Borrowing history

Education is witnessing an apparent replication of the ideas of the nationalist education movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. But borrowed history works only for a while, as an examination of the evidence on that movement and sanskari supremacism suggests.

Published : Sep 26, 2018 12:30 IST

Prakash Javadekar, Union Human Resource Development Minister. The objective of a new education policy would be to promote ancient culture and Vedic education because modern education had failed our society, he told the International Virat Gurukul Sammelan in Ujjain in April.

Prakash Javadekar, Union Human Resource Development Minister. The objective of a new education policy would be to promote ancient culture and Vedic education because modern education had failed our society, he told the International Virat Gurukul Sammelan in Ujjain in April.

MANY people who like to believe that they are true blue nationalists, Rabindranath Tagore writes in 1917, nurse the delusion that they are inheritors and successors of that political tradition. Such people are in the habit of “borrowing other people’s history”. They are compelled to invent a tradition, Tagore said, because of the fact that Europe possessed a history of nation-making while many Asian countries did not in the beginning of the 20th century. When Tagore argued thus, he was on a lecture tour in the United States and Japan; his audiences were in the middle of a war between nations, the First World War, and they regarded Tagore’s message as anti-nationalist propaganda to destroy people’s morale.

One rather amusing aspect of this episode was that the idealist in Tagore failed to see that the very purpose of organising the lecture tour was defeated, since the lectures were too unpopular, tickets did not sell, and led to a huge loss. But while it was a loss to his fund-raising project, the world gained a classic philosophical tract, Nationalism (1917).

The reason why we recollect this episode today is that, as in Tagore’s times, we are witnessing once again transactions in “borrowed history”. This time again the borrower is in search of ancestry that will confer credibility. A new view is on the rise that the true successors of the nationalists of the 19th century are some new claimants to their mantle.

One can instantiate this tendency with the latest examples. On March 25 and 26, about 700 persons representing educational institutions—ranging from gurukul schools to universities—assembled at a conference near Delhi convened by the Prajna Pravah.

This body, modestly calling itself “Gyan Sangam”, declared as its objective “decolonisation” of education. The organisers showed some degree of maturity and self-confidence in that they did not try to gain strength from participants brought from the Ministry of Human Resource Development and various departments of the government. Instead, these conferences draw support from the India Policy Foundation, and various “think tanks”.

What was the ideological point being made in that elaborate exercise and how does that relate with long-range policy thinking? The point, it was declared, was to put forward an agenda for the “decolonisation of learning”, that is, to overcome the colonial legacy of ideas, and to combat aggressively the mindset that looks down disrespectfully upon Indian culture even to this day, decades after attainment of political independence.

This line of thinking can be traced back to the battles fought earlier at sites familiar to readers of the Organiser or Panchjanya . The foremost issue is the medium of instruction in schools. A German observer, Maria Wirth, and her Indian colleagues have been writing profusely, and convincingly at times, on the “colonial hangover of English medium education”. Wirth points to the advantage enjoyed by a small minority belonging to a high-income group by virtue of their access to English.

In this line of thinking, next to the emphasis on replacing English as a medium of instruction with a “Bharatiya” language, we have the agenda of representing ancient Indian culture in a positive manner. The International Virat Gurukul Sammelan on April 28-30 at Ujjain brought together representatives of 90 gurukul s in India and Nepal. An authority no less than the Human Resource Development Minister announced at this conference that an objective of a new education policy would be to promote ancient culture and Vedic education because modern education had failed our society (April 28).

A major victory scored by this school of thought outside India was the success of the Hindu Education Foundation USA in its efforts to compel the California school education authorities to revise school textbooks which contained denigratory comments on pre-colonial Indian culture. This was the case which led the California State Board of Education to review and reject in 2018 certain racist remarks in school textbooks published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It was an important victory for Hindu advocacy groups in the U.S. Apart from these engagements in pressure activities and the like from time to time, there is a constancy in the general agenda of such groups, aptly illustrated by the motto of the hundreds of Vidya Bharati schools: “Indianise, Nationalise, Spiritualise”.

Although a good deal is said in these documents above on Bharatiya languages as medium of instruction, the passionate commitment seems to go to the Sanskrit language as the key to ancient knowledge. The revival of Sanskrit learning appears to be high on the agenda of its proponents because they look upon it as the path to truly national education. On the whole, all this adds up to a claim that here is an agenda for “de-colonising” education.

Sanskari supremacism

There is no terminology in the media vocabulary today that adequately captures the characteristic features of this agenda which includes a claim to superiority and domination. It is a domination based on an ideology ascribing superiority to a particular culture. This superiority is akin to what is called in contemporary media “white supremacism” today in the Anglo-American world. These two phenomena are like each other in terms of ethno-centricity, but they are unlike in an important respect.

White supremacism is founded on pseudo-scientific arguments about racial characteristics, and our indigenous supremacism is founded on pseudo-historical arguments about sanskara or culture or a set of traditions and values, supposedly inherited from the past. We suggest that we may use the term sanskari supremacism in the Indian context, and it is necessary for us to examine the historical aspects of these phenomena. Perhaps we need a definition: sanskari supremacism is a mentality and a pattern of behaviour in India which is founded upon belief in a notion of cultural superiority by virtue of inherited tradition, and it aims at constructing an ideology of domination over social groups excluded from such tradition.

It is necessary to distinguish the sanskari supremacist notion of superiority from the essential idea at the core of the 19th century national education movement, which was the idea of self-respect. Swami Vivekananda put it simply and effectively in 1897, four years after his speech at the Chicago Parliament of Religions: “The education that our boys receive is very negative. The schoolboy learns nothing but has everything of his own broken down—the want of shraddha is the result….”. This is the opposite of what education should mean, for ideally education should bring “faith in one’s own self” (Vivekananda, April 24, 1897, in Bharati , Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume IV, 1963).

Mahatma Gandhi put forward the idea equally clearly when he wrote in 1921 in explanation of his recent non-cooperation movement and boycott of government schools: “The existing system of education… is based upon foreign culture to the almost entire exclusion of indigenous culture…. This education is calculated to wean him from traditional culture. And if the mass of educated youths are not entirely de-nationalised, it is because the ancient culture is too deeply embedded in them to be altogether uprooted even by an education adverse to its growth” (M.K. Gandhi, “National Education”, Young India , September 1, 1921). This kind of assertion of self-respect by nationalist thinkers was not the same as the recent sanskari assertions of superiority for purposes of establishing domination over others.

In the last century, the nationalist movement brought to the fore leaders of a national education movement, led by thinkers like Gokhale, Tilak, Aurobindo, Lala Lajpat Rai, et al. Is there a replication of that trend in the offing today? How convincing is the rhetoric claiming to be successors to Swami Vivekananda and how credible are the various analogies between leaders of the day that is passing and the great Swamiji, the play-acting on every available public forum dressed up in garments and colours associated with Vivekananda, and the exploitation of ceremonies which commemorate the life and work of Vivekananda? You have the perfect recipe for a magic ritual to make a reincarnation credible. But does history make it credible? What is “nationalist” in the sanskari supremacist agenda of action we have looked at above? There is heavy emphasis on Sanskrit learning. Is that sufficient to warrant the claim to being worthy successors of the nationalist school of thought? Sanskrit did not figure prominently in the thoughts of the latter. Lala Lajpat Rai in 1919, after having served as Secretary of the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic College in Lahore for 25 years, did not recommend that Sanskrit be given a prime place in the national education plan: “Personally I have a great attraction for the Sanskrit language and literature, but in my judgment any attempt to make it a medium of general education and uplift is bound to fail and deserves to fail…. To compel boys to spend a greater part of their school time preparatory to entering life, in studying a complicated difficult ancient language like Sanskrit is a flagrant misuse of energy…” (Lajpat Rai’s Writings and Speeches , edited by V.C. Joshi, pages 360-61).

Lajpat Rai believed that a more appropriate use of that energy would be to study modern languages in order to gain access to science and technology as well as the world of international trade and commerce. The National Council of Education, Bengal, in its Memorandum of Association (1906) laid down as an objective the creation of facilities for developing “vernacular languages such as Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, etc., English being a compulsory second language”. But they made no mention of Sanskrit as a priority in that charter of foundation (Jadavpur University, The National Council of Education, Bengal: A History , 1958, page 99).

Another stalwart nationalist spokesman, Aurobindo Ghose, was profoundly anxious about the possibility of “an obscurantist retrogression” in the search for “nationalist education”. “Nationalist education no more requires a return to the astronomy and mathematics of Bhaskara, or the forms of the system of Nalanda, than the living spirit of Swadeshi a return from railway and motor traction to the ancient chariot and the bullock cart” (Aurobindo Ghose, “Problem of National Education in Inda”, Arya , January 1921). To Sri Aurobindo, it was pointless to make a fetish of Sanskrit but it was necessary to coordinate its teaching with that of other Indian languages and English in order to “establish a vivid continuity between the living power of our past and yet unrealised power of our future”.

The sanskari supremacist school of thought often sees in Bal Gangadhar Tilak a predecessor in promoting Sanskrit, “Vedic Knowledge”, and so on. They forget that while he did indeed reject “secular education”, unlike some other nationalist educationists, he was far from being exclusionist in his approach to the minority community. He made this statement in 1908 about national education: “We must start our own schools to begin that education. Of the many things that we shall do there… religious education will be the first and foremost to engage our attention. Secular education is not enough to build up character. Religious education is necessary because study of high principles keeps us away from evil pursuits…. Hinduism to the Hindu, Islam to the Mussalmans will be taught in these schools. And it will also be taught there to forgive and forget the differences of other religion” (B.G. Tilak’s Writings and Speeches , Madras, 1919, page 81). Tilak here represents a segment of conservative thinking which was inclusive in offering all religious communities denominational education appropriate to their faith—a segment that is now getting marginalised.

The proponents of sanskari supremacism today refer often to science in ancient India, the miraculous achievements of that age in anticipating the aeroplane, weapons of mass destruction, plastic surgery, and so on, but their contribution to the advancement of science in their own times may be fairly stated to be negligible. In contrast to that, an emphasis on science education was an important characteristic of the national education movement. The earliest document in this regard originated in 1906 in the memorandum founding the National Council of Education, in the midst of the turmoil of the anti-partition agitation in response to Viceroy Curzon’s partition of Bengal. The first objective was stated to be propagation of “knowledge of the country and desire to serve the country” and the second objective was stated to be promotion of scientific knowledge which was “calculated to develop the material resources of the country and to satisfy its pressing wants, including in Science Education generally a knowledge of the scientific truths embodied in Oriental Learning….” (Memorandum of Association, May 23, 1906, of the National Council of Education, Bengal).

Several parallel efforts contemporaneous with the above included the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science founded by Mahendra Lal Sircar. Some of the leading scientists of the early 20th century belonged to these two bodies, the Council of Education and Association for Cultivation of Science. There is an obvious contrast between that history and the level of knowledge displayed in the uninformed statements made by some heads of educational bodies today about ancient Indian scientific miracles—these include heads appointed by the Government of India to lead technical and scientific research organisations.

In the domain of education is there now a trend towards replication of the ideas that inspired the nationalist education movement of the late 19th century and early 20th century? A careful examination of the evidence on the nationalist education movement and sanskari supremacism suggests that the answer to that question will be decisively in the negative. Borrowed history works only for a while.

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