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Framework for a divided society

Published : Oct 11, 2002 00:00 IST

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The judgment in the NCERT case concerns only the relatively narrow focus of the petition. The battle on this front must now be taken forward.

THERE is no question that education in our country is in a state of crisis. While primary school enrolment may have increased, it is still far from adequate, and far below even the rates in South Asian neighbours like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The Constitution, which promised more than half a century ago to ensure universal primary education within a decade, is now being derided in practice to the extent that more than 70 million children in the age-group of 6 to 14 years are either school dropouts or have never been enrolled in a school at all. Many more children may be formally registered but barely attend classes. This is not surprising as the bulk of primary schools in the country suffer from huge shortages in the most basic resources: teachers, textbooks, blackboards, buildings, toilets, and so on.

In higher education, the situation is no better, and may even be worse because of the decline of many institutions, which were once respected seats of advanced learning and research. India is already among the worst performing nations in terms of share of gross domestic product devoted to public spending on education (less than 3 per cent, compared to international norms of 6 per cent and as much as 12 to15 per cent in some dynamic countries of East Asia).

But even within this pitiful amount, the share of higher education has shrunk. And so institutions of higher learning are increasingly starved of funds and forced into the commercialisation and privatisation of many activities simply to ensure survival. This in turn means that many formerly impressive institutions have declined beyond all recognition, and that the less well-off sections of society are denied access to higher education.

In such a dire context, it may not be surprising that the National Democratic Alliance government is obsessed with education. Unfortunately, however, the obsession has not meant any attempts to change the desperate material straits of the education system as a whole. In fact, quite the opposite tendency is apparent. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has actually accelerated and worsened these negative trends by introducing further cuts in expenditure, throwing more responsibility onto the private sector especially for higher education, and relying on parallel experimental projects aided by international donors, which bypass and undermine the public primary education system.

Meanwhile, the government's focus on education has taken the utterly counterproductive form of messing about with syllabi and trying to introduce all manner of extraneous or even misleading subjects and material into basic compulsory textbooks. This has resulted in continuous debates, over the interpretation of history, over what constitutes "national culture" and desirable values, over the introduction of dubious "disciplines" such as Vedic astrology, and so on.

These have meant precious little improvement (and possibly some deterioration) in the conditions and the content of public education. But they may instead have served the politically useful purpose of diverting the attention of many progressive citizens from confronting other even greater transgressions of the government, and forced them instead to expend their energies in protesting against these often revanchist and sectarian tendencies in education.

The most recent such protest relates to the National Curriculum Framework for School Education (NCFSE) of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). This Framework had already been severely criticised by various groups, including educational experts and groups of concerned parents, for a number of reasons. A petition filed in the Supreme Court by Aruna Roy, Meena Krishna Tyabji and B. G. Verghese had argued for a stay on the new curriculum and the introduction of new textbooks associated with it, on the grounds that it had been done without consulting the Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE) which has been non-functional since 1996, and that it attempted to introduce religious instruction into what should be a secular exercise in learning.

The Supreme Court has now vacated the stay on the new social sciences and Hindi syllabi and upheld the NCFSE. This has been interpreted by some people notably Union Minister for Human Resource Development Murli Manohar Joshi as a defeat for the rationalist secular position and a vindication of the current government's attempts to alter school curricula in the light of its own extremely problematic and often obscurantist notions.

But such a conclusion may not be valid. It is important to note that the Supreme Court has not presumed to comment on the substance of the changes in the curricula, which it does not see as coming under its purview. The judgment states that "it is not the province of the court to decide on the good or bad points" and that "it is ultimately for Parliament to take a decision on the national education policy one way or other".

In fact, the Supreme Court's judgment has basically made two points. First, that non-consultation with CABE cannot be a ground for setting aside the NCFSE because it is not a statutory body. Second, that the introduction of the study of religions does not constitute a violation of Article 28 of the Constitution, which prohibits the imparting of religious instruction in educational institutions wholly maintained out of state funds.

Even on the second count, which is the more controversial of the two decisions, there is a further (but not dissenting) note from Justice D.M. Dharmadhikari, one of the three-member bench. He has cautioned that "in teaching religions, there is a possibility for indoctrination or brain-washing of the children and thus curbing their inquisitiveness and free-thinking in the name of religion", and consequently warned against any "personal prejudice, religious dogmas and superstitions creeping into the curriculum."

Clearly, therefore, the judgment relates only to the relatively narrow focus of the petition, so it cannot be taken to imply an endorsement of the new curriculum and the associated revisions in the textbooks. This means that the battle on this front must immediately be taken to Parliament at this point. This is crucial because there are many aspects of the NCFSE and the new curriculum that are extremely problematic and deserve much wider debate and discussion before being accepted.

The NCFSE states that "education about religions and the inherent values of all religions is to be imparted at all stages of school education". Given the present government's track record in this regard, it is not at all surprising that critics have condemned this as introducing unnecessary discussion of religion in what should be a secular activity, when values can be taught and transmitted without such religious bases in any case.

It is interesting to note that, in keeping with this government's general tendency to promote irrationality and obscurantism, the NCFSE makes religion compulsory, but science optional! It is even more ironic to recognise that this proposal emanates from a government that, more than any other, has contributed to "de-spiritualising" religion, and cynically using it instead as a tool for divisive political mobilisation and social oppression.

BUT another aspect of the NCFSE may be even worse. This is the implicit division between two streams of learning at the higher secondary level specialised academic courses or job oriented vocational courses. This negates the basic aim of providing equality of opportunity through a uniform pattern of education, which was the declared goal of the National Policy on Education and should indeed remain the goal in any minimally democratic society.

The NCFSE openly proposes a dual stream of education for the haves and the have-nots in Indian society. For the latter group, subjects such as English language, mathematics and science learning are to be truncated and substituted with various vocational courses, for they are obviously destined to drop out of school after Class X and join the workforce.

The biases of the NCERT become clear when the document emphasises that such vocational programmes "must meet the needs of disadvantaged groups like women, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and physically challenged persons". Such people who incidentally constitute together a significant majority of the population of India must remain content to be second class citizens, denied the educational means to any kind of social mobility and self-fulfilment.

The anti-democratic, and even anti-constitutional, nature of this division is so appalling that it is surprising that it has not received greater publicity. No doubt the discussion on the issue has been affected by the long shadow cast by wider attempts to saffronise education and social science research in the country. But this remains one of the most disturbing aspects of the proposed framework, and one that must be opposed by the people's representatives in Parliament.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Oct 11, 2002.)

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