National Education Policy seeks to reinvent the wheel and ensure a cultural revolution

GN Devy finds the NEP to be a pipe dream and its unwillingness to address questions of equality tragic. Will the proposed education help society become less severely caste-tormented?

National Education Policy seeks to reinvent the wheel and ensure a cultural revolution

GN Devy

The recently announced National Education Policy’s complete unwillingness to address questions of caste, gender and equality is tragic. Will the proposed education help society become less severely caste-tormented? Will it reduce the class divide? Will it cure us of the great gender divide which has remained the bane of education in India all along? The policy has no answers to these necessary questions.

The policy has in it several elements that makes it look more like a set of pipe-dreams rather than a plan based on sound understanding of the need of those who are to be educated in future as well as the educators themselves. But, the most striking is its lack of insights into the history of modern education in India since the time when the first three universities were established 170 years ago. That was the time when the business of the universities was restricted to conducting examinations and providing certification to the matriculating and graduating students. The responsibility of teaching was left to high-schools and colleges.

Though a long process spread over decades, efficient regulators were put in place to oversee that teaching as well as certification did not abdicate responsibility in the face of caste and communal pressures. The regulators too went through a long process of evolution over time and learnt to cope with the provisions in the Constitution that had struck a fine balance between the Centre and the States in the matter of education. The new policy overlooks the entire history of education in modern India and seeks to reinvent the wheel all over again.

The language perspective spelt out in the policy is also open to criticism and fundamental disagreement. The three-language policy that was good enough during the 1960s is no longer enough for serving the needs of the complex demographic reality of today’s India, far less that of tomorrow’s India. Invariably, the cities with a population above 20 lakhs have become linguistically far more complex than ever before in history, and shall require an enlightened ‘multilingual education’, nothing less.

Every educationist knows that multilingual education does not stop at offering option in either the medium or the language subjects. Promoting Sanskrit is as much necessary as promoting the study of Japanese, Chinese and Russian; but promoting it at the cost of some of the Scheduled languages in India such as Tamil, Kannada, Marathi and Bangla can cumulatively lead to a growing tension between the Hindi speakers and the speakers of the languages other than Hindi.

Children studying in schools in Hindi speaking states are more likely to opt for Sanskrit as the optional/additional language; those studying outside are likely to move to foreign languages. A much more flexible multilingualism could have helped in avoiding, in the first place, the fault-line from emerging.

The insane desire to replace everything western by things Indian may sound attractive as a pseudo-nationalistic jingoism; but since that is philosophically unviable, the attempt may leave the learners pathetically partial in their understanding of the world.

Though not stated explicitly in the document, there are clear indications that implicit in it is the desire for of a shift in the knowledge paradigm. Academic institutions are worried about the impending spectre of having to move from a well established order of universal knowledge to a paradigm of knowledge drawn from ancient Indian sources.

What has been approved by the Cabinet 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, assuming that the two remain close, what may unfold before us may have the scale of a cultural revolution aiming at ‘purifying’ minds and resulting in a radical social engineering.

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

These views, whether negative or superlative, inevitably influenced the self-image of Indian thinkers of the time. Similarly, there was a great excitement and acceptance of ‘English education’ throughout the 19th century. On the other hand, a dismissal of Indian forms of knowledge was common among the native literary class in India. 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 in India’s history is bound to generate an equally unfortunate situation or worse still.

There are several other countries such as Ireland, Canada and Australia which too had to fight the western attitude of disapproval of the knowledge coming from the 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 yield the complete story of our failure.

For completing the story, one must turn to the text of a lecture that B. R. Ambedkar-- a formidable scholar, mass leader and the architect of free India’s Constitution-- was to, but could not, deliver at Lahore and which was published in the form of a book under the title Annihilation of Caste (1936).

There is no doubt that the caste discrimination in the past, and in the present, and the colonial cultural domination and the continued ‘knowledge imperialism’ of the west, both have their share in reducing ‘knowledge’ in India to pauperisation and ‘education’ in India to a savage mockery of the idea of learning. Sadly, what has been brought in as the National Education Policy overlooks all of these cultural references and opens up before the nation a future thick with the steps that will take us back into history? Alas.

(The author is a linguist, former Professor of Literature and a cultural activist)

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