If the recent move by the HRD Ministry to develop “institutional mechanisms” to address complaints on NCERT textbooks is to fructify, we are in danger of adding more red tape to our existing levels of bureaucracy in education.
As rightly pointed out in the story, the NCERT has mechanisms to address concerns through an internal committee and is subject to the RTI Act. What it does not have is a mechanism to tackle political pressure.
To make this point clear, I looked at the complaints against the NCERT that have been covered by the media in the past.
In 2002, a pro-BJP slant was discovered in the textbooks. Then NCERT Director J.S.L Rajput was quoted in the Washington Post as saying history should be re-written from the Indian point of view. This piece explores in detail how textbooks in some states were biased as far back as the 1950s. It also spawned a sarcastic piece in the Business Standard about how easy it was to become an NCERT textbook writer.
In 2010, the much publicized Nisha Sharma dowry case (where she charged the groom Munish Dalal for asking dowry) was included in the textbook. Although the Courts acquitted Dalal and his family this year, neither politicians nor “authorities” show any signs of making amends.
The NDTV website recently hosted a set of cartoons whose worthiness the government is trying to evaluate, on the back of the furore caused by the cartoon featuring Ambedkar and Nehru.
Strangely all complaints covered in the media are in the domain of political science and history. There are no complaints in books pertaining to subjects such as English/ Hind or Science or Mathematics. Is it because “facts” accepted the world over cannot be contested? Is it because there is no political mileage to be derived by trashing Science or Mathematics books?
Complaints on the quality and availability of books get rare coverage in the media, perhaps as space fillers. Criticism or comparison on the content of textbooks is mainly on public websites such as this. Serious issues such as possible content pilferage are voiced on blogs.
If the NCERT were to develop guidelines to address complaints, it should perhaps start by publishing the list of complaints received monthly along with a description of the complaint, name of the complainant, redressal sought and action taken by NCERT. This list should be publicly accessible.
In case of any historically distorted facts, an “overwhelming sentiment” by the parliament alone should not suffice for carrying out a change. Opinions of a varied cross section of people, particularly children studying that course material and the communities/ entities affected by that content, should be sought. The people developing such content for NCERT or other affiliated bodies ought to be given a chance to validate their rationale for including such content.
For the government, making changes to textbooks might seem a victory, but for academics who have built a reputation painstakingly doing research and developing textbooks, it is a dent to their credibility.