Decimating schools to accommodate Shakhas

The NEP 2020’s position paper on “Knowledge of India” (KI) (January 2022) including `Indian Knowledge Systems’ (IKS) clearly privileges Brahmanical propaganda and hegemonic structures of the past, a past already glorified in the thousands of shakhas[1] run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh(RSS)
Illustration by Soham Sen | ThePrint

The hide-and-seek game being played with the national education policy is over and the agenda behind it is now clear.

Beginning with the more than four hundred page Subramanium Committee[2] report, which was neither accepted nor released to the public by the Union government, the government of India (GOI) suddenly released its own 68-page document.  Soon after, the then Rajya Sabha MP from the CPI (M) Sitaram Yechury publicly exposed the fact that this was a verbatim extract or version from an RSS document. Thereafter, the then Human Resources Development Minister (HRD) Prakash Javedekar immediately withdrew the document stating that it had been released `by mistake’!  Another. almost two years later the Prof. Kasturirangan Committee’s report came out. However, during the Covid pandemic a National Education Policy (NEP 2020) was passed by the Cabinet without being presented in Parliament or being sent to a select committee.  With no transparent debate among academicians or reference to the states as was constitutionally required since education comes under the concurrent list of subjects, the NEP 2020 began to be implemented in a haphazard manner through executive decisions and through central institutions including the University Grants Commission (UGC), the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), the National Testing Agency (NTA) and the like.

There were strong critical objections to the policy, to the manner of its implementation and the unseemly haste to push it through come what may. Institutions were threatened with withdrawal of central funds if it was not implemented by the next academic session. Teachers at both school level and higher education were intimidated and bullied not to speak out against the policy and responses by unions were sought to be suppressed. In spite of continuing opposition, institutional administrations were literally forced to implement the policy even if it meant their having to resort to using emergency powers to do so.

Chaos was created at all levels of the education system with structural, pedagogical and curriculum changes being pushed through without preparation, planning or resources. A system already in crisis with 50% to 60% shortage of faculty and lacking physical infrastructure was being pushed over the brink. Teaching was to be done through hybrid modes of online and offline functioning irrespective of the lack of access to devices and connectivity. Anganwadi workers were to receive online `training’ for taking on Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) responsibilities! Merger and closure of schools was happening across the country so that `school complexes’ could be made to `share’ what were in fact non-existent `resources’ resulting in  a further dropping out of children who were losing neighbouring schools or being crammed into `merged’ schools.

Although there is now much talk of lessening the burden of learning and breaking away from methods of `rote’ learning, there will now be all-India exams at Class 3, 5 and 8 as well as board exams at Class 10 and 12. The former will decide whose `education’ stops at `numeracy and literacy’, who goes on to `vocational training’ (these two categories would cover approximately 85 to 90 percent bahujan children[3]) while the latter will determine who completes higher secondary. But to get to higher education even the less than 10% `elite’ students will have to sit for a centralised entrance exam (currently compulsory only for central universities, it is proposed to be extended across the country). Coaching classes are booming, 97% of Delhi University admissions are from CBSE schools this time and the number of women students have dropped alarmingly.

Why is the education system being systematically destroyed and learning being kept out of reach for the vast majority of India’s children? Why is it not being reformed to facilitate universalisation of compulsory education for all? What does the government hope to gain from this worsening of the existing crisis in education?

The answer lies in the NEP 2020 inspired position paper on “Knowledge of India” (KI) (January 2022) including `Indian Knowledge Systems’ (IKS). Several `Guidelines’ have since been issued for the introduction of such courses in schools and higher educational institutions and also for training teachers to impart instruction.  Centrally selected and well-funded research projects are already underway to discover `scientific’ support for ancient ritual practices. The focus is on what are termed `Vedic’ achievements in ancient India in all spheres of knowledge from the sciences, mathematics, astronomy (including `astrology’), medical sciences, social organization and governance, art, aesthetics, architecture etc., and on the Sanskrit language in which these are accessible.  Ancient texts, such as the Puranas, Smrttis, the epics, Vedas and Upanishads are the core source materials. Gurukuls and temple schools are venerated as the proper institutions in which this knowledge was transmitted (apparently without caste exclusions) and preserved.

This fanciful picture is placed in the framework of what is identified as the proper historical `narrative’, one which is not tainted by the ideology of `invaders and colonisers’, so that Bharatiyata is to be rediscovered and IKS are to take their rightful place above and prior to the rise of modern science, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. The historical narrative must display “steadfastness in protecting the civilization”.  The role of Hindu kingdoms and dynasties has to be emphasized instead of elaborating the achievements of the invaders and colonisers. And so we are told, in flagrant violation of historical evidence, that “Buddhism started declining” as a “direct result of these invasions”!

The document claims that being colonised “for a thousand years” has apparently confused a “group of our intellectuals” who make ancient civilization “responsible” for social wrongs by “misinterpreting” ancient texts (like Manusmrtti) thereby leading to a loss of “traditional” patterns of employment. So we must see caste divisions and oppression as a form of societal harmony and stability! This blatant support for Brahmanical principles of social organization and its ideological propagation of caste hierarchies in daily life is seen as the foundational Bharatiya Dharma which is to be glorified and strengthened by the new historical narrative.

The IKS/KI is nothing else but the promotion of the ideology of the RSS shakha in the entire education system. It will be a compulsory add-on to the curriculum for which time has to be allocated although it will not be examined and graded along with other subjects. Every school and educational institution will have a `cell’ to organize the instruction of IKS/KI  and its other activities, including displays, debates, quizzes, etc., and physical training and yoga. Every school library will have a special section on IKS/KI with books and other reading material.

Of course the teachers imparting such instruction cannot be expected to be drawn from the existing colonially inspired education system. So they will have to be drawn from RSS/Sangh Parivar organisations[4], from the `community’ and from the `family’, that are compatible with IKS ideology. Frequent workshops will require to be held to `sensitise’ them to the needs of the NEP 2020.

Even the very idea of re-vamping education on this basis would require a well-researched account of ancient Sanskrit texts. This is a massive intellectual task and hardly one that can be achieved without `burdening’ researchers, teachers and students! It is particularly problematic because Brahmanical ideology itself grew out of sharp conflicts with the Lokayata Charvaka materialism, and the Sankhya Yoga and Naya Visheshika realisms. The anti-caste and anti-ritualist Buddhist and Jain philosophies of social organization were frankly anti-Brahmanical.  The rich body of Prakrits and Pali literatures are a recognized tradition distinct from and at variance with the Brahmanical Sanskrit literature.

Thus the attempt to glorify Brahminism by portraying India’s ancient civilizational history as a homogeneous continuum, until the advent of the `invaders’, is itself a deeply biased and prejudicial account that is hardly conducive to being the basis for a modern critical system of education.

In fact the position paper itself, while it seems unaware of the irony of its stand, states that recovering Bharatiyata requires the Indian presence of a Joseph Needham who produced an extensive study of the civilizational achievements of Chinese science and technology! However, far from following in his footsteps, IKS/KI moves in the opposite direction.

In the absence of serious research on the actual achievements of early civilizational philosophers and thinkers, not to mention the completely neglected medieval philosophical monotheisms and their sociological and linguistic impact in the spread and development of Prakrits, the ideologically motivated and unsubstantiated `shakha propaganda’ about a `golden age’ of Brahmanical achievement remains just that – propaganda.

It is this shakha-based propaganda to which the mass of India’s children will be subjected as the public system of education is crippled without resources and the constitutional commitment to providing quality education on the part of the Government is simply brushed aside.

The privileged elite, of course, will increasingly buy their education abroad or at foreign campuses located in India with the unregulated freedom to profit and repatriate.

(The author, previously an academic with the Delhi University is presently with the All India Forum for the Right to Education)

[1] Neighbourhood Branches of the RSS

[2] By 2017, May the Modi government had decided to junk the TSR Subramanian committee report on education reform terming it as a “mere compilation” of older reports. In 2015, the TSR Subramanian was set up to outline a new education policy, which submitted its report in May, 2016.

[3] In a modern context, it refers to the combined population of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, Muslims, and minorities, who together constitute the demographic majority of India.

[4] Vidya Bharati (short for Vidya Bharati Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan) is the educational wing of RSS. It runs one of the largest private network of schools in India, operating at a minimum 2,000 schools with over 3.2 Million students, as of 2016. Since this government came to power it has set up some universities too.; there is also the Ekal Vidyalaya the one teacher school run by a parallel foundation affiliated to the Viswa Hindu Parshad (VHP) and RSS



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