Saddled with new school textbooks introduced in July 2016 that educationists criticised as narrow, sectarian and unscientific, some teachers in Rajasthan made an effort to limit the damage.

Vakil Singh, former principal of Government Senior Secondary School in Kaliyan in Sri Ganganagar district, for instance, stocked the school library with magazines and other reading material for even the junior classes. He made weekly library visits mandatory for all children.

During his time as senior-most teacher in a Bikaner school, Sanjay Yadav (name changed on request) introduced the practice of sharing items of news and general knowledge every day on a common board. He modified the morning prayers to go beyond the overtly religious Saraswati Vandana.

Vinay Godara, a primary teacher at the Adarsh school in Sri Ganganagar, encouraged his students to ask questions and even challenge the content of their textbooks. “I remind children that all animals, and not just the cow, should be appreciated and that no one religion is better than another. I explain with examples and children usually trust teachers.”

But such efforts are rare. For one, such teachers are in a minority, said Mahaveer Sihag of the Rajasthan Shikshak Sangh (Shekhawat), the only government teachers’ organisation that publicly opposed the introduction of hastily-revised school textbooks. The state has seen growing religious polarisation since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2013, followed by a thumping victory in the 2014 national elections. A large number of teachers, particularly those aligned to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP, said Sihag, support the Hindu majoritarian view of the textbooks.

When Upendra Sharma, a teacher at a school in Sikar, raised questions about the textbooks at a recent workshop, other teachers stood up and accused him of playing politics. “Two of them even left the hall and later complained about me being invited.” Sharma, however, considers himself better off than Muslim teachers and students, who he said are “too afraid to speak”.

Ameen Kayamkhani, a primary school teacher in Jaipur, is fully alive to the problems in the textbooks, but thinks it is best to avoid friction. “We will teach whatever is in the textbooks,” he said. “If we try to teach them sati is wrong and against the law, they will say this is an internal matter for their communities. There is rozaana lafda [daily conflict] over Surya Namaskar and Vande Mataram already.”

Beyond religious conflict are other problems like the shortage of resources in schools. Even enlightened teachers say it is difficult to go beyond the textbooks in the classroom. Most teachers are not properly trained, having earned dubious qualifications from private teacher-training colleges. The additional training that happens in the course of their jobs is rarely attuned to the ground reality of classrooms. “To be able to counter impressions created by textbooks takes a lot of training that is missing,” said Singh.

The last straw is the pressure of public exams. Held at the end of Class 5 and 8, these exams are based entirely on the prescribed school textbooks, which makes covering the syllabus the first priority for teachers.

Children at a school in Pipla, Jaipur district, in 2017. Photo: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

No training for teachers

At the Adarsh school in Sri Ganganagar district, 85 students from Classes 1 to 5 are packed into a conference hall. “We have two whiteboards,” said Godara. “Classes 1 to 3 sit in one group and Classes 4 and 5 in another.” The five classes have two teachers between them. Godara teaches maths and English, while the other teacher handles environmental science and Hindi.

Such a situation, where children of different age groups and learning levels sit together, is described as “multi-grade teaching”. It is common in schools because of a shortage of space and teachers.

In the Adarsh school, for instance, Godara also teaches the higher classes science and geography. Despite a shortage of teachers, Mahaveer Sihag pointed out, the government routinely assigns non-teaching responsibilities, including election work, to them. Many teachers also serve as clerical staff for schools. “You have teachers spending at least three hours daily on office work,” he said. “They boil milk for students, supervise mid-day meal distribution and maintain all records.”

Teachers say training does not prepare them for these realities. “There are colleges that don’t require attendance and will call students in just for the exams,” he said. “Teachers from there may not even realise how bad the textbooks are and cannot function without them.”

In-service training, through short-term courses, isn’t helpful either. “Whenever this is raised in training, they are told it will be discussed later,” said Vakil Singh.

Training through support material is not a real option. The education department sends a monthly journal called Shivira, but Singh described it as an unhelpful “department mouthpiece”.

No resources other than textbooks

There are no alternatives to textbooks. Libraries are all but defunct everywhere. “Most librarian posts are vacant,” said Sihag. “The head of school may choose to appoint a teacher to go sit there when they are not teaching. But two almirahs with locks also pass for a library in many places.”

Sanjay Yadav said his school has a full-fledged library but it contains “no material for primary classes”.

All the teachers spoke to agreed that practically no student they teach would have access to reading material other than the freely-distributed textbooks at home. Theoretically, teachers can supplement textbooks with learning outside the classroom. But the system is deeply conservative. “Sports and reading in the library are seen as a waste of time,” said Yadav. Field trips are frowned upon, added Singh.

Yadav reminded that the school system is deficient in every type of resource – there is no furniture for primary classes, students sit on rugs on the floors. While children from Classes 1 to 5 get new books every year, the government does not send the complete set for Class 6 and beyond. Many children have to make do with used books.

Kayamkhani said every teacher gets Rs 500 to spend on teaching-learning material annually. It is barely enough to buy charts, maps, globes and science kits, he said.

Members of the Rajasthan Shikshak Sangh (Shekhawat) at a protest against various education policies, including the reform of textbooks, in October 2017 at Banswada (Photo: Mahaveer Sihag)

The tyranny of public exams

New methods of teaching are thwarted by public examinations at the end of Class 5 and Class 8. Often, the questions are directly from the textbooks, said Kayamkhani. Godara added: “If we correct the information, our answers won’t match the ones demanded in the exam.”

Results of the public exams, good and bad, are reflected in the annual confidential reports of teachers. If the number of children failing a class is high, a teacher may even be served a show cause notice, asking them to explain why they should not be punished.

“We are being forced to teach this syllabus,” agreed Sharma, who believes the ‘errors’ have been deliberately introduced to subvert secular education and present the Hindutva version of social sciences and even the sciences. “Stories children hear at their grandmother’s knees – folk legends – are being fed to them as history.”

Fighting prejudice

Prejudices and stereotypes expressed in the textbooks translate easily in the classroom. “Each teacher uses a particular kind of pedagogy and that is based upon their social background,” said Rajeev Gupta, a retired professor of sociology from Rajasthan University and a former member of Kerala’s Textbook Commission. “They can silently convey aggression, through body language, such that the content of the textbooks is cemented by pedagogy.”

For instance, teachers admit many of their colleagues are capable of being insensitive towards children in class – a behaviour children themselves pick up.

Similarly, the combination of new textbooks which reflect a majoritarian worldview with teachers who harbour anti-Muslim prejudice has serious implications. “Muslim students are seen as Pakistani, as poor and debased,” said Sajid Sehrai, an Islamic scholar who lives in Jaipur. He had challenged Rajasthan government’s instructions on compulsory yoga, Surya Namaskar and Vande Mataram in schools in the Rajasthan High Court in March 2015. In response to his petition, the government had said in an affidavit that yoga would be made optional but never implemented its own decision.

“The schools are now instilling hatred,” said Sehrai. “Even private schools insist on Hindu rituals so we [Muslim community leaders] are holding meetings to discuss the possibility of starting or developing our own schools.”

A single-room classroom in Jaipur in 2017. Photo: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

This is the final part in a three part series on the rewriting of school textbooks in Rajasthan.

Read the first and second parts here:

BJP’s major achievement in Rajasthan: Rewriting school textbooks to reflect RSS worldview

Inspired by the RSS, dictated by BJP minister: The inside story of Rajasthan’s textbook revisions