The New Education Policy silent on caste and gender equality while taking India 'forward to the past'

The NEP ignores cultural aspects and says nothing on how education can help in building a more cohesive society with gender equality and ‘annihilation of caste’, writes GN Devy

The New Education Policy silent on caste and gender equality while taking India 'forward to the past'

GN Devy

The much-trumpeted National Education Policy (NEP) of the NDA government has caused a wave of despondency to sweep over the academic community in the country. What is most striking is its complete unwillingness to address the question of caste, gender and equality. Will education help society become less severely tormented by caste? Will it reduce the class divide? Will it cure us of the great gender divide which has remained the bane of education in India? The policy provides no answer to these questions.

Both tacit and explicit promotion of the idea that the State is not obliged to fund or even protect education from commerce and from becoming a market-oriented service, suggests that Indian society will in future be even more socially and economically fragmented than it is today.

Several elements in the policy make it look more like a set of pipe-dreams rather than a plan based on sound understanding of the needs of those who are to be educated. Also striking is its lack of insight into the history of modern education in India since the time the first three universities were established 170 years ago.

That was the time when the business of universities was restricted to conducting examinations and providing certification to the matriculating and graduating students. The responsibility of teaching was left to highschools and colleges. Through a long process, efficient regulators were put in place to oversee that teaching and certification did not abdicate social responsibility. The regulators too went through a long process of evolution and learnt to cope with provisions in the Constitution that struck a fine balance between the Centre and the States in matters of education.

NEP overlooks this entire history of education in modern India and seeks to reinvent the wheel. One can imagine the confusion and mischief it will cause during the transition, particularly since the number of colleges expected to line up for ‘autonomy’ is phenomenally large now. The number of institutions of technical education is even higher.

The perspective on ‘languages’ spelt out in NEP is also open to not just criticism but fundamental disagreement. The three-language policy that was good enough during the 1960s is no longer enough to serve the needs of the country’s complex demography today, let alone tomorrow. Cities with population over 25 lakhs have become linguistically far more complex than before, and people would require an enlightened ‘multilingual education.’

But multilingual education does not mean offering options of choosing either the medium or the languages to be learnt. Promoting Sanskrit is as necessary as promoting the study of Japanese, Chinese or Russian; but promoting them at the cost of some of the scheduled languages such as Tamil, Kannada, Marathi and Bangla can lead to growing tension between Hindi speakers and the speakers of languages other than Hindi.

Children studying in schools in Hindi speaking states are more likely to opt for Sanskrit as the optional/additional language. Others are likely to opt for foreign languages. A much more flexible multilingualism would have helped avoid this faultline from emerging.

The insane desire to replace everything Western by things Indian may appear attractive as part of a pseudo-nationalistic agenda; but since that is philosophically unviable, the attempt may leave learners pathetically partial in their understanding of the world. Though not stated explicitly in the document, NEP’s preference and desire for a shift in the knowledge paradigm is apparent.

Academic institutions are worried about having to move from a well-established order of universal knowledge to a paradigm of knowledge drawn from ancient Indian sources.

It’s true that what has been approved is as yet just the policy. Its full implementation is going to take several years. One does not know how close the implementation will remain to the spirit of the policy. But what may unfold is a cultural revolution aiming at ‘purifying’ minds and resulting in a radical social engineering.

Transition from the prevailing order of universal knowledge to any brand of ‘Indian’ knowledge will require tackling a complex legacy of philosophical impossibilities. Neither the realm of universal knowledge, nor the realm of any tradition of knowledge in India is constituted to be make one compatible with the other.

In attempting a comparative study of the Western and Indian knowledge paradigms, a difficulty one faces is that meaning of the concepts that form the building blocks of knowledge are not quite identical in the two traditions. Terms like ‘gnosis’, ‘logos’ and ‘philosophy’ used in the West are translated in many Indian languages by terms like ‘gnana’, ‘vidya’ and ‘darshan’.

But ‘philosophy’, for instance, refers to a perspective for approaching a set of questions and a logical framework used for understanding phenomena such as ‘Existence, Universe, Knowledge and Reason’ etc.; but ‘darshan’, Sanskrit for ‘a school’ or ‘a grand theory’ is closer to vision or the process of viewing rather than the view itself.

The difficulty is further compounded by the shift every few centuries, on both sides of the comparison, in the semantic associations. For instance, ‘Veda’, which initially meant ‘knowledge’, changed in meaning to ‘articulation of knowledge’ towards the end of the Vedic period.

Ever since the modern West came in contact with India, scholars have produced a vast amount of literature on Indian culture and traditions. Frederic Max Muller’s Sacred Books of the East (1879-1910), for instance, was quite generous in complimenting the wisdom found in ancient Indian literature. However, an overwhelming majority of European administrators, scholars and researchers of his time had internalised the idea that British rule was necessary for ‘civilising India’, a divine duty fallen upon them, which they accepted as a moral burden.

These views, whether negative or superlative, inevitably influenced the self-image of Indian thinkers of the time. At the same time there was great excitement and acceptance of ‘English education’ throughout the 19th century India. Dismissal of Indian forms of knowledge was common among the native literary class. Yet, despite being culturally irrelevant, that body of knowledge has by now become the core substance in Indian education. This may be described as ‘unfortunate’. Yet, any attempt to ‘replace’ this body of knowledge at this stage is bound to generate an equally unfortunate situation or worse.

Several other countries such as Ireland, Canada and Australia too had to fight the Western disapproval of knowledge coming from former colonies. Though the colonial experience can be justifiably held responsible for India’s disproportionately low contribution to ‘knowledge’ during the last two centuries, focusing on colonialism alone may not perhaps tell the complete story of our failure.

For completing the story, one must turn to Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste (1936). There is no doubt that caste discrimination, the colonial cultural domination and continued ‘knowledge imperialism’ of the West, both contributed in reducing ‘knowledge’ in India to a caste-monopoly and ‘education’ to a savage mockery of the idea of learning.

Sadly, what has been brought in as the National Education Policy overlooks all these cultural contexts and opens up before the nation a future that is aimed, sadly, at taking us ‘forward’ to the past.

(The writer is a former professor of Literature and a cultural activist)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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