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Towards a progressive educational agenda

Print edition : Jan 22, 2000 T+T-

The Tenth All India Conference of the Students' Federation of India in Chennai spotlights major issues of concern for the student community and society at large.


SOME 750 delegates from all over the country, representing nearly 25 lakh students, assembled in Chennai from January 7 to 10, for the Tenth All India Conference of the Students' Federation of India (SFI). Among the highlights of the event was a large ra lly on the opening day at the Marina which, according to some veterans, was the biggest mobilisation of students in the city since 1983 when the events in Sri Lanka brought students out on the streets in solidarity with Sri Lankan Tamils.

Although the persisting problem of mass illiteracy was an obvious issue, on the eve of the conference two other central issues were expected to dominate the agenda. The efforts to saffronise education and the commercialisation of the sector were expected to figure prominently at the conference. However, yet another major issue emerged during discussions - the growing "authoritarian attacks" on students protesting against the commercialisation of education in the liberalised environment since the 1990s . The anxiety about the danger of communalisation of education, particularly during the BJP-led coalition's current second innings, was highlighted in the inaugural address delivered by the historian and anti-communal activist, Professor K.N. Panikkar of the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Prof. Panikkar called the SFI the "most powerful and progressive representative of the student movement in the country" and said that the organisation had an important role to play in arresting the rise of fascism in India. He said that although communal ism had in the last 10 years come to occupy centre-stage, "there is nothing inevitable about history". "Human intervention," he said, "can change the course of history."

He said that the Sangh Parivar's activities, particularly in the social and cultural realms, had targeted the youth. "The policy of 'catch them young', " he said, "employed by fascists all over the world, has been adopted by the Sangh Parivar for its com munal mobilisation." The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's (RSS) emphasis on physical training and discipline, since the days of 'Guru' Golwalkar, is continuing. The strategy, said Panikkar, "is not to create a healthy body but an aggressive body" in order t o confront the 'others' in society.

The RSS established its first school in 1942 - ironically the year in which the country was going through a democratic upsurge marked by the Quit India Movement; it now has a network of more than 20,000 schools and plans to start thousands more. Panikkar pointed out that schools, being the "locus of early education", are particularly vulnerable to the communal ideological onslaught. Towards this end, the Hindutva forces have developed a "parallel system" of education. Panikkar pointed out that the "rede fining" of Indian nationalism is an important part of the communal project. The attempt, made in a "clever fashion", aims to negate the character of Indian nationalism which grew out of the anti-imperialist struggle, and particularly in the form of the f ight against colonialism. Panikkar said that the Hindu right-wing calls this a "negative" concept of nationalism. Instead, its version of "positive" nationalism equates cultural nationalism with religion. "Religion and culture are complementary, never an identity." The controversy, he said, about the manner in which persons with RSS connections have moved into controlling positions in the major educational agenda-setting bodies like the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), the Indian Counc il of Historical Research (ICHR), the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT) and several others, has to be seen in the light of the sustained manner in which the communal project has been advanced over the years.

However, Panikkar went beyond the communal project of the Sangh Parivar. He integrated the role of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation ('LPG', in the language of the Left), into his discourse on the nature of the communal danger in India. He said that the middle class "already forms the social basis for communalism." Panikkar argued that the "privatisation and technologisation of education" have robbed education of its enlightening, uplifting and egalitarian qualities. This, he said, had als o undermined the tradition of liberal education with its emphasis on the social sciences. All this, he said, meant that the middle class would "comfortably cohabit with liberalisation and globalisation, despite the swadeshi rhetoric."

IN his welcome address, N. Ram, Editor, Frontline, who was vice-president of the SFI at the time of its formation in 1970 in Thiruvananthapuram, traced the history of the student movement in the region. The movement in India rose to its height in the last decade before Independence. The All India Students' Federation (AISF), formed in 1936, played an important role in the upsurge of popular patriotic protest in which students all over the country were an important part.

On August 19, 1936, delegates numbering 986 representing student organisations from all over the country gathered in Lucknow and decided to form the AISF. Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated the meeting, and Mohammad Ali Jinnah presided over it. M. Basavapunnia h, former Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was among the office-bearers elected at the session. Later, in December 1936, a meeting, presided over by Sarat Chandra Bose (brother of Subhas Chandra Bose), was held in Lahore whi ch adopted the constitution of the AISF. The demands raised at the Lahore session are interesting because they seem as relevant to the student community today as they were then. Compulsory primary education was a prime demand. There were also demands for the "removal of anti-national ideas from textbooks" and a ban on communal organisations among students. To defend the democratic rights of students, the AISF demanded that student unions be recognised by universities. In August 1937, the AISF organised a protest action in Lucknow involving about 15,000 students against the arrest of two students who were alleged to be in possession of "communist literature".

SPEAKING at the rally on the opening day, N. Sankariah, secretary of the Tamil Nadu State Committee of the CPI(M), said that the SFI had a rightful claim to the legacy of the AISF. Sankariah had been elected State secretary of the AISF's Madras Province in 1942.

Ram, who was also the chairman of the reception committee for the conference, outlined the five major problems facing the student community today. First, the danger of secessionism and the threat to national integrity, posed by religious fundamentalism, terrorism and extremist ideologies. This, he said, as symbolised by the recent hostage crisis, had brought civil society in the affected areas to its knees. The second danger, Ram said, lies in the challenge posed by "politically organised militant commu nalism" which threatens national "integrity and the basic character of the polity." The Hindu Rashtra ideology, he said, posed a "direct threat to secular democracy and all decent and progressive values" and threatened to undermine national unity and int egrity in the process.

The "deeply damaging features" of the caste system, which threatened to heighten social strife, represents a third challenge to the student community. Ram said that although the caste system has not remained static in its form, it exhibited "malignant du rability". The fourth issue, he said, comes from the need to work out a genuine federal system in India which respected the States' autonomy and their rights.

The "right-wing economic policies" that "erode or weaken economic sovereignty" represented the fifth danger facing the progressive student movement in India. Liberalisation and the process of globalisation have affected India's ability to "pursue its own economic path and policies without external intervention or tutelage". Moreover, these policies have "increased mass destitution and poverty". The economic policies pursued since 1991 have "taken a big toll on the educational front by promoting rampant commercialisation and privatisation of education, by distorting and debasing the atmosphere on the campus." As a result, he said that students and youth in the country face the prospect of unemployment and underemployment and what is sometimes called 'jo bless growth'.

The overhang of mass illiteracy, the fundamental problem of education in India, defined the context in which the conference took place. About half the Indian population is illiterate and the proportion of illiterate people is greater among the more disad vantaged - among women, the Scheduled Castes and Tribes and other marginalised groups. Seen in the global context, illiterate people in India account for half of all illiterate people in the world.

Speaking at a seminar organised on the sidelines of the conference, V.K. Ramachandran, Fellow at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR), near Mumbai, said that the universal enrolment of children in schools leading to ten years of sc hooling is an important condition for sustained social and economic transformation. Compulsory education would also be an important part of the strategy to abolish social evils like child labour. But he emphasised that universal and compulsory education cannot be achieved without public action. Ramachandran pointed out that literacy and education are valuable in their "intrinsic sense", insofar as they promote progressive changes in nutritional practices, demographic change and, in general, social trans formation.

Ramachandran was critical of those who argue that since the quality of public school education is poor, those outside school are not really missing much. "Schooling is better than no schooling," he argued. Although the need for quality education cannot b e overstated in a country where cattle sheds and grain stores serve as classrooms, he said, getting children to school, however badly run they may be, is the first step towards achieving a totally literate society.

Ramachandran said that the history of compulsory education legislation in India "is a history of an enormous fraud on the Indian people". Although legislation for compulsory education is on the statutes in Tamil Nadu, as notified more than a year ago, th e enabling structures to deliver educational services to students have not been put in place by the State. At the national level, although the United Front Government had introduced the Constitutional (83rd Amendment) Bill in 1996, enshrining elementary education as a Fundamental Right, the two Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition governments since then have not acted on it.

Ramachandran said that even in Kerala, educationally the most advanced State, it was necessary to introduce compulsory education. He said that by doing this Kerala would serve as a model to other States. Moreover, legislation with regard to compulsory ed ucation would result in the State making sure that marginal communities such as fisherfolk, tribal people and others would be completely covered by the educational network. Most important, legislation with regard to compulsory education in Kerala would s erve to prevent a regression in education at a time when it is coming under strain because of public disinvestment in the sector.

Professor Prabhat Patnaik, economist at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that the SFI "has occupied a strategic position in the fight for democracy and secularism". He described the BJP as "a midwife for rolling back democracy in India" and said tha t the struggles of the students should be tied to a struggle for the implementation of an alternative programme which included land reforms and poverty elimination.

In a session commemorating the 30th anniversary of the founding of the SFI, former leaders of the SFI who spoke, noted that the increase in membership from 1.25 lakhs in 1970 to 25 lakhs was a major achievement. They pointed out that the reach of the SFI had spread to almost all the States.

Biman Basu, founder-general secretary of the SFI and now Polit Bureau member of the CPI(M), said that his generation of students faced "a more advantageous situation in which we could mobilise students". He said that the "form of the student movement sho uld change, in keeping with the changed times."

C. Bhaskaran, founder-president of the SFI, now editor of Chintha Publishers, told Frontline that the SFI attracted students because it "had an intellectual approach to each and every problem in society". In the 1960s and the 1970s, students in In dia, as elsewhere in the world, were attracted to the major anti-imperialist struggles, symbolised by Vietnam and liberation movements across the world.

Prakash Karat, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and a former SFI president, said that the BJP was playing a subservient role to the U.S. He appealed to the SFI to mobilise large numbers of students to convey a "direct message" to President Clinton if and when he makes his planned visit to India.

Samik Lahiri, SFI general secretary, told Frontline that the commercialisation of education was assuming different forms. In the government-run schools, colleges and technical institutions in many parts of the country, basic facilities such as lab oratories and even the syllabi are not being upgraded. This, Samik Lahiri pointed out, represents the withdrawal of the state from the field of education, a process by which the state is vacating the space for private enterprise in education. Even as thi s is happening, private institutions, particularly in southern India, are emerging to take advantage of the situation. Many of the private institutions are becoming "centres of corruption, nepotism and undemocratic practices".

Lahiri said that the SFI, as the largest student organisation in the world outside China, had to take on the task of fighting the commercialisation of education. He said that the frequent attacks on democratic rights on campuses is exemplified by the wid espread practice of not allowing student union elections or even those to the Senates and Syndicates of many universities.