June 25, 2008

The Church, Muslim organisations and congress oppose a secular textbook

The Telegraph
25 June 2008

Textbook in religion row
- Left govt in Kerala accused of preaching atheism


The controversial chapter of the book

Thiruvananthapuram, June 24: A textbook that allegedly tries to inject atheism into pupils has rallied disparate groups against the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala.

The Congress-led United Democratic Front, the Church and Muslim organisations have demanded immediate withdrawal of the Class VII social studies book, being taught under the Kerala board.

For the past one week, pro-UDF student activists have been out on the streets, attacking the police, burning textbooks and damaging public property. Arrested leaders of the Kerala Student Union have launched a fast in jail.

The Church, the Muslim League and the Nair Service Society allege that large portions of the book betray an attempt to instil atheism into schoolchildren’s minds. They also claim that the book, which cites caste cruelties, will sow sectarian discontent.

At the heart of the controversy lies a chapter titled “No Religion for Jeevan”, which advises children not to enter their religion in school registers. It describes how an inter-caste couple, while enrolling their child at school, insist that the columns against religion and caste be left blank.

M.R. Chandrasekharan, once a pro-CPM teachers’ union leader, said the lessons appeared to have been drafted by people well versed in preparing material for CPM study classes. The book has been prepared by the State Council for Education Research and Training.

Education minister M.A. Baby has ruled out withdrawing the book, either in full or part, saying no one has pinpointed any part of the book as unfit for Class VII students. He said the book mirrored the modern, secular ethos of Kerala but added that he would make corrections if genuine criticism was brought to bear against the book.

The minister insisted that the book did not contain material that was more anti-religion than that in CBSE texts.

Baby has justified the book’s “irreligious content” by citing that India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was an atheist. Former education minister E.T. Mohammed Basheer has questioned this logic and said the state should uphold secularism in schools rather than create discord by offending religious sentiments.

T.M. Jacob, another former education minister, said the book presented Mahatma Gandhi in poor light, overplayed isolated communist-led peasant uprisings and underplayed milestones of the freedom struggle, including the Quit India Movement.

Christian bishops resolved at a meeting last week to carry on the fight against the state government, especially in the light of the latest developments in the education sector.

On Sunday, priests in all parish churches read out a circular protesting the alleged attempt to lure children away from religion. A full-fledged agitation has been devised for the coming days.

State Congress president Ramesh Chennithala and the Muslim League state president, Panakkad Mohammed Ali Shihab Thangal, have asked the government to withdraw the book before offering talks.

Even religious groups that supported the Left in the last polls argue that “lessons questioning the relevance of religion in society” are aimed at drawing students away from their faith. For instance, the book asks whether religions are affected by natural disasters, poverty and epidemics.

A series of reforms in the Church-dominated education sector had, among other factors, led to the “liberation struggle” against the 1957 E.M.S. Namboodiripad government that resulted in its dismissal two years later.

Archbishop Bishop Emeritus Mar Joseph Powathil of the powerful Syro-Malabar Catholic Church said: “When they (the current government) said the reforms were the continuation of (those by) the first communist government in the state, we should have been more alert.