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Our children don’t need a ‘deshbhakti’ curriculum

Avijit Pathak writes: What they need is a learning community that makes them capable of distinguishing the soothing light of knowledge and wisdom from the glitz of falsehood and propaganda

Will the educationists and policymakers who advise the Delhi government come forward with the idea of radical restructuring of education rather than this “patriotism” mantra? (File)

In the age of competitive hyper-nationalism and demonstrative patriotism, it is difficult not to be a “deshbhakt” of some kind. Yet, as a teacher and perpetual wanderer, I urge my students not to be a bhakt of any particular deity, be it a nation, a political doctrine, or an organised religion. My fear is that a bhakt often loses the ability to decondition his mind, expand his horizon, and even critique what appears to be “sacred”. We must not forget that the bhakts of Nazism, totalitarian socialism, greedy capitalism, religious fundamentalism and militaristic nationalism have given us a world filled with nuclear weapons, technologies of surveillance and psychic/spiritual dumbness. In other words, a bhakt is not really a student who continually evolves, grows, explores and unlearns in order to learn the music of existence. Hence, the idea of the “deshbhakti curriculum” (even when the Delhi government seeks to present it as genuine patriotism), I would argue, cannot be in tune with a life-affirming pedagogy that encourages awakened intelligence, reflexive thinking, ethics of love and critical awareness.

My critique doesn’t mean that I am devaluing the significance of your close affinity with the territorial/geographical and socio-cultural landscape you inhabit. Yes, you love the river that flows through your village; the Himalayan peaks call you; the tales of Bhagat Singh and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi fascinate you; the splendid diversity you experience through a rhythmic train journey from Chennai to Kolkata might have a special appeal to you; and possibly, Gautam Buddha’s meditative self and compassionate eyes touch your soul. Moreover, the huge body of knowledge and wisdom that once flourished in this ancient civilisation — from the Upanishadic quest for the transcendental to the doctrine of logic and reasoning — make you a humble spectator of your creative heritage. You love your country; and it is natural that you would like your children to know and love it. Why should one deny this?

Yet, do you want your child to mechanically recite Saare jahan se achchha Hindustan hamara at the school assembly? Or is it that you want your child to open her eyes, and acquire the courage to accept that as things stand now, our country is culturally, spiritually and politically sick? A young IAS officer — the pampered icon of the Indian middle class — who accepts dowry in an instrumental marital alliance should not make her proud of her country. A politician who cherishes the cult of narcissism, and loves to be surrounded by sycophants should repel her. A “devotee” who pollutes the river at Haridwar through his “puja”, and yet calls himself “spiritual” should make her question the hollowness of priestcraft and ritualism. A “nationalist” who keeps constructing his “enemies”, and finds vicarious pleasure in militarism and all sorts of war metaphors should frighten her. The alliance of patriarchy, religious bigotry and vulgar consumerism ought to disturb her. How can she continue to be bombarded by the sermons of deshbhakti as she finds herself in a country characterised by mind-boggling inequality and hierarchy, brutalisation of human consciousness and all-pervading corruption? I would imagine that as a concerned teacher/parent, you would like your child to sharpen the art of resistance (because to truly love the country is to say “no” to what degrades our land and people), and strive for something higher than non-reflexive/demonstrative deshbhakti and loud/noisy nationalism.

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As a teacher, I feel we do not need a “deshbhakti curriculum”, and that too at a time when a heavy dose of hyper-nationalism has poisoned our collective consciousness. Instead, we need something qualitatively different; we need a learning milieu that seeks to cultivate qualities like empathy, the art of compassionate listening and the ethics of care. Imagine a school principal giving an altogether new meaning to the morning assembly, and urging her students to realise what it means to be a Father Stan Swamy in our times. Imagine a physics teacher urging her students to realise that science is a search for truth through critical thinking; it is not just a “success mantra” — a road to the lucrative techno-corporate world. Think of a history teacher inspiring her students to imagine that they too were with Gandhi at Noakhali in 1946, and striving for harmony and cross-religious dialogue. Imagine the Republic Day celebration — no Vande Mataram, but students and teachers sitting together and watching M S Sathyu’s Garm Hava or Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati, and probing into this fractured independence. Imagine a school that activates critical thinking, arouses humanistic temper, and softens the soul.

Believe it, the prevalent practice of education is devoid of this sort of imagination. With rote learning, inflated marks, coaching centres and the rat race, it manufactures the “toppers”, most of them crudely ambitious and incapable of imagining anything beyond the expressway and IIT-IIM-America. Or it stigmatises those who have “failed”. Yes, it is manufacturing a disenchanted generation. It is nothing but violence — physical, cultural and psychic. Hence, for our collective redemption, we need to strive for emancipatory education characterised by critical pedagogy and an abundance of love and understanding. Our children deserve it. In this “risk society” filled with the threats of climate crisis, devastating wars and terrorist violence, they need a healing touch; a learning community that makes them capable of distinguishing the soothing light of knowledge and wisdom from the glitz of falsehood and propaganda, or, say, the dedicated work of an environmentalist from the dramaturgical performance of the “messiah” of the nation, or the journey of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora from that of a militant nationalist shouting “Jai Shri Ram”, or the story of Saadat Hasan Manto from what our “patriotic” television channels do every evening.

Will the educationists and policymakers who advise the Delhi government come forward with the idea of radical restructuring of education rather than this “patriotism” mantra? We already have enough of it.

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 27, 2021 under the title ‘The syllabus patriots don’t need’. Pathak is professor of sociology at JNU

First published on: 27-10-2021 at 03:12:08 am
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