The mythical child at the center of Smriti Irani’s concerns about schooling
By Mary Ann Chacko
One day, many years ago, I was travelling by train from Kochi to Kolkata. My coach was empty except for a young family comprising of a mother, father, and child. From their conversations, carried out in Hindi, it was soon apparent that the father was an Army personnel posted in Kochi. Their son, a boy of about 5 or 6, was chatting animatedly with his parents. During the conversation he pulled out an imaginary machine-gun and pretended to shoot. His father asked him who he was shooting and the son instantly replied, “I am shooting Muslims.”
The parents laughed.
But sitting in the other corner of the coach, a cold chill shot through me; my fear made all the more visceral due to my own marriage to a Muslim.
You might wonder why I am starting this piece with such a polarizing narrative, as if we needed any more of these in present day India! I recollected this incident while listening to Human Resources Development Minister, Smriti Irani’s recent speech in the Lok Sabha. Irani appeared visibly shocked that history textbooks sanctioned by the previous Congress government were teaching fourth standard students religious riots, among other treacherous topics. As she saw it, such curricular blunders violated our collective sense of propriety as ‘Indians’. However, as my encounter in the train makes plain, the ‘innocent’ child that Smriti Irani is trying to protect is itself a myth. Children are not insular, innocent beings who are clueless about religious prejudices. Rather, they are socialized into our prejudices at a very young age. Ignoring this implies an indifference to children, their everyday realities, as well as their anxieties and curiosities.
While reading out segments from a Teachers Reader based on History textbooks commissioned by the previous UPA government and written by civil rights activist, Teesta Setalvad, Irani quotes (in a somewhat disconnected manner):
“Scenario 4 on Page 5—orders issued to Delhi schools after the death of Indira Gandhi.
Check what a trainee teacher teaching English sailed through her period. One of the words given to the children to draft a sentence was the word “arrive.” Of the several children who raised their hands, the one that the teacher chose to read out is—‘When a Sikh arrived in Delhi, he was killed by a Hindu.”
This quote, as mentioned by Irani, would have made no sense to me if I had not been aware of the context from which the writers of the Manual borrow this “scenario”. In fact, this scenario is taken from the book, Learning from Conflict (1984), written by Krishna Kumar, a noted Indian educationist. Kumar recollects that when schools in Delhi reopened after the Sikh riots (1984), the Principals were asked to ensure that children did not discuss the riots in their classes despite the fact that thousands of children had witnessed the riots first hand. The same week Kumar was in a school observing one of his student-teachers teaching a sixth grade English lesson. One of the tasks the trainee gave her students was to form sentences with the verb “arrive,” a word in the day’s lesson. The students were then called upon to share their sentence and one of them read out the following: “When a Sikh arrived in Delhi, he was killed by Hindus.” It is this “scenario” that Irani quotes. Kumar shared this scenario to argue that attending to the world from which children come to school is the first step to recognizing and assessing the school’s role in helping children unlearn the prejudices they imbibe from out of school contexts. But for Irani, the problem lies elsewhere. She is troubled by the sentence that “the teacher chose to read out.” She glosses over the fact that the child in the above example gained his knowledge of Hindu-Sikh riots not from a textbook or a teacher but from the out-of-school environment; by word of mouth from his family and community.
It is not our reluctance to politicize education but rather the education system’s lack of understanding regarding the socialization of children that is revealed through our hesitation to discuss traumatic events with children. Moreover, our reluctance to “politicize education” is disingenuous because, as a party like BJP with its experiences of “saffronizing” history textbooks should know very well, all educational activity is always already political and ideological. Saffron is the color of the robe worn by Hindu monks and priests and has hence been associated with Hindu religion in India. “Saffornisation of education” refers to the ways in which the educational domain—policy, textbooks, especially history textbooks, and national institutions—has, during various BJP governments, come under strong pressure to accommodate the ideology of religious (Hindu) revivalism.
On her part, Smriti Irani takes a dig at the secularists when she dismisses the efforts of history textbooks that focus a critical lens on historical figures like Shivaji, the role of religious organizations and political parties in riots, and the actions of the Indian state in Kashmir. She states, “You are teaching this to a child in the fourth standard. This is their idea of secular education.” Here secularism is nothing but treason against the Indian state.
However, lest secularists gloat over their politics in their contempt for Irani, it will be well to keep in mind that secular politics has also actively contributed to making schooling and curriculum pedagogical barren spaces. For instance, Krishna Kumar’s work illustrates that the approach to schooling and textbook writing adopted by self-consciously secular Indian governments has been to project India as an inherently secular state. Such insincere efforts to ‘prove’ India’s secular credentials have been instrumental in erasing antagonistic relations and the contest of values and ideologies in society. Thus whether the secularists or the religious hard-liners come to power in India, schooling and textbooks in India have suffered from intolerance towards dissent, rival perspectives and an indifference towards the child’s experiences and perspectives.
What we need is schooling that is sensitive and responsive to the social reality of the young, not one that disingenuously tries to serve a child who is nothing but a mythical figure. Unfortunately, while Minister Smriti Irani’s critique of history is commendable for its histrionics, it is disappointing and alarming in its educational implications.
Mary Ann Chacko is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her dissertation examines the Student Police Cadet program implemented in government schools across Kerala, India with a focus on adolescent citizenship and school-community relations. She is an Editor of Cafe Dissensus. Read more of her work on her blog, Chintavishta.
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