The media is conspiring to divide the nation. The media is ideological, biased and trades in untruths. This was the verdict of Atul Kothari, National Secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-linked “education and culture” foundation Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas and the Director General of the Indian Institute of Mass Communications, K G Suresh. While Kothari’s tone was more in sorrow than anger, Suresh, a former journalist, banged on about falling journalistic standards, the lack of ethics and ideological agenda to polarise the country. These are subjects of grave concern to professional journalists and media organisations who daily strive to maintain standards in a political environment hostile to independent media.

Then why did Suresh’s exposition of the problems facing the Indian media ring hollow?

Kothari and Suresh were speaking at a hurriedly organised meeting in New Delhi on July 27. The meeting’s purpose, it soon became clear, was to malign the media in order to contain the potential political fallout of The Indian Express report about Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas’ recommendations for changes to school textbooks. The report said:

“Remove English, Urdu and Arabic words, a poem by the revolutionary poet Pash and a couplet by Mirza Ghalib; the thoughts of Rabindranath Tagore; extracts from painter M F Husain’s autobiography; references to the Mughal emperors as benevolent, to the BJP as a ‘Hindu’ party, and to the National Conference as ‘secular’; an apology tendered by former prime minister Manmohan Singh over the 1984 riots; and a sentence that ‘nearly 2,000 Muslims were killed in Gujarat in 2002’. These are some of the many recommendations the RSS-affiliated Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas has sent to the National Council of Educational Research and Training, which recently sought suggestions from the public on reviewing school textbooks of all classes.”

The report had ruffled feathers in Bengal and in Parliament. In the Rajya Sabha, Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien, despite the Rajya Sabha speaker’s best efforts to stymie him, had asked whether references to Rabindranath Tagore were going to be excised from NCERT textbooks. The minister for human resources and development, Prakash Javadekar, speaking on behalf of the autonomous NCERT, assured the House that no such thing was going to happen.

On July 27, Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas issued a statement that media reports claiming it had asked for removal of Tagore’s thoughts from Class 10 textbooks were lies. There was no reference to Tagore in its submission to the NCERT. “Some newspapers, The Indian Express in particular, by publishing incorrect information have tried to deflect attention from the issue [its recommendations to the NCERT],” the statement said, adding that the foundation intended to send a legal notice to The Indian Express.

Denial and distraction asked Atul Kothari for the SSUN’s five-page submission to the NCERT both on the phone, in a private conversation prior to the meeting and in the course of the meeting on Thursday. He refused to do so. He said he did not want to be misquoted. Asked if he had given the documents to The Indian Express, he said he had. One of the documents with The Indian Express, which this writer has seen, does make a reference to Tagore. The title of the document is: “Subject wise discrepancies, suggestions and recommendations on the NCERT syllabus”

On page 5, SSUN states: “An attempt has been made to present a conflict between nationality and humanity in Rabindranath’s thinking”. In the SSUN document this is under the sub-head ‘Main course book English course communication class 10 Unit-6 National Integration’. This, however, is not to an NCERT published textbook but a workbook for class 10 published by the CBSE. Unit-6 ‘National Integration’ has reading and comprehension exercises based on, among other things, Tagore’s poem, “Where the mind is without Fear” and on an essay titled Challenges to National integration. The essay contains the lines: “Rabindranath Tagore held humanity above anything else. Religion has become an explosive issue. But fanaticism and radicalism have to be eliminated in order to ensure stability.”

The NCERT Political Theory textbook for class XI has a rather fuller treatment of Tagore’s views on the limits of patriotism. It quotes Tagore’s letter to A M Bose in which he says: “Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter. My refuge is humanity”. In the Hindi version patriotism is rashtravad and humanity is manavta. This corresponds to SSUN’s claim that “nationality and humanity” in Tagore’s thinking is shown as being at odds. However in the critique of the textbook in the same document this finds no mention. A paragraph on this textbook says it is “western” in its approach, and recommends that the concepts of independence, equality, social justice, rights, citizenship, nationalism, secularism, peace and development are illustrated “with examples from the Vedas, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Manusmriti, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Shukraniti, Bhagavad-Gita etc.”

Among other “lies” that the media regularly purveys, according to Kothari, is that Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas is affiliated to the RSS. Kothari took umbrage to it being referred to as an “RSS-linked organisation”. In response to questions about the relationship between the RSS and the foundation at Thursday’s meeting, Kothari would not say more than that “RSS is an independent organisation, SSUN is an independent organisation”.

It is hard to trace formal links between the RSS and the myriad trusts and NGOs set up by its full-time workers to carry forward its various agendas. This is because the RSS is not a registered organisation. The numerous registered organisations run by its full-time members can, therefore, claim to be independent of it.

Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas’ registered office is at Saraswati Bal Mandir, Naraiana Vihar, Delhi. Vidya Bharti, commonly identified as the RSS’s education wing, runs this school. Its website states: “This was the dream which, in 1952, inspired some RSS workers to take up education of children as a mission of their life”.

Top among its stated aims is “to develop a National System of Education which would help to build a generation of young men and women that is committed to Hindutva and infused with patriotic fervor (sic)”.

All in the parivar

Vidya Bharti’s former head, the RSS swayamsewak Dina Nath Batra, set up Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas and was until recently was the name most associated with it. Atul Kothari too is a swayamsewak. A report published by the RSS newspaper The Organiser in 2008 confirms this.

“RSS Sarkaryavah Shri Mohan Bhagwat announced the following change of the responsibilities of some adhikaris at the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha in Vrindavan,” the report reads, and lists Kothari as the new head of the RSS affiliate Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a precursor to the Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas.

Perhaps, Kothari was impelled to publicly dissociate from the RSS because even purported criticism of Tagore is politically explosive in Bengal. Indeed, the RSS in the state was quick to put distance between itself and Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas’ report, although, like Kothari, it blamed the media for “malicious propaganda”.

A statement from the RSS Bengal chapter, as reported in the media, stated:

“SSUN is an independent body. Also, reports on their recommendation to remove names and thoughts of eminent personalities like Tagore are false and fabricated. This is an intentional attempt to club RSS and SSUN together to malign our image…RSS strongly denounces such irresponsible act and also does not subscribe to the views expressed in the reports. It is the duty of all nationalist citizens to strongly oppose such malicious propaganda. SSUN will soon issue a press release with a copy of the actual recommendations sent. Till then, be united and stay patriotic.”

Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas did not hold a press conference or provide a copy of its “actual recommendations” to the NCERT. For the actual recommendations are what The Indian Express reported. Indeed, the foundation not only refused to share any documents, it also held a public panel discussion with the sole aim of deflecting attention from its concern over Tagore’s view of patriotism being taught in school by discrediting the media.

So far, The Indian Express has not received a legal notice from Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas nor even a letter pointing out the purported errors in its report. On the contrary, when asked Kothari about specific propositions listed in The Indian Express report, he confirmed they were indeed part of the recommendations and asserted that he was the author of the report.

The BJP and its mother ship, the RSS, are constantly engaged in a balancing act. While the former pursues its ideological goals through interventions and proselytisation by the many trusts and NGOs linked to it, the latter does so through elections and the exercise of political power. As the BJP has gained in power, the Sangh Parivar has got unprecedented access to institutions of state and public institutions linked to the state. But those that continue to operate as before, perhaps because they find their agendas not treated as a policy priority, have the power to embarrass the BJP or even cause it political setbacks. When the BJP was in opposition, Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas – which boasts of 11 successful court cases to get books changed or banned – kept the Sangh’s battle to control ideas on the boil. But, as the latest controversy shows, its missionary zeal to pursue these issues could be troublesome for the BJP as it pushes for electoral dominance.

Javadekar’s response in the Rajya Sabha was clearly intended to quickly put a lid on the controversy. The meeting called by Kothari and Suresh had the same purpose. Denial, however, is a little hard, with documentary evidence in the hands of the media. So, the only way to try and make a denial stick in these circumstances is to discredit the media.

This is of a piece with the media strategy of the BJP and the Sangh. The union government and its ministers have led the charge against a questioning media, calling them “presstitutes” and other terms of abuse. The import of the SSUN meeting was simply this – with few exceptions the media lies and must not be believed.

This is malicious propaganda.