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Sunday, July 01, 2018

Learning or Political Conditioning?

If we are asked to name a singular, monumental failure of independent India, we can unhesitatingly point out that it was our inability to forge a national spirit. Every institution contributed to this failure including the education system. This essay excerpted from ‘TWISTING FACTS TO SUIT THEORIES’ AND OTHER SELECTIONS FROM VOXINIDCA’ (pp. 290-298) examines the role played by text books written for school students and how they contributed to exacerbate rather than reduce caste schism. In particular it critiques the Class IX social science text book published by NCERT in 2007.  

In common understanding, learning means the acquisition of knowledge and skills. In terms of behavioural sciences learning implies acquisition of knowledge, skills and attitude resulting in permanent change in behaviour. It is attitude that informs thought processes and character. This is the reason why traditional Bharatiya education focused on shaping attitude and character. Behaviour has two other modifiers: experience and conditioning. Experience is gained by repeated application of knowledge and skills. Conditioning is the result of positive or negative experiences. Conditioning is the rationale underlying the ‘carrot and stick’ principle of motivation. However, hardened attitude can sometimes override knowledge and skills in shaping behaviour. For example, erudition may not bar a university professor from becoming a criminal; or a well-educated highly-paid individual from becoming a terrorist. The focus of traditional Bharatiya education on behaviour and character was to defy experiential conditioning. It was to tread the path of righteousness irrespective of positive or negative experiences.

The three dimensions of learning are: education which helps in the acquisition of knowledge; training which helps in the acquisition of skills and development which implies positive modification of behaviour of a permanent nature. Competence is the ability to selectively apply knowledge, skills and behaviour to suit the context, to achieve desired results or performance. The objective of learning that we impart in schools and colleges is to inculcate all three. Viewed in the light of this preamble, how do the NCERT textbooks shape thought, attitude, character and behaviour? The NCERT Social Science textbook for Class IX, published in 2007, is rather grandiosely introduced to the reader:

“All too often in the past, the history of the modern world was associated with the history of the west. It was as if change and progress happened only in the west. As if the histories of other countries were frozen in time, they were motionless and static. People in the west were seen as enterprising, innovative, scientific, industrious, efficient and willing to change. People in the east—or in Africa and South America—were considered traditional, lazy, superstitious, and resistant to change.”[1]

After reading this, the reader is likely to be confused by the introductory part of ‘Section I’, as it interprets the ideas that shaped India’s freedom movement. The latter informs the reader that ideas like liberty and equality, products of the French Revolution and socialism, product of the Russian Revolution, have informed anti-colonial movements in India and China. It mirrors the Western view that Gandhi was inspired by Rousseau, the French Revolution and Thoreau.

The chapter on ‘Socialism in Europe and the Russian Revolution’ (p. 25-48), written by Prof. Hari Vasudevan of the Calcutta University, describes the origins of the Russian Revolution in glowing terms:

“The political trends were signs of a new time. It was a time of profound social and economic changes. It was a time when new cities came up and new industrialised regions developed, railways expanded and the Industrial Revolution occurred.” (p. 26)

To say that the chapter is economical with the truth would be an understatement, as what it does not mention about the Russian Revolution is perhaps at least as important as what it does. For example it bypasses the more fundamental question that strikes anyone interested in the history of Communism: “Why did a doctrine premised on proletarian revolution in industrial societies come to power only in predominantly agrarian ones, by Marxist definition those least prepared for ‘socialism’?”[2]  Nor does it mention that “Communism’s recourse to ‘permanent civil war’ rested on the ‘scientific’ Marxist belief in class struggle as the ‘violent midwife of history’, in Marx’s famous metaphor”. (Ibid. p. xix)

The one party rule which suppressed democratic rights, the reprisals, the forced labour camps, the executions all get passing mention as if they were minor, insignificant details. The chapter mentions the severe reprisals, deportations and exiles meted out to those who were opposed to Stalin’s collectivization programme. But there is no mention of the suppression of the right to free speech, an issue so dear to the ever-agitating Indian communists. There is also no mention that an estimated 100 million lives were sacrificed at the altar of the ‘class struggle that was the violent midwife of history’, the world over, and about 20 million deaths in the erstwhile Soviet Union alone. The Chinese version of Marxist Communism, to which a majority of Indian communists owe allegiance, consumed a staggering 65 million lives in its class struggles. (Ibid. p. 4)

The introductory part of ‘Section I mentions in passing that ‘[t]oday Soviet Union has broken up and socialism is in crisis ...’ But the chapter on Russian Revolution was not revised to reflect these changes in the 2007 edition, brought out a good sixteen years after the implosion of the Soviet Union and the larger Communist world. The following passage almost gives the impression that socialism (or Communism) continues to rule about half of the world, as it did earlier and that the USSR is alive and kicking:

“By the end of the twentieth century, the international reputation of the USSR as a socialist country had declined though it was recognised that socialist ideals still enjoyed respect among its people. But in each country the ideas of socialism were rethought in a variety of different ways.”

Is there a deliberate attempt to downplay the excesses of the Moguls and the Communists, and the decline of Communism on the one hand and magnify social distinctions in the Hindu society on the other? The two anecdotes ‘Caste and cricket’ (p.151)[3] and ‘Caste Conflict and Dress Change’ (p. 168)[4] are pointers. ‘Caste and cricket’ is about the Indian cricketer, Babaji Palwankar Baloo (1876-1955). It repeatedly says he played for ‘Hindus’ and despite being very talented, never made captain of ‘Hindus’ because of caste discrimination. In point of fact he played for the Hindu club, Deccan Gymkhana[5] in Pune. In those days there was the European Gymkhana, the Parsi Gymkhana (the first non-European club), the Hindu Gymkhana and the Muslim Gymkhana, as the British refused to recognise India as a single national entity. The four played the ‘Bombay Quadrangular’ tournament which eventually expanded to the ‘Bombay Pentangular’ with the inclusion of the ‘Rest’. Palwankar was initially rolling, watering and tending the pitch in a European sports club. The Europeans used him in net practice where his bowling talent was noted. He recounted that the Europeans never allowed him to bat even in the nets. Eventually he was included in the Deccan Gymkhana team. Palwankar later moved to Bombay and played for the ‘Parmanandas Jivandas Hindu Gymkhana’ club. The anecdote omits several important facts which would have put the ‘caste’ issue in its proper perspective. There was a tussle between the conservative and progressive members of the Hindu Gymkhana for the inclusion of Palwankar in the team and the progressives eventually prevailed. It would be more appropriate to point out that Palwankar’s talent prevailed. At a function to honour Palwankar, the well-known freedom fighter Mahadev Govind Ranade, a Brahmin, garlanded him and chided his teammates for their caste discrimination. At about the same time, Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak (another Brahmin) praised him. There was a tussle (again) between the conservatives and progressives in the Hindu Gymkhana when it was time to appoint a new captain for the team. What was left unsaid was there was a valid cricketing reason[6], at least in those days, for not making him captain:

“[Palwankar] Baloo was the team’s main bowler, and it has traditionally been thought that batsmen make better captains than bowlers. Bowlers, it is thought, have to think about their own bowling while on the field while batsmen do not have any personal responsibility and can thus focus on the broader game.”

The progressives won again and Palwankar’s brother Vithal was eventually made captain in 1924, by which time Palwankar retired. The Hindu Mahasabha fielded Palwankar in an election to the Bombay Municipality in 1933, against an upper caste candidate. The Congress party fielded Palwankar against B. R. Ambedkar in the Bombay Legislative Assembly elections in 1937.

On page 145 there is another boxed anecdote, about Tom Brown’s Schooldays, a novel published a hundred and fifty years ago. The anecdote has been included because there is a conversation about cricket in it. The book has been prescribed as a non-detailed text for high school students for decades, as a legacy from colonial pedagogy; just as sections of the Bible were included in syllabi for university students pursuing masters in English. The excerpt of the conversation between Arthur and Tom discussing the virtues of cricket is perhaps understandable. But it is difficult to comprehend the objective with which the following introduction of the novel was included:

“Thomas Hughes (1822-1896) [...] wrote a novel, Tom Brown’s Schooldays. The book published in 1857, became popular and helped spread the ideas of what came to be called muscular Christianity that believed that healthy citizens had to be moulded through Christian ideals and sports. [...] In this book Tom Brown is transformed from a nervous, homesick, timid boy into a robust, manly student. He becomes a heroic figure recognised for his physical courage, sportsmanship, loyalty and patriotism.” (Italics added.)

What is the effect of these lines on young, impressionable minds? If one were to put it bluntly, does it or not promote ‘muscular Christianity’? If the authors wanted to introduce a cricket anecdote from literature there are many to choose from. A funny, satirical account of the game “A Village Cricket Match” appeared in A. G. Macdonnell’s ‘England, Their England’ (1933). In fact, the book became immensely popular because of the description of the cricket match between a village cricket team and a London team. Christopher Nicholson wrote in 2004:

“No other account of a cricket match, or indeed any sporting occasion, has been as amusingly described nor is as replete with historical, social and political allusions.” (Italics added.)[7]

The history that is taught in our schools appears to be replete with inaccuracies, flawed, incomplete or politically slanted narratives. The syllabus does not seem to have been revised, going by the information available in the NCERT website. The rewriting of history in India does not have the brazenness associated with the rewriting of history envisioned by Orwell in his dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is far subtler and for that reason more insidious. In the novel, the function of Minitrue (ministry of truth) was to constantly rewrite history to suit the current philosophy and objectives of the rulers. One should remember, Orwell wrote about the rewriting of history in Oceania, a nation with a one-party rule. If India were ever to come under a one-party rule, well, the mind boggles to imagine the consequences! It would be naïve to dismiss the writing of history in contemporary India does not have anything to do with such an objective! Fortunately, there is no need to wrestle with a boggling mind about the consequences of one-party rule under Communism. Betrand Russell summed it up for us, eight decades ago and about six-and-a-half decades before the religion called Communism imploded:

“Communism is not democratic. What it calls the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is in fact the dictatorship of a small minority, who become an oligarchic governing class. […] To suppose that it will always act for the general good is mere foolish idealism, and is contrary to Marxian political ideology.” (Italics added.)[8]

Russell disabused the gullible of any mistaken notions they might harbor about Communism being some kind of democracy in which all citizens would have a say:

Communism restricts liberty, particularly intellectual liberty, more than any other system except Fascism. The complete unification of both economic and political power produces a terrifying engine of oppression, in which there are no loopholes for exceptions.” (Italics added.)[9]

As if he was answering the snake-oil salesmen who have been extolling the virtues of Communist dogma, he unequivocally explained why there would be no progress under Communist rule:

“Under such a system, progress would soon become impossible, since it is the nature of the bureaucrats to object to all change except increase in their own power. All serious innovation is only rendered possible by some accident enabling unpopular persons to survive. Kepler lived by astrology, Darwin by inherited wealth, Marx by Engel’s ‘exploitation’ of the proletariat of Manchester. Such opportunities of surviving in spite of unpopularity would be impossible under Communism.” (Italics added.)[10]



[1] Bhattacharya, Neeladri. “History and a Changing World” In India and the Contemporary World—I (Textbook in History for Class IX. (2007). Publications Department, NCERT. New Delhi.

[2] Courtois, Stéphane, Werth, Nicolas, Panné, Jean-Louis, Paczkowski, Andrzej, Bartosek, Karel and Margolin, Jean-Louis. (1999). The Black Book of Communism—Crimes Terror Repression (Translated by Murphy, Jonathan and Kramer, Mark. Consulting Editor: Kramer, Mark). London. Harvard University Press. p. xix

[3] Kesavan, Mukul. “History of Sport: The Story of Cricket” (pp. 141-158).The chapter is drawn mainly from: Guha, Ramachandra. (2002). “A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport.” Picador. Chapter VII.

[4] Nair, Janaki. “Clothing: A Social History” (pp. 159-178) (Textbook in History for Class IX. (2007). Publications Department, NCERT. New Delhi.

[5] Guha, Ramachandra. “Cricket and Politics in Colonial India”. Past and Present. No. 161. Nov. 1998. (pp. 155-190). p. 170. Accessible from http://goo.gl/FUq6Rc

[6] Ansari, Muneeb (2011). “The Bombay Quadrangular: Cricket as a Political Forum in India.” May 2011. Accessible from  https://goo.gl/FXB9ox p. 11 Footnote.

[7] Nicholson, Christopher. (2004). “The Funniest Cricket Match Ever”. Accessible from https://goo.gl/UqoXVN

[8] Russell, Bertrand. (1935). “IN PRAISE OF IDLENESS AND OTHER ESSAYS”. Sixth Impression (1970). Unwin Books. London. p. 70.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.