Conversations 4: The Idea of Indian Education

The idea of India is a contested one, and one can not take it for granted.

The British colonialists saw India as a hodgepodge, not a nation but just a geographical entity ('the land beyond the Indus'), and Churchill famously observed "India is no more a country than the Equator". Overlooking common cultural heritage of India, once one of the richest country of the world and a source of philosophy and culture, was not just a cynical colonial ploy, but it was fought over from within as well. In this context, the pragmatic cosmopolitan conception of Modern India was a stroke of genius, which rejected the British concern of non-existence of India and laid a claim to certain aspects of the Indian heritage while obscuring others. This is indeed the usual tools of trade for modern nation building, and in a sense, this was mostly successful. Despite many premonitions of its demise, India just held on and somewhat solidified as an idea, perhaps because of the wider participation of the masses in the political process, through Gandhi's non-violent struggle before Independence and the ambitious universal suffrage after it.

But one gets a sense that this did not settle the India question, but merely deferred it. No one may doubt the plausibility or sustainability of the idea of India any more (which was common till the 1970s, and the nascent state had to survive many existential threats, including the challenges of secession), but at the time of its greatest triumph, its greatest challenge has also become abundantly visible. The democratic mechanism, which was conceived in recognition of India's plurality, guaranteed the ascendency to power, with an absolute majority, of a Hindu Nationalist government with an expansive social agenda. The keystone of this social agenda is a particular conception of how Indians should be educated, including the incorporation of ancient texts and a Hindu perspective in the school curriculum.

This is not new. Abortive attempts to redefine educational curriculum was also made in the previous stints of the Hindu Nationalist governments, as well as in the various Indian states where they held power. What's different this time is the muscular majority that allows an sweeping ambition and far more confident implementation of this agenda. Whatever is the moral validity of the attempt - the democratic legitimacy of the attempt to change Indian Education was gained from the success of the very idea of India this seeks to undermine - the discussion about what an Indian education should be is timely. The modern Indian state created its own system of symbols - heroes and rituals - which the generations of Indian children (including me) have been educated with, but this may have remained at a superficial level and failed to transform both the religious and regional identities of the Indians it touched upon its wake. The very failure of secular education, manifested in the ascendancy of religious nationalism (and fundamentalism of different religious denominations, which must be mentioned), highlights the need of a continuing debate.
Is this call to debate alarmist? Are we reading too much in bare murmurs and having nightmares about non-existent threats to Indian identity? My purpose is not so much to incite a call to arms against the Hindu nationalism, but rather to draw attention to the lethargy that set into the task of defining what an Indian education should be. There is, I suspect, an element of taking the idea of India for granted, and in turn, stalling the conversation about what an Indian Education should be. The space is ceded to revivalists - those who would want to take things backward - by the failure to imagine things forward. It is time to reengage in that discussion all over again.

Also, is this a battle against Hindu nationalism then? To create a non-denominational education, one must face down the tendencies of majoritarianism, of the outlook that India is one and a land of Hindus and will remain that way. However, at the same time, denying the preeminence and even existence of the Hindu thought and culture (and for that matter, all other thoughts and cultures) and building a system of education in a vacuum ends up becoming invariably elitist and detached. This is perhaps the great failure of the modern Indian education, that it failed to reach out and transform its people in its entirety and rather remained in the confines of its intellectual elite. Since the new conversation will happen in the backdrop of, and in opposition to, a Hindu pushback, it is all too easy to commit that mistake all over again. 
So, in summary, we are in the need to reengage in a discussion what an Indian education should be. While this must be forward-looking and non-denominational, it must not start with a rejection of the essential Indian ethos, but rather embrace the Indianness and all the messiness that comes with it. This education will not be for building the skills society or to recreate the Western experience on the Indian land, but rather to reimagine the nation based on its foundational values of peace, harmony with nature and among various peoples. This is a big task which the makers of modern India took upon themselves; the success of their project is still crucial for everyone seeking to build a modern country starting late in the game.


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