian children. Before we proceed, may we make it clear that what follows is a purely cultural and educational statement, not a political one.

We are referring to the fresh controversies about textbooks and education. In the last few weeks, the media has relayed a number of disquieting statements from various political voices; we have heard, for instance, about the need to “detoxify” education, to “purge” institutions of previous appointees, to withdraw or “desaffronize” school textbooks, etc. Strong words indeed. Whether a “Great Purge” à la Stalin is meant, we do not know. What is clearly implied is not only that the previous regime dangerously dabbled with school education, but that we ought to return to the previous condition which, consequently, is assumed to have been near perfect in every respect.

This picture is misleading, because it conceals serious issues confronting us, and promotes polemics rather than the healthy national debate that is urgently needed. The issues we must address as a mature nation, and not through mud-slinging, are mainly the following three:

1. Historical distortions

One of the main reproaches heard has been about the historical distortions allegedly introduced in the recent NCERT textbooks, in particular. Actually, most of the corrections made in those textbooks consisted merely in removing passages that were offensive to Jains and Sikhs, and the current campaign against this so-called “toxification” has come up with no examples of where it occurred. Moreover, it is implicitly assumed that the earlier textbooks, most of them written by historians who have made no bones about their Marxist propensities, were free from distortions and of a high standard.

History writing is never easy, especially in India whose history was first written by our former colonial masters. Also, historians often disagree and are never free from prejudices. The Marxist approach to history sees ancient societies as barbaric and primitive, at social evolution as basically class struggle, and at India as a sponge that merely absorbed from many waves of invaders, without evolving or contributing anything specifically her own.

If one is to believe some of the earlier NCERT textbooks (which were the primary inspiration for most State board textbooks in circulation), Indian history is worth studying only to learn about the monstrosity of caste; the most sublime concepts of Hindu, Buddhist or Jain scriptures are covered, if at all, in a dry paragraph or two; Hindu society is consistently portrayed as regressive, superstitious or stagnant while Islamic and Christian inputs receive much praise; in fact, Islamic rulers are depicted as generally well-intentioned, progressive, broad-minded and tolerant, while their millions of victims are denied even the right to be remembered (contrast this with the way other nations zealously preserve the memories of such holocausts); Guru Tegh Bahadur, one learned, was a bandit; some of India’s freedom fighters were “terrorists,” while spiritual leaders such as Swami Vivekananda or Sri Aurobindo were “communal.”

This is the legacy of colonial historians, which we are yet to obliterate. There are many more such unacceptable distortions, extending from the unscientific and discredited Aryan invasion theory, which archaeological and literary evidence has disproved, but is still taught in many textbooks in its crudest racial and divisive form, to a grotesque overemphasis on caste, as if it were the be-all and end-all of Indian history, and to serious misportrayals of India’s struggle for independence.

Whatever its worthwhile economic and social studies, the net result of Marxist historiography is an effective denial of the spiritual foundations of Indian civilization and of its original, sustained, varied contributions to the progress of humanity. Why so many past and present Western thinkers, poets, novelists, scientists should have been so deeply influenced by India is not explained. How our spiritual culture has had a great cementing and unifying impact on the Indian masses is also passed over in silence.

Students who receive this education have no self-respect and are devoid of pride in their country. The result is that our young people are at best ignorant and at worst have contempt for their Indian self.

2. Teaching Indian culture and heritage

This brings us to the second issue, which is the appalling ignorance the average Indian student has of India’s heritage. We hear more and more of value-oriented education, which more often than not just repackages traditional Indian values. What is wrong in using a more open language and calling for Indianizing Indian education? We hear also of “personality development” and find that yoga is gaining worldwide acceptance — why not accept this scientific method of self-knowledge and self-fulfilment as a precious tool from our heritage, which our students can greatly benefit from physically, mentally and spiritually?

We wish to stress that calling for an intelligent integration of Indian culture and heritage in education is not a sin; it is not “communal” but progressive. The students are taught mathematics, but not the fact that numerals and their decimal notation originated in India and paved the way for mathematical discoveries ahead of Europe. Students are taught science, but know nothing of our ancient time-scales (which provoked the admiration of astronomer Carl Sagan), our notions of atomism, evolution, our advances in chemistry, metallurgy and other technologies. They are not even told that J. C. Bose’s invention of wireless transmission (wrongly attributed to Marconi) is now officially acknowledged. If they learn about democracy, they will form an impression that it was brought to India by the British, as though we did not have long traditions of democratic workings from the Mahajanapadas to the Chola kingdom. They now learn a little ecology, but nothing of India’s great ecological heritage. They have no inkling of India’s contributions to thought, science, technology, medicine, literature, art in many regions of the world. They are told nothing of major discoveries made in the last fifty years by Indian and foreign scholars in every branch of Indian heritage.

Such cultivated ignorance, which even Macaulay would not have dreamed of, is inexcusable in independent India. Why India should be presented as a dark hole of ignorance, with all worthwhile knowledge seen to be coming from the West, is inexplicable. This only reflects on the ignorance of our educationists and textbook writers. It certainly does nothing to build the students’ self-confidence as Indians, their pride in being Indian, and their respect for India — values essential to the building of a new India, as you have yourself, your Excellency, highlighted again and again in your speeches and books with great force of conviction.

Indian students have a birthright to know about their heritage, and no one should be allowed to deny this birthright.

3. The quality and modernization of Indian education

This grave defect is, in fact, only one aspect of the crisis afflicting our educational system. Rather than overhaul it after Independence, we have somehow continued with the British system, while making it worse: we have overburdened it with a heavier and heavier syllabus, more and more examinations (now starting at kindergarten level in some schools), more and more data to be mechanically memorized.

Both teaching and learning have become caricatures of what they should be. The child’s inquisitiveness and creative qualities are smothered and he or she is expected to become an unquestioning machine. Neither debate nor inquiry are encouraged. Textbooks are of generally a very poor standard, with irrelevant, undigested and seriously outdated data, shabby language, unappealing printing.

Moreover, rather than generate an atmosphere of friendship and team work, cut-throat competition encourages individualism. An absurd ranking system ensures that one percent this side or that side determines the child’s destiny — and sometimes snuffs out a life. The number of students committing suicide in India, running in many hundreds every year, is scandalous, yet not thought worthy of notice by our media and politicians.

In a word, we have created a cruel and hateful system, which is all that education should not be. A few forward-looking schools, aware of those tragic failures, have taken the lead in experimenting with a lighter syllabus, fewer or no exams, and creative methods helping the child’s talents and potentialities to blossom, but the average schools continue to churn out mental and emotional cripples.

 
 

Those are the real issues facing us, not saffronization or crimsonization. It is not a healthy sign for the nation that they are not receiving the attention they deserve. Once again, we wish to point out that those who have been calling for “purges” and “detoxification” are working to revive a dying ideology and to impose it on Indian students in the name of political correctness. But anyone who intends to regulate public thought, crudely or subtly, will soon learn that we Indians have matured a good deal and can often think for ourselves. No thought police is going to be accepted, however righteous its garb.

What Indian intellectual life and education are yearning for is not ideology but freedom from ideologies; not thought police but stimulation for original, creative thinking. A lighter, fulfilling and stimulating education, based on innovative pedagogy and promoting the great human values and achievements of Indian culture, is what the Indian youth are asking. Let us spare our children the putrid politics of a few adults who have not been able to move away from colonial times. Let us feel proud of our Indian culture and heritage, which alone can save India from further fragmentation, and which still has much to offer to the world.

We request your Excellency to ensure that:

   

1. Divisive ideologies, witch hunts or other purges are not allowed at any cost;

   

2. Education does not become the plaything of politics, with sweeping revisions imposed upon every regime change; a degree of continuity in the educational policy is essential, as without it students are bound to be confused and to suffer;

   

3. A task force should be created to modernize Indian education, so as to make it both Indian and an enriching education.


Together let us take India forward and not backward.

With profound regards,

Swami Dayananda Sarasvati
Founder, Arsha Vidya Gurukulam

Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam
Padma Bhushan & Director, Nrithyodaya (Chennai)

Dr. Nanditha Krishna
Director, C. P. Ramaswamy Aiyar Foundation (Chennai)

Dr. R. Nagaswamy
Former Director of Archaeology, Tamil Nadu, and former Vice-Chancellor, Kanchipuram University (Deemed)

Shri P. Parameswaran
Padma Shri & President, Vivekananda Kendra (Kanyakumari)

Smt. Tavleen Singh
Senior columnist

Prof. Prema Pandurang
President of Kshetropasana (Chennai)

Shri P. R. Krishnakumar
Managing Director, Arya Vaidya Pharmacy (Coimbatore)

Brahmachari Abhayamrita Chaitanya
Chief Operating Officer, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham (Deemed University)

Prof. Kapil Kapoor
Professor, Centre of Linguistics and English, and former pro-Vice-Chancellor, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Prof. Makarand Paranjape
Professor of English, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

 
       
 
 
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