Politics of education

Print edition : May 08, 2020

August 22, 1964: Vice President Dr Zakir Hussain (extreme right) who inaugurated the Tamil Nadu Basic Education Conference at Rajaji Hall with (from left) Rajaji, G. Ramachandran, N.D. Sundaravadivelu and Chief Minister M. Bhaktavatsalam at an exhibition arranged on that occasion. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The Modified Scheme of Elementary Education, which Rajaji tried to introduce in Madras State in 1953, was a lesson in what not to include in education policy. This book is a splendid and highly readable account of the interplay of public policy and politics.

This is a remarkable book - both a political thriller and a superbly researched MPhil thesis submitted to the University of Madras in 1982, and it details highly significant developments in the bitterest battleground in any strongly stratified society, namely, education. Even finding the thesis involved lengthy detective work by two of Veeraraghavan’s friends, A.R. Venkatachalapathy of the Madras Institute of Development Studies and V.R. Muraleedharan, a colleague of the author’s at IIT Madras. Veeraraghavan, whose untimely death was a blow to Indian scholarship and to all who knew him, had been very diffident about his own work. It turned out, however, that S.S. Kannan, a friend and mentor of the author’s (who also translated Veeraraghavan’s acclaimed PhD thesis, “The Making of the Madras Working Class”, into Tamil), had a barely readable carbon copy of a draft, though the first chapter was missing. Venkatachalapathy has written a poignant prologue and a new first chapter.

The pace is breathtaking, from C. Rajagopalachari’s introduction of the Modified Scheme of Elementary Education (MSEE) in Madras State in 1953, through the reactions and the resulting end of Rajaji’s time as a Congress heavyweight to a radical change in the character of the State’s political life. The book shows the daily cut and thrust of politics over a vital matter in a difficult context. Rajaji headed a minority government not by direct election to the Legislative Assembly but by transfer from the old Legislative Council, with his opponents persistently questioning the legitimacy of his position. The State, for its part, soon faced what became successful separatist demands for the creation of Andhra Pradesh. Rajaji had a powerful party rival in K. Kamaraj, and the rising Dravidian movements, led by Periyar E.V. Ramasamy’s Dravidar Kazhagam (D.K.) and the emerging Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), posed a comprehensive challenge.

Rajaji moved rapidly, decontrolling food (thereby eliminating the black market), legislating to help small and tenant farmers in Thanjavur, and making the State administration more efficient. Yet his main purpose was to reshape education in Madras State, and Veeraraghavan provides a wonderfully clear account of major educational philosophies in the West and India, from Rousseau through Pestalozzi, Froebel and Dewey to the impact of colonisation and imperial domination on the very idea of education in India; he also maps India’s path towards universal education.

The transformation of India from a largely self-sufficient subsistence system into a forcibly monetised source of raw materials for Britain and a captive consumer of British manufactures generated fierce disagreements over education. Gandhi and Rajaji - as Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s foreword says, both conservative innovators - were deeply suspicious of standardised education. Gandhi, for whom a mechanised factory economy was inconsistent with a non-violent society, envisaged self-supporting village schools where “Basic Education” - the Wardha Scheme of 1937 - would be imparted. From the age of seven to 14, children would learn a village craft, probably spinning, the main rural industry. They would be in school most of the day, and would also learn core subjects related to the craft concerned, instead of undergoing a deracinating education in an alien tongue and yearning to become bureaucrats remote from the people. The school would pay the teacher’s salaries by selling the children’s produce to the State. That scheme, however, proved very expensive; Madras abandoned it in 1952.

Rajaji, in sharp contrast, saw schools as imprisoning children and as doing so for far too long. First, he wanted to reduce the school day; he knew of Christian mission schools where school was only for mornings. Secondly, he would sever the link between school and the child’s socialisation outside; in the evenings the children would do agricultural work or craft work for payment. According to Veeraraghavan, Rajaji championed the respective causes of women and untouchables but considered craft-trained teachers inferior to craft practitioners.

Rajaji asked the Madras Education Department to devise a scheme. The department had some objections, but the Director of Public Instruction (DPI), S. Govindarajulu Naidu, did not forward those to Rajaji until just before the end of the school year. On April 16, 1953, Rajaji instructed district education officers to start implementing the scheme when the next school year started in June. Until then, only he knew the scheme even existed. On April 23, the DPI stated an outline to headmasters of Madras city schools. Rajaji did not think it worthwhile to even consult those centrally involved.

The MSEE was meant to transform Madras State’s rural education system. The school day would go down to three hours, with children attending in separate morning and afternoon shifts and a single teacher working both shifts. Outside school hours, children would help their parents in their respective occupations, and those from non-occupational classes would be attached like apprentices to village farmers or craftsmen; if needed, craftsmen would be encouraged to settle in the villages. “Willing and capable persons” would form village school councils to arrange craft training.

The reactions were immediate, widespread, and overwhelmingly critical. The South India Teachers’ Union said the plan was being imposed without deliberation; its president, S. Natarajan, pointed out that teachers had long included play and crafts in elementary education, that the MSEE would reimpose old rigidities, and that it would raise teacher-pupil ratios from 1:35 to 1:60. Teachers faced large-scale retrenchment, and those retained would become teaching machines, covering the same things in the same unchanging manner twice a day. The shift system had already been tried and abandoned in Hyderabad; Mysore and Rajasthan had seen it reduce attendance by up to 30 per cent. Yet it had been introduced in Madras State in 1949, solely to save capital expenditure.

Rural parents were furious about the MSEE’s casteist implications and saw a shorter school day as meaning diminished content. The educationist N. Kuppuswamy Iyengar asked what was wrong with village parents’ wish for their children to get office jobs. He argued that the scheme was intended to reduce competition for those jobs by excluding village children; the MSEE, moreover, would turn “agreeable simple imprisonment” into “disagreeable rigorous imprisonment”, and the ethos of any school would be lost without collective assemblies, games, music, and other activities. Jurists pointed out that child labour issues were involved under the International Labour Organisation Convention, 1921, even though India had not ratified that document. The Gandhian economist J.C. Kumarappa made the observation that good craftsmen seldom make good teachers or trainers.

Veeraraghavan, remarking that most of the criticism came from people of the very castes in whose interest the scheme had purportedly been introduced, notes qualified support for the plan. G. Ramachandran pointed out that younger children liked the idea but that older children, presumably for the same reasons as their parents, did not; Lt. Col. S. Paul, Principal of the Guindy Engineering College, remembered successful craft-related schooling on the Jaffna tea estates.

Political criticism, however, was uniformly fierce. On July 29, the entire elected opposition condemned the scheme as an anti-democratic fait accompli that had been rushed into place entirely without legislative scrutiny; the largest opposition party, the Communist Party of India (CPI), said the plan would take the State back to a pre-industrial age. Even the ruling Congress party was divided. After several hours of heated debate with motions and counter-motions clashing like fencers’ foils, the Communist Party member K.P.R. Gopalan’s amendment calling for the plan to be dropped was lost on the Speaker’s casting vote. The phrase “stayed and referred to an expert committee”, proposed by K.R. Viswanathan of the Tamil Nadu Toilers’ Party, won by 139 to 137, but Rajaji, citing British precedent, rejected the resolution as only advisory. The opposition, challenged by the Chief Minister to propose a vote of no confidence, had failed to reach their “real objective” - his removal.

The D.K., the DMK, and other groups, nevertheless, continued the agitation they had started on June 21. On July 14, several senior DMK leaders were arrested for marching despite a prohibitory order. Following the July 29 vote, Rajaji, who admitted only to a “tactical blunder” in bypassing the legislature, offered concessions; after-school crafts would be optional and there would be no teacher redundancies.

The weekly Kalki stridently supported the plan. The DK organ Viduthalai called the scheme “Kula Kalvi Thittam”—the caste-based education scheme; the label endures today. Rajaji, faced with a bitterly divided Congress, resigned on March 26, 1954. The Congress immediately abandoned the MSEE, and Kamaraj easily won the party leadership.

Veeraraghavan details the episode’s background factors and its results. The Chief Minister would not subject himself to an election; he made no attempt to create a base within the party; and, forcing his scheme on the State, caused radical changes. The Congress lost its democratic character “forever”, at State and national level; Periyar strongly supported Kamaraj as the first “true Tamilian” to rule the State; and the DMK became a parliamentary opposition party. In addition, a far more caste-focussed politics emerged in Madras; Brahmin political dominance was over.


Education, however, remained a major problem, particularly over enrolment and dropout rates. Kamaraj’s determination meant the State used the Five-Year Plans’ education funds as intended; between 1961 and 1972 Madras increased education spending from Rs.15 crore to Rs.89 crore. Elementary education was free for all children, and they got a second chance if they failed an annual examination. Subsidised midday meals were the most spectacular measure, and by 1962 nearly all schools provided them. Vast amounts of money went into building new schools; teachers - essential to the plan - got better pay and conditions. Enrolment figures, even allowing for pressures to exaggerate them, improved remarkably throughout India, thanks to Plan funds. Yet dropout rates remained shocking. In Madras, fewer than half the 1957-58 Class I cohort - 422,000 out of 874,000 - reached Class V. A Madras Teachers’ College study starting in 1957-58 found that out of 1,191 pupils, 930 dropped out before reaching Class V. The Education Commission—like other studies—attributed 65 per cent of the wastage to poverty. Whereas Amartya Sen concluded that income and caste were the main reasons of economic backwardness and that educational backwardness was a symptom of it, C.T. Kurien, whom Veeraraghavan quotes here, was damning:

“[T]he phenomenal increase in education expenditure by ‘society’ has gone primarily to providing an education or miseducation for a few who are the affluent, influential and powerful while the vast majority of the people have gone away empty-handed.”

Even in the mid-2000s, Central government figures showed that the median length of time Indian girls spent in school was 1.9 years. Veeraraghavan is clear: Western educational expansion was “inseparably linked” with the industrial revolution and the emergence of employment and education rights won by working-class movements.

The MSEE, nevertheless, was a lesson in what not to include in education policy and why such policy must be put to genuine public legitimation, or fail on both counts. This outstanding book is a splendid, readable account of public policy and deadly serious politics.

Arvind Sivaramakrishnan teaches at Indian institute of Technology Madras.

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