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The assault on reason

Print edition : Sep 01, 2001 T+T-

What the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is doing to education is the precursor to nothing less than an assault on reason.

ALL governments, it would be argued, have their own patronage systems, their own particular brands of persons who occupy positions of office, including in the educational sphere. They also have their own ideologies which they attempt to promote through diverse means, notably through the use of influence in the educational sphere. Why then is so much fuss being made over the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government's activities in the sphere of education?

The plain answer to this question is: what this government is doing to education is the precursor to nothing less than an assault on reason. What we are concerned about is not ideological differences, in the sense of differences in the sets of beliefs we hold, where each person holds beliefs in a necessarily provisional manner at every moment and is constantly testing these beliefs through the use of reason applied to experience. Such differences permit rational discourse; our concern precisely is that an ideology is being promoted that denies rational discourse.

This denial of rational discourse is not immanent in the holding of religious beliefs per se. One can be a devout Hindu, or a devout Muslim, or a devout Christian, and hence a subset of one's total set of beliefs may be absolute and unshakable. The remainder however can still be provisional and changeable, so that the manner in which one relates this remainder to the core of absolute beliefs can also be provisional and changeable. This still permits rational discourse. The problem arises when this remainder becomes a null set, when the terrain of rational discourse dwindles into non-existence. It is this disappearance of the scope of rational discourse that is disquieting.

Those who preside over this disappearance of rational discourse are often in the habit of invoking the so-called tyranny of "rational discourse" as a means of legitimising such disappearance. For example, it is often suggested that Vedic astrology can be introduced alongside the usual scientific disciplines, and that the opposition to such catholicism of approaches constitutes bigotry. In other words, it is argued that the tyrannical narrow-mindedness which the critics attribute to the government when it promotes Vedic astrology, is actually a more apt description of the critics themselves. Here we have a case precisely of legitimising an attenuation of rational discourse by attacking its so-called "tyranny", by upbraiding the critics of such attenuation for their "bigotry". The rampant attempt to spread communal propaganda, even among schoolchildren; the devaluation of the scientific temper; the implicit downgrading of the natural sciences by putting them on a par with vaastu and astrology; the explicit belittling of social sciences as being, if anything, inferior to Vedic astrology in their scientific content; the flouting of all canons of reasonable debate, and the total disregard for all available evidence, in promoting a particular version of history - these are all so many manifestations of this assault on reason. The elevation to office in the educational sphere of a whole army of hacks with little scholarship and little commitment to the cause of rational discourse, whose sole distinction consists in their explicit loyalty to the Hindutva agenda, is a part of this assault on reason.

What we are witnessing therefore is not just the usual "small change" of politics as it plays itself out in the sphere of education, where a new government brings in a new set of persons occupying office and distributing largesse, and encouraging new ideological orientations. What we are witnessing is much more sinister, namely an attempt to constrict the space for rational discourse.

This attempt is sinister because it impinges on the lives of the people. It is a fallacy to believe that the snuffing out of rational discourse is a matter concerning only the intelligentsia; it is even more fundamentally and directly a matter affecting the people, since the flourishing of rational discourse is a necessary condition for the people's march towards freedom.

Here is an illustration. At the beginning of the 20th century the region that today constitutes the State of Kerala had the practice not just of untouchability but of "unseeability". Persons of exalted castes travelled with escorts who walked ahead, making a certain whooping noise. Upon hearing this noise any member of a "lower caste" who happened to be on the path would hide himself or herself until the exalted person had passed, for they were supposed to be "unseeable". The same Kerala today has a level of achievement in terms of social indicators that is better than any other part of the Third World, including China taken as a whole, and that is comparable, or even superior in certain respects, to that of metropolitan capitalist countries. Such an impressive achievement necessarily presupposes a degree of social equality. To say this is not to claim that caste inequalities have disappeared in Kerala, but to underscore the enormous length of the distance travelled by Kerala in the course of just a few decades.

Kerala's case, though striking, exemplifies a process that has happened in varying degrees all over India, namely a long, protracted, halting, confused, but nonetheless unmistakable, social change, even a social revolution, directed against different forms of social oppression and inequality. To be sure, it has not been as impressive as the dazzling achievements of some Third World socialist countries, or even of many capitalist countries of East and South East Asia; and it still has a very long way to go. But considering the long history of caste and other forms of social oppression in this country, the ossification of its uniquely oppressive social structure through centuries, what has been achieved in the course of the last few decades is as remarkable as it is unprecedented.

THIS process of social revolution has been intimately connected with the anti-imperialist struggle, a connection that has been there even when the two streams of struggle have apparently proceeded along different courses. In other words, the enlargement of the social and political rights of the ordinary people to a degree unimaginable earlier has constituted one integrated movement; it has been our "Long Revolution". Underlying this "Long Revolution", however, has been a remarkable revolution in thought that has rejected the inegalitarianism of tradition, and the irrationalism of inherited orthodoxy. One may quarrel about which particular part of this process of spread of new thought constitutes the beginning of the so-called "renaissance" in a particular region, but almost every region has had such a "renaissance".

What we are witnessing today, however, is a determined and comprehensive attempt at the social, economic, and political levels to reverse the "Long Revolution" I just alluded to, and to usher in a veritable "counter-revolution". If the attempt at a re-colonisation of the economy under the guise of "globalisation", and the associated attempt at promoting a predatory capitalism in the name of allowing the "free play of market forces", constitutes the core of the counter-revolution in the economic terrain, then the unleashing of communal fascism under the guise of Hindutva constitutes the core of the counter-revolution in the realm of the social and the political. The BJP-led government's practice in the sphere of education is meant essentially to prepare the intellectual ground for this counter-revolution. The snuffing out of rational discourse is an essential condition for this counter-revolution. Just as the spread of rational egalitarian thought positing the potential for progress towards human freedom constituted the basis for our "Long Revolution", likewise the attenuation of rational discourse, the deliberate atavistic revival in the contemporary context of ideas that had gone into the formation of traditional orthodoxy, the blatant rejection of the secular egalitarian outlook, are all meant to constitute the basis for the counter-revolution which the Hindutva forces have become the agency for unleashing. It is no accident that they have become such an agency. Their contribution to the historical process of social, political, and economic emancipation of the people, the process of "Long Revolution" as I have called it, was not just negligible; it was in a very distinct sense negative.

The most concentrated expression, and the most palpably sinister manifestation, of the assault on rational discourse is the promotion of the communal outlook. The starting point of the communal discourse is not real and concrete people in their mundane daily existence, but idealised totalities, "the Hindus", "the Muslims" and so on. When the reality is seen to differ from this idealised universe, this divergence is attributed to "conspiracies": "Marxist conspiracies", "conspiracies of the Muslims", "conspiracies of the Christians". Paranoia replaces argumentation. Excluding viewpoints other than one's own rather than engaging with them becomes the dominant obsession. Filling offices in the sphere of education with still more hacks, replacing less loyal hacks with more loyal hacks, is seen as the solution to end these myriad "conspiracies". The attenuation of rational discourse thus acquires a ruthless and spontaneous dialectic.

But while the propagation of the communal outlook is the concentrated expression of the assault on rational discourse, it does not constitute the entirety of this assault. Or, looking at it differently, in terms of the real counterpart of these ideas, the attack on the secular foundations of the state is not merely a phenomenon in itself but is an integral part of the social counter-revolution discussed earlier. Combating communalism, preserving the secular foundations of the state, are urgent tasks that have to be undertaken not merely in the interests of the minorities; they are not even tasks whose urgency arises merely because one cannot be free as long as someone else is oppressed. Their urgency lies in the fact that communalism is integral to counter-revolution.

Combating the communal outlook that is sought to be spread through the education system under the BJP dispensation is integral to the preservation of the rational discourse. I referred earlier to the dialectic inherent in the process of attenuation of rational discourse; this dialectic has to be arrested and reversed. To be sure, doing so is not a matter confined to the sphere of education and educationists alone. But the task has to begin somewhere; and educationists have to take the initiative.

Prabhat Patnaik is Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. This article is based on a presentation made at the August 4-6 convention in Delhi against the communalisation of education.