Cover Story: Bulldozing the idea of India

Hindutvaisation of education: Narendra Modi-led government's game plan under NEP

Print edition : May 20, 2022

During a two-day workshop on the implementation of NEP-2020 organised by the Central University of Karnataka near Kalaburagi on October 5, 2021. Photo: ARUN KULKARNI

Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu at the inauguration of the South Asian Institute of Peace and Reconciliation in Haridwar on March 19. Photo: PTI

Serious attempts to change what is taught and the outlook towards education itself have taken place under the stewardship of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The new National Education Policy provides the necessary framework for both the Hindutvaisation and aggressive privatisation of education.

Education has been on the radar of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for some time. On the face of it, its rhetoric of “Indianisation” and “de-Macaulayisation” of Indian education is not new. It began in the first term of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), where a conscious attempt was made to purge NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) textbooks of content that the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh felt was too Left- or Congress-leaning.

In more concrete terms, real attempts to change what is taught and the outlook towards education itself have taken place in the current NDA regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The National Education Policy (NEP) provides the necessary framework for both Hindutvaisation and aggressive privatisation of education. Therefore, it is no longer just history that needs to be corrected but the entire approach towards education itself. “Indianisation” is merely a fig leaf behind which the larger agenda of corporatisation of education lies embedded. But then the rhetoric of “foreign rule” is intrinsic to the idea of “Indianisation” and is used to criticise the “colonial mindset” of the opposition, caricature certain communities as the progeny of “invader rulers” and juxtapose this with the allegedly more rooted and “Indianised” education model of the BJP. The move to include the Bhagavad Gita in moral science textbooks in Gujarat is part of this. The BJP government in Karnataka was said to be thinking on similar lines. But if the approach were truly “Indian” in character, it would have acknowledged the contributions—cultural, political, architectural and even culinary— of all the immigrants to the Indian subcontinent over the centuries.

The rhetoric is intrinsic to the larger goal itself. On March 19, while inaugurating the South Asian Institute of Peace and Reconciliation at the Dev Sanskriti Vishwavidyalaya in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu defended the “saffronisation” of education. Calling on his countrymen to give up their “colonial mindset”, he asked: “What is wrong with saffron?” He said Indianisation or Bhartiyakaran of education was the aim of the NEP, but “English-loving people” interpreted it as “going back”. He said: “Yes, we want to go back. What is wrong with that? We want to go back to our roots, know the greatness of our culture and heritage and understand the great amount of treasure in our Vedas, in our books and in our scriptures. No, they don’t want us to…. They want us to suffer from an inferiority complex…. They say you are saffronising. What is wrong with saffron? I don’t understand.”

According to a Press Information Bureau (PIB) release, Venkaiah Naidu “lamented that India’s famed age-old education system was severely dented by centuries of foreign rule”. He called for “restoring India’s glorious tradition in the education sector by revisiting ancient teaching-learning systems and traditional knowledge to make them relevant to the present times”. Prolonged colonial rule, he said, had deprived large sections of people, including women, of education, whereas the elite class had access to formal education. While Venkaiah Naidu was not entirely incorrect in his assessment, in his speech he glossed over the unique role that caste played and continues to play in deciding access to education. The same PIB release said that he expressed his happiness at the NEP’s attempt to “Indianise” education and “strong disapproval of the mentality that considers everything Indian as inferior”.

Also read: Bulldozing the idea of India

This kind of a narrative has helped the BJP portray itself as the sole custodian of everything Indian, even though in praxis what it does is quite the opposite and where Indian is supposed to be synonymous with certain communities, excluding certain others. It is the same world view of skewed “Indianisation” that prompted the University Grants Commission (UGC) to craft a history syllabus for undergraduate courses that no longer had the works of Marxist historians such as R.S. Sharma and Irfan Habib as part of the syllabus. It was learnt that secular literature such as Kautalya’s Arthashatra, Charaka Samhita and the poems of Kalidasa had been dropped as well.

Interestingly, the UGC’s 99-page Learning Outcomes-based Curriculum Framework (LOCF) document for the B.A. history undergraduate programme states that it owes it to its origins to “meet the fundamental challenges of ever-changing academics scales at the Global level”. So there is this inherent need to meet contemporary global educational challenges and yet the government harps on about the ancient roots of Indian education. The LOCF document states that the curriculum is “designed to reiterate as a guiding principle only, as justice to the glorious past and the vast canvas of Indian history can only be done by providing the much needed space at micro and macro levels.” History should be more about exploration and discovery, it states, rather than memorising a static narrative. The curriculum was aimed at “focussing on introducing Nation’s history on wider perspective at graduate level through core papers rather than comprehending the vast regions as ephemeral notions”.

As part of this wider perspective, the LOCF recommended a “serious remodelling of the Medieval period that covers larger portions of India for a better understanding of Nation history”. For instance, Paper 1 for B.A. history honours’ students is titled the “Idea of Bharat”. Students, it says, would acquire “knowledge regarding the primitive life and cultural status of the people of ancient India”. Unit one of the paper includes concepts such as “Understanding of Bharatvarsha, Eternity of synonyms of Bharat, Indian concept of time and space, the glory of Indian literature like Ved, Vedanga, Upanishads, Epics, Jain and Buddhist literature, Smriti, Puranas etc”. One of the papers prescribed for the same history honours course includes “India on the eve of Babur’s invasion” as a topic while the rule of the East India Company has been described as a “territorial expansion”.

The Central Board of Secondary Education has reportedly introduced changes to the history and political science syllabi for classes 11 and 12. Chapters on the Non-Aligned Movement, the Cold War, the rise of Islamic empires in Afro-Asian territories, chronicles of Mughal courts, the industrial revolution, democracy and diversity have been dropped from the syllabi as have excerpts of poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The changes were apparently based on the recommendations of the NCERT. The tinkering with syllabi has been an on-and-off affair ever since the NDA first came to power. But what is more insidious is the underlying philosophy of NEP 2020. An examination of how deeply ingrained this philosophy is, is a study in itself.

Also read: Stand up & speak out

According to the NEP, the future of the world is the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which has been interpreted in a the narrow sense of machines taking over a lot of manual unskilled work rather than the more complicated idea of a technology-driven change in human conditions.

The NEP says: “The world is undergoing rapid changes in the knowledge landscape. With various dramatic scientific and technological advances, such as the rise of big data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, many unskilled jobs worldwide may be taken over by machines, while the need for a skilled workforce, particularly involving mathematics, computer science, and data science, in conjunction with multidisciplinary abilities across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, will be increasingly in greater demand. With climate change, increasing pollution, and depleting natural resources, there will be a sizeable shift in how we meet the world’s energy, water, food, and sanitation needs, again resulting in the need for new skilled labour, particularly in biology, chemistry, physics, agriculture, climate science, and social science. The growing emergence of epidemics and pandemics will also call for collaborative research in infectious disease management and development of vaccines and the resultant social issues heightens the need for multidisciplinary learning. There will be a growing demand for humanities and art, as India moves towards becoming a developed country as well as among the three largest economies in the world.”

It then says that India’s education system must adapt to this need to create a “skilled” workforce suitable for the jobs of this future. How is that to be created? By takinginspiration from the ancient Indian tradition of knowledge and education and by imbibing its philosophy of multidisciplinary and holistic education—since that is what the work of the future needs. It also emphasises the opening up of a treasure trove of ancient Indian knowledge and building on that and fostering traditional Indian values that reflect eternal truths—and are therefore not in conflict with constitutional values, etc.—which also have to be promoted. Ignored totally in the process is the fact that exclusion of the majority from education was also an integral element of the ancient tradition that sanctified an extremely hierarchical social order.

Further, it states: “This National Education Policy 2020 is the first education policy of the 21st century and aims to address the many growing developmental imperatives of our country. This Policy proposes the revision and revamping of all aspects of the education structure, including its regulation and governance, to create a new system that is aligned with the aspirational goals of 21st century education, including SDG4, while building upon India’s traditions and value systems.

“The rich heritage of ancient and eternal Indian knowledge and thought has been a guiding light for this Policy. The pursuit of knowledge (Jnan), wisdom (Pragyaa), and truth (Satya) was always considered in Indian thought and philosophy as the highest human goal. The aim of education in ancient India was not just the acquisition of knowledge as preparation for life in this world, or life beyond schooling, but for the complete realisation and liberation of the self. World-class institutions of ancient India such as Takshashila, Nalanda, Vikramshila, Vallabhi, set the highest standards of multidisciplinary teaching and research and hosted scholars and students from across backgrounds and countries. The Indian education system produced great scholars such as Charaka, Susruta, Aryabhata, Varahamihira, Bhaskaracharya, Brahmagupta, Chanakya, Chakrapani Datta, Madhava, Panini, Patanjali, Nagarjuna, Gautama, Pingala, Sankardev, Maitreyi, Gargi and Thiruvalluvar, among numerous others, who made seminal contributions to world knowledge in diverse fields such as mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy, medical science and surgery, civil engineering, architecture, shipbuilding and navigation, yoga, fine arts, chess, and more. Indian culture and philosophy have had a strong influence on the world. These rich legacies to world heritage must not only be nurtured and preserved for posterity but also researched, enhanced, and put to new uses through our education system… a holistic and multidisciplinary education, as described so beautifully in India’s past, is indeed what is needed for the education of India to lead the country into the 21st century and the fourth industrial revolution.”

Also read: Media sellout

The NEP assumes that India’s destiny is to rise to the position of a world leader, a global knowledge superpower, a Vishwa Guru as it once was. That is indeed the justification for internationalising Indian higher education. “India will be promoted as a global study destination providing premium education at affordable costs thereby helping to restore its role as a Vishwa Guru.”

It talks about recognising the common Indian essence that links us all to an ancient past (medieval is an unnecessary irritant in between), including the linguistic unity of India. Both the importance of the mother tongue emphasised in the policy and the positioning of Sanskrit as the ultimate classical language derive from this. One of the fundamental principles in the NEP involves “a rootedness and pride in India, and its rich, diverse, ancient and modern culture and knowledge systems and traditions”. The “Knowledge of India” will include knowledge from ancient India and its contributions to modern India and its successes and challenges, and a clear sense of India’s future aspirations with regard to education, health, environment, and so on.

The link between privatisation and Hindutva and educational institutions sponsored by Hindutva organisations is another fundamental principle of the NEP. It talks about “substantial investment in a strong, vibrant public education system as well as the encouragement and facilitation of true philanthropic private and community participation”. It is no hidden secret that government expenditure is hardly on the scale that is needed. The expansion of education has increasingly been in the private sector rather than in public-funded education. The nature of “philanthropic private education” is highly suspect given the thrust of the NEP.

The recent regulatory and governance structures proposed, particularly for higher education and higher education institutions, give government-appointed regulators and managements of institutions more powers than the faculty, creating the basis for greater government control over academic content, vision and policy. While Hindutvaisation of education is certainly one of the NEP’s objectives, its realisation can only be possible with greater government control over educational institutions. The NEP provides the architectural plank for that.