Hasan Suroor and the ‘Saffron’ Strawman

Just about a week ago, I had written an article for Pragati titled, ‘In Defence of Smriti Irani’. You can find it here. In that piece, I had mentioned that the Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE) in India has already introduced an elective course for Grades XI and XII of the CBSE titled, ‘Traditional Knowledge Systems of India’. One of the persons who worked hard to put this together was Michel Danino, a well-known Indologist, for his work on the Indus-Saraswati Civilisation (‘The lost river’).  The elective course has ten modules. I have gone through a few of them and they are good.

On June 1, the ‘First Post’ reported that the HRD Ministry is considering including ‘ancient texts’ in the syllabus. Actually, the first paragraph of the news-post and the second paragraph do not match. The first para appears to be the reporter’s version of what the second para means. There is a gulf between the two. You can decide for yourself:

Even as controversy around Smriti Irani’s educational qualification dies down, recent reports claim that the newly appointed HRD minister has started working towards including ancient Hindu texts in the education system, possibly part of school syllabus.

The Deccan Chronicle reported that Irani has directed HRD officials to develop material which shows the contribution of ancient India to various fields like science, philosophy, language and mathematics, while material being considered includes Hindu texts like Vedas and Upanishads. [Link]

She might well have had in mind some ideas to boost the popularity and acceptance of this Elective course already introduced by CBSE during the UPA regime and nothing more. No precise policy decision is taken or measure announced. The Ministry has also promised to engage in consultations. There may be a period of ‘public comments’ before any official change is made.

So, right now, all that we have is an imprecise news announcement. So, why is Hasan Suroor in a tearing hurry? This is where one has to be wary of the cleverness of the ‘Left-liberal’ brigade. He is not criticising the policy because there is none yet. He wants to set the agenda for the HRD Minister as to what she can or cannot do, in including new material in the syllabus. The header for his article is also provocative: ‘Return of Saffron text books’. His point is not about the merit (or, otherwise) of the Ministry’s decision because there is no decision yet. His goal is to preempt her and define the boundaries of what she can and cannot do.

This is exactly what I had in mind when I wrote the following in my MINT column two weeks ago (May 20, 2014):

If you were to take these actions, you will be tagged anti-Muslim. If you shy away from them simply to prove your detractors wrong, you will be implementing their agenda and not yours. [Link]

The script is playing out as I had anticipated. The question is how the government is going to respond to these clever attempts to set its agenda. I am not going to sketch a detailed prescription. I shall just stop with enunciating two principles that the government’s response has to keep in mind: one is purpose and the other is public relations.


5 thoughts on “Hasan Suroor and the ‘Saffron’ Strawman

  1. My children are in high school and middle school here in the US and I see the way they teach history is so engaging. The textbooks are of course vastly superior. There is unquestionably some political correctness, but I think that is fine. More important, the whole pedagogy is about trying to analyze. They encourage you to go to the primary source material for high school term papers and not regurgitate received analysis.

    More extensive quotation from primary source material is absolutely essential at he very least. It will open people’s eyes to how people living in those times perceived and felt. Reading Megasthenese Indica, Al Beruni’s India, Ibn Batuta, Faxian, Hsien Tsang are highly engaging. Reading Artha Shashtra and relating it to current economics.

    Instead, we have sterile and completely skewed history books. I have a copy of Romila Thapar’s history of India. The book is amazingly bad, especially if you actually happen to know the antecedents and have some familiarity with primary source material.



  2. Dear Ananth,

    Thanks for taking the time to reply. We are perhaps “violently agreeing with each other.” But when you talk about “managing the public perception,” the question immediately arises as to whom you refer to as “the public.” I was trying (and perhaps failed) to emphasize that the public whose perception the Modi government needs to manage consists of its staunch supporters, and not its shrill critics. Trying to appease (or even to address) the latter runs the risk of diluting the attraction of the government to the former. That is all.

    Warm regards.


    1. It is difficult to elaborate specific measures here. What I mean and what you have in mind are not dissimilar. It is about being transparent and being one step ahead of detractors, etc.


  3. Dear Ananth,

    Thanks for elaborating on this matter in such detail. I must admit that I did not pay any attention to Suroor’s article. My “algorithm” with First Post is to note the author’s name, and unless it is Jagannathan, go straight to the comments. In this instance, Suroor got a lot of stick from the commentators, who for the most part defended Suroor’s interpretation of Smriti Irani’s proposal (which as you have said, is an instance of Suroor being too clever by half). So in some sense Suroor has shot himself in the foot, because *even if* Smriti Irani were to do what he ascribes to her and criticizes her for wanting to do, she would get a great deal of support, at least from the social media. Most of the comments were to the effect that they were tired of their children learning in such elaborate detail about various Mughal kings who ruled for a few decades each, while all pre-Mughal era kings and kingdoms were dismissed in a few paragraphs. In other words, the commentators were sick and tired of their children being taught that “Indian history” began with the Mughals, and other lies such as the “Aryan invasion theory” etc. So, if Smriti Irani sticks to her guns as and when she formulates her policy, nothing untoward will happen.

    Of course the left-liberal “sickulars” will go to town about the “saffronization” of the Indian education system, just as they are now blowing up the unfortunate incident in Pune as being indicative of something far larger. I believe that the government’s reaction should be to ignore these attempts completely (what you have rightly called “purpose”) and do exactly what it wants to do. As for “public relations,” it MUST NOT try to win over its critics. To my mind this is precisely the mistake committed by Vajpayee. Those who are helll-bent on criticizing the Modi government will continue to do so in any case, and will continue to seek reasons both real and imaginary. The real danger for the Modi government is that those of us who supported it so vociferously during the election campaign would feel let down. So its first and foremost target must be to keep this flock together. So “public relations” in this context must mean “communicating with its core supporters,” and not “trying to reach out to its detractors.”

    What are your reactions?

    Warm regards.


    1. Thank you, Dr. Sagar. I agree with you that PR – what I meant – is not about ‘Being all things to all people’. That was not my message, in any case, in the original MINT article of May 20th, 2014 that I had linked to it, in this post. But, what I meant is the task of managing the public perception in the face of a shrill accusatory and misinformed campaign of ‘saffronisation’.


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