India: Nationalist curriculum prompts walk-outs

Opposition campaigns against a central government bid to impose a Hindu agenda on schools has made education a key issue in Indian elections for the first time in 14 years.

Elections in four Indian states are to be held on Wednesday amid controversy over the curriculum reforms proposed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, which leads the ruling centrist coalition.

The reforms include "Indianising and spiritualising" school education, teaching Hindu scriptures - Vedas - in schools and making Sanskrit "compulsory" until the secondary level.

The government also wants textbooks to be rewritten to promote "nationalism", a euphemism for the BJP's philosophy according to which India belongs to the Hindus and the ethnic minorities must adapt themselves to the Hindu way of life, known as "Hindutva".

There was chaos at an education ministers' conference in New Delhi recently as ministers from opposition states walked out protesting against the reforms. They were supported by ministers from Punjab and the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, both of which are ruled by BJP allies.

Though the Government has been forced to withdraw the proposals, the BJP president Kushabhau Thakre has said that they are simply on hold and would be brought up again at an "appropriate" moment.

Already textbooks in BJP-ruled states have been rewritten to promote the ideas of its parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh which rejects India's multiculturalism. In the north Indian desert state of Rajasthan, a new textbook contains writings by leading RSS ideologues including its chief, Rajendra Singh, who extols the virtues of ancient Hindu India.

Most of the new political science and history books have been written by RSS scholars. The Rajasthan secondary education board, which prescribes the textbooks, is headed by a RSS hardliner, Gopeshwar Dayal Mathur.

The Rajasthan education minister Gulab Chand Kataria has justified the inclusion of RSS philosophy in textbooks saying that it is "just another school of thought". Independent students and teachers' organisations have planned a march to parliament when it meets for the winter session on November 30.

The National Council for Educational Research and Training, the federal agency responsible for enforcing the national curriculum, has conveyed its concern to the central Government.

The last time education figured in elections was in 1984 when the late Rajiv Gandhi campaigned for a new education policy. When he came to power he did formulate a comprehensive policy, popularly known as the "1986 Policy" which the new government wants to overturn.

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