A hallmark of the Modi government’s first 200 days in office is the beginning of the Sangh Parivar’s Long March through the institutions of the state, in particular bodies that deal with education and culture. The Parivar’s agenda is to reflect its own specific brand of “cultural nationalism” in these institutions by engineering long-term changes in their programmes and priorities, and by making key appointments of personnel who will loyally execute such changes.

The government’s imposition of the observance of Christmas Day as “good governance” day on a range of Central educational institutions – including Navodaya Vidyalayas and Central Board of Secondary Education-affiliated schools, the 45 Central universities, the elite Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management – is only the latest, if symbolic, step in that direction. It forces them through a mere executive order to celebrate the birth anniversaries of two Parivar icons, Atal Behari Vajpayee and the even-more sectarian former Hindu Mahasabha leader Madan Mohan Malaviya.

The larger Sangh agenda includes more substantive changes in the content of education and what is officially supported and promoted as culture. For instance, the government has appointed pro-Hindutva or pro-BJP individuals to head the apex-level Indian Council of Historical Research, the prestigious Indian Institute of Advanced Study at Shimla, and Banaras Hindu University, established, incidentally, by Malaviya in 1916.

De-saffronisation process derailed

This sends out an unmistakable signal about the shape of things to come in other Central universities, including Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Indian Council of Social Science Research, some of the IITs, and the CBSE, among many other institutions where new appointments are due soon at the top or in their councils and governing bodies.

An even stronger signal emanates from the manner in which Parvin Sinclair, the upright and independent-minded director of the National Council for Educational Research and Training, was ousted over two years before her term ended. This aborted at the last stage the revision (improvement and updating) of the National Curriculum Framework 2005 she had initiated. The framework itself was the product of a long, broadly consultative process of “de-saffronisation”, which led to widely acclaimed, secular-liberal and pedagogically superior school textbooks.

On May 22, even before Narendra Modi was sworn in, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas run by Dinanath Batra (of book-pulping fame) demanded a total overhaul of the education system and rewriting of textbooks so they inculcate patriotism, reflect “Indian tradition, social consciousness… and spiritualism”, and help build a “strong and vibrant India”. He insisted that Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani reconstitute the NCERT. When Sinclair refused to toe Irani’s line on the National Curriculum Framework and other issues, she was reportedly charged with financial irregularities, not allowed to defend herself fully, and asked to resign.

Questionable appointments

There has been no similar purge in other institutions so far. But the government has used three other methods to favour the Parivar: appointing RSS functionaries or close sympathisers to high positions although they manifestly lack academic competence, leave alone distinction; nominating mediocrities who are BJP fellow-travellers to head institutions; and co-opting appointees of the previous regime by striking questionable deals with them which benefit the Parivar.

Last month’s appointment of Girish Chandra Tripathi as Banaras Hindu University vice-chancellor, a post held earlier by luminaries like S Radhakrishnan and Acharya Narendra Dev, falls in the first category. Tripathi, long a hardcore prant (province)-level RSS official, was a professor of economics at Allahabad University. But going by a Google scholar search and other available biographical entries, he has published no books or papers, at least recently.

Teaching history of the epics

The appointment of Y Sudershan Rao, a singularly undistinguished historian close to a spiritual guru (who mediated with the RSS-Bharatiya Janata Party on his behalf), as chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research is a similar, if somewhat less sordid, story. Rao rails against Western and Marxist scholars and defends the caste system. He wants to prove the historicity of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. He emphasises the relevance of the Puranas: “The ICHR has to play a catalyst role in taking to people their history” through the epics. According to Romila Thapar, Rao fails to distinguish between epics and historical texts. He has published no articles on the epics, or on Ayodhya as Rama’s birthplace, in peer-reviewed journals.

One of Rao’s first actions was to invite a Belgium-based, rabidly pro-Hindutva scholar, SN Balagangadhara, to deliver the Maulana Azad Memorial Lecture on November 11. Balagangadhara’s views drew serious criticism from distinguished historians like Rajan Gurukkal.

Belonging to the second category are Chandrakala Padia’s nomination as the chairperson of IIAS-Shimla by the Human Resource Development Ministry, and Kavita Sharma’s nomination as the vice-chancellor of South Asian University by the foreign ministry. Padia, who comes from Varanasi, does have some published work, but its quality is not commensurate with her position at IIAS. Sharma was director of the India International Centre, Delhi, and earlier principal of Hindu College, but can claim little academic accomplishment.

Changing with the times

Third, the Parivar seems to have cut deals with various United Progressive Alliance appointees, who have turned pro-BJP-RSS, including University Grants Commission chairman Ved Prakash and Delhi University vice-chancellor Dinesh Singh, who both attended a lunch hosted by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat in Delhi on October 12. Prakash is alleged to be anxious to continue in his post till 2017, despite vigilance and other inquiries against him.

Singh’s favourite, but mindless, scheme (the Four-Year Undergraduate Programme) was recently shot down by Irani. Sensing the wind, he  allegedly capitulated. He has provided a platform to senior RSS functionaries on the campus, including Indresh Kumar and Krishna Gopal.

This is the first in a two-part series on the saffronisation of education and culture. You can read the second part here.