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Educating Murli; More than saffron - India Today

Editorial and Swapan Dasgupta ()
November 2, 1998

Title: Educating Murli; More than saffron
Author: Editorial and Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: India Today
Date: November 2, 1998

Introduction: The HRD minister should go easy on his fads. And
pick up tips on deft governance (Editorial). Sonia forgets
education is also about good citizenship (Swapan Dasgupta)

There is nothing more exasperating for a nation than its
ministers making a spectacular mess of things. For the BJP-led
coalition, in particular, lurching from disaster to disaster
seems to have become a way of life. The recent education
ministers' conference was a classic case of inviting trouble.
Murli Manohar Joshi, the human resource development (HRD)
minister, roused some passions for trying to "saffronise the
educational system". Whatever the veracity of these accusations,
Joshi's chief crime is not ideology as much as incompetence-sheer
incompetence. True, in a time of sharp political divisions,
forging a consensus on education policy is well nigh impossible.
Yet, Joshi didn't even make a modicum of an effort in this
direction. Instead, he happily pursued his fads. Take the
Saraswati Vandana at the inauguration. What should have been a
complete non-issue ballooned into controversy. The validity of
morning prayers in schools may make for an engaging debate in
societies across the world. Nevertheless, a patently religious
invocation has no place in a state function.

More substantively, Joshi's virtually blanket adoption of the
proposals made by Vidya Bharati, an RSS affiliate, is extremely
questionable. Granted Vidya Bharati has made some worthy
suggestions, such as the creation of a regulatory body for
education free of political interference. If Joshi had vetted the
Vidya Bharati scheme and taken up its better ideas there would
have been no quarrel. There is a method, a certain protocol to
introducing a subject into the public domain. Vidya Bharati's
views, along with any others the minister may have liked, should
have been discussed within the HRD Ministry and made public weeks
before the conference. By keeping them under wraps till the
proverbial eleventh hour, the minister only found himself under a
cloud of suspicion. Joshi and his friends could do with some
lessons-in transparent governance.


When ab butler - one of Amartya Sen's predecessors as Master
of Trinity College, Cambridge-was given charge of the education
portfolio, Prime Minister Winston Churchill offered only one
suggestion: each them how Wolfe captured Quebec. That was 44
years ago. Today, if Atal Bihari Vajpayee were to give an Indian
variant of Churchillian wisdom to his Human Resource Development
(HRD) Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, it is almost certain that the
West Bengal Government would threaten secession, Sonia Gandhi
would warn of the end of civilisation as we know it and the
chattering classes would scream xenophobia. If something as
innocuous as the invocation to the Goddess Saraswati at a
conference of education ministers can prompt walkouts, it is
indicative that there is something rotten about our values. After
all, who remembers that Netaji Subhas Bose once organised a
Dhahran in a Calcutta college to press for the students' right to
observe Saraswati puja?

The hesitation is understandable. Still preoccupied with the
spread of and access to primary education, the Government's focus
remains narrow. The issue of quality-of teachers, the curriculum
and evaluation-that is central to the debates on education in
modern societies is still on the periphery in India, despite
Joshi's attempt to raise it during the teacher's pay dispute.
Even 50 years after Independence, our concerns are wonderfully
Victorian. Yet, Joshi has made a difference. By linking education
with citizenship and nationhood, he has revived popular concern
over the moral underpinnings of schooling. It is a laudable
objective and really no different from the concerns of
conservatives in America who insist that the mandatory oath of
allegiance should be complemented by morning prayers. It is also
no different from a growing awareness in Britain that the morning
assembly in schools-where the Lord's Prayer was once obligatory-
was a valuable character-building exercise. The HRD minister, of
course, goes a step further by advocating the teaching of
Sanskrit from Class III, a tradition that was, ironically, upheld
by the British and diluted after Nurul Hasan won academia for the
Left. Ethics, classicism and patriotism are the pillars on which
Joshi's project rests.

As the conference of state education ministers showed, his task
is daunting. Apart from education being a state subject, Joshi is
burdened by the RSS tag that ensures all his suggestions-
including sensible ones-are inevitably politicised. But these
impediments are nothing compared to the real problem Joshi faces:
the challenge of rogressive education. According to this
tradition, education should be value neutral and focus on
imparting a cientific temper without straying into the complex
areas of social personality and good citizenship. The buzzword is
being non-judgmental.

Progressive teaching methods have a bizarre attraction for the
rootless wonders. These are people whose choice of schools for
their children is guided by much more than an institution's
examination results. This is why they have traditionally favoured
expensive public schools and Christian institutions where studies
and cultivation of character are inseparable. Yet, they despise
the Saraswati Vandana. Is it an admission that what is good for
their own children is inappropriate for the less fortunate who
attend government schools? Or is it because Sonia feels that the
Indian ethos and modernity are incompatible?

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