The perils of selective memory

The educational ethos of a nation as multicultural and diverse as ours can ill-afford to be narrow and parochial. 

Published: 26th September 2021 07:07 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th September 2021 07:07 AM   |  A+A-

Construction work underway as part of the Central Vista Redevelopment Project, at Rajpath in New Delhi. (Photo | Parveen Negi, EPS)

Construction work underway as part of the Central Vista Redevelopment Project, at Rajpath in New Delhi. (Photo | Parveen Negi, EPS)

A few apparently unrelated news items have triggered certain anxieties. An impatient eagerness to reinterpret history is all too evident in our current political discourse. The Central Vista project zealously undertaken to coincide with the 75th year of Independence betrays a compulsive obsession to reinterpret an already acclaimed legacy.

Reinterpretation naturally involves addition and deletions. As a result, certain memories will shine forth from the caverns of obscurity, while some in the limelight will blur away to oblivion. What all will the new Central Vista remember and what all will it obliterate are not clear as of now, as this crucial project affecting the aesthetics and history of the National Capital is inexplicably opaque. 

The same thread of eagerness to rewrite history by smudging and edging out some memories and etching in a few others runs through several instances. The unsolicited verdict by Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) that the 1921 uprising in Kerala was not part of the Freedom movement is a typical instance. The matter was not referred to ICHR for its ‘expert opinion.’ The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library at Teen Murthy in New Delhi, an oasis of academic excellence and freedom of thought, (where this writer had the privilege to officiate as Director for two years) is already a museum for all the Prime Ministers. The national interest served by this titular and functional mutations is unknown. 

The recent ‘beautification’ of Jallianwala Bagh Memorial, too, had invited adverse responses as the changes seem to have altered the mood and spirit of the monument. It is reported that the serene and simple Sabarmati Ashram of Mahatma Gandhi is also facing a similar ‘beautification threat.’  The biggest giveaway was when ICHR overlooked Jawaharlal Nehru in the poster designed for 75 years of Independence. (However, they condescended to include him in the next one.)

The other apparently unrelated news to be juxtaposed to these reported facts of selective memory is the appointment of a committee headed by Dr Kasturirangan for drafting the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) for school education, in accordance with the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, prepared a year ago by another committee under his chairmanship. There is considerable sense in the same person heading the Curriculum Framework Committee, as the philosophy of the NEP could be faithfully invoked. The new committee is mandated to develop four curriculum frameworks; for early childhood education, school education, teacher education and adult education. The Framework will provide guidelines for syllabus, text books and teaching practices. 

The National Education Policy rightly aims ‘to have an education system by 2040 that is second to none’ and ‘aligned with the aspirational goals of 21st century education, while building upon India’s traditions and value systems.’ The policy further admits that ‘the rich heritage of ancient and eternal Indian knowledge and thought has been a guiding light’. In short, the NEP wants our educated youth to be international in outlook with Indian values and ethos. While translating the ideas and vision enshrined in the NEP into the Curriculum Framework, this committee will have to overcome two temptations. The first temptation is to ignore or underplay the seminal fact that education is in the Concurrent List of the Constitution. While the NCF may serve as a model, the right of the States to independently design their curriculum is inalienable. The NCF will be useful for the country if it is truly inclusive and vibrant enough to accommodate the spectacular variety of India. 

School curriculum is a far more potent and serious instrument than political projects or the knee jerk verdicts of bodies like ICHR. The educational ethos of a nation as multicultural and diverse as ours can ill-afford to be narrow and parochial. The second temptation to resist is the groundswell in favour of serving the ideological preferences of the ruling political party. With increasing instances where non-experts ‘authentically’ (or authoritatively) share mythology as history and superstitions as science, the committee for designing the NCF, headed by a scientist,  should uphold scientific objectivity and inclusivity. 

Unenlightened attempts to define and familiarise Indian heritage, intellectual traditions and culture is fraught with dangers, which the committee has to clearly recognise and strongly resist. Indian culture has multiple sources and they have coexisted and integrated among themselves over the centuries. Any notion about the ‘singularity of culture’ needs to be questioned. As Romila Thapar observes, the idea of singularity, often upheld in nationalist claims, is a ‘debatable question as to whether such a claim to singularity characterises a national identity. Nationalism by definition is meant to be a collective, inclusive position, and would therefore have to incorporate the existing range of culture.’ (Indian Cultures as Heritage: Contemporary Pasts) 

Education is all about broadening mental horizons where all differences can co-exist without conflict. The committee authorised to draft the NCF cannot afford to acquiesce to partisan compulsions. A Curriculum Framework, which is non-inclusive and slanted, will indeed be a disservice to our children. Selective memory that may be politically expedient is abhorrent in education. Intellectual cowardice that may be necessary for pliant government institutions to survive is hemlock to students who should be driven by knowledge capital, scientific temper, inquiring mind and cosmopolitan values. They should have the ‘audacity’ at least to find out who the first Prime Minister of Independent India was. 

K Jayakumar
Former Kerala chief secretary and ex-VC, Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam Varsity


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