Do your child's textbooks promote peace? Perhaps it is time to monitor not just your child's homework but the very textbook he or she may have been prescribed. For several school textbooks expose young minds to the symbolism of revenge and hatred and even reinforce stereotypes of masculinity and identity. The influence and outreach of textbooks are enormous.
Take the instance of a Class Five Hindi language textbook, published by the Rajasthan State Textbook Board. The book had a print order of 0.35 million last year, even as some of the content may have visualized patriotism as marching in the army, killing 'enemies' and adopting the glorious path of martyrdom: "As we see Ravana's effigy burning, we realize an evildoer will have a bad end, and future generations too will never forgive him." Promoting militarism and an aggressive hyper-masculinity, such books exhort boys to become 'desh bhakts' (patriots).
While recent textbooks brought out by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) - set up by the Union government to assist Central and state governments on academic matters of schools - do try to actively promote peace and secular values, they occasionally slip up. The Class Five NCERT Hindi textbook has an extremely war-like religious image - that of Ram killing she-demons like Tadka and demons ('asuras') - in the poem 'Khilonewala' ('Toy-seller'). This poem by well-known writer Subhadra Kumari Chauhan begins beautifully, depicting a small boy looking at an itinerant toy-seller's ware. He decides to buy a sword, a bow and arrows, and "go into the forest... like Ram" to kill Tadka and the 'asuras'.
The accompanying illustration depicts an 'asura' as a forest-dweller, wearing tribal headgear.
The symbolism is both evocative and dangerous. The portrayal of forest-dwellers as demons works to justify their killing by the righteous king, Ram. The image only reaffirms an elite, urban perspective, marking tribals as a regressive, backward-looking force. Such a portrayal of tribals is extremely problematic, especially at a time when tribal land is being acquired by corporate interests, threatening their survival and lifestyle.
Along with such war-like images, there are several textbooks that portray India as practicing no discrimination and having no divisions. Poems like 'Sukhdham' (Abode of Bliss) in the Rajasthan Hindi textbook of Class Four emphatically negate caste, class, gender-based discrimination and religious intolerance, with lines such as 'Nahi bhed jaati dharm ka...' (there is no discrimination on basis of caste or religion) and 'Nahi bair ka naam yahan' (there is no enmity here). The poem claims a complete absence of political conflicts and violence in the country.
However, even as students are told how gloriously free of problems India is, the same textbook exhorts boys to become soldiers. Take the story of 'Rannkshetra' (Battlefield) which glorifies war. There is nothing in it to suggest that peace is desirable, nor are any possibilities of peace-building indicated. The Captain, the hero of Rannkshetra, loses a limb. Yet, rather than express his suffering and pain, he is unhappy because he has sacrificed only one limb rather than his whole life for the nation. This Captain - a hyper-masculine, fiercely militaristic construct devoid of any kind of vulnerability - is projected as an ideal, the true model for young boys to emulate. This stereotype is foisted on boys from an early stage in their lives. In the lesson, 'Guru Bhakt Aaruni' (Aaruni, Teacher’s Devotee) included in the Class Four Hindi language textbook of Rajasthan state, Brahmin boys studying in a Gurukul are very obedient to their Guru. The Guru sends Aaruni, one of his students, to prevent water from flooding a field. Aaruni finds that the only way he can stop the water is to physically obstruct its flow: He spends the entire day lying on the bund, successfully preventing water from flowing in. Yet, the child's emotions, struggle and inner turmoil are not depicted at all. A 'perfect' boy, Aaruni appears invincible, perfectly emotionless and totally committed to his duty to the Guru.
Looking through Class Three, Four and Five Rajasthan state Hindi textbooks, one finds very few Muslim characters but their presence is evoked in a lesson like 'Rannkshetra', in the reference to 'Pakistanis'. In this story, which dwells on the Kargil war, the hero defends India against enemies, easily identifiable as 'Pakistanis'. There is a subtle identification of 'love for the country' with 'hatred for the enemy'.
Nationalism is associated with violence, jingoism and religious fundamentalism. Enmity is encouraged and conflicts shown as inevitable because the enemies are an 'evil' people.
And as the lesson, 'Dussehra', clearly states, evildoers will, and should, come to a bad end. Forgiveness and reconciliation are ruled out as desirable options; conflicts ought to be resolved by destroying the enemy, who is irredeemable and cannot be forgiven. The NCERT textbooks, fortunately, present far more nuanced and positive ways of resolving conflict, depicting dialogue and negotiation, mutual forgiveness and cooperation in a number of stories.
School language and social science textbooks, including those brought out by West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and most other state Boards, as well as by commercial private publishers, tend to reinforce gender prejudices and stereotypes. The ratio of male to female characters is extremely skewed in Hindi language textbooks brought out by private publishers such as Savio (prescribed by some public schools in Delhi). For the Class 4 Savio textbook, the male to female ratio is 2:1 In Rajasthan's and NCERT's Hindi textbooks (Classes 3, 4 and 5), the ratio is even worse, at approximately 3:1. This evocation of a predominantly male world provides children with a gender-skewed vision of society.
In Rajasthan textbooks, traditional roles, particularly responsibility for housework and childcare, are barely challenged; the ideal womanhood is projected as homely, devoted to husband and sons, and maintaining patriarchal family norms and structures. The NCERT textbooks, in contrast, do try to address social stereotypes, with several stories and illustrations of girls and women engaged in a wide array of activities and wearing different kinds of clothing.
Textbooks by private publishers, like Savio, present a middle-class masculine perspective, overlaid by elite and consumerist ideology. Rajasthan textbooks espouse a regressive and jingoistic Hindutva ideology. The NCERT textbooks, by and large, reflect a liberal, progressive mindset. They at least try to promote values of justice, equality and democracy, and seem to encourage children and teachers to become active citizens, with a democratic consciousness.
The process for reformulation of Rajasthan school textbooks is underway. The NCERT, to its credit, has opened up. Its textbooks are on the whole already much improved although there is always room for more change in the direction that has already been set. As for textbooks by private publishers, rethinking seems to be called for, and schoolteachers as well as parents should involve themselves in such a process.
(Research for this article is part of a project entitled, 'A Study of Children’s Literature in School Language Textbooks', supported by the Sir Ratan Tata Trust.)