The textbook controversy raging in Karnataka shows no signs of subsiding. As details of the changes made become public, the protest against the selective inclusion and exclusion of texts inspired by Hindutva ideology is slowly evolving into a movement against the Brahminical saffronisation of education.
The ruling BJP was defensive in the beginning but is becoming more and more aggressive as the protest intensifies. The party is using the state machinery – and also affiliated activists and groups – to counter and malign the resistance as inspired by ‘vested interests’ pursuing ‘anti-national’ politics. Hence the textbooks controversy has snowballed into a conflict between an establishment wedded to Hindutva on the one side and civil society and various communities on the other.
By itself, the routine revision of textbooks ought not to result in controversy since it is a necessary academic and pedagogic exercise for students to be able to adapt to changing needs and times. But when you have an ideological state pro-actively engaged in rewriting history with the aim of promoting its Brahminical Hindutva politics, the interest of students, of education – and, indeed, the nation – is bound to be compromised.
Textbook revision as a political exercise
In fact, the textbooks currently under the radar have been revised thrice in the past decade – twice by the BJP government and once by the erstwhile Congress government.
The BJP revised almost all school textbooks according to its guiding principles during the later part of its first tenure from 2008 to 13.
Since numerous complaints were made that the revised textbooks were not in sync with the national curriculum framework (NCF) guidelines and had introduced unsubstantiated averments as facts, the Congress government under Siddharamaiah, which came to power in 2013, constituted a committee under the chairmanship of Baragur Ramachandrappa to look into the matter. Baragur is an educationist and professor who taught at different universities in Karnataka. He is also a famous writer and an award winning film director.
In 2017, the Baragur committee was given the responsibility to look into the textbooks and recommend revisions and corrections according to the changing needs, reflecting the spirit of constitution and also complying with the NCF of 2005. Accordingly, Baragur constituted 27 sub-committees with subject experts to work on the textbooks.
After the BJP came back to power in 2019 by poaching MLAs from the Congress, the then education minister for primary education – through an order in September 2021 – nominated Rohit Chakrateertha to examine “half truths” in the textbooks prepared by the Baragur committee, especially the language and social science texts, and submit a report within a month if revisions were necessary.
An all-RSS committee
Rohit Chakrateertha is a famous young orator who came to limelight as a person pursuing extreme Hindutva politics on social media. He is close to the RSS’s ideology and suspicious of all “progressive and left leaning” scholarship and individuals. As per his own admission, Chakrateertha pursued an MSc from a college in Tamil Nadu and later started working as a mathematics lecturer in Bengaluru. He was also working with an education platform, training students for competitive exams such as CET, IIT and Olympiad, among others.
Unlike Baragur or his committee of experts, Chakrateertha lacked the expertise that the work demanded. Despite this, the government decided to expand his mandate to make him chairperson of the textbook revision committee and asked him to revise all changes made by the Baragur committee from a “nationalist” perspective. He was assisted by a committee whose members were all Brahmins except for one person. This expanded mandate came as a surprise to even Chakrateertha, who was well aware about his lack of qualifications. In fact, the education minister was out of his wits when grilled by the press about the academic credentials of the chairperson of the textbook review committee. He made himself a laughing stock when he declared that the chair was a professor of IIT and CET – a claim that Chakrateertha himself was forced to deny.
When the Chakrateertha committee gave its report and the government accepted it in totality, the teaching fraternity and student organisation were both curious and suspicious about the nature of his revisions because the draft was never released for expert scrutiny or public debate.
When some of the contents leaked during the printing process, all hell broke loose. People who were in possession of a PDF copy of the textbooks circulated them widely on social media, leading to a protests.
The revisions made by the Chakrateertha committee broadly fall into three categories: inclusions, exclusions and interpretations.
All the revisions are guided by the declared objective of making the textbooks ‘nationalist’ and inculcating pride in India’s glorious past and traditions by ‘decolonising’ the thought process corrupted by Western and left leaning perspectives. In reality, the revisions make it clear that the agenda is to promote Brahminical Hindutva perspectives.
Inclusions that give the game away
Let us consider the inclusions. At the outset, according to a study conducted by experts in the field, more than 90% of the inclusion of texts made by the Chakrateertha committee is from Brahmin writers from south Karnataka. Not only that, most of the inclusions reflect the world view and the culture of that community. According to experts, this lack of diversity of cultures in the texts, unlike the earlier texts, reinforces the existing cultural hegemony and hierarchal social order.
The real intent of the inclusions – and the BJP’s government aggressiveness in pushing for them – is illustrated by the inclusion of a speech by RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar, under the guise of facilitating good language. It’s a lesson which profess that the real ideals before young people should be good values and not leaders. While this may look innocuous, the real story comes later when the writer says – hence the RSS reveres the bhagva flag (saffron flag) and not leaders. As an afterthought, the reference to bhagva was deleted later. Of course, the cat is let out of the bag in the introduction about the author where the textbook says the RSS is a premier nationalist organisation which fought selflessly for Indian Freedom and also against centuries of cultural slavery.
Deleting Dalit-Bahujan India
The deletions comprise a long list of what the RSS-BJP want to erase from history and contemporary India. It starts with deleting a reference to Tipu Sultan as ‘Tiger of Mysore’, and his contributions to the state’s society and economy. The portions retained portray him essentially as a bigot and Muslim fanatic. The committee had also deleted a lesson on Bhagat Singh but after a sustained protest from student organisations another piece written by a Hindutva orator on the martyr was inserted. Apart from this, more than 90% of the lessons deleted by the committee belong to non-Brahmin and Muslim writers who vaguely subscribe to the values of communal harmony, peace and inclusive development and social equality.
An exhaustive lesson on Periyar has been deleted. Replying to a query about this, education minister B.C. Nagesh asked why students should learn about a Brahmin baiter. In the same vein, he also asked why students should read letters written by Nehru to his daughter. In social science subject textbooks, many hagiographical accounts of Hindu rulers and their valour in defeating Muslim invaders have been inserted to inculcate “national pride” among the students. The same minister even referred to historians like Romila Thapar as part of an anti national brigade working against nationalist ethos of the country.
Along with this, many historical non-Brahminical social reformers and poets who valiantly raised their voice against Brahmanical oppression like Akka Mahadevi, Kanakadasa, Sufi saints and others have been summarily deleted and instead Brahmanical writings have been inserted.
Distortions, from early history to Basavanna
The Hindutva Brahminical agenda behind the revision exercise becomes brazen in the interpretations and misinterpretations of various personalities and facts.
To start with, in social science, references to the oppressive Brahmanical order as the reason for the emergence of new religions like Buddhism and Jainism have been censored and instead the antipathy to growing animal sacrifice is cited as the major reason for their emergence. Justifying this interpretation, the minister and the chairman of the committee said that exploring the ‘non-existent conflict’ between Vedic and non-Vedic religions is un-Indian, and a colonial and communist construct. Aryans are taught as India’s original inhabitants and the Harappa civilisation which existed before Aryans migration/invasion is collapsed into the enigmatic Sindhu Sarasvati civilisation etc. Even the Arya-Dravida theory which considers Aryans as migrants from Eurasia, if not invaders, is dismissed as a colonial construct.
In the same vein, Basavanna, who founded the Lingayat religion in Karnataka in opposition to Brahminical theological and social orthodoxy, has been presented as a social reformer from within the Hindu religion. His negation of the sacred thread and enunciation of a theology which considers all men and women as born equal has been deleted by the BJP committee. Another BJP leader, C.T. Ravi, who is the party’s national secretary in charge of the southern states, has gone on record to say it is wrong to consider Basavanna and the Lingayats as outside the ambit of Hindu religion. He said Basavanna only preached the humanistic ethos embedded within Vedic thoughts through his new sect.
The Lingayats are a dominant community in the state which wields considerable social and political power. Lingayat Mutts are corporate bodies wielding overwhelming influence on the community. Predictably, this belittling of Basavanna and the Lingayat religion has enraged the Lingayat community. Incidentally, Chief minister Bommai also belongs to the same caste and the support of the Lingayat community is a major reason why the BJP is in power in the state. Thus, the state government has now promised that some modifications will be made to the sentences on Basavanna.
Even Kuvempu not spared
Likewise, the Brahminical textbooks revision committee also tinkered with lessons by K.V. Puttappa – popularly known as Kuvempu – the great Kannada poet and novelist.
Kuvempu’s celebrated call for universal humanity (vishvamanava) – for people to get out of the cocoons of sectarian religions and develop a universal perspective of brotherhood – has been the guiding principle of many progressive movements in Karnataka. His poem hailing Karnataka as the daughter of mother India is officially considered the state song and is sung in all schools, colleges and government programs. While the BJP committee has increased the number of poems by Kuvempu, it has attempted to blunt and even censor his political message.
Moreover, Chakrateertha has also been accused of sharing a Facebook post abusing the state song and belittling Kuvempu’s contributions. Since Kuvempu is from the Okkaliga caste, another dominant community in the state, this allegation against the chairperson of the revision committee drew the wrath of the community and even a strong worded letter from former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda, who also belongs to the same community.
The state government was quick enough to respond to these grievances and has already filed a case with the police to trace the original offensive post, while protecting Chakrateertha by giving him a clean chit even before the investigation by stating that he is not the originator of the post. In the process, the BJP was cunning enough to reduce the whole resistance against its textbook revision and the objections raised against the belittling of Kuvempu to the incident of a Facebook post. It also sought to that the community and the BJP government are on the same page. This was an immediate electoral and political necessity for the BJP-RSS because its base among the Okkaligas is not yet consolidated, unlike the Lingayats.
Belittling Dr B.R. Ambedkar
The textbook revisions do not even spare Dr B.R. Ambedkar – a figure the BJP is going out of its way to appropriate so that Dalits are retained in the Hindutva family without demanding radical changes. He, too, has been completely misrepresented, misinterpreted and belittled.
To start with, the reference to Ambedkar as the principle architect of the constitution has been deleted. Even Ambedkar’s mission for social equality – as against the inequality embedded in the Hindu religion based on caste – has been rephrased as a mere struggle for social reforms within the ambit of Hinduism. Any reference to his fight for the ‘Untouchables’ against discrimination by caste Hindus is also sanitised as an abstract reformist enterprise. Even Ambedkar’s embracing of Buddhism – his way of renouncing the hierarchal essence of Hinduism – is highlighted as a simple conversion to a religion which is an integral part of Hindu culture. References to the social, economic and political reasons behind this conversion have been deleted.
The resistance, historic but inadequate
The committee’s recommendations became a bone of contention right from the time they became public. Since them, activist-volunteers and experts have been bust exposing the content and intent of the revisions on social media. Leading Kannada newspapers like Prajavani have taken the lead in exposing the changes and facilitating an informed debate.
The resistance slowly gathered momentum when student organisations and intellectuals in the field started to register their protest against the revisions. They demanded that the corrections be scrapped and that the government use the textbooks prepared by Baragur for this year. Many prominent Dalit-Bahujan and Left intellectuals like Devanur Mahadeva and G. Ramakrishna who had survived the purge issued a statement demanding the government drop their writings from the revised textbooks as a form of protest. Many authors followed suit.
Later when it became known that the revision committee had tinkered with Basavanna and Kuvempu, many Lingayat seers and Mutts and Okkaliga seers and social organisations also wrote letters and participated in the protest. A huge rally on was held in Bangalore on June 18 by left-progressive student and civil society organisations, non-BJP political parties and pro-Kannada organisations along with the seers of different communities, which gave the government an ultimatum to withdraw the textbooks. The Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) also wrote an open letter to the CM calling on him to withdraw the textbooks and continue with the old ones. Thus, the battle line is drawn where all the prominent non-BJP, non-Brahminical, left-progressive forces are on one side and the BJP-RSS and kindred groups are on the other.
The limits of caste as a rallying point
Still, the BJP government is undeterred by this seemingly alarming polarisation against it. The only concession it has made has been to file a case against the Facebook post maligning Kuvempu and agreeing to amend the sentences referring to Basavanna. It has also made it very clear in a recent press conference led by senior Okkaliga cabinet minister R. Ashok, that no fundamental objections pertaining to its rewriting and reinterpretations, inclusions and exclusions – even of Kuvempu or Basavanna – shall be entertained.
On June 27, the government issued an official corrigendum to carry out some nominal corrections. Out of the eight corrections officially conceded, one is to restore the prefix “Architect of Indian Constitution” before the name of Ambedkar, two pertain to a nominal correction to Basavanna’s introduction and the inclusion of another name of a Lingayat Mutt in describing the glory of Karnataka, and three pertain to inclusion of the photo of Kuvempu and the deletion of belittling references made to him, etc.
Thus, these corrigenda once again establish the manipulative hypocrisy of the BJP government – where it reinforces the essential core of Brahminical Hindutva while pretending to be inclusive in the form and periphery. Significantly, the BJP-RSS are using the occasion to step up their ideological offensive on progressive personalities and ideologies by hosting seminars all over the state.
Though the resistance is growing and evolving on the ideological plane, it currently lacks the ability to see through the designs of the RSS-BJP – leave alone defeat it. That the BJP government has mastered the art of breeding divisions in the ranks of the opposition is once again established when its ministers made multiple visits to the Lingayat Mutts and dissuaded them from participating in the ideological battle waged against Brahminism. It was also successful in dissuading the dominant Okkaliga seers from participating in the protests. The recent visit by Prime minister Modi to these Mutts during his visit to Karnataka has also helped the BJP.
This is also a reflection of the Brahminisation and Sanskritization of the elites of these communities, who serve not only as gatekeepers but also as stakeholder in the empire of Brahminical Hindutva in its present avatar. Thus, how far caste will play a role against neo-Brahminical hegemony when elites from the non-Brahmin dominant castes are beneficiaries of the regime as a class is a serious question.
In spite of all these limitations and the impossibility of immediate success, the textbook controversy has been somewhat successful in exposing the Brahminical-Hindutva ideology of the BJP-RSS regime. Thanks to the debate, more people in Karnataka are aware of the need for a sustained ideological and political battle against this ideology. The controversy and the capitulation of elite non-Brahmins has also highlighted the importance of formulating an alternative, egalitarian vision that can empower the broad masses of the people to take the lead. While this process will take time, the textbook movement can be considered one small step in that direction.
Shivasundar is a columnist and activist in Karnataka.