Don’t take away my right to (mis)education!

Don’t take away my right to (mis)education!
Had I been the dictator of India, I would have introduced Gita and Mahabharata in class one. That is the way you learn how to live life,’ declared one A.K. Dave, a Supreme Court Justice by profession. I would agree if I were not virulently suspicious of the fact that Justice Dave knows not what philosophy he is espousing in that specific sentence.

There are two kinds of people who read the Gita and the Mahabharata in class one: the first kind turns out fine—not necessarily atheists yet not overtly religious or bigoted, not hating people of other communities out of some righteous angst of having been ‘colonised’ for over a 1000 years, not worried about their castes or religious affiliations, happily guzzling beer with beef steak, especially if they happen to go what Indians call ‘abroad’ (read: US of A); the second kind learns its religious texts at RSS or Arya Samaj vidya-mandirs (these are more progressively sanitised and pernicious than Sunday schools are), they belong to a Shivaji house or a Ganapati house instead of belonging to a Red house or a Green house, their Bharatmata looks like a benevolent neighbourhood auntie, and more like an auntie who needs prompt rescuing from an onslaught from yavans.

Which tells us that people do not always learn the same lessons when they read the same texts.
I read up all the Purana stories, voraciously masticating through Gitas and Mahabharats and Ramayans (all versions) when I was a child. For the inquisitive mind of an eight year old, stories are a great fodder for imagination, for the relentless pursuit of history (‘what came before me?’) and the singlemost important weapon against devilry (my mother would use books to keep me tied down to a spot enough to have me eat my food in peace). More than all of this, it is a process of initiation into one’s mother tongue (I did not read the texts in our beloved rashtrabhasha, Hindi; I read them as they were meant to be read, in my matribhasha, Bangla), one’s cultural beliefs, mythological matrix—a whole universe of gods and demons and devotees lined up for scrutiny. It also makes a child understand the roots of that culture, the amount of liberty it can take with this belief system, and the leeway he/she has to navigate this universe of morality, of right and wrongdoing, of good and evil.

It is exceedingly easy to take the wrong lessons. Thankfully most children have the ability to question their elders, as also question the texts they are taught. Otherwise, they’d all grow up thinking it’s socially and scrupulously correct to banish one’s kidnapped wife to the forests while she was pregnant to abide by a ‘moral’ code of conduct, or may be pawn one’s wife at a game of cards. Unlike those to choose to believe in mythology in the name of an all-pious love of god, the more discerning ones would understand that ancient texts are much more about pluralism than even the Indian constitution is. It allows a woman (Draupadi) to marry five husbands, there are queer characters who wield both courage and the sword (Shikhandi), there is the flute-playing womanising, incestuous god Krishna who is a cowherd and therefore from an extremely low caste, and yet it is he who orchestrates the entire epic, there is a demoness (Hidimba) married to a prince (Bhim). Where does one start? And yet, fed with these same epics, the BJP-RSS would gladly crucify the LGBT community for ‘unnatural acts’. If one really looked closely, nothing is deemed unnatural or outside the human agency or character in any of those texts.

This indeed is true for any other religion. In one of the most recent studies by AH Haque in 2013, it is deemed that India has at least 125000 madrasas, and there are newer ones mushrooming everywhere, quite randomly. Whereas this country grants the rights to religious (mis)education to all and sundry, the question is whether the Indian subcontinent is grown off age enough to assimilate religion into its school curriculum.

What are the children taught in these schools? Are religious texts enough to get them a job, to teach them social behaviour? Are they taught peace and mercy and philosophy, or do they grow up full of inexplicable pomposity, believing theirs is the only true faith, the only true god, the only truly redeemed community?  Why do we produce so many bigots? Why do we produce men and women ready to kill in a moment? Why is there no authority to oversee the politics of hatred imbued in the textbooks that children read at their most impressionable age? Which books teach them to dishonour women? To keep them hidden away under a scarf or a pallu in the daylight? Which religion teaches people to abort female foetus, to treat one’s wife as a maid, to not let one’s daughters go to school, and then marry her off at the age of 13?

Religious education is valid only insofar as it should teach the student to ask the right questions, to inquire and question every faith, every doctrine, every belief, if it seems unjust or unfair. Religiosity should be a debate, not a dogma, especially in the subcontinent where 33 crore gods and demi-gods are jostling with each other for supremacy, and yet, none of them seem to have resented the Buddha or Mahavir when they subverted the basic ideologies of idol worship.

This subcontinent represents a flux, a conflict of many divinities, and not a single one can rule over such multitudes without morphing itself, becoming human, becoming man-god. Because this country does not, perhaps, need any more gods than it already has—it just needs more humans who are enlightened.
Gargi Bhattacharya

Gargi Bhattacharya

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