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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 43

Godless in Kerala : Bitter Battle on Books

Friday 17 October 2008, by N A Karim

Malayalees call their State ‘God’s Own Country’, a silly claim but fully satisfying their national ego. Indeed Kerala is a beautiful geographical region with its lush green vegetation but rapidly dwindling paddy fields, palm-fringed lakes, lagoons, rivers all becoming rapidly polluted and bounteous sea that occasionally turns furious and devastating its fronts densely populated full of squalor and poverty. As the poet wrote, “Every prospect pleases but man alone”, to change the words of the bard a little, always unnecessarily squabbling among themselves for silly or no reason.

In Kerala education has become the softest target for the Opposition parties to mount an attack at any time on the government in power. This is particularly so when the Left Democratic Front is in the saddle. The Opposition unscrupulously mobilises political support by using students, teachers and managements in the name of silly grievances of one of these groups or of all. To stir students even on issues that do not affect them directly is very easy. There is a section of students who are waiting for an opportunity to involve themselves in some agitational activity, and give vent to their surplus nervous energy, particularly those who are frustrated by their inability to cope with the course they have chosen or their parents forced them to choose. There is always politicised section of students whose affiliations to one or the other of the political parties are well known. They form the spearhead of their agitational programmes and indulge in adventurous and eye-catching modes of fight. Recently it was seen a student leader snatching the cap of a police officer and tossing it high in the air for the news cameras and the onlooking people to watch and enjoy the discomfiture of the uniformed officer.

From almost the very first day of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) Government, began the traditional rivalry and fight between the private management lobby of the self-financing professional colleges on the sensitive questions of selection of student, allocation of seats for various groups and fee structure for these groups. It began with legal battles between the government and various managements separately and often organisedly. These management bodies, flush with funds, engaged top lawyers with high professional profile who take hefty fees from their clients and helped to render the new legislation of the government on self-financing institutions ineffective in controlling the aggressive section of the managements. The government also spent crores for this seemingly unending long-drawn litigation.

Settling vital issues of allocation of seats and fee structure at the beginning of the academic year has become a nerve-racking business for the government and an opportunity for the managements to show their clout and threaten the government. Media space and time are occupied daily by this unseemly tussle between the government and the new class of educational entrepreneurs. And the anxious students and their worried parents are caught in the crossfire between the two. The general impression the common people get is that higher education is in a state of anarchy in the State mainly due to the diarchy caused by the eagerness of the govern-ment to control these institutions socially and the management’s effort to keep the government at bay from their institutions.

Recently the scene of the fight between the government and the traditional tribe of managers of government aided schools shifted to school education. The government decided to rewrite the half-a-century-old Kerala Education Act and Rules (KEAR) with very wide terms of reference, including the mode of selection of teachers for appointment in government aided schools which is now the precious lucrative privilege of private of private managements. The committee the government appointed under the chairmanship of C.P. Nair, a former Chief Secretary of the State, in its fairly voluminous report, rightly recommen-ded among other far-reaching and generally sagacious measures that the selection of teachers should be left to the State Public Service Commission (PSC), a constitutional body. This recommendation naturally angered the private managements, particularly the church manage-ments, and the sabre-rattling of the managements seems to have unnerved the government. Some of the church managements went to the extreme extent of threatening that if the PSC-selected candidates were posted in their schools they will not be allowed to come near the compound of their institutions. This was an open war on the state. But the government buckled under this strident threat and seems to have already jettisoned this long-due change.

WITH a sense of triumph in this fight the private church managements are in an aggressive mood when comes the social studies textbook of the seventh standard in which India’s first Prime Minister is depicted as an atheist. The lesson was evidently meant to inculcate in the minds of young students a secular outlook and the meaninglessness of religion and caste. Nehru, for one thing, was not an atheist. He was really an agnostic who did not believe in God as there was no means to know His existence. But from his famous Will and Testament it is evident that he believed in a supernatural power overshadowing this universe. However, the textbook writer in his ineptitude made a wrong choice to teach a right idea. Moreover the kind of secularism that the textbook wanted to teach was the secularism of the former Soviet Union not the Indian model of secularism based on sarva dharma samabhava, equal respect for all faiths and equidistance of the state from all. This is now the hottest educa-tional issue in the State. The Church manage-ments of aided schools have declared that they won’t teach this book and are preparing books of their own.

The government is almost on the defensive on all issues, having lost its ideological vigour due to frequent squabbling among the constituent parties of the LDF, particularly the two main Communist Parties, the CPI-M and the CPI. The earlier inter-party fight between the leaders of the CPI-M has given way to the present unedi-fying open quarrel between the two major parties of the Front which the Opposition with the aggressive support of the Church is taking full advantage of. The opposition of the Church was more forceful and equally aggressive at the time of the first Communist Ministry in 1957. But the then undivided Communist Party, which headed the government, was a strong monolithic one. Though equally determined and resourceful as Professor Joseph Mundasseri, the then Education Minister who battled with remarkable political skill and courage in 1959, the present Education Minister, M.A. Baby, is also playing well but without the wholehearted support of his political team. This is the dismaying difference. The Minister is fighting this hydraheaded Opposition almost single-handed though there is a kind of tacit support of the progressive-minded people in the civil society who want meaningful changes in the sphere of the State’s education.

The Opposition in the State is opposing even the evidently long needed welcome changes in a blind manner which has made their position generally untenable. A high percentage of pass in the SSLC examination for understandable reasons was trotted out as a communist trick. So also the single-window system in admission to plus-one classes, which was experimentally introduced last year in the Trivandrum district, was extended to the whole State as it was found simple, scientific and transparent. This too is under attack as the managements want this right of selection and admission of students retained untouched for their usual corrupt practices. The general stand is that no change in the sphere of education is needed as it would curtail or take away some of the rights and privileges they have been enjoying all these years.

During the last UDF rule a poor Scheduled Caste student committed suicide by jumping to death from a multistoreyed building which housed the Entrance Examination Director’s Office that triggered State-wide protest against the insensitive attitude of the department and the nationalised banks in their failure to come to her help when she was in desperate need of money to pay tuition fees and hostel dues. The Left Democratic Front on the eve of the Assembly elections had promised to revamp the whole system and use social control on various aspects of education so that social justice is ensured to the extent possible. The government has of course to fulfil this promise. But in the new liberalising and globalising market economy, the Education Minister finds it difficult to push through his agenda of rigid social control of self-financing institutions due to the unhelpful attitude of even the judiciary in the circumstances.

NOW the fight between the LDF and the united Opposition has zeroed in on a particular lesson in the newly written social studies textbook of seventh standard which, according to the critics, glorifies and propagates atheism, and the Opposition has succeeded to some extent in mobilising support of all believing sections of the society. But the real issue is political. Most of the Churches in Kerala have several other grievances against the LDF which always tries to erode their traditional rights and privileges in education whenever they come to power in the State. They had succeeded in jealously protecting their rights even in the pre-independence days when the high-handed autocrat, Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, was the Dewan in the erstwhile Travancore.

But parallel to this fight between the ruling coalition and the Opposition, an internecine fight is going on in the LDF on the land policy which started almost on the first day of the government with the Chief Minister on one side and the

CPI-M General Secretary on the other. This has its roots in the ideological differences between the two that surfaced in the successive party meets earlier but was patched up with the active intervention of the Polit-Bureau of the CPI-M. But this quarrel refuses to die and surfaces intermittently, the latest being on the issue on the demand for a second land reform movement in the State. The State party chief of the CPI-M and the Chief Minister are ranged on the opposite sides on this issue. Another issue that has cropped up to add intensity to the unseemly spectacle of factional fight is on the question of Special Economic stones (SEZ). A number of applications, some of them from entrepreneurs of dubious credentials, are pending on which the Chief Minister is sitting tight while his Industry and Finance Ministers are mounting pressure for an early blanket clearance with the strong support of the General Secretary of the State Committee of the CPI-M. The Polit Bureau’s solution for this impasse will take a long time to be operationalised as it is not easy to evolve a consensus of all constituents of the Front on this controversial issue.

Dr Karim is a former Pro-Vice-Chancellor, University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram.

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