The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has saved us all a lot of time writing long critiques, with its admission that the Education Policy the Union Cabinet approved in the silence of the Covid catastrophe bears its imprint. The Sangh’s several spokespersons focussed on the mother tongue – a polite phrase to mean the official language of a state, and not really the tongue spoken at home such as Maithili in parts of Bihar or Kui, of the Kondhs of Kandhamal – as the medium of education at the primary level. This was an early climbdown after Tamil Nadu rejected early attempts to foist Hindi. But the education policy bears the Sangh stamp much through its dreary path.
It also bears Mr Modi’s distinct stamp, of course, who wants the Indian mind purged of all the garbage that Jawaharlal Nehru dreamt for the people of the newly independent India back in 1947.
The vicious attacks in recent months on the many giants who led the Education Ministry, among them Maulana Abul kalam Azad, the preeminent jurist MC Chagla, Professor Humayun Kabir, Dr KL Shrimali, Dr VKRV Rao, and Professor Nurul Hasan, is an indication of the mindset, if an indication was needed.
One wonders if a President Kalam would have emerged if his Education Policy was in force when he was a student. Instead of becoming the redoubtable rocket engineer that he became because of his single minded determination, he would have perhaps become a wonderful expert fisheries engineer. All that gentle persuasion to students to take the easy way to vocations instead of philosophy, economics, literature, or physics, the subject I love, is even older than the Sangh. Dates back to Manu.
A New Education Policy was proposed by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, within weeks of returning to power for a second term in May 2019. It was a part of the Alliance’s election promise. The people at large were called upon to respond to the policy draft of over 470 pages, published on the website of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD).
The Modi government produced not one but two Draft National Policies. The current one is the third and possibly final one, unless Parliament, whenever it meets, forces changes in it. Or the Supreme Court rules on challenges that will emerge from impacted groups.
All versions have to be located in the political and social environment that has evolved in India since 2014. Political polarisation, the rapid rise of cultural nationalism, a euphemism for religious majoritarianism, and the open championing of religious mores as national ethos by ministers and elders of the ruling party, competitive pandering by the opposition to communal electoral politics, and a substantive dent in federalism and democratic tolerance mark the new political climate. Persons facing charges of terrorism praising the assassins of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliamentary debates, and mob lynchings in many states of men belonging to religious minorities or Dalits, create the grassroots political surface in which education, as much as other aspects of life, seek to find their place.
The MHRD minister, Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ told the Rajya Sabha in November that more than two lakh [2,00,000] suggestions were received on the policy draft, produced by a committee chaired by the eminent space scientist K Kasturirangan. It was said to be the world’s largest virtual consultation.
In July, a national consultation was called in Delhi of the Christian and Muslim communities, as also educationists and experts, in Delhi, jointly by the United Christian Action, the Baptist Church Trust Association, the Evangelical fellowship of India. The Archbishop of Delhi, Most Reverend Dr Anil Joseph Thomas Couto presided and the former Vice Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University and a former Deputy Chief of the Army Staff, retired Lt. General Z U Shah delivered the inaugural address. One of the decisions of the National Consultations was to bring together a series of reflections on the Draft National Education Policy 2019, and the government’s approach to human resource development and allied issues. The book is now available to scholars, academics and those involved in school education and institutions of higher learning in India and abroad.
The MHRD website uploaded the National Education Policy 2019 without fanfare. It did not refer to minority institutions and painstaking avoided direct reference to contentious issues.
The New Education Policy 2019 was the National Democratic Alliance government’s long-term ideological investment in the country. It sought to change the neurons of the Indian mind, to raise people who will conform to the dreams of its founding fathers, of an India which is one people, one tongue, one culture.
A dream ‘heavy with nationalist and moral overtones’ has moved many leaders in the world. But no people are a homogenous singular entity, bound together in shared ethnicity, mother tongue, and perhaps faith or what goes for it when defined in the language of religion. Subcultures, immigrants, microscopic groups left behind by ancient cultures, and now trapped as some precious gemstone in a larger surrounding mass of a different people, have made modern countries a vibrant and lively cultural melting pot, or bouquet.
Conquering medieval hordes have left their mark in the gashes of their swords and lances, language and some small syncretic cultures nursing their dialects and recipes. Colonialism, the two World Wars, have vastly influenced the new nations in North and South America, and Australia, recipients of larger migrations. As has the Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, creating two nations, a Muslim majority Pakistan and India as a secular nation.
That Pakistan, within a lifetime, broke into two, with-Bengali speaking East Bengal emerging as the independent state of Bangladesh, was evidence that no single bond can keep a nation together, especially religion, if inequity, economic and developmental imbalances and lacunae in distributive justice distort the critical equilibrium.
While most nations struggle with issues of race and religion, India has the additional burden of Caste, unique to its soil, and carried as an heirloom wherever Indian people migrate in search of economic opportunity. Ironically, it was Caste rather than economic status that kept a large section of the Indian population away from education, classically reserved only for the ‘higher’ Castes.
The basic social reforms of the 20th century were to devolve mass education to not just the economically backward, but the culturally deprived Castes and classes, once called the untouchables, and now classified in the more sterilised terminology of Scheduled Castes. The struggle eventually fructified in the passing of the Right To Education Act (RTE), recognising education as a basic human right, an important catalyst in a person realising to the full his or her inherent intellectual potential. The 86thAmendment in 2009 to the statutes inserted Article 21 A on the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education.
In its two phases, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political face of the now nearly a century old Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and the lead party in the National Democratic Alliance, has sought to consolidate a nationhood based almost entirely on religion, silencing fitfully the divisions of caste, ethnic origins and language.
The government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004) tinkered with the education policy at the Centre, and more so in states where the party was in power, using modifications in text books and pedagogy to inject its ideology in as blatant a manner as was possible, and no longer surreptitiously through individual ideologues in positions of importance as had been its wont.
It did not succeed as much as it had hoped for, partly because of its political fragility, and also because of the alertness of an Opposition and a civil society which had been galvanised by the occurrences of the early 1990s in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the consequent polarisation of the nation and a series of communally targeted incidents of violence.
The period saw the setting up of the Ekal School movement by a frontal unit of the Sangh Parivar, a concept of one teacher schools in rural, and the remote and forested Tribal areas of central India, to ideologically challenge the influence of Christian missionaries. They are outside the government scrutiny or administration, and exact numbers are not known, but statements by political functionaries suggest there may be as many as 1,00,000 such schools.
The incomplete task of correcting perceived colonial or Nehruvian biases in education and bringing it in line with the cultural nationalism propounded in the ruling party’s election manifesto. Its campaign rhetoric was left to be completed by Mr Narendra Modi who led the National Democratic alliance to an overwhelming victory in the general elections in May 2014.
While he quickly moved through such measures as demonetisation of high value currency notes to leave his mark on the economy, the Ministry of Human Resource Development was his instrument of choice to mould the nation to one of his dreams. The massive political mandate in his second term left Mr Modi free of any pressures from friends, allies and foes.
Covid, the lockdown and the evaporation of the Opposition’s resistance, the emergence of a proto Presidential governance system, paved the way for the New education policy that comes into force ironically at a time when there is no Parliament in session, and there are no schools physically open.
Education, mercifully , remains in the Concurrent list and the states have a stake, and a hand on the pilot’s controls.
The decades since Independence have seen a series of education commissions, operations and national campaigns attempting, with varying success, to see that education did not lose pace or slow down its momentum. The birth of the Central Board of Secondary Education, the Open School system, the National Education Policy of 1986, the 2001 Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, mid-day meal scheme at the primary level, and scholarships to Scheduled Caste and Tribes, to religious minorities and other backward groups have sought to ensure that the economic status of the family was not a hindrance in the pursuit acknowledge for a student of capacity and talent.
The impetus has seen a massive growth of infrastructure. After China, India is the second in the world in terms of number of educational institutions at various levels and the population of its children in school. According to Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry’s (FICCI) 2017 data, India had over 250 million students enrolled. But there were major hurdles in access and infrastructure. The approximately 17,000 teacher education institutions in the country, over 92 percent privately owned, have been found wanting in producing the quality of teachers the new education system needed.
The Justice J S Verma Commission exposed this, saying most of these teaching colleges were not even attempting to provide good education, instead remaining mere commercial shops. Government data shows over one million teacher vacancies. Pupil-teacher ratios were consequently larger than 60:1, especially in rural areas and small towns. Government claims gender parity in school enrolment, but elementary infrastructure issues as separate toilets for girl students, and transport, have perpetuated real-time gender skewness, especially in the post-primary sections.
The NDA’s first Draft Education Policy had a short life. The Government’s weak position in the Rajya Sabha and the erudition of Marxist member of Parliament Mr Sitaram Yechuri and Congress lead speaker, Mr Rahman Khan, a former deputy chairman of the Upper House, saw the then HRD Minister, Mr Prakash Keshav Javadekar, beat a retreat, assuring Parliament he would come back with an education policy after due diligence and consultations with all stakeholders including Members of Parliament.
Two years later, the Draft National Education Policy 2019 was put on the internet portal of the Ministry of Human Resource Development. It was over 475 pages. In a first reading, it seemed to include the most vulnerable and marginalised members. A second, more careful reading by experts raised many red flags.
At the heart of the policy was the Rashtriya Shiksa Ayog (RSA) / National Education Commission (NEC), an overarching institution with a mandate beyond MHRD was directly under the Prime Minister. “The Prime Minister can bring his/her authority to create necessary synergies and provide direction to this national endeavour, as part of the country’s overall vision of a knowledge society,” the DNEP said.
In its non-minority schools, the policy writers noted “the provisions of the NEP 2019 are for students from religious and linguistic minorities and not for minority “schools” per se. It reaffirmed that linguistic minorities were to be encouraged. Special provisions included Special Education Zones for high population Muslim areas. It said “Traditional and religious schools such as madrasas, gurukuls, pathshalas, maktabs and religious schools form the Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and other traditions may be encouraged to preserve their traditions and pedagogical styles, but at the same time supported to integrate into the NCF.”
A contentious issue that roused immediate protest was on Minority Status of schools and colleges. The DNEP alleged “judicial exemptions granted by the Supreme Court have been misused… will be stopped.” As if in counterpoint, it commended “alternative models of education such as gurukuls, pathshalas, madrasas, and home schooling will be allowed. Other models for schools will also be piloted, such as philanthropic-public partnerships.”
The draft caused a near explosion in Tamil Nadu on the issue of language with charges that the government was foisting Hindi and Sanskrit. The DNEP 2019 had said of English as a medium of instruction and conversation: “Logically speaking , of course, English has no advantage over other languages in expressing thoughts. Moreover, Indian languages are very scientifically structured and do not have unphonetic, complicated spellings of words and numerous grammatical exceptions; they also have a vast and highly sophisticated ancient, medieval, and modern literature in the Indian context, as a consequence they have a certain home-feel and “apnapan” quality in the Indian context, making them easier, more relatable and more relevant for children. It is recommended that in interactions between people within India be conducted in languages native to India; thus Indian languages must be heavily promoted again and with new vigour.”
Private sector in schools
The Federation of Central Universities (FEDCUTA) noted the “reforms” and restructuring pushed by the Government aimed at selling education as a commodity. Instead of strengthening and repairing the public-funded higher education system, the Government has been pushing privatisation and commercialisation of education at a frightening pace through a slew of regulations such as Graded Autonomy, Autonomous Colleges, HEFA for loans instead of grants, Tripartite MOU, Institutions of Excellence, HECI Bill etc, all of which aim to push Higher Education Institutions into a self-financing model increasingly at the mercy of market forces. The immediate corollaries of each of these have been the jeopardising of service conditions of employees, steep fee-hikes (euphemistically called “user-charges”) and a crackdown on all democratic spaces and practices to stifle resistance to these policies. The Policy notified in June 2019 seeks to concretise and complete this process with its core agenda of “deregulation”(or privatisation) overseen by a centrally controlled Shiksha Aayog.
While the DNEP 2019 suggested creating a ‘Special Education Zone’ to ensure access to education for all, there is no clarity about the sources and methods of funding quality education, especially in educationally, and economically backward states that face an acute resource crunch. Scepticisms arose from the fact that in the past most states have failed to provide financial wherewithal to support quality education, which is why nearly 50 percent of the students, mainly from poor families drop out before completing their secondary education.
Education Cess has been collected since 2004 from Income Tax payers, to augment the additional funds for investment in school education. The money collected on account of ‘educational cess’ has never been efficiently utilised.
Covid has sharpened the chasm between the privileged and the underprivileged, or non-privileged. We now call it the Digital Divide.
How will the immediate young generation bridge that gulf in the strained resources of the near future remains a challenge, a. question mark before Mr Modi, the political apparatus, educationists, And most of all, the children and their parents.
*Excerpted from the Editor’s introduction in Educating India – a critique the Modi Government’s Education Policy, edited by John Dayal and Sunny Jacob SJ, published by Media House, New Delhi in January 2020