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Eklavya loses thumb again

By Harbans Mukhia

The sharpness of the demarcating lines is all the more important in such critical areas as the question of communalising education.

ONE IMPORTANT offshoot of the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s around the world and in India was a considerable experimentation in the area of education at all levels. In India, experimenting with a different mode of imparting education at the highest level resulted in the establishment of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1969; it started functioning in 1971 with the appointment of faculty and the admission of the first batch of students next year.

If JNU attracted a lot of media attention for a whole spectrum of reasons, another, humbler but extremely significant experiment was being tried out in a small town of Madhya Pradesh around the same time. A group of highly motivated scholars, young and not so young, were restless with the way they had learnt science in their schools and later at the university; the whole mode of teaching science to children should be turned upside down, they felt. Instead of being a quest, the method of teaching science in class killed all the excitement of the pursuit of knowledge which explains the mysteries of life to children. The class teacher, following the textbook, proceeds from the abstract to the concrete, expatiates upon a concept, say, of gravity, to sixth class and then illustrates it with examples. Unable to grasp the abstract concept, the child is also unable to link the concrete with it. She thus learns both by rote. Rare would be the child who would rather remain in such a class than run out if it.

The group of scholars, like the Mahabharata lad Eklavya, whose name they were later to adopt for their organisation, opted to pursue their search in near wilderness, away from the glare and distractions of a metropolis and settled down in the small town of Hoshangabad on the banks of the Narmada in Madhya Pradesh. There they set out to get the children to generate knowledge for themselves by putting the textbook aside for the moment and going out in the neighbourhood, looking for special kinds of tree leaves, stones, what not and then asking questions and seeking answers. The questions led them to concepts, and the search for answers to the scientific methods of observation, experimentation, analysis and generalisation. They were to be trained in the critical method of acquiring knowledge rather than in the passive acceptance of knowledge generated by teachers; this would stand them in good stead and well prepared to leave behind knowledge that had fallen out of place with the advancement of science. In life too they would learn the application of reason.

There was also another valuable principle implied in it. In the great energy and resources expended in the pursuit of education for the next generation, the poor should not have to satisfy their quest with second rate, leftover education: what their children get too should be good and worthwhile.

The group started working in 1972 under the rather prosaic name of Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme (HSTP), until ten years later when it acquired the present very evocative name. The idea attracted a large number of scientists, some of them as eminent as M.S. Swaminathan, M.G.K. Menon, Yash Pal, and many others teaching in the University of Delhi, who involved themselves in the development of the programme at some stage or the other, in one form or another. The HSTP and later Eklavya sought to develop the programme well within the framework of the system of school education in Madhya Pradesh and with the approval, cooperation and assistance of successive Governments of the State at costs that were almost ridiculously low. As they went along, they developed expertise in writing new kinds of textbooks, training teachers through short term refresher courses, publishing magazines for children and for teachers, and devising tool kits at a fraction of prevailing costs. In course of time, a social science component was also developed based upon the same principle of proceeding from the familiar to the abstract rather than the other way around. By 2001, the HSTP was operative in 1000 schools in 15 districts and 100,000 children were its beneficiaries. The best testimony to its success has been the excitement and joy the process of learning has brought to the children over the past three decades.

Education that inculcates critical faculty and reasoning is by its very nature secular education. Understandably then the one-term BJP Government led by Sundar Lal Patwa was dead set against continuing to allow any space and assistance to Eklavya and initiated steps to pack it off. The Government had the solid backing of the BJP-affiliates in the community of school teachers. Fortunately for Eklavya, the Government lost the election in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Congress Government under Digvijay Singh has remained ensconced since then. Eklavya could thus heave a sigh of relief.

Not for long, though. For, keen as the Congress, at the central and the State levels, is to project itself as an alternative to the BJP's politics of hatred, obscurantism and communalism, it is not immune to the BJP's politics of manipulation from the outside. At one meeting of the Hoshangabad District Planning Committee, the local BJP MLA (a special invitee and therefore not even a member) quite casually suggested that the programme be dropped; and the meeting, chaired by the Finance Minister, a Congressman, agreed to it without any further ado. This is without reference to the very high-powered State Advisory Board on Education, which includes some of the country's most distinguished names, constituted by the Madhya Pradesh Government very recently. Within days, nine of twelve members of the Committee sought a review of the decision in writing, but this too has not been conceded. Eklavya's thumb was chopped off a second time and with the same ruthlessness. Understandably, the first to congratulate the Government on this bold step was the ABVP. The bureaucracy which had all these years extended appreciation and support to the programme suddenly issued swift office orders announcing the termination of the science teaching programme; clearly the social science teaching component would be next on the block and not too long from now. All this is within the knowledge of the Chief Minister and presumably with his approval.

In a scenario where the BJP and the Congress are fast emerging as the political alternatives, the sharpness of the demarcating lines is all the more important in such critical areas as the question of communalising education. While the BJP makes no bones about saffronising the minds of Indian children from the word go as its objective, the blurring of the demarcating lines between it and the Congress is tantamount to the cause being already lost. The Congress has already lost a lot of its secular ground by its passivity in Gujarat. Are we really witnessing the saffronisation of the Congress?

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