Last week, the Supreme Court pronounced its judgment on the controversial 'National Curriculum Framework for School Education' (NCFSE) prepared by the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT). The judges dismissed the petition (filed by social activist and Magsaysay Award-winner Aruna Roy and others) on the grounds that the NCFSE does not violate Article 28 of the Constitution.
The judgment states that while "the Article (28) is against imparting religious instruction or of performing religious worship... there is no prohibition for having study of religious philosophy and culture, particularly for having value-based social life in a society which is degenerating for power, post or property."
The question that comes to the fore is: How are these core values to be defined, and by whom? Which of the many streams within a particular religion will be drawn upon to define the core values? What about the conflicts between different sects of a single religion? Which of these could be allowed to lay claim to being the true representative of that religion? How would it be ensured that a school or particular teachers - inspired by fundamentalist ideologies - will not use 'education about religions' to propagate a particular ideology, let alone do justice to any particular religion or sect?
Moreover, religious values are not static in nature; they change with economic, social and political compulsions of the times. There was a time when Sati and child marriages were an uncontested part of the value system of Hinduism. In today's context, the core values and their interpretation of the two practices have changed dramatically.
Justice Dharmadhikari, one of the three judges of the bench that delivered the judgment, states: "There is a very thin dividing line between imparting of `religious instructions' and `study of religions'." It might be true that all religions have one goal but they all have different paths to reach that goal. These different paths are the basis on which religions assert their particular identity. And often, it is around the practice of different paths that conflicts occur between religions.
Given the centrality of religious practices, classroom transaction of the `study of religions' therefore could easily slip into religious instruction. Consequent to this, those who are of the 'other' religion would inevitably be marginalized. Besides, the impact of such an eventuality would bring disharmony and bitterness among students. It would violate their right to study in an environment conducive to learning, and their right to access knowledge free from the biases and distortions that ensue from any particular religious ideology.
(Incidentally, the NCERT comes under the Human Resource Development Ministry headed by Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, a long-time member of the right-wing Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS) and a leading light of its political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party.)
The judgment places great emphasis on value-based education. This brings us to another question: What values do we all want our children to learn? If we would like education to inculcate the basic values - honesty, integrity, justice, respect for others, and equity - these values need not be culled from a particular religious text. Such values already have a place in India's Constitution.
And what about a situation in which values deriving from religion clash with the values derived from a country's Constitution? Which values, then, will be given priority over others? The NCFSE clearly expresses approval of the caste system which prevailed in agrarian society and the division of
labor which followed from it.
As the NCFSE says, "In agrarian society, successive generations followed the occupation as well as the goal of the family or the castes at large." We know that this division of labor was not simply neutral. It was a well-defined hierarchy with discrimination built in - at total variance with the values we cherish in the Constitution. How would new textbooks based on NCERT's curriculum accommodate these differences? Would they even try to do so?
A prime example of the dangers inherent in the direction pointed by the Supreme Court judgment can be seen from the conflict that arises in the context of women and religion. No existing religion provides for an equal status to women. A denial of equal property rights, a much greater premium on women's purity as compared to that of men, greater punishment for women's infidelity... the list is a long one.
How then, would the content relating to religion deal with these values? What of the contradiction with the principle of equality guaranteed to every individual in this country? It has taken years and years of struggle for women in India to establish certain rights and opportunities for themselves, even though equal rights are constitutionally guaranteed to each individual. The struggle continues in the face of a curriculum (the NCFSE's) that advocates the need "to recognize and nurture the best features of both the genders in the best Indian tradition".
How would the best features of each sex be decided upon? As is evident from the NCFSE, the criteria will be the Indian tradition. What is this Indian tradition and what does it imply for women? Is Indian tradition rooted in the equality of sexes? Ironically, the NCFSE claims to draw upon the National Policy on Education of 1986, which states that "education will be used as an agent of basic change in the status of women...The national education system will play a positive, interventionist role in the empowerment of women."
The conflict between values drawn from religions and the Constitution cannot be wished away. But in a country where the Constitution is equity-based, it is not clear why there is a need for State-sponsored educational institutions to draw upon religious values.
What is crystal clear however, is the confusion and disharmony that awaits the children of this country, as a result of the space being created for religion within education.