Secular Education and the Federal Polity
By Romila Thapar
Romila Thapar is at the forefront of the struggle of the Indian intelligentsia
against the systematic onslaught on the secular foundations of the educational
system by the ruling combine led by Hindutva forces in India.This is
the text of her address at the 'National Convention Against Saffronisation
of Education', organised by SAHMAT (August 4-6, 2001, New Delhi, India).
We are grateful for her consent to reproduce it here.
begin by asserting that those who do not understand the past, or refuse
to understand it, invariably end up by misunderstanding the present
and are unable to move forward into the future. We are faced today with
the makers of educational policy in the central government who seem
not to understand the Indian past.
a constant harking back to the remote past, encapsulated in the phrase
Vedic. Irrespective of its historical or civilisational authenticity,
this capsule is being forced upon us with the claim that all knowledge
is contained in the Vedas and therefore the Vedic capsule amounts to
a total education.
little recognition of the fact that in the course of Indian history,
various Indian thinkers discussed the knowledge contained in the Vedic
corpus, and some had doubts about various aspects. This process of debate
and questioning, the presentation of views and counter-views, both within
India and among scholars from other parts of Asia, has been at the root
of advances in knowledge in pre-modern times. Much that we pride ourselves
on, as Indian contributions to world civilisation, often developed independently
of the Vedic corpus and occasionally even in opposition to it. Significant
contributions from the past are thus set aside in this obsessive concern
with the Vedic capsule.
this, I am not denigrating the study of the Vedic past, but am emphasising
that the past has to be assessed in a historical context, and I would
further insist that the context has to be, that of critical, rational
enquiry. This is now being denied by replacing enquiry with a received
version of the past which is then treated as the authentic version.
is made that this is a return to indigenous knowledge, but the new educational
curriculum draws its legitimacy from 19th century colonial views of
India, and from the priority that European Indologists gave to Brahmanical
texts and world-view. Indigenous systems drew not only on mainstream
texts in the language of learning but also on texts in a variety of
regional languages, which could question the former if need be, as also
on observed knowledge.
pedagogical change in the last few decades has been the professionalising
of various subjects, particularly in the social sciences. Each subject
is preferably taught in such a way that it also demonstrates its own
methodology which draws as much as plausible on evidence of proven reliability,
on a logical analysis and on rational generalisations. This demands
an intellectual rigour in setting out the structure of the subject.
The training that results from such teaching, as for example in history,
enables both the teacher and the student to be aware of the difference
between mythology and history.
now a retreat from these processes and mythology is taking over from
knowledge. Mythology has a role in creative imagination but should not
replace knowledge. Instead of further professionalising the subjects
and college, they are being replaced with subjects that have virtually
no pedagogical rigour, such as Yoga and Consciousness or cultivating
a Spirituality Quotient. These cannot form the core of knowledge and
replace subjects with a pedagogical foundation, although yoga can be
an additional activity.
of knowledge is being attempted in part by giving a single definition
to Indian culture and society, and projecting this through educational
channels, and describing it as the sole heritage that is of any consequence
to us as a society and a nation. Yet this goes against one of the fundamental
concerns of the Indian experience both of the past and of the present.
more significant questions that have continually been at the core of
Indian activity, is that of the relations between the needs of the central
power in a state and the articulation of variant forms of control manifested
by regional and local powers. At the most obvious level in the past,
this relationship determined various structures relating to administrative
and economic policy. But it is also evident in cultural expression where
a distinction was often maintained between the mainstream culture, and
the culture and language of the region.
between the two varied from close interlinks on some occasions, to tensions
or even confrontations on other occasions. What is relevant to us today
is that in the past, cooperation between the Centre and the regions
needed an immense degree of sensitivity to social and cultural variations
and an understanding of why those arose. We are facing a similar problem
is whether we should accept the kind of homogenisation of education
and culture that is being imposed on the country, or, should we attempt
to define the modern, educated Indian through an educational policy
sensitive to a range of social and economic concerns, and to new systems
of knowledge, a sensitivity that will provide us with a worthwhile present
and enable us to perceive the inter-connections with the past?
interface between the Centre and the states in a federal polity, help
us in this matter? Education is not merely about making millions literate,
it also involves teaching young people to cope with a changing society,
which today means being more aware of the world than ever before, and
to creating a worthwhile life for themselves. Therefore, to impose a
syllabus oriented to studying an imagined past utopia is to erode the
potential of the next generation. Focusing on a utopian past is also
a mechanism of diverting attention from having to improve the present
in order to provide a better quality of life.
to the public and transparency in governance is necessary in formulating
educational policies. We must know who is drafting educational policy
and who have been consulted in doing so, and what has been the participation
of professionally qualified persons in the determining of the curriculum
in a subject. It requires responsible people and these in turn have
to be responsible for what they are doing. Educational policy is both
important and sensitive and cannot be left to the whims of a small circle
of politicians and bureaucrats.
understanding of the interface of Centre and region is essential to
any educational policy. Two states with high rates of literacy are Kerala
and Himachal Pradesh. Each is very different from the other in terms
of economic resources and the way they are used; in the hierarchy of
castes and the distribution of classes; in religions and religious sects;
and in languages. These aspects also undergo change. Can we set aside
all this and merely insist on children in both areas studying Sanskrit,
Vedic Mathematics, a vague subject called social science, and Yoga and
of the Vedic capsule would be an educational disruption in both regions,
educationally negative for many people and resented by others.
they do have in common, are the aspirations that result from education.
Schooling and curriculum would have to relate up to a point to the local
conditions and ethos, and these would involve a degree of interest in
regional concerns. The question is how best these can be introduced
without denying the importance of national concerns — a matter of some
sensitivity. Educational policy has to be such that the aspirations,
at least of regional concerns, are recognised as an intrinsic part of
those that are of national interest. This would ultimately be more viable
than forcing everyone to conform to a top-down policy.
policies in states that do not have a BJP government have a greater
responsibility to defend secular education and the continuance of multiple
cultures. This is often easier at the state level where multiple cultures
are more visible, but would require considerable thinking about education
in terms of what is being taught and which groups are appropriating
educational facilities. Where parties not belonging to the NDA, tie-up
with the Sangh parivar to harass those supporting secular education,
the acts of such parties should also be questioned. Education should
not be made the scapegoat for dubious political manoeuvres.
well be taking a risk with the future of the next generation by giving
them the type of schooling that will not equip them to handle the complexities
of our times. These are serious matters that concern the future of an
entire generation of young Indians and should be critically discussed
and reviewed. But then the Indian middle-class is notoriously unconcerned
about what is taught to its children through schooling. All that matters
is the game of numbers, marks and percentages.
policy, it is said, will reduce social disabilities and the replacing
of subjects at school will reduce the burden on the child. Social disabilities
can be met to some extent by professionalising what is taught — in other
words teaching mainstream subjects as systems of knowledge, without
mystifications. The way a subject is taught has a social context and
this has a bearing on social disabilities.
will Vedic Mathematics be taught through memorising shlokas in Sanskrit
or essentially as methods of calculation? In the former case obviously
upper caste children will have an advantage; in case of the latter,
the quality of what is taught will have to be assessed comparatively
with other mathematical methods. If it were to be something more than
a slogan, would this kind of mathematics prepare a foundation for the
child to handle contemporary technologies requiring mathematics?
is related to the social structures that it endorses or wishes to change.
The suggested curriculum is essentially intended to construct a middle-class
ideology producing pliant citizens. The problem will however be intensified
when this regimen is imposed on the under-privileged, and when they
become aware of this package being a further denial of quality education
kind of schooling, Dalits and scheduled tribes and other marginalised
groups such as women will continue to be employed only for lower level
jobs. This may be the other agenda of the new curriculum. The package
makes no concession in the curriculum to societies that function differently
and require adjustments to educational programmes, such as a greater
emphasis initially on technical courses.
are privileged and can afford private schools will continue to have
a quality education, but the rest, in terms of educational requirements
today, will remain virtually uneducated. Such a two-tier system is implicit
in the suggestions on educational programmes made by sections of the
corporate sector as well. This is likely to be a bigger problem in schools
run by individual states and at local levels, since the disaffection
will be closer to the ground reality in these schools.
curriculum in the states can explore the links between education and
the social context more closely, as also the links to aspirations through
education. This does not mean a tailor-made education for each caste,
religious sect, or tribe, but can consider incorporating variations
in the handling of knowledge.
of the preferred language for education poses other problems. There
is today a relationship between English and the regional languages,
between Hindi and English, and among the regional languages. Regional
languages have become basic to the administration of the states. But
given the aspirations to managerial jobs, corporate sector jobs, technologies
of various kinds or employment outside India, English is likely to remain
in demand. The greater the investment of the multi-nationals, the greater
will be the requirement for professional English. Economic policies
could well dictate educational demands giving rise to yet other problems.
misconception lies in the belief that education in the medium of English,
or an education in the sciences, automatically results in rational attitudes.
But rationality has to be cultivated. Rationality is necessary for the
study of technologies, for instance, but those who use it for this purpose
do not necessarily apply it to understanding other aspects of knowledge.
Those that theoretically should be more enlightened often support outdated
views about Indian society without a second thought.
in the sciences and technologies is divorced from other areas of thought,
and often results in a dichotomy between scientific and technological
knowledge on the one hand and knowledge related to the social sciences
and the humanities on the other. The necessary integration between the
two is frequently absent.
case in point comes from the Indian diaspora. NRIs often demonstrate
this dichotomy, where despite having been trained to enquire critically
and rationally into professional areas of work, they make uninformed
generalisations about other areas in which they are not trained, such
as the Indian past and what goes under the label of Indian culture.
This is startlingly evident from their web-sites.
the most untenable theories about the past come from Indian computer
scientists, engineers, and such like, and some also claim that because
they are scientists, their theories about the past are value-free, a
claim that is now much doubted even in scientific circles. Such persons
are among the role-models of the Indian middle-class.
legitimacy to their obscurantism because they are technically qualified
in the sciences. The reasons for this dichotomy are often explained
as due to their lack of adjustment to an alien culture or from the consciousness
of being a minority in that culture. If we are now going to have university
courses in Vedic rituals, to help create cultural support for such NRIs,
then surely we have to concede that the tail is wagging the dog.
essentials of critical and rational enquiry in the sciences could be
part of a comparative interface with methods in the social sciences,
this would result in a far greater awareness of what it means to be
educated and how one looks at the world. One is not suggesting that
children have to be tutored in the nature of paradigm shifts in all
kinds of knowledge, but at least they should know what knowledge changes,
that some knowledge becomes out-of-date, and that there are ways of
recognising the change.
the debate between orthodoxies and heterodoxies is essential to advancing
knowledge. This debate is a lynchpin in education. The learning process
is not a matter of memorising questions and answers but of being encouraged
to explore ideas creatively.
that educational policy and curriculum should legitimately be replaced
with every new government is to make a mockery of the process of education.
It is not the monopoly of any government; it is the responsibility of
those who are involved in educating the young.
be useful would be to work out an essential educational structure, incorporating
the major debates in various disciplines, and these should not be tampered
with whenever there is a change of government. Changing the content
of subjects must be recognised as being a professional matter and not
a matter of political ideology.
widens the mind and encourages an exploration of ideas and actions.
But if it is confined to thinking along a single track, then it closes
the mind. In the wider context of planning education, if the direction
of change points to a federal polity, then the interface between the
Centre and the states relates not just to education but to many activities,
although educational policies often highlight the nature of the connections.
If a federal polity is what is required it cannot be brought about accidentally;
it has to be forged.
this will be a process that strengthens an inclusive nationalism, secular
in its essentials and drawing on creative inter-relations between the
Centre and the states.