BC Nagesh at Idea Exchange: ‘The uniform system in colleges was not started by the BJP. No girl left because of the hijab issue’
Karnataka Minister of School Education, Literacy and Sakala BC Nagesh talks about controlling the learning loss in schools, the hijab row and textbook revision. This session was moderated by Sanath Prasad, Senior Sub-Editor, The Indian Express
Sanath Prasad: What are some of the initiatives you have introduced in the education sector this academic year?
COVID-19 impacted the education system in ways that can never be quantified. Without in-person classes, the learning curve of our children was badly affected. With the help of our Chief Minister (Basavaraj Bommai), Karnataka was the first State in the country to resume physical classes. Students, who had not attended Class I, had their first in-person experience in Class III. Those who had not taken the Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) Examination found themselves in pre-university (PU) classes. Children transitioned to the next level without going through the necessary processes. That’s why we decided to close this learning gap.
With education experts, the State Education Department started the Kalika Chetarike (learning recovery) programme, despite the extra expenditure. This programme is aimed at mainstreaming students, who can’t afford online classes and come from families who don’t care much for education. The programme was intended to bring them up to speed before the next academic year. Today, we have some satisfaction that even the last child will make up and come to school next year as prepared as the privileged students.
Second, Karnataka has one teacher for every 23 students, which is better than the international teacher-student ratio of one for every 30 students. Still, we have many schools without teachers and we have decided to fill vacancies. Karnataka has got a tough appointment system. We have added the Teacher Eligibility Test (TET) to the CET (Common Entrance Test). More than 1,50,000 candidates appeared for the CET and about 52,000 candidates have been found eligible. We hope to complete the appointment process in two months.
We have a shortage of teachers in schools located in rural areas. Because of different reasons, the construction of new classrooms was held up. We will be building 8,100 classrooms for which tenders are being issued. We need 20,000 classrooms, of which some require repairs. We have filled 763 vacancies in pre-universities.
The Karnataka Education Act says no religious practice can be allowed in the school. So how come six students, who were following the rules till then, protested suddenly? We only fought for the Act
Sanath Prasad: Since you took over, there have been the hijab row in colleges, the textbook controversy, corruption allegations against the education department and much more. Has politics hijacked Karnataka’s education reforms?
I think some people do not want quality education, in both government and private schools. There is a need to overhaul the system and we are just doing that. We have not taken action against anyone but every school should follow the regulation framework according to the Karnataka Education Act. We don’t want to bypass the rules and acts, which are fair and democratic. So, it is the government’s responsibility to see that institutions follow the same set of rules. Few institutions take permission to operate under the secondary board but teach the CBSE syllabus. Many parents have complained that till Class IX, children are not sure of the boards their schools are aligned with because authorities tell them at the last moment that in the absence of Central recognition, they cannot take the CBSE examination and better appear for the board exam. Some take permission for a Kannada medium school and then teach in English as the language of instruction. Yet at the time of the examination, they want the children to write their answers in Kannada. We have given an opportunity to all schools to right their record.
Sanath Prasad: What are your views about students wearing the hijab in pre-university? Do you think the controversy could have been avoided?
The stand taken by the government was upheld by the three-judge bench of the Karnataka High Court. The Karnataka Education Act clearly says no religious practice can be allowed in the school. So how come six students, who were following the rules and regulations of the Act all along, suddenly felt they had to wear the hijab the next day onwards? Who supported them? We fought only to uphold the Act.
There is a reason for textbook revision. Earlier, these were the only source of information, now students can Google anything. If textbooks do not portray the whole picture, they will lose interest
Sanath Prasad: Your textbook revision policy was one of the most criticised. There was criticism that you did not take teachers into confidence, that you appointed a right-wing ideologue, Rohith Chakrathirtha, who was accused of not having a proper knowledge of history, to head the textbook committee. The Lingayat community, the Bunts and the Billava community in Dakshina Kannada were unhappy about the exclusion of Kayyar Kinhanna Rai and Narayana Guru from history textbooks. Do you think that the education department failed to implement the entire textbook revision process correctly?
Any change will have its own objections. I think Chakrathirtha has not insulted our state anthem (matter is under investigation with cyber crime police). The older textbook committee was headed by Baraguru Ramachandrappa, who had made a satire on ‘Janaganamana’, our national anthem, in his book. (Ramachandrappa has since said that he used ‘Janaganamana’ as a satire to stand up against the then-Congress government). Why don’t critics see that? Besides, if they were genuine, they would not have spoken about Chakrathirtha. They would have commented on the content of the textbook. They said lessons on Bhagat Singh and Narayan Guru had been removed, which is not true.
Experts pointed out that social subjects have more lessons and are heavy. So we shifted chapters to Kannada. We’ve always studied about Akbar, Aurangazeb and Tipu Sultan, among others. We had not studied about freedom fighters who contributed to the nation’s independence. When BS Yediyurappa was Chief Minister and Vishweshwar Hegde Kageri Education Minister, a new committee was formed on textbooks. What made the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government review the books, considering a textbook is revised once in 10 or 15 years? Yet no one questions Siddaramaiah. We had formed a committee, consulted around 300 experts and framed a new textbook policy that was even implemented till 2015. Yet a revision committee led by Ramachandrappa was framed in 2017. It removed certain contents in the textbooks. For example, there was a poem on the national flag, which was removed. A maharaja of Mysore had initiated development and social changes, which were revolutionary for his time. He had even constructed a dam in Karnataka. Why did they remove the chapter on him? Why did they bring in Tipu Sultan again? Did they bring religious content into textbooks or did we? We tried to present the truth.
There is a reason for textbook revision. Earlier, these were the only source of information for students. Now they can Google anything and get information from many trusted sources. Once students realise that our textbooks are not portraying the whole picture, then they will lose interest in studies. Our textbooks should inculcate nationalism and social responsibility in students. They should know how we got our freedom. We got freedom because of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Now Savarkar had his own role in the freedom movement, like many others. But our textbooks had not mentioned it. I am not saying that everyone is against the nation but why is there such opposition to a holistic picture of Indian nationalism?
Sanath Prasad: What about the Lingayat community that opposed Basavanna’s chapter in the textbook?
The Lingayat community did not oppose it. Only a swami wrote to me saying there were a few changes in the Basavanna chapter. He said that the earlier Ramachandrappa committee had added a line saying how he removed the sacred thread he had got at the time of upanayana and then went to Kudalasangama, seeking deeksha or an initiation ceremony. But our textbook said after upanayana, he went to Kudalasangama. We sent him both the books, one by Ramachandrappa and the other by Chakrathirtha. He wrote another letter saying both the contents were false. We asked him if we should continue with Ramachandrappa’s version but he said no. The swami’s argument was that Basavanna had never sought deeksha from anyone although since 1965, the textbooks had been perpetuating what was a fallacy, according to him. We consulted him and a few experts from the community, then printed a new chapter.
Ramachandrappa had removed some chapters, too, but nobody had raised a question then. With Chakrathirtha, there’s a flurry of questions. Many such things will happen because we are not status quoists. We are here for some purpose and that is to see the nation at the highest level in the world. So, there will be opposition.
Sanath Prasad: There has been a delay in distribution of school uniforms, shoes and socks to government school students. What is the progress so far?
We put out a tender in April for school uniforms and textbooks. The Ukraine-Russia war has disrupted many things in the country and in our state as well. Supplies of pulp, which we generally source from Russia and Ukraine, got affected. We also prioritised spends on Kalika Chetarike, besides nutrition, adding eggs, chikki and bananas to the regular midday meal. We concentrated on quality education and health. The pandemic slowed down approvals but the education department never refused funds for shoes and socks. I don’t want to politicise education at all.
Ritika Chopra: While it is important to follow State laws, would they take precedence over encouraging women from a minority community to get educated? Wouldn’t this step (hijab ban) threaten the gains made so far in mainstreaming Muslim women?
The problem was particular to Udupi College. We have more than eight colleges in that district and every one of them has girls from the minority community. Yet none had opposed the rule except those six girls. You may have seen a particular girl on TV, who was leading the movement and addressing many rallies without a hijab. So, the hijab is not a hindrance. According to our statistics, no girl has left any college because of the hijab.
Coming to the Udupi College, the uniform system there was not started by the BJP but has been followed since 1985. The BJP was nowhere when the Karnataka Education Act came into existence. Rules and acts framed in the Assembly in a democratic manner should be followed by everyone. How can a few people escape from it?
Sourav Roy Barman: Last December, the government started giving eggs as part of midday meals in seven districts in Karnataka, in the Kalyana-Karnataka region. Yet the NEP (National Education Policy) committee on health and well-being, formed by your government, actually argued against eggs in the mid-day meal.
We have prioritised students’ health but we have not forced every student to take eggs. Those who don’t want to eat them can have bananas or chikki, which contain more protein. Throughout the world, there are different views about eggs and non-vegetarian foods. I hope to see the day when we can give eggs to students across India. We will be giving eggs for 46 days a year.
Sukrita Baruah: In Delhi, a number of government schools and institutions allow students to wear the hijab. Have you thought about bringing the hijab and the turban within the ambit of the rulebook so that there’s no question about violating uniforms?
That can open a Pandora’s box. Some might say they cannot wear pants and would like to wear shorts. Some will say they want kesari (saffron) shawls. Should we allow them? We are only discussing the Act and rules. What did they say in court? They said that the hijab is our religious practice. Is school a place where religious practices should be allowed?
Pallavi Smart: What about the quality of teacher training?
The quality of education in Karnataka is unparalleled when compared to other states. We have mainstreamed students in 48,000 schools; they couldn’t do so in the 900-odd schools in Delhi. No government can perform a miracle of this scale. We are doing our best to see that children get the best education.
Sanath Prasad: Some private schools have also continuously levelled charges of corruption against DDPIs and BEOs in the education department. What action are you going to take against offenders?
We are being vigilant and taking strict action. Administratively, we have digitised processes and made them transparent. So now the renewal of registrations and new registrations can happen online. The institutions need not go to the BEO and DDPI. They can file their applications online for verification. If there are objections, they will be notified and given an opportunity to rectify them. According to the Supreme Court order in 2017, every government has to bring about a law to ensure the safety of children, a fitness certificate for school buildings and regulate schools properly. We are just following the ruling. We, as a team, with a good principal secretary and good commissioners, are trying to set many things right. Did you know there was no rule to give an NOC for the CBSE system? Without a rule, both our department and schools were in an advantageous position. Some 16 notices have been issued to institutions, so far.
Kiran Parashar: How do you ensure the revised textbook PDFs reach government school students in remote areas, considering they do not have access to smartphones or computers?
I want to clarify that whenever a textbook is revised, it is not printed the same year. The tender process to print the revised textbooks starts in December. The 128 mistakes made by Ramachandrappa have been set right and the revised textbooks will be given to every school. Many are single-line corrections and teachers have been told. So, no student will be affected.
Kiran Parashar: When you said that “Savarkar flying out of cellular jail on a bulbul,” is a metaphor. How do expect children to understand it?
Have you read Vivekananda? He appealed to 100 citizens with “iron nerves.” It was a thought that Savarkar had while he was in Cellular Jail. Every line that a poet writes cannot be explained. We cannot question a poet’s imagination.
Why BC Nagesh
BC Nagesh, began his political career with the RSS, before he joined the BJP in 1984. He was part of the Basavaraj Bommai government in 2021 and has since been in the news for the hijab controversy in junior colleges, changes in school textbooks and cultural referencing in the syllabus. As Minister of School Education, Literacy and Sakala of Karnataka, Nagesh encouraged the State Education Department to start the Kalika Chetarike programme to bridge the pandemic-induced learning gap among students of Classes I-IX in government schools, which is applicable for this academic year