Not whether, but how — that is the real question no one seems to be asking about the Indianisation of education. Do we just want an Indian tadka on a largely colonial education? Or do we dare take the achar or murabba route and marinate the form and content of education, western or indigenous, to soak in the Indian context, absorb Indian needs and imbibe Indian knowledge traditions?
Vice President Venkaiah Naidu recently revived the debate while inaugurating the South Asian Institute of Peace and Reconciliation at the Dev Sanskriti Vishwavidyalaya in Haridwar. Arguing for ‘Indianisation’ of our education, he called for overcoming Thomas Babington Macaulay’s legacy, going “back to our roots”, understanding the “greatness of our culture and heritage”, getting over our “inferiority complex” and embracing our mother-tongues. This might be dubbed ‘saffronisation’, but “what is wrong with saffron?” He asked. Predictably, that is what made headlines, not his main point about Indianisation.
Dialogue of the Deaf
Two other developments recently underline the significance of this theme. The Gujarat government has announced that the teaching of Bhagavad Gita would be made part of school syllabi. Students will be taught to memorise shlokas from the Gita, besides reading its famous interpretations. The order does not mention any other religious scriptures or epics that may also be included in the syllabi. Recently, Rajya Sabha debated a private member resolution placed by Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideologue Rakesh Sinha seeking to establish research foundations at state and district levels to revive the ancient Indian knowledge tradition. He also held Macaulay responsible for alienating Indians from our knowledge traditions.
These developments have not caused much of a reaction, at least no public controversy. But the responses so far have been on predictable lines. The Gujarat government’s decision has been seen, with some merit, as a violation of the right to religious freedom guaranteed under Article 28(1) and 28(3). The conflation between ‘Indianisation’ and ‘saffronisation’ has invited criticism. And the plea for ancient Indian knowledge traditions was questioned for promoting the knowledge traditions of only one caste, namely Brahmins.
This is how debates on Indianisation of education begin and end. Someone comes up with a half-baked proposal, high on rhetoric and low on content. It is met with faint praise or derision. Occasionally, some cosmetic changes are made to the syllabi. This excites ideologues on either side of the divide but leaves no trace on teaching or learning. I once called it a dialogue of the deaf.
The ‘tadka’ approach to Indianisation
The problem lies with the dominant approach to Indianisation pushed usually by the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh dispensation. This should be called the tadka approach to Indianisation — let us not disturb the main dish of colonial education, but garnish it with a tadka at the end, so as to give it an Indian flavour and aroma. For policy documents, this tadka could be some vague reference to our ancient Indian learning, irrelevant invocation of the ‘guru-shishya parampara,’ or bombastic claims about India being the ‘jagatguru’. This is broadly the approach followed by the National Education Policy 2020. In the case of syllabi, more often than not, it takes the form of inserting some Hindu scripture in the name of moral education. Deliberate exclusion of other religious and cultural traditions turns it into a debate on secularism and religious rights. This is what the Gujarat government seems to have done.
It is no coincidence that the proposal to teach Bhagavad Gita was introduced with the decision to make English a compulsory subject from Class 1 and to introduce English medium instruction for maths and science from Class 6 in all the government schools in Gujarat. You wonder if the ‘tadka’ of the Gita was meant to drown the debate on English-medium instruction. Like other publicity stunts — the Deshbhakti syllabus introduced by the Delhi government, for example — complete inattention to pedagogy turns such a proposal into a joke.
This approach has trivialised and toxified any discussion on the Indianisation of education. No wonder it invites complete rejection. Scientists find claims of ancient astrophysics and cosmetic surgery plain hoax, if not buffoonery. Scholars of ancient Indian history, mythology and scriptures are aghast at such crude appropriation. Educationists smirk at these ill-conceived gimmicks. Secular activists baulk at the blatant imposition of Hindu scriptures on the entire population. Proponents of social justice take exception to the foregrounding of Brahminical texts and the erasure of other forms of knowledge. Educational entrepreneurs learn to sprinkle a few nods to Indian traditional knowledge, while vigorously pushing a caricature of modern western education.
This is a pedagogic disaster, a cultural tragedy, and a national shame. We all remember Gandhi’s famous words: “I want cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible, but I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.” But we rarely quote the sentence that followed it: “I refuse to live in other people’s houses as an interloper, a beggar or a slave.” This could be the perfect epitaph for what passes for modern education in today’s India. It trains us to live in the house of western wisdom as interlopers, beggars, and slaves.
The ‘achar’, ‘murabba’ approach
We desperately need a new approach to thinking about the Indianisation of education. Let us continue with the culinary metaphor and call this alternative the achar or murabba approach. Unlike the one-time tadka after the dish is ready, this approach involves marinating, slow absorption, that transforms the original material. We need something similar in education. The original material may come from the West, India, or any other part of the world. Indianisation must not mean discarding the knowledge source based on national boundaries. But this material must be soaked in the Indian context, made to respond to our contemporary needs, and must absorb our intellectual traditions. The process is slow, deep, and substantial.
Specifically, this alternative approach to Indianisation entails the following policy measures. First of all, it would require political courage to question linguistic apartheid and halt pedagogic barbarism in the name of English-medium education. Instead, we must implement what all educationists, linguists, and cognitive psychologists have repeatedly affirmed: Children must be given instruction in their mother tongue, while being exposed to multiple languages, including English.
Second, Indianisation must involve learning by doing, especially working with hands. Restoring the dignity of labour by incorporating manual work and craft as a part of the curriculum is a must if we wish to move beyond Brahminical learning.
Third, teaching and learning in all disciplines, including fundamental sciences and technology, must be situated in the Indian context. India cannot be a minor add-on in our disciplines that have a Western context invisibly inscribed at every step. We must allow the Indian context to pose questions that the academic disciplines answer.
Fourth, while our students must learn from knowledge across the world, they must not be ignorant of our intellectual traditions, our epics, and our practical knowledges. In particular, it would mean a recognition of ‘already existing knowledge’ in multiple domains: agriculture, textile, architecture, and medicine, to name a few.
Finally, serious Indianisation must seek to educate our younger generation on the values of the Indian Constitution, which is a product of the ideological consensus forged by the Indian national movement.
Vishnu Purana offers arguably the best definition of education: “sa vidya ya vimukte” [What liberates is education]. This allows us to pose the real question for those who advocate Indianisation: Is this a weapon to lock our future in the prison of ignorance, inferiority, and bigotry? Or do we want Indianisation to set us free to learn, without being an interloper, a beggar, or a slave?
Yogendra Yadav is among the founders of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. He tweets @_YogendraYadav. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)