"Oh, Mother Earth, give to us, as your children the capacity to interact harmoniously, may we speak sweetly to one another." —Verses from the Prithvi Sukta, Atharva Veda, quoted by former chief justice J.S. Verma in a speech last year
VEDIC ideals may not be within the immediate grasp of government panels, yet a high-powered committee to ensure the enforcement of fundamental duties could do no harm. Moreover, the Supreme Court had in a recent ruling on a writ petition noted the failure of the government to instil a better civic sense in its citizens. But when the committee was formed on July 21, human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi couldn't have envisaged that it would propagate some uncomfortable ideas.
Ostensibly the committee's terms of reference is to focus on how to "operationalise the suggestions to teach fundamental duties" at the primary, secondary and university level and "review the existing academic curricula" in the country. Yet the panel—chaired by former chief justice J.S. Verma and comprising former high commissioner to the UK L.M. Singhvi, Rajya Sabha member Dr Karan Singh and chairman, National Council of Teacher Education, Dr J.S. Rajput—is actually gearing up to re-emphasise the country's "secular" framework. Says Justice Verma: "Apart from highlighting the concept of citizen's duties in the curricula, we may need to propose additional enactment of laws or make existing laws more effective against anti-secular forces."
While the committee has not yet begun its nationwide exercise, such views are hardly in consonance with those of the Sangh parivar. What is likely to raise the hackles of a section of the ruling party is that the high-powered committee has the authority to propose an amendment of Article 51 (A) of the Constitution, which lists the fundamental duties. "By this the government could make laws more effective in areas where aberrations exist. For instance, stronger legal action against those who stoke communal disharmony," explains Justice Verma. Given the involvement of a host of BJP ministers—including home minister L.K. Advani and Joshi—in the Babri Masjid demolition case, the committee's stand is likely to be a source of embarrassment for certain sections of the party.
In fact, this aspect is likely to hurt the hardliners in the ruling party much more than the committee's relatively innocuous proposals on the revision of political science textbooks. Though the government is not bound to accept the committee's recommendations, the fact that it was formed in response to former chief justice Jagannath Misra's writ petition in the Supreme Court gives it greater legal weight. Further, the HRD ministry has by its own order given the committee absolute freedom "to devise its own procedure and methodology of work", thereby freeing the entire exercise of bureaucratic controls.
The move appears to have backfired. Given the HRD minister's emphasis on invoking pride in our national (read Hindu) heritage and his well-known religious beliefs, the committee could well be working at cross purposes. For apart from drawing from Hindu religious texts and mythology, the committee plans to lay equal emphasis on tenets of Christianity, Islam, Sikhism and other faiths, for delivering a message to the masses. "Our proposals will attempt to bring in the rainbow concept of the country's cultural heritage. The emphasis will be on India's secular tradition," says Singhvi.
To illustrate the 10 clauses in Article 51, the committee plans to borrow from Indian folklore and rituals, myths and historical facts from Hindu and Islamic texts and other religious scriptures. A few instances:
Says Justice Verma: "If social values and citizens' duties are linked to religious rituals and illustrated through historical facts, there will be better observance." Adds a senior HRD official: "The success of missionary schools in the remote areas of the country shows that religion has worked as an effective tool in spreading better values."
But what is likely to go against the grain for the Sangh parivar and Shiv Sena lobby is the committee's firm resolve to highlight a "composite culture" and not limit it to a reiteration of Hindu values alone. For not only will the committee talk of a "Ram rajya" in the context of a welfare state; but it'll also incorporate Kabir's secularism. HRD bureaucrats, who had begun touting the RSS line on the relevance of Hindu scriptures in the education system, are in a tizzy since they will be finally responsible for implementing the committee's "liberal" recommendations. Says P.H.S. Rao, joint educational advisor, Department of Education: "All ancient Indian texts like the Mahabharata, Ramayana and the Upanishads highlight social values, but this committee will decide the best course of action."
While a majority of educationists in the HRD ministry feel that textbooks contain enough material on fundamental duties, they realise the need to give these dry facts a more practical focus. Adds Singhvi: "There has been a consensual feeling in Parliament, cutting across party lines, to enforce a better performance and sense of duty among citizens." As of now, the committee has identified three institutes to serve as role models for the revised syllabus—the Gujarat Vidyapeeth, the Gandhigram Rural Institute, Tamil Nadu, and the Satya Sai Baba Institute of Higher Learning, Andhra Pradesh. And much to the chagrin of hardliners within the ruling party, none of these institutes runs on a framework propounded by the Sangh parivar's shakhas. Their consternation is likely to increase as the committee proposes to introduce "secular" packages for training teachers as well as develop non-formal programmes to make adult citizens more responsive. Says a senior HRD official: "This move may help the ruling party to tout its secular credentials."
BUT the political fallout of this exercise does not concern the committee members. Says Singhvi: "The committee will be a catalyst in bringing about a national citizens' movement at a time when social values have touched an all-time low." India's Constitutional history shows that the fundamental duties—though not a part of the original document—were incorporated as part of the 42nd Amendment in 1977. "It was added on largely because our moral values had degenerated so much that the government had to intervene and give basic duties a legal force," says Verma.Reiterates Singhvi: "Merely putting these duties in the Constitution is not enough, we have to ensure that these are enforced."
The panel has also taken up the project of explaining the Preamble of the Constitution through historical anecdotes. For instance, Justice Verma says the concept of "political sovereignty" may be explained through a myth: "Ancient Indian history shows that the king, Rama, for instance, respected the opinion of the people, in taking note of what the washerman said of his (Rama's) wife, Sita." Similarly, the concept of "justice"—social, economic and political—will be illustrated by legendary tales from Jehangir's court.
The committee has summoned samples of political science textbooks from all corners of India. Then, it plans long sessions with academics, philosophers and Constitution experts and work out an education policy in consonance with India's heritage. "The simple mudda," says Arti Kant, director, school education, "is if we have to make India strong, our education system must emphasise our cultural values. Not just Hindu values." Quite. But does the Sangh agree?