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Chaste women and learned brahmins

By Deepti Priya Mehrotra

How should school textbooks deal with realities such as caste, class and religious discrimination? Should they pretend they don’t exist, or confront them? Part 2 in our series analysing the values and biases in textbooks

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Caste markers: `Patthar par Baney Nishan', Hindi Class 3 textbook, Rajasthan


What values, biases and prejudices are perpetuated by school textbooks through the content they run, misrepresent or are silent on? In a series of articles, Deepti Priya Mehrotra examines stereotypical treatments of the `ideal child/student’, gender, class, tribe, caste, disability, religious identity, the nation-state, conflict and culture in school textbooks. Insights into conceptions of knowledge, pedagogy, aesthetics and language are woven into the critiques. The articles especially explore primary school Hindi literature textbooks, focusing on the one state, Rajasthan, and national-level NCERT textbooks. Textbooks are a highly contested terrain: political weapons, as much as educational tools, seeking to mould the growing child in different ways.

Read Part 1 of this series here

Education ought to be a major vehicle for social change, and `inclusive education’ – a term popular with policymakers today -- even more so. Textbooks, as a vital part of the educational apparatus, may be designed in ways that help make education truly inclusive. Examining a number of textbooks, we will see how they reflect the concerns of marginalised social groups. Do they help unpack diverse worlds through moving characters and stories, or do they instead confuse, obscure and further prejudice their young readers? We will look particularly at biases and stereotypes purveyed in connection with caste, tribe and religious identities.

No discrimination?

realities such as caste
No discrimination: `Sukhdam', Hindi Class 4, Rajasthan Rajya Paathyapustak Mandal

Sukhdham (`Abode of Bliss’), the opening poem in Rajasthan state’s Class 4 Hindi textbook (1), asserts the following about Bharat Ma (Mother India): Nahin bhed jaati dharm ka/ Maanavta ka mool yahan… Sada mitra ban haath badhaate, Nahin bair ka naam yahan-- `No discrimination of caste or religion/ We have the essence of humanity here… People always befriend and reach out/ Not a trace of ill-will or enmity here’. How honest are these smooth phrases? The fact is that large numbers of children, and their families, face discrimination every day, in Rajasthan and elsewhere in the country. The poem completely negates this reality. It paints a picture of ideal humanity dwelling in India in blissful harmony. This would be fine projected as a goal to strive towards; however, it is presented not as aspiration but as accomplished fact! 

The poem’s explicit negation of discrimination on the basis of caste and creed is in itself a reinforcement of caste and communal prejudice. It renders social injustice and people’s suffering literally invisible and unmentionable. Many students face prejudices linked to caste, religion, class, ethnicity etc, but the textbook baldly claims that this is not so. There is no scope or space for children to disagree. They are silenced, as are all voices of experience, questioning or dissent. Students who realise the falsity of the poem’s claims will still have to mug up its lines and give answers that prove these lies are the `truth’. 

Textbook controversies

Textbook controversies
Cover illustration of Hindi class 5 textbook, Rajasthan: Pluralism as an afterthought, Sikh boy with patka on cut hair

The CABE (Central Advisory Board on Education) committee on textbook analysis (2005) notes that there was a public furore over systematic ideological biases in NCERT and state textbooks published in 2001/02 (revised in line with National Curriculum Framework or NCF-2000). Analysing textbooks used in 11 states, CABE found them frequently communal, promoting urban middle class norms, and reinforcing inequalities by adopting the perspectives of powerful and privileged classes and groups. Even when the content was meant to apply to all sections of society, visuals displayed urban middle class amenities like lampshades, refrigerators and so on, and made urban life appear glamorous in comparison to rural life. Science textbooks prescribed as healthy a diet that may be difficult for a large section of readers to procure.  Tribals and dalits were absent in most textbooks, and Islamic invaders were held responsible for practices like sati and child marriage. Gender bias was pervasive in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh textbooks, taking the form of absences or of roles assumed as given. A Marathi language textbook for Class 7 established “linkages between patriotism and cleanliness, and afforestation”. Facts were neglected, shared cultures and local histories ignored, and revenge and violence promoted (a lesson titled `Missile’ in the Class 7 Hindi textbook, Karnataka, taught students that violent retaliation is the way to settle border disputes).

The CABE report also noted the rampant communal slant in textbooks used in schools run by social and religious organisations. For instance textbooks used in Chhattisgarh (and elsewhere) denigrate Gandhi as “Dushatma” (evil soul) for “appeasing” Muslims. A general knowledge textbook used in Saraswati Shishu Mandirs has a list of questions on Ramjanmabhoomi, for instance: “From 1582 till 1992, how many Rambhaktas sacrificed their lives to liberate the temple?” The answer is: 350,000! Textbooks used in DAV schools in Delhi (and elsewhere) claim the Arya-Hindu complex represents eternal and universal religious principles, oppose secularism, and even claim that “our land is filled with milch cows, chaste women, learned brahmins who know the Vedas, various kshatriya warriors, vaishyas who produce wealth…”  In Uttar Pradesh, even science and math textbooks used in Saraswati Shishu Mandir schools have exercises with frequent mention of temples, offerings, rituals and Hindu-centric notions. Textbooks used by schools in UP identify Buddhism with Hinduism, emphasise forced conversion of Hindus to Islam, and state that violent pressure by the Muslim League forced Partition. Textbooks taught in madressas in UP also have an obvious communal bias, glorifying everything Islamic and treating even historical events as divine, as can be seen in the criticism of Akbar’s Din-e-Ilahi.  Madressa textbooks are uncritical and status-quoist when it comes to gender roles, and a special curriculum for girls details women’s domestic competencies and religious practices.  The CABE report recommended that an institutional facility be urgently set up to examine and ensure that all textbooks be informed by “principles of liberal, secular and democratic education” and keep constitutional provisions in mind.

NCERT’s NCF-2005 textbooks are consciously framed within a liberal, progressive, educational, social and political understanding. Yet, these Hindi language textbooks were subjected to intense criticism in parliament. Several objections were raised by the BJP and endorsed by the Samajwadi Party, JD(U) and Congress (in 2006). The objections were to the inclusion of words like chhokri (a colloquial and common term for ‘girl’ in Hindi and Gujarati), and chamar (in a story Doodh ka Daam by Premchand, the classic social realist); as well as a story by Pandey Bechan Sharma Ugra which makes fun of brahmins.(2) The discussion was charged, with Sushma Swaraj even asking Education Minister Arjun Singh how he, a brahmin, could tolerate such a lesson. All these lessons had to be removed under pressure rather than due to any rational social or pedagogic argument. In fact intellectuals have unanimously appreciated these textbooks; litterateur Alok Rai finds these textbooks engaging, varied and playful, and notes that the wall between the world and the school is finally broken: the child can bring her rich experience of the world into the classroom.(3)

Perspectives of the powerful

A scholar notes that Hindi-language textbooks of states like Rajasthan and UP continue to promote superstition, blind faith and glorification of an imagined past, and project an India that is upper-class, upper-caste, Hindu, masculine and militarised. Our reading of Rajasthan Hindi primary school textbooks bears this out. We will also look at NCF-2005 Hindi textbooks, which are definitely head and shoulders better than the Rajasthan ones. Still, we point out some flaws even in these. Significantly, the language in Rajasthan textbooks is stiff, formal and distant from lived realities and spoken language. Hindi is particularly caught within a complex politics of language where efforts are afoot to strenuously `cleanse’ it of Persian-Urdu (identified with Muslim) influences and elements, bringing it closer to the `purity’ of Sanskrit (identified with an ancient Hindu past).

Caste: Whereas there is no indication at all of caste in the NCERT (NCF-2005) Hindi textbooks, the Rajasthan textbooks contain markers of caste: though the text does not mention caste, boys in stories like Gurubhakt Aruni and Pathhar par Baney Nishan are shown with shaved heads, a lock of hair (bodi) left on the scalp—well-known signs of the brahmin caste! To depict this well-known fact pictorially sends powerful subliminal messages to dalit castes: that education is fundamentally for (male) brahmins, and if `lower’ castes are allowed to study, it is a mere concession! These textbook images enter the real world, where dalit children are still often made to sit separately in school classrooms not only in rural but also in some parts of urban India. 

Whether or not caste identities should be included in textbooks is a difficult and highly charged issue. Simply ignoring reality will not change it. Realities need to be looked at full in the face rather than glossed over. It is noteworthy that although various parliamentarians objected to caste nomenclature such as chamar, due to which Premchand‘s story Doodh ke Daam was removed from an NCERT Hindi textbook, yet upper-caste markers continue unchallenged in Rajasthan state textbooks. So are we to assume that dalit castes (chamar, dhobi, pasi…) are not respectable enough to be visible in school textbooks, while upper castes, being respectable, may be visible? Parliamentarians noted that using the word ‘chamar’ in a textbook would be insulting and un-constitutional, but continue to condone explicit markers of brahmin identity: how come these pose no insult to our secular and democratic consciousness?

Religious identities: The Rajasthan Hindi textbooks (Classes 3, 4, 5) have one Muslim character, King Akbar; and one lesson with an illustration of Muslim boys and men greeting one another on Id. This lesson, called Id aur Bada Din (`Id and Christmas Day’),has another illustration showing four Christian children receiving gifts from Santa Claus. Other lessons have no other recognisable religious identity apart from the ubiquitous Hindu. The Class 5 text’s cover has an interesting representation of a Sikh boy though: clearly an afterthought, for his patka (tiny cloth turban) is superimposed on an ordinary haircut (yes, with cut hair!) 

Private publisher Savio’s Satrangi textbooks (Classes 4, 5) have no Muslim characters at all. They have a few Christian characters, though -- James Watt and his aunt in Bhaap Ka Engine; Nicholas in Santa Claus. Since these textbooks hope to cater to convent schools which are an important section of the private schools sector, it is no doubt strategic to give some space to Christian characters.

An overwhelmingly Hindu ethos is reinforced in all, but particularly in Rajasthan, textbooks. In the Class 4 Rajasthan textbook, 41% of the characters are clearly Hindu, with markers such as dress, tilak on forehead, rudraksha necklaces and shaved heads for men; bangles and ghunghats for women. Descriptions like `seth’ and `guru’ are used, unmistakably for Hindus. Hinduism, Hindu history and present is valorised, with `Ishvar’ (Hindu male godhead) actually materialising, as in the story Atal Dhruva. Stories such as Rannkshetra (Class 5) promote hatred in dealing with people across the border, subtly conflating nationalism with anti-Muslim sentiment.

The NCERT Hindi textbooks are on the whole secular, but there is one prominent slip-up: the poem Khilonewala (`Toyseller’),by writer Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, in the Class 5 textbook. The poem begins beautifully, depicting a small boy looking at an itinerant toyseller's wares. But then he decides, finally, to buy a sword and bow and arrows, to fulfill a fantasy: "I will go to the forest... like Ram… and kill Tadka and the demons (asuras)”. The accompanying illustration depicts an asura -- forest-dweller, wearing headgear resembling the traditional headgear of the Mudia Gond and other tribal groups. The symbolism is evocative, and dangerous. The portrayal of forest-dwellers as demons works to justify their killing by the `righteous king, Ram’. The image presents a demonised picture of tribals. Such a portrayal is extremely problematic, especially at a time when tribal land is being acquired by corporate interests, threatening their survival and lifestyle. Tribals get identified, subliminally, as evil figures that the righteous conqueror, Ram, is justified in killing. What will urban children who are not acquainted with forest dwellers or with tribals make of this? Does it not reinforce prejudice against tribals in their minds? And what about those children who are tribal, who may study the poem: what is the impact on them?   

The exercises make a bad situation worse by further valourising Ram, Ramayana and Ramlila, providing no secular or historical frames, and nowhere elaborating on the diversity of the Ramayana tradition in India. Such a lesson, and its exercises, is completely out of place in present-day NCERT textbooks, with their avowedly secular ideology. 

Tribal: Tribals as such find very little space in NCERT, Rajasthan or UP state textbooks, or for that in the private publishers’ textbooks that I looked at.

NCERT Hinditextbooks (Class 3) have one lesson in which a Warli painting is shown over two pages, with characteristic line sketches of human and animal figures engaged in various activities, within the world of nature. The Warli painting (Class 3) is a creative lesson which at least introduces the subject of tribals and tribal art. However, it has no exercises that may take children further and deeper, and seems to be a token inclusion, a sort of decorative piece, rather than a serious attempt at integration and learning.

Rajasthan textbooks have one depiction of a tribal: the story Guru Bhakt Kalibai mentions Kalibai as a tribal girl. She is shown wearing a skirt-and-blouse, her school uniform, holding a scythe, since she is returning home from work in the fields. The story focuses on her devotion to her school teacher, a freedom fighter whom she saves from being dragged away by British police. In so doing, she sacrifices her life. We learn nothing more about Kalibai, her daily life, emotions, friends or family. The textbooks fail to portray anything about the complex rhythms and realities of tribal life and worldviews, trials and tribulations.  In fact, it appears that a tribal girl’s devotion to an upper-class schoolmaster raises her above the basically obscure and dubious background. Her martyrdom is glorified, as if the loss of her life is more than compensated  by the glory!

Exercises in most of these textbooks add no further information regarding socio-political setting, geographical or cultural factors. Private publishers’ and Rajasthan state textbooks contain several mythological lessons presented as though they are history; students have no option but to confuse fact with fiction, and absorb the underlying communal, casteist and ethnocentric slant (for instance Atal Dhruv, Gurubhakt Aruni, Rakhi ki Laaj, Tapasvi aur Totey). Since most lessons in the NCERT textbooks are contemporary, and even the historical fiction promotes progressive rather than obscurantist values, there is less possibility of a dangerous misreading of the texts. Exercises in NCERT textbooks encourage children to ask questions, gather information, and engage in discussion, thus helping them further improve their understanding.

However, taking all the textbooks together, the dominant image is of Hindu middle class boys. There is the token inclusion of a Muslim, a Christian, a tribal, a girl with disabilities and so on, within the broadly Hindu upper-caste, middle class-populated textbooks.

 While Rajasthan textbooks espouse a regressive jingoistic Hindutva ideology, Savio has a relatively neutral stance, and NCERT textbooks by and large reflect progressive, liberal, socio-political thinking, and at least try to consciously promote values of justice, equality and democracy. Most lessons promote a spirit of cooperation and fellow-feeling cutting across caste, class and gender, while lessons such as Daan ka Hisaab (Class 4)show how an aware citizenry can extract justice from a cruel king, and stories like Daakiye ki Kahani, Kanvarsingh ki Jaban and Jahan Chaah Vahaan Raah (Class 5) bring to light the lives of ordinary working persons. NCERT lessons include a number of fantasy and folk stories within a secular frame, and invite children to share in the journey of story-making (Kahani ki Kahani, Class 5and Swami ki Dadi, Class 4). There is far less danger of fiction being confused as fact, since students are encouraged to develop the discrimination to separate make-believe from historical and contemporary realities.  

(Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a Delhi-based writer and academic. Her recent book is entitled Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and the Struggle for Peace in Manipur)

Infochange News & Features, July 2012