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/ Education / Perspectives on Education /

Whither Indian Education?

Originally presented as the inaugural address to the 'National Convention Against Communalisation of Education in India’ organised by SAHMAT (August 4-6, 2001, New Delhi, India).


The education in India is at a crossroads. Its liberal and secular character and content, carefully nourished during the last fifty years, despite several vicissitudes, is now undergoing fundamental transformation. That this change rather hurriedly pushed through by the government and its agencies is not in consonance with the guiding principles of our republic and would adversely affect the well being of our plural society is a widely shared concern. For, the change is being engineered by a government committed more by its ideological needs and the entrepreneurial interests of the ruling classes rather than the requirements of the society.

Admittedly, in class societies education is an ideological apparatus of the state and is designed and used for the perpetuation and furtherance of its interests. The ideological apparatuses by their very nature function with considerable finesse, obscuring and universalising partisan interests or imputing cultural or national explanations for their initiatives. All these strategies appear to be at work in foregrounding a new system of education that uncritically privileges the indigenous and celebrates the religious. It seeks to displace whatever secular and universal content and outlook the existing system, although with obvious limitations, has managed to incorporate and preserve.

Character of education in Post-independence India

The system of education evolved during the post ˆindependence period is essentially liberal and secular in character. It draws upon the historical experience, both colonial and pre-colonial, and the social, cultural and intellectual legacy inherited there from. Although an enclavised system, mainly serving the interests of the elite, it respected the social plurality and cultural diversity of the country. While attempting to construct the nation and unify the people, differences were accommodated, even if the class and caste biases were apparent in policy formulation and implementation. That education is a concurrent and not a central subject reflects the respect for diversity.

The influence of colonial rule and western ideas, which filtered through it, over the modern system of education in India, is well known. The reconstruction of the system of education in post-independent India was undertaken in the context of the legacy of colonialism, both in policy and infrastructure. Yet, the system that came into being, as a result of the deliberations in several education commissions, chaired by eminent educationists like Dr.S.Radhakrishnan and Dr.D.S. Kothari, was neither a continuation of the colonial nor a blind adoption of the western. The main concern was the formulation of a reformed system that would address the developmental needs of the nation and create a healthy social consciousness. The national policy on education laid down this perspective as follows: "a radical reconstruction of education" is essential for economic and cultural development of the country, for national integration and for realizing the ideal of a socialistic pattern of society. This will involve a transformation of a system to relate to more closely to the life of the people; a continuous effort to expand educational opportunity; a sustained and intensive effort to raise the quality of education at all stages; an emphasis on the development of science and technology; and the cultivation of moral and social values. The educational system should produce young men and women of character and ability committed to national service and development. Only then will education be able to play its vital role in promoting national progress, creating a sense of common citizenship and culture, and strengthening national integration. This is necessary if the country is to attain its rightful place in the comity of nations in conformity with its cultural heritage and its unique potentialities.

The search for an alternate system had a long history, dating back to the early colonial times. The nostalgia about the indigenous, as evident from the writings of many, including Gandhi who described the pre-colonial system as a beautiful tree, is a natural response to conditions of subjection. Yet, there was no attempt to resurrect the pre-colonial or to adopt the traditional as the ideal. Instead the concern of all those involved with educational reform was to marry the traditional with the modern. A national system of education which the colonial intellectuals and nationalist leaders tried to evolve was based on a possible synthesis of all that is advanced in the West with all that was abiding in the traditional. In other words the national policy was not lodged in a dichotomy between the indigenous and the western. The impact of such a policy was the internalization of a universal outlook and the location of the indigenous in the wider matrix of human history. The educational policy adumbrated by independent India, even if it faltered on many a count, was informed by an open-ended view.

Recent Departures

The post-colonial system, in the assessment of the present government, has an entirely different character. In its view it continues to be colonial and western, producing an intellectually and culturally alienated intelligentsia, derisively called the "children of Macaulay". Given their education and training and access to power, it is argued that they were able to exercise an overriding influence in almost all spheres of society- political, social and intellectual. The nature of political institutions and developmental strategies of independent India were attributed to their influence. The modern system of education, which they tried to perpetuate, is anathema to the Sangh Parivar, as it is not sufficiently "national" in content. The alternative proposed by the Parivar and now being implemented by the government is an indigenous system, which M.S. Golwalkar had earlier conceived as religious in character, with emphasis on tradition, discipline and military training. Romanticisation of traditional knowledge, celebration of religious beliefs and emphasis on conformism are its chief characteristics.

One of the major compulsions for changing the content of education is the realization of the communal objective of creating a Hindu national identity and national pride. An essay on value education published by the National Council for Educational Research and Training ( NCERT) suggests as follows: A sense of belongingness must be developed in every individual learner by focusing on India‚s contribution to world civilization. It is high time that India‚s contribution in areas like mathematics, sciences, maritime, medicine, trade, architecture, sculpture, establishment of institutions of learning is emphasized and made known to the learners to develop a sense of belonging to the nation with respect and an attachment to the past.

In respect of both school and university education the government agencies like the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the NCERT are currently engaged in revising the curriculum and bringing about a qualitative change in content. A discussion document produced by the NCERT for curriculum development spells out the main thrust of the contemplated change. The document dismisses the existing system as colonial and western and in its place proposes an indigenous curriculum, which would "celebrate the ideas of native thinkers\" and "privilege the innovative experiments and experiences emanated from its own context". The Document elaborates the point as follows:

… it may also be pointed out that there is a need to bring to notice the contribution of India to the world wisdom. Paradoxical as it may sound, while our children know about Newton, they do know a computer they do not know the concept of zero. Mention may also have to be made for instance of Yoga and Yogic practices as well as Indian systems of medicine like Ayurvedic and Unani forms which are being recognized and practiced all over the world. The curriculum will have to correct such imbalances.

The contrast between the western and the indigenous and privileging the latter is a powerful political slogan capable of arousing nationalist sentiments, but it hardly has any academic worth. Not because indigenous system of knowledge need not be integrated into the curriculum- in fact it is necessary to do so more than what exists today- but the contrast between the two systems as the NCERT document purports to do is likely to be counterproductive. It would only create a false sense of pride, bordering on chauvinism, which is detrimental to the pursuit of knowledge. What is required is not information gathering which the NCERT is obsessed with, but a creative integration of knowledge from different sources.

The system of school education that would emerge out of the suggestions in this document is likely to have serious long-term social implications. It would foster a generation incapable of critically interrogating the problems of society or rationally approach matters of social existence. Instead they will be more inclined to accept the received wisdom and in the process miss the significance of the revolution in knowledge currently taking place in the world. The most undesirable consequence, however, would be the creation of an intellectual and cultural situation conducive for the onset of a conformist society.

Value Education

Considerable importance is attached in the new scheme to value education, an issue that had attracted the attention of educational planners from the very beginning. The value education was generally perceived as a major input in the process of character building of students as well as a means for the inculcation of healthy social attitudes. In fact, there can hardly be any system of education without the inculcation of values. What should constitute the content of value education is however not easy to determine. The different commissions had seriously deliberated upon this and had suggested how moral, spiritual and religious ideas could be incorporated in the curriculum. The Education Commission of 1964 took a clear view by underlining the importance of education about religion and not religious education and significantly about the need for the study of comparative religion. The Commission also emphasized a universal outlook as the source of value education so that the students become capable of comprehending the problems of modern world. In 1970 the NCERT following a national conference spelt out the content of value education. The values enunciated were primarily secular in character: honesty, kindness, charity, tolerance, courtesy, compassion and sympathy. The present policy seems to draw upon this tradition, but in actual practice marginalizing the universal and comparative perspective so integral to the Indian experience. In fact, the secular values the NCERT itself had earlier enunciated do not get adequate attention in recent policy statements. Therefore there is considerable apprehension that the much touted value education would be restricted in due course to religious instruction, and perhaps to Hindu religious instruction. The Director of NCERT, though negatively, has foregrounded the religious dimension: "The hesitation in delineating strategies for value inculcation from religions through its various sources needs to be given up". In fact, the textbooks prescribed in several states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had long given up any such hesitation and has prepared ample material not only to inculcate a religious but a communal view of the world.

The scheme of value education is inextricably linked with the communal cultural and political project. By its very nature it would promote religiosity and religious consciousness in society and help in redefining the nation in religious terms. The Hindu religion oriented courses sponsored by the government agencies and the religious interpretation of history serve the same purpose. More so because they create a wedge in social consciousness.

Redefinition of the Nation

The restructuring of the education system undertaken by the present government and the agencies under its control is primarily oriented towards the redefinition of the nation in religious terms. Using the logic of majoritarianism the nation is being conceptualized as Hindu and a system of education to legitimize this notion is being put in place. In this attempt the interpretation of the past and the social consciousness emerging out of it are of crucial importance, which explains the promotion of a hinduised history by the Sangh Parivar. The soul of hinduisation, however, is not the distortion of facts, which at any rate are aplenty, but a religious interpretation of the past, which establishes the right of the nation to the Hindus. Reminiscent of the colonial view of the past, the communal history, which is now being propagated by government institutions like the Indian Council for Historical Research and increasingly finding place in school textbooks, depicts Indian history as a record of continuous strife between religious communities. In this interpretation all communities other than the Hindus are identified as foreigners and therefore the enemies of the nation. What is implied thereby is that Hindus alone has a right to the nation. The recent attempts to prove the indigenous origins of the Aryans and their vegetarianism are a part of establishing historical legitimacy for Hindu nationhood. This however is only the tip of the iceberg. A very concerted and well-planned attempt is being made to create an alternate historical consciousness. The channels of dissemination of this consciousness are not the textbooks or the research projects sponsored by the ICHR alone, but more so the vernacular pamphlets extensively distributed through religious and social networks. They do not make any distinction between myth and history; in fact they parade myth as history, which in a way makes their reception easier. The history of Ramjanmabhoomi circulated during the temple campaign is a good example.

The emphasis on the religious interpretation of history is a reflection of a general shift from a secular perspective to a religious orientation in education. The recent initiatives taken by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, implemented through the NCERT and the UGC, seek to impart a Hindu religious character to the education system by incorporating in the curricula areas of interest traditionally associated with religious practices. The most glaring example of this tendency is the promotion of a course in Karmakanda that would produce certified priests for conducting rituals. Along with that attempts are afoot to open new areas of study where, according to the NCERT, "scientific evidence is not so far available to sustain some popular faith and which have been rejected outright because of impatient and motivated criticism". In pursuit of this Jyotir Vigyan, Jyotish in popular parlance, is being introduced in Universities with generous financial assistance from the UGC. The best of Indian scientists have decried the wisdom behind this move, as the promotion of such an unscientific field of study will only contribute to obscurantism and superstition.

This initiative of the government raises an important academic issue regarding the teaching of the traditional systems of knowledge. That India like many other countries have an accumulated wealth of knowledge needs no reiteration. In several fields like medicine, plastic surgery, rhenoplasty, astronomy, town planning, alchemy and so on Indians had attained a high level of excellence at different points of time. They deserve to be studied and is being studied as a part of the historical evolution of knowledge in the field. But privileging them over the others, particularly those without proper scientific foundation like Jyotish and Karmakanda, is unaccademic and undesirable and is likely to encourage inward looking and closed minds, particularly because the government documents while emphasizing the contribution of Indian civilization to other societies do not take notice of the impact of other civilisations on India. Studying the state of knowledge in the past is one thing; uncritically adopting it in the present curriculum is another. The knowledge in each field has advanced so much, a return to the past, however glorious it had been, is unrealistic and only would drag the society into intellectual backwardness.

The Context

The change in the character of education from the secular to the communal is taking place at a historical juncture when transnational capital is tightening its stranglehold over the Indian economy and society. The impact of this new phase of imperialism, euphemistically called globalisation, thereby masking its real nature and intent, is well pronounced. That the privatization of education, particularly the withdrawal of the state from higher education, occurring at a brisk pace in recent times is at the instance of the World Bank is now well known. Not only steps are afoot to set up private universities, but also several foreign universities are vying with each other to set up their "extension counters" in India. Given that the best of Indian universities are starved of funds these institutions are likely to have a field day. As for Indian universities they function today without even the basic minimum facilities and with teachers who have no access to the latest advances in their disciplines. These institutions churn out students who complete their education as outcastes even in their own chosen area of knowledge. What these institutions offer is unacceptable to the fast growing affluent Indian middle class. The situation is likely to aggravate in coming days with the UGC reportedly being deprived of its funding functions and the introduction of an accreditation system which would stamp many an institution as academic slums without ever the possibility of a honourable redemption. Understandably education is a fertile land for investment, particularly if it comes with a foreign tag.

The response of the ruling classes and the present government to this crisis is encoded in a report prepared by industrialists, Mukesh Ambani and Kumaramangalam Birla, entitled A Policy Framework for Reforms in Education, and submitted to the Prime Minister‚s council on trade and industry. The brief of this young team of industrialists is to formulate a policy framework for private investment in education, health and rural development, which they appear to have done with alacrity and enthusiasm. The proposals, which they claim would usher in a revolution in education, in fact, provide a blue print for the unconditional surrender to the interests of advanced capitalist countries and for the preservation of the existing privileges of the ruling classes. The revolution proposed is the creation of a "competitive, yet co-operative, knowledge based society". The prescription is as follows:

As the world moves on to forging an information society founded on education, India cannot remain behind as a non-competitive knowledge economy. India has to create an environment that does not produce industrial workers and labourers but fosters knowledge workers. Such people must be at the cutting edge of knowledge workers and, in turn, placing India in the vanguard in the information age.

This grand design is to be implemented through direct foreign investment and privatization. It advocates "a full cost recovery in higher education and encouraging the emergence of a largely self-financing private sector". The rest, be it the primary and secondary education or the liberal and performing arts or "disciplines whose scholars do not command a market", may be left to the patronage of the state. The unstated implication of the scheme is that it would generate two streams: one for the poor and the other for the elite. The education of the former would be limited to literacy while the latter would be the receivers of knowledge. But then the nature of the information society of countries like India, as subordinate partners of advanced capitalist countries, would be nothing better than that of a service sector. Far from being competitive and innovative they are likely to be destined to perform innumerable labour saving works for the benefit of transnational capital. The most glaring example is the medical transcription in which a large number of Indians, some of them with high technical qualifications, are currently engaged in performing the clerical work for American hospitals. Several other labour saving "opportunities" are on the way. This is not to argue that the opportunities opened up by information technology are to be shunned, but to suggest its creative incorporation in the system of education. At the same time it is necessary to recognize the fact that the educational conditions created by information technology are pregnant with the possibilities of intellectual colonization. The breaking of the geographical barriers and communication restrictions are indeed healthy attributes of knowledge dissemination, but it cannot be divorced from the economic and political contexts of knowledge production. The Ambani report, trapped in platitudes and rhetoric, appears to be insensitive to these larger issues inherent in the new information regime.

The over emphasis on information technology raises yet another issue vital to the well being of society. The report not only privileges technology education but also isolates and marginalizes other areas. This is likely to affect adversely the holistic character of education, so necessary for the creation of a healthy society. An important attribute of knowledge production is specialisation, but the absence of a liberal content in it devalues education into mere training. The early educational planners were quite conscious of this danger and therefore took care to integrate liberal and social science education with science and technology. The humanity and social science faculties of the Indian Institutes of Technology emerged out of this perspective. It is for the same reason that universities devoted to the pursuit of science and technology took care to nurture social science faculties. Interestingly a vice-chancellor who made major contribution to the planning and development of a university for science and technology in Kerala was a social scientist.

In recent times two tendencies counter to this liberal spirit has been gaining ground in the organization of higher education. The first is the establishment of single subject oriented universities and second, the marginalisation, if not the elimination, of liberal subjects from the curriculum. The former leads to an extremely lopsided university system in which the possibilities of academic enrichment through interdisciplinary teaching and research become minimal. Such universities do not rise above the level of institutes. The latter is more unfortunate. With the onset of cyber age education and privatization social sciences and such other "unproductive disciplines" appears to be on their way out. In some states like Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu liberal education is at a discount and the time and money allotted for social science subjects are being diverted for training in information technology. The NCERT, it is reported, is in the process of eliminating history from the school curriculum as a distinct subject of study. The Ambani report locates this shift in the context of globalisation and the imperatives of a market-led, knowledge- based economy. The report puts forward the logic as follows:

"It is important that skills, as a result of education, have economic value beyond their intrinsic merit. Equally it is important that there is diversity in order to avoid abundance in any one skill and consequent poor rewards. To illustrate, although computer skills are valuable, if too many computer specialists are produced, rewards for them will be weak".

Lacking a philosophy of education the Report is not able to see beyond this pragmatic problem and recognize that the system it is advocating will not only widen the educational disparities in society but also would undermine the basic quality of education. If Ambani‚s scheme is implemented the fundamental purpose of education, namely, the refinement of mind is going to be the main casualty.

Yet another dimension of liberal education is its ability to sensitise the social and political rights. This was understood and recognized even by the Education Commission set up by the British government under the chairmanship of W.W.Hunter in 1882. The Commission had then advocated the desirability of a shift in policy in favour of technical education, interestingly, at a time when there was hardly any industry in India. The rationale for the change was that the liberal education was making the Indians conscious of their political rights leading to their participation in public movement. The Commission foretold the oppositional role the educated intelligentsia would play even before the storm broke out. Similarly the educational thinking and planning of the ruling classes today is to undermine the liberal education in order to rule out any possible dissent and protest. This is an interest equally shared by the forces of fundamentalism and globalisation.

The Ambani Report reflects this interest in ample measure. Apparently it aims to create "a new information society, resplendent with knowledge, research, creativity and innovation". But in reality it is concerned with the creation of necessary conditions for the operation of the national and trans-national capital. The Indian social scene has been rather turbulent during the last two decades when protest movements from different social groups have become quite pronounced. The educational campuses have been particularly vulnerable. The Report therefore suggests steps to ensure peaceful campuses without agitations and protests. Towards that end all educational institutions are to be made apolitical by preventing the "advertent or inadvertent creeping in of various isms" and by banning through legislation "any form of political activity on the campuses of universities and educational institutions". The aim of such a move is to usher in a conformist society in which alone fundamentalism can thrive and transnational capital can operate successfully. Thus in the new educational initiatives of the government there is a convergence of interests of both communalism and globalisation.

Except in certain pockets like Kerala and West Bengal there is hardly any awareness, let alone initiatives, for organising resistance against the onslaught of these two forces in the field of education. Most of the struggles for democratic rights in educational institutions are not sensitive to the imminent threat to the liberal and secular education. Given the rather dismal democratic climate in our institutions, they are more concerned with collective bargaining for improved conditions of work and better career opportunities. A search for an alternative has not yet begun in our society. A large section of the Indian intelligentsia are either lost in the ideological delusion of globalisation or scared by the aggressive posturing of communalism. The solution perhaps lies in the organization of a counter cultural movement- counter both to communalism and globalisation- since the cultural domain as a whole is under siege. The movement has to posit an alternative as well as counter the initiatives. Education is an area in which both these can be creatively attempted, drawing upon the earlier efforts to formulate a national and modern system of education.