Learning in a saffron-tinted market

Print edition : September 01, 2017

Noakhali (now in Bangladesh), February 7, 1947: Gandhi, while opening a school for refugee children, is presenting a slate and a book to a boy and taking a primary book of Bengali for his own learning. This moving image, from a time when pre-Partition violence was wreaking havoc in Bengal, reflects a view of education as an uplifting experience that can restore moral order in a violent world. In neoliberal India, education is a commodity that has to be bought. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The section whose interests suffer most as a result of the commodification of education is underprivileged children. Here, a message on a school wall in Barwani, Madhya Pradesh, says: "Half a roti if need be, but we will go to school." Photo: R.V. MOORTHY

Teachers and students of JNU marching from Mandi House to Parliament against seat cuts in MPhil and PhD admissions, on February 20. State spending on education has been steadily declining. Photo: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

Kanhaiya Kumar (left), former president, JNUSU, and Fatima Nafees, mother of missing JNU student Najeeb Ahmed, at a protest by students from Delhi University and JNU during a "Citizens' March" to Parliament, on March 4. Photo: SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The "Save DU" march by students on February 28 against the previous week's violence at Ramjas College. Photo: SANDEEP SAXENA

Y. Sudershan Rao, whose appointment as Chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research, in 2014 raised eyebrows. He was known to be close to the Sangh Parivar and was not considered as possessing the academic rigour that would justify the appointment. Photo: B. VELANKANNI RAJ

The present regime has combined neoliberal policy with the Hindutva ideology and a sociopolitical offensive in public life and within educational institutions in a form so virulent that it threatens the very conception and purpose of education, both for the individual and for society.

Anniversaries have a tendency to blur differences, to paint all strokes with the same brush. Seventy years of Indian independence makes one look over a historical and political landscape that appears in hindsight to have already contained the seeds of all that is happening today and hence conclude that nothing has actually changed; what had to happen has happened.

However, the truth is that history is made every day. Directions taken, as much as the failure to stay the course and choices made or not made, determine the present and the options that are open to us today. Equally, the choices now being made are not merely products of the past but are indications and auguries for the future. We ignore this at our own peril.

The privatisation and marketisation of education has been pursued since 1991 by all governments, whether they have been led by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the United Front (UF) or the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), as it follows from the neoliberal conception of education as a “private good” and of knowledge as a tradable “commodity” or “service”. From the 1970s onwards, international finance capital has attempted to cope with recurring economic crises by “opening up” the entire range of human activities to penetration by private capital, diverting public funds and assets into private hands by launching public-private partnerships (PPP) in all areas.

Decline in funds for education

The present regime’s proposed National Policy of Education 2016 (NEP 2016), now appearing in a third avatar after the first two floundered, has already been preceded by executive decisions that indicate the direction in which it is headed.

First, government schools, colleges and universities are being starved of public funds in order to create space for private investment, national and foreign. The Central government’s spending on education as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) dipped from an already inadequate 0.69 per cent in Financial Year 2012 (from April 1, 2011, to March 31, 2012) to 0.63 per cent by FY2014. After a plunge down to 0.55 per cent in FY2015, it further declined to 0.49 per cent in FY2016. The revised estimate for FY2017 was 0.48 per cent, while the Budget estimate at 0.47 per cent for FY2018 continues the downward trend (calculations of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy and Mint). This is despite the fact that an Educational Cess of 3 per cent is imposed on everything that is purchased by any Indian citizen. Could State governments, many of which are struggling to implement the loan waivers promised to farmers after massive agitations on the one hand, and coming to terms with the GST (Goods and Services Tax) on the other, be expected to take up the financial responsibility for education? In a shocking indication to the contrary, the present Uttar Pradesh State government has cut budgetary funds this year by 42 per cent for secondary schools and by 90 per cent for colleges!

Secondly, the decision to scrap the no-detention policy and vocationalise the elementary curriculum for targeted regions and communities will drastically reduce the number of children from the deprived sections that will be able to access their fundamental right to education in any meaningful sense. The Minister of State of the Human Resource Development Ministry has clearly stated that the intention is not to detain students in order to improve their learning standards but to transfer them to skill-development programmes.

Damaging centralisation

Thirdly, centralisation in the form of single boards for all professional entrance examinations at State level and at an all-India level has unfortunately attracted media attention only as opening up huge avenues for corruption. Madhya Pradesh’s “Vyapam” admission and recruitment scam, involving politicians, senior officials and businessmen, is still to be adequately investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), although it involved the deaths of 49 people directly associated with it and reached up to the highest level of those in power. The National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for entrance to professional higher education produced its own scandal involving leakage of question papers in at least six centres with the use of “share-in software”.

What has received little attention is that these tests are pedagogically damaging. They “standardise” merit according to the knowledge skills of a given elite section. This fails to reflect adequately the varied and unequal conditions of knowledge acquisition in India’s multi-track school system and jeopardises the interests, particularly of students from deprived sections and backward regions. Standardisation is a necessary demand of both the national and foreign investors who are being wooed to enter the higher education “market”. However, investment in state-funded education is needed to ensure access to all and, until that goal is achieved, to defend and extend social justice measures such as reservation for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, Other Backward Classes (OBCs), minorities, girls, transgenders and the disabled, and provide necessary academic and infrastructural support such as adequate scholarships and hostels for students from these deprived sections.

Apart from this, centralisation has also facilitated the imposition of linguistic, regional and gender inequalities and other forms of social and personal oppression, including dress codes and extensive frisking for examinees.

The strategy of privatisation and marketisation of education has negatively impacted the most vulnerable sections of society. The fact of the impending exclusion of more than 80 per cent of the relevant age group from an education system that will increasingly cater only to those who can afford it is becoming evident to anyone who cares to face the facts and is now a major democratic concern. For, by the privatisation of a range of social necessities, these sections are being deprived of access not only to education but also to health, employment, food security, housing and public utilities.

A significant fallout of this process is that the democratic institutions which sustained the “welfare” states of the 20th century appear to be increasingly hollowed out as the state withdraws from the arena. With corporate interests taking over decision-making in the name of “efficiency” and “professional management”, not only does people’s control over their own lives shrink rapidly but the public space for resistance also tends to become delegitimised.

Students and teachers have already experienced this. The rising tide of protest actions in institutions and universities across the country against attacks on university autonomy, fee hikes, withdrawal and reduction of fellowships and arbitrary curriculum changes have been met with unconcealed attempts to muzzle dissent, disrupt student unity and derail protest movements by raising the bogey of “anti-national” forces.

Faced with this all-round assault, an All India Convention of Students’ Struggles held on August 5 and 6 in Bengaluru drew delegates from 59 national student organisations, organisations active at State or at institutional levels, and also from among activists of the upsurge of movements across the country. It was supported by teachers’ associations, including the All India Federation of University and College Teachers Organisation (AIFUCTO) and the Federation of Central University Teachers Association (FEDCUTA). Academicians and public intellectuals attended in solidarity as observers.

The convention resolved to observe September 28, the birth anniversary of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, as Save Democracy Day and demand an end to corporatisation of education. Representing the spirit of resistance evident among the youth, it resolved to collectively challenge the government’s privatisation policies, the Hindutva forces of the Sangh Parivar, and international forces driving India towards a global marketisation of education.

Intolerance of dissent

It is within the context of this struggle for democratic rights and the right to dissent that the present regime which has assumed office in 2014 requires to be assessed for the specific character that it has imparted to the neoliberal development policy. For, it has combined neoliberal policy with the Hindutva ideology of Hindu supremacy and a sociopolitical offensive in public life and within educational institutions in a form so virulent that it threatens the very conception and purpose of education, both for the individual and for society.

Rewriting history, bolstering and promoting dangerously prejudicial and retrogressive belief systems, reducing learning to the mere acquisition of skills geared to market needs, and maligning intellectual and sociopolitically sensitive critical inquiry as “extremist”, “anti-national” and a seditious threat to state security have become today’s common sense and are used as justification for current policy.

Free debate or discussion is neither encouraged nor tolerated; governmental dictates, frequently in violation of established statutes and norms of functioning in educational institutions, are routinely imposed.

The appointment primarily of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and Sangh Parivar ideologues and sympathisers to top academic and administrative positions in all academic institutions and bodies threatens the credibility of research in the natural and social sciences and the future content and quality of investigative studies. The Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, an alumnus of Vadodara’s Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU), succinctly expressed his concern when he urged the university administration to reconsider its promotion of sages from ancient India for their “contribution to science”. He found it “disappointing that the university chose to print an official diary that ascribes to figures from religious scriptures discoveries that belong to modern science, such as nuclear technology, airplanes and cosmetic surgery. The people who did this may think they are being patriotic, but in fact they are bringing disrepute to the university and to India generally.”

The necessary and vibrant exchange of ideas through campus interactions, seminars, conferences and publications is being severely restricted by vigilante censorship and policing of all such activities. The role of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS, has been particularly disturbing. From physical assaults to prevent debates being held as at Delhi University’s Ramjas College, to the use of the organisation’s current political and administrative influence to deny permission for holding seminars and for suspending faculty members associated with organising them as at the Central University of Hyderabad and Rajasthan University, to threatening anyone it identifies as being “anti-national”, this organisation has been prominently involved in many campus “incidents”. The “disappearance” of Najeeb Ahmed, a research student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), apparently after an altercation and “scuffle” with ABVP supporters, adds a more sinister dimension, especially since this angle is not being pursued by the police.

And this is happening even as vigilante mobs inflict atrocities on Dalits and lynch Muslims in the name of “gau raksha”, a campaign of terror that has made a mockery of the rule of law in the country, generated revulsion among democratic sections and intensified the protests. Dadri, where Mohammed Akhlaq was lynched, sparking protests by writers and intellectuals; Una, where Dalit youths were flogged, leading to massive protests; Saharanpur, the site of a Thakur attack on Dalits where the Bhim Army emerged like a phoenix; and the public murder of 16-year-old Junaid Khan on a train from Delhi which led to thousands across several cities coming out in a spontaneous “Not in My Name” protest campaign. Not only students and activists but retired top-ranking veterans of the armed forces and bureaucrats joined the protest through open letters addressed to the Prime Minister himself. The armed forces veterans stated: “We can no longer look away. We would be doing a disservice to our country if we do not stand up and speak for the liberal and secular values that our Constitution espouses.”

Their resistance reflected anger at the fact that the administration appeared ineffective if not complicit, that police did not build credible cases against the culprits, and that the ruling Sangh Parivar/BJP either remained silent or vindicated these criminal actions and even “honoured” the perpetrators.

Economic interests

However, it is necessary to understand that there are serious economic interests behind the political backing that is so cynically being provided to these lynch mobs. The restrictions sought to be imposed by the Central government on the sale of cattle for slaughter is a severe attack on the economic interests and livelihood of dairy and other farmers and the tanning and leather industry. If enforced as law, the ban will devastate the rural economy and throw large sections of the population into joblessness and an uncertain future.

The truth is that the Central government has allowed 100 per cent foreign direct investment in March 2017 through automated route in e-commerce for food production and food-processing to encourage easy access of foreign corporates in agri- and horticultural production, in dairy farming, the meat exports sector, and in the tanning and leather manufacturing activity in India. Ruining Indian farmers, cattle breeders, producers and retailers of milk, meat and leather goods will go a long way to “opening up” a market for national and multinational corporate giants.

The RSS-BJP claim that the move is intended to protect indigenous cow breeds is an attempt to take cover under Directive Principle (Article 48) of the Constitution which recommends, but does not make justiciable, “organising agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall in particular take steps for preserving and improving breeds and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draft cattle”. Constitutionally, however, agriculture and preservation of livestock come under the exclusive purview of the State legislatures. Therefore, the Central government had to take recourse to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (1960) because rules for this Act can be framed by an executive order. But this Act in no way prevents slaughter of any animal for food purposes or bans “sale for the purpose of slaughter” of selected animals.

The Constitution makes no mention of religious sentiments either in Article 48 or in the 1960 Act. Still less does it seek to impose dietary preferences of a section of the population on other communities or individuals. The Central government’s proposed rules violate the 1960 Act and, more dangerously, constitute a threat to the federal structure of the Constitution itself.

At the end of three years of the Modi government, when economic growth figures have slumped to 6 per cent, when jobs for the youth are nowhere to be found, when demonetisation has dealt a severe blow to the informal sector, which provides employment to over 80 per cent of the working population, the Central government is utilising community and caste prejudice to polarise the people.

In this polarised environment, the multi-pronged neoliberal, communal and caste-based assault on the education system as a whole has grown more swift and reckless.

Instilling the spirit of “nationalism” in students, not stimulating critical thought, has now become the prime purpose of education. To this end, the Prime Minister himself has advocated military discipline and proposed that all schools should be run like Sainik Schools in order to inculcate nationalism in students. The Vice Chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, always one to be a step ahead even to the point of absurdity, organised a demonstration on the campus, complete with a couple of retired generals regularly seen in TV studios, to demand that a tank be ceremoniously placed in the university to remind students that the real patriots and their role models must be the armed forces!

The reduction of the nation to the state, its instruments of power, and existing governments is at variance with the experience and process of the freedom struggle which shaped the on-going project of evolving an independent modern nation based on democratic principles that recognise the rights of all citizens.

The proposed “disciplinary” ethos also runs counter to the tenets and principles that formally guided educational governance even up to the early 1980s. It is worth recalling the perceptive insight contained in the Report of the Education Commission (1964-66): “The character of a university as a society of teachers and students engaged in the pursuit of learning and discovery, distinguishes fundamentally the regulation of its affairs from, say, the profit-motivated management of commercial or industrial concerns or the administration of a government department or municipal corporation, or a unit of the armed forces . . . . Rules, regulations and techniques that hamper the real achievement of the real purposes of the university should be modified or scrapped—they should not be allowed to become a straitjacket into which all university activities must be fitted” (page 299).

Today we are witnessing the reverse process. Central and State governments, often utilising the University Grants Commission which has long ceased to function as a buffer between political leaderships, administrative bureaucracies and the academic community, have been taking steps to curb the intellectual and physical space available for students and faculty to question, dissent from and disturb existing power structures. Surveillance cameras across campuses pressurise the community to adopt forms of self-disciplining and pre-censorship. Circulars warn students against protests and signed bonds are demanded by institutions at the time of admission stating that students will not protest against the conduct and policies of the authorities. On top of all this is the constant threat of unrestrained police entry on campuses.

This condemnable treatment of students and faculty, as if they were criminals engaged in the now-illegitimate activity of dissent whenever they confront the anti-democratic actions of the government and educational authorities, has to be challenged so that dissent of all kinds is freely allowed inside university premises. For, universities not only set up a model for society but also interact through public spaces outside educational institutions as well. The critical and analytical voices from the country’s campuses are heard well beyond their boundaries.

Madhu Prasad is associated with the All India Forum for the Right to Education. She was formerly with the Department of Philosophy, Zakir Husain College, Delhi University.