Kerala is battling twin controversies over the alleged saffronisation of education in the state. The first controversy erupted last week after it came to light that the Vidya Bharti Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s education wing – was circulating books in government schools that allegedly distorted historical facts. Parents and political parties protested, saying the texts were Right-wing propaganda and a deliberate attempt to create communal tension. The Left government in the state said the organisation did not have the required permission to distribute the books and ordered an inquiry.

However, on Wednesday, criticism veered towards the state government with the emergence of a circular directing schools to celebrate the birth centenary of Jan Sangh leader Deendayal Upadhyaya in September. The circular was issued by the Director of Public Instruction on August 31. Education Minister C Ravindranath clarified that the state government had not instructed schools to hold the celebrations. “The government officers might have forwarded the Union government’s circular directly to the schools,” he said.

But angry posts on social media accused the state government of taking a soft Hindutva approach. Writer NS Madhavan tweeted on Tuesday:

There have been several instances in the past where the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have been accused of bringing about changes in school curriculum along Hindutva lines.

The Vidya Bharti claims the books it circulated in government schools in Kerala are reference material for a scholarship test – the Vidya Bharti Samskruthi Jnan Examination – it holds every year. This year, it is scheduled to be conducted across the state in December.

Right-wing agenda

There are nine books in all in the Malayalam language for students of Classes 4-12, priced at Rs 50 a piece. Each book has nine chapters: Mother India, Valiant sons of Mother India, Indian way of life, India’s cultural heritage, Inspiring Indian epics and history, Vasudhaiva Kudumbakam (the world is one family), India’s scientific tradition, General knowledge, and Vedic mathematics. Included in the books are a current political map of India and a cultural map of the country with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan a part of it.

The texts for Classes 4-7 mainly contain questions and answers that students are expected to memorise. The Hindutva agenda becomes more obvious in the books for Classes 8-12.

For instance, this is a paragraph from a Class 8 book: “Pushpak Viman in Ramayana may be a fictitious vehicle, but Bharadwaj Maharshi had written a book [on] aeronautical science in which he had introduced the aerospace scientists who lived before him.” (Bharadwaj Maharshi was a vedic sage and scholar). The text makes no mention of the Wright Brothers, who invented the first powered aircraft in 1903.

A section in a Class 9 book claims: “Mughal emperor Aurangazeb had demolished a temple in Sri Krishna’s birth place. Efforts are on to liberate the Sri Krishna Janmabhoomi to fulfil the wishes of devotees.”

A Class 5 book calls Onam Kerala’s national festival, but adds that Vaman Jayanti is celebrated on the same day. Onam, which marks the end of the crop season and heralds the annual visit of the Asura king Mahabali, is the state’s biggest festival. Vaman Jayanti is a celebration of Vishnu, who is said to have banished Mahabali to the underworld. Malayali society has for long been divided over the two festivals.

Another book, this one for Class 4 students, describes Hanuman and Manu (who wrote the ancient legal text Manusmriti) as valiant sons of mother India.

The books also hail various Right-wing leaders. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leaders KS Hedgewar and MS Golwalkar are included in a list of famous Indian personalities alongside Mahatma Gandhi in a book for Class 6 students. This list does not have the name of Jawaharlal Nehru though.

In addition, the books have the photographs of prominent personalities such as social reformer Sree Narayana Guru, Swamy Vivekananda’s disciple Sister Nivedita, former president APJ Abdul Kalam, poet G Shankara Kurup, badminton player Saina Nehwal and Jan Sangh leader Deendayal Upadhyaya on their covers.

The cultural map shows Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are part of India.

No permission

On October 20, the Government Vocational Higher Secondary School in Koyilandi in Kozhikode district became one of the first schools in the state to receive the books. These were circulated under the supervision of Hindi teacher K Murali, a Sangh Parivar sympathiser.

Parents immediately raised objections to the books. Soon after, several political parties, excluding the BJP, and student organisations took out protest marches. They accused the Bharatiya Vidya Niketan, the Vidya Bharti’s Kerala unit, of distributing the books without the permission of the state education department.

Acting on their complaints, the Director of Public Instructions ordered an inquiry and Education Minister C Ravindranath said that government schools must not conduct the examination without approval. The Hindi teacher at the Koyilandi school was suspended on Tuesday.

Vidya Bharti national joint secretary NCT Rajagopal admitted the organisation had not sought the education department’s permission to hold the test, but added that the matter was being politicised. “We never insisted that students appear for the examination,” he said. “The current controversy is a creation of political parties who do not know the culture and tradition of Bharath.”

He added, “We conducted the examination in government schools in 2016. It did not become an issue then. Why now?”

Bharatiya Vidya Niketan officials say they have been conducting scholarship exams in schools run by the organisation in Kerala for 30 years now. The group owns 417 educational institutions in the state with a student strength of 75,913. Besides, students of schools managed by the Chinmaya Mission, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Nair Service Society and Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam are also encouraged to take the test.

The officials claimed that more than 32,000 students in Kerala had appeared for the exam last year.

‘Initiative to bring change’

The Bharatiya Vidya Niketan rejected the claims that the books distort historical facts in order to toe the Sangh line. Rajagopal said, “It is a lie.”

He added, “We can prove the aeroplane was not invented by the Wright Brothers. We have got the details of aerospace science that flourished in ancient India from Vimana Sarvaswam. Those who read it should counter our arguments.”

Rajagopal said the books were published after extensive research. He said an expert panel of academics had spent months referencing rare books on Indian history at the Vidya Bharti office in Kurukshetra.

Rajagopal insisted that in fact it was Marxist historians such as Romila Thapar and Satish Chandra who have been distorting facts for years. “It is high time to correct those wrongs,” he said. “This is part of our initiative to bring in change.”

He added, “We are planning to meet the Director of Public Education in Kerala to convince him that the books do not contain any misleading information. If he raises any doubts we will clear them scientifically.”

A political map of India in one of the books circulated by the Vidya Bharti in Kerala.

All photographs courtesy TA Ameerudheen.