An 'Indian' Education

What would an Indian Education system look like?

There are many interesting conversations about this in India. The primary reason for this is indeed the ascendancy of BJP, a Hindu Nationalist party, which now controls the Union and most State governments in India. In order to secure its rule, the BJP leaders know that they have to transform the education system. And, they are at it, with a clear agenda and intent - curbing the Western influence where they see it. Most of it has come in the form of petty settling of scores - removing people favoured by earlier administrations - and mindless government meddling in curriculum and governance. However, this has put 'Indianness of Education' as an issue to reckon with.

This arises primarily as much of the current Indian Education system was shaped by the British Imperial administration. The British imperial rule did not just set up an Education system in India: It, at the same time, destroyed what was there, pushing Sanskrit and Persian education in India to the margins. The current agenda of resurrecting the 'Indianness' is mostly about undoing what the imperial administration did.

If going back to the past was ever possible, though! British rule changed India's social makeup, built its institutional structure and shaped the values and ideas of its middle class. The current project of restoring Indianness leaves most of these bigger issues untouched, and rather concerns itself solely with superficial elements such as language and rituals. However, the current Liberal antipathy to engagement in the conversation about 'Indianness' unfortunately cedes the space to Hindu Fundamentalists and Ideologues, who are bent on creating a Disneyland version of Indianness, creating a version as alien to India as anything the English had ever conceived.

This is why, while we may not agree with the ideas and ideologies of the current government, it is still worthwhile to explore the idea of 'Indian Education'. This is not just a fanciful thing for a few madcap ideologues, but a necessary precondition for social and economic development of India. A culturally congruent education helps not just the spread of literacy and better understanding between the citizens, but helps develop community identities and builds aspirations for the country. It stops the middle class children to live an artificial life in school and be at odds with their own compatriots; it makes the young men and women of India dream of not going abroad to do a job, but rather to be build a country to be proud of. 

This 'Indian Education' that can provide the necessary life-blood to the Indian economy and resuscitate Indian democracy needs a form different from the top-down, ritualistic and historically incorrect idea of the current administration. And, to imagine what it can be, it is important to understand what the British project in Indian Education really meant. And, for this, one has to look closely to the foundational moment of the modern Indian Education system, Charles Wood's Dispatch of 1854, which the English administrators called the 'Magna Charta of Indian Education'.

I know this may sound unfamiliar to some, and Wood's Dispatch is certainly less known than Macaulay's famous Minutes on Indian Education of 1835. However, the famousness of the Minutes is not helpful, as it distracts from the real transformation wrought into Indian Education by the British administration. If anything, the Minutes were the last roar of a dying debate, and in it, the two sides are not an Indian Education versus a British one, but two approaches to Colonial Education. It may seem Macaulay successfully argued for his side and the Orientalists lost, but modern Indian education was dispensed not in English as Macaulay wanted and didn't have any of the evangelical fervour. Going beyond Macaulay, and considering the more nuanced changes advocated by Wood's dispatch and later policy, would allow one to get a different sense what an Indian Education should be.

Without going into too many details, the modern Education system implemented through Wood's Dispatch, and subsequent implementation of grant-in-aid system of Lord Dalhousie and later founding of Indian universities, brought about three main transformations in Indian Education:

First, it replaced Persian and Sanskrit as the languages of Education with modern Indian vernaculars, which were grammatically streamlined by then. This change meant that the Indian Education system was disconnected from India's past and the common language of educated Indians became English.

Second, by introducing the Grant in Aid system, the British administration offered the incentives to Indian philanthropists to direct their efforts to the modern education system, rather than continuing patronage of traditional schools, effectively marginalising all other alternatives to the state-approved educational system, and destroying the diversity of offerings.

Third, it brought about a system of standardised examinations and credentials, and directed educational efforts to passing examinations. When CNR Rao complained, many years later, that India does not have an education system but only an examination system, he was describing the legacy of this system.

These fundamental changes have long term implications in Indian culture and values. I would argue that these changes, crucially, tore India away from Asia, giving its elite an European language to communicate between themselves, and disengaged them from the Indo-Islamic continuum that nourished the Indian culture for centuries. True to its utilitarian principles, the Indian system of education became all about ends, in complete disregard for the means: A very European and particularly English principle of living! The fundamental Indian consideration for the means, the ethic of living a connected life, of acknowledging our indebtedness to nature, tradition and heritage was wiped away: All that Indianness stood for afterwards is a set of meaningless rituals and empty claims. 

It is also important to recognise all of this was done for a reason. The Modern Indian system of Education was part of a new imperial system - the Free Trade Imperialism - which was not about exacting tributes from Indians and grabbing their land, but rather turning Indians to consumers of British commodities. This was spectacularly successful and this still goes on, though cultural commodities and educational ideas have now replaced industrial products. The principle that Education is for preparation as a Consumer, rather than for life in a community, has endured beyond the wildest dream of the Imperial policy-makers.

An Indian Education, therefore, is not one on Hindu religion and rituals, but rather one of rediscovering the Indian ethic of living. It is about reconnecting with nature, and considering means rather than the ends; it is about an attitude of Care rather than treating everything and everyone as resources for fulfilment of some or other needs. It is about rediscovering Indian culture, which is really about finding India in Asia, in context of its deep cultural connections with Central Asia, China and the Indian Ocean region. It is about finding a common language for the Indians, which will help its elite to connect with its common people, and with the history of India. 



Shantanu said…
Indian education has witnessed massive irrelevance over the past few years. We have always lived under the shadow of a "Board". And the pressure and stress it creates is much to the stress relief business of the child psychologists. Many a lives have been lost to this education system as the burden of "passing" is enormous.

The recent change over from CGPA system back to Board system...and the latest CBSE paper leak fiasco has led me to think whether my children will ever be "educated"!! I have always been a critic of our country's education system and think it needs a major overhaul...from being an education system to providing systemic education!

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