CBSE question paper: Sonia Gandhi may have earned political brownie points, but it’s not a victory for our education system

CBSE question paper: Sonia Gandhi may have earned political brownie points, but it’s not a victory for our education system

CBSE question paper: Sonia Gandhi may have earned political brownie points, but it’s not a victory for our education system

The furore over an English comprehension exercise in a Class X question paper has pushed the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) to drop the passage and accompanying questions. This step was taken after Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, general secretary of the All India Congress Committee in charge of Uttar Pradesh, tweeted a picture flagging the passage for its “retrograde views on women” and holding the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accountable.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi slammed the reading section of the paper for its “atrocious statements” and “condemnable ideas” Member of Parliament Rahul Gandhi joined their protest and described the comprehension exercise as “disgusting” and a “ploy” of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP.

The passage selected for the question paper has drawn sharp criticism because it contains statements that can allegedly make readers imbibe gender stereotypes. Here is one example: “What people were slow to observe was that the emancipation of the wife destroyed the parent’s authority over the children.” Here is another example: “In bringing the man down from his pedestal, the wife and mother deprived herself, in fact, of the means of discipline.”

The examination was conducted on 11 December. Two days later, the CBSE published a circular noting that it would drop the passage and questions. All students would be awarded full marks. The CBSE mentioned that experts were consulted while making this decision but did not make their names public. Is this a win against patriarchy? I do not think so.

The Congress, while calling out the RSS, employed the same strategy that Vinay Joshi, a former RSS worker, used while filing a complaint with the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) against the National Council of Research and Training (NCERT)’s teacher training material titled Inclusion of Transgender Children in School Education: Concerns and Roadmap (2021). It was withdrawn after social media outrage.

Priyanka Gandhi’s opinion on the passage, which she calls “drivel”, is understandable but her conclusion — “Clearly the BJP government endorses these retrograde views on women, why else would they feature in the CBSE curriculum?” — raises questions about the CBSE itself. Is she implying that Indian governments of the present and past, including those with the Congress, have used CBSE question papers to promote their ideology?

While I join her in disagreeing with the view that women must be kept confined to domestic roles to ensure disciplining of children, she overlooks a key aspect of the comprehension passage. It discusses the concept of 'patriarchal bargain' without explicitly naming it when it states that women invoke the authority of the absent father to discipline their children. Turkish feminist Deniz Kandiyoti had coined this term to talk about the strategies that women tend to use to secure benefits for themselves within the restrictions imposed by patriarchy.

Dr Kandiyoti is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Development Studies at the SOAS University of London. In her article titled “Bargaining with Patriarchy” (1988) for the academic journal Gender and Society, she writes about the “individual power tactics” that women use to “become experts in maximising their own life chances” but how these tactics “do little to alter the structurally unfavourable terms of the overall patriarchal script”.

Indians would relate easily to her example of a mother-in-law who internalises patriarchy and controls her daughter-in-law’s mobility and access to power. She writes, “Since sons are a woman’s most critical resource, ensuring their life-long loyalty is an enduring preoccupation. Older women have a vested interest in the suppression of romantic love between youngsters to keep the conjugal bond secondary and to claim sons’ primary allegiance.”

There are many contexts wherein women compete for power, so they end up colluding with men to harm other women. This is exactly why cases of sexual harassment get hushed up. Victims who speak out hope that other women will support them but this does not happen; colleagues and bystanders are afraid of their losing jobs or being seen as troublemakers.

When Priyanka Gandhi asks, “Are we really teaching children this drivel?” she sounds unaware of the distinction between teaching and testing. This passage appears in a question paper. When students are given a passage to work with, they are expected to demonstrate a variety of reading skills, including skimming and scanning for information, inference, interpretation, prediction and critical thinking. They get marks based on this performance.

It is important for students to be exposed to a range of texts so that they can learn to spot the difference between fact and opinion, understand how authors use voice and vocabulary to influence readers, and also observe how arguments are constructed logically and emotionally. By asking the CBSE to withdraw the passage, and the government to apologise, Sonia Gandhi might earn political brownie points but this is not a victory for our education system.

People who set question papers need to be trained better in formulating multiple-choice as well as open-ended questions that can challenge the imagination and creativity of the test-taker. A text filled with embarrassing and insensitive material is not to be feared or banned. Children and adolescents will encounter various kinds of texts in the world. They need to pick up the skills needed to analyse what they read, and not accept it at face value.

Giving full marks to all students is nothing more than a quick-fix solution. It will have no long-term impact on India’s education system. However, Sonia Gandhi’s call for a review of the gender sensitivity standards followed by the CBSE with respect to their curriculum and testing is appreciable. This work needs to happen regardless of which party or parties form the central government. Question papers must be kept away from electoral politics.

The CBSE website indicates that it has been conducting training programmes on gender-sensitive pedagogy, using gender-sensitive teaching-learning materials, and creating a gender-sensitive classroom environment. A few years ago, the CBSE had also published a “checklist for gender sensitivity in schools” to identify specific standards that schools should conform to in order to be “sensitive towards the requirements of students of both the genders.”

This checklist must be updated because it does not reflect the requirements of transgender, non-binary and other gender non-conforming students. If the CBSE is serious about pursuing its stated mission to be gender-sensitive, it needs to look no further than the hastily withdrawn teacher training material published by the NCERT to ensure transgender inclusion. Doing so will readily align with the objectives of India’s National Education Policy (2020).

The author is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer. He has an MPhil in English Language Education and classroom experience as a school teacher. The views expressed are personal.

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