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October 22, 1998


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Protests force HRD minister to withdraw controversial RSS paper on education

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Faced with vehement protests from Opposition-ruled states, Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi today excluded the presentation of a paper by P D Chitlangia, a businessman linked with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, at the state education ministers conference.

Dr Joshi's announcement came when the ministers reassembled after the break following the inaugural ceremony.

Chitlangia was to make his presentation before the speeches by the state ministers. But the ministers from Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal, Tripura, Bihar and Kerala argued that a private individual should not be allowed to make a presentation at an official function.

Dr Joshi also announced that the discussions at the three-day conference would be confined to the first 20 pages of the agenda notes. The annexures containing recommendations by experts, which triggered a major controversy, have also been removed.

The conference had an inauspicious start when ministers from several states protested against the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government's 'attempt to saffronise the education system'.

The government was embarrassed further when Punjab Education Minister Tota Singh, whose Shiromani Akali Dal is an ally of the BJP, joined the boycott of the Saraswati vandana (salutation to Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning) by ministers from states ruled by the Congress, the Left, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

The trouble started as soon as the compere of the conference started reading out the programme for the inaugural ceremony. Andhra Pradesh Minister for Higher Education K Pratibha Bharathi drew the prime minister's attention to the inclusion of Saraswati vandana against the wishes of many ministers.

"In a multi-religious society like ours, invocation of any song that has association with any particular religion is not correct," she said. Ministers from other Opposition-ruled states supported her.

Finally, Dr Joshi told the agitated ministers that the conference would begin with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee lighting a lamp followed by recitation of the national anthem. The ministers then returned to their seats.

But the national anthem was followed by recitation of the Saraswati vandana, which led to vociferous protests by the state ministers, many of whom started walking out of the conference at the prestigious Vigyan Bhawan in New Delhi.

"Take back the RSS agenda, protect the Constitution," the ministers from Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala, West Bengal, Tripura, and Orissa shouted. The Punjab minister walked out with them. The Andhra Pradesh minister did not, however, join the walkout.

Tota Singh said his party was also opposed to the recitation of the religious songs of any particular religion.

After completion of the Saraswati vandana, Pratibha Bharathi lodged a protest with the prime minister, saying, "Unfortunately, a new precedent has been set today. This has some serious implications. This could have been avoided. Otherwise, similar songs from other religions could have been included."

Later, she also rejected the Centre's proposal to introduce the Vedas and the Upanishads in school curricula.

The ministers from the Opposition-ruled states returned to the hall just when Dr Joshi began reading out his speech.

There was a clash between Bihar Education Minister Jai Prakash Narain Yadav and Delhi Finance Minister Jagdish Mukhi when the former tried to interrupt Dr Joshi. "Why are you interrupting the minister... You can go out, but we will not allow this interruption," an angry Mukhi shouted.

The prime minister remained silent throughout the drama. In his speech, Vajpayee called for "perfect co-ordination" between the Centre and the states, based on a common approach to eradicate illiteracy.

Pointing out that education was a state subject, he proposed that the states transfer the administration of primary schools to the village, block and district councils.

He said a strong political will is needed to improve the quality of education in primary schools. Lamenting that bureaucrats have the upper hand in running schools, he wanted that principals and teachers should be made to feel that they have a say in running their institutions.

Vajpayee described as 'valid criticism' the observation of Professor Amartya Sen, winner of this year's Nobel prize for economics, that India does not spend much in the social sector, especially education and health. "To remedy the imbalance is our collective duty," he said.

He was of the view that a 'crash programme' should be launched to improve the standards of Indian universities. "Should there not be at least one centre of excellence in each state?" he asked.

The prime minister said universities and colleges should be 'depoliticised and debureaucratised'. The syllabus in universities should be updated to reflect the changing needs of industry from the point of view of employment.

Schools should impart secular values, he said. "There must be no place for religious bigotry or intolerance."

Vajpayee said the government remains committed to its national agenda for governance in education and other spheres.

In his speech, Dr Joshi sought to allay the fear that the government is planning to abridge the rights of minorities in any manner. He said the government was committed in this respect to the NAG, which says, "We are committed to the economic and educational development of the minorities and will take effective steps in this regard."

On the controversy caused by circulation of the recommendations of a non-governmental organisation associated with the Sangh Parivar along with the agenda notes for the conference, he said, "What we have circulated is one among several suggestions we receive from time to time from educationists and others who are interested in education."

He said the government has many suggestions before it. "All of these would need to be discussed and debated so that we can have a general consensus on such issues. There is obviously no question of taking any hasty or pre-conceived decision or chalking up any implementation plan on such suggestions without any clear consensus," he reassured the assembled ministers.


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