Beyond technology

Print edition : May 23, 2003

A class in progress at the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras. - K. GAJENDRAN

The Indian Institutes of Technology and Humanities and Social Sciences education in India.

THE founding of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) marked the extraordinary emphasis the Indian government and Indians placed on science and technology education. As we celebrate the success of the IITs in producing eminent technologists and industrialists, we should also realise that this success has not been achieved without significant social costs. The socio-economic changes in India over the past 50 or more years have tended to encourage bright Indian students to move into technological or professional fields such as science, engineering and medicine. Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) fields such as language, literature, history and social studies have been relegated to a residual role and often those unable to qualify for other courses end up in these areas. Indian society has suffered socially and politically and continues to suffer as a result. A well-rounded education with a significant emphasis on HSS is essential for progressive and liberal thinking to thrive in a society; the lack of it results in extremes of fundamentalism and caste and religious violence. While one section of Indians has a major presence on the Internet, others are carrying out acts of mass violence in the name of caste and religion.

The problems

While N. Chandrababu Naidu, the technology-focussed Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh is working hard to introduce e-governance in the State, it has been plagued by one of the worst violent anti-state movements in India. The State of Haryana is known for its many information technology (IT) companies serving customers of major U.S. corporations such as Citibank. At the same time, as has been documented in the media, Haryana has a bad human rights record and the downtrodden of the State are subject to oppression. However, Haryana is not alone in its socio-religious persecution. Last November, the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Ordinance effectively denied a fundamental right to its oppressed minorities. One should note that like Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, which Bill Gates visited in October 2002, Tamil Nadu also has invested heavily in IT. But, progress in technology seems to be accompanied by the denial of human rights as far as Indians are concerned!

Such a lack of social consciousness prevails not just in India. Religious fundamentalism, which was marginal among Indians two decades ago, now enjoys increasing support among the highly qualified Indian immigrants in the U.S. Kanwal Rekhi and Henry S. Rowen wrote in The Wall Street Journal on May 22, 2002: "Many overseas Indian Hindus - including some in this country - finance religious groups in India in the belief that the funds will be used to build temples, and educate and feed the poor of their faith. Many would be appalled to know that some recipients of their money are out to destroy minorities (Christians as well as Muslims) and their places of worship."

While Indian immigrants in the U.S. do not want to be treated as `outsiders', there are Indian fundamentalists who support a revision of Indian history that seeks to present the Hindu religion as entirely indigenous. On the other hand, Islam and Christianity are presented as imported religions and their adherents as `outsiders'. An important component of this effort is the attempt to show that the Indus Valley civilisation belonged to the same cultural milieu as the Vedic civilisation, which scholars believe had a different source of inspiration. Unfortunately, many people of Indian origin lacking the necessary Indological knowledge, especially young Indian immigrants and Indian-American youth, get taken in by the fundamentalist ideological view of Indian culture and history.

I can cite some examples of this overall deterioration in HSS knowledge among Indians. Some time ago, as a committee member of an Indian cultural organisation, I helped arrange a dance drama on Saivite saints performed by a well-known Bharatanatyam dancer. In the course of discussions related to the preparation of a brochure for the programme, this dancer, who had completed her doctoral dissertation on Indian classical dance, insisted that Manikkavasagar was one of the 63 Saivite saints whose life stories were depicted by the 12th century poet Sekkizhar in his work Periyapuranam. Any person with a rudimentary knowledge of Tamil literary and religious history would know that Manikkavasagar does not figure in Periyapuranam. But this dancer from an elite urban Brahmin background did not know this basic fact. I was surprised that the narrative portion of the programme included her view on Manikkavasagar but no one in India had corrected her even though she had performed that dance drama several times. Only after the dance drama had been scheduled, I came to realise that one of the aims of the performance was to show that the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes had always been part of `Hinduism'. Being able to read Periyapuranam and its commentaries, I know that this is, at best, a controversial proposition depending on how one defines Hinduism. But a person not having access to South Indian history or many Tamil works on this topic will be easily swayed by the dancer's distorted view of Indian social and religious history. That is a very unwholesome prospect.

Regarding the issues of religious conversion and treatment of the Scheduled Castes, one should note that the southern districts of Tamil Nadu have witnessed a surge in violent clashes between members of dominant non-Brahmin castes and the Scheduled Castes in recent years.

Last year, I met a young man in his twenties belonging to the dominant caste from one of those violence-prone districts. He said that he and his fellow caste members did not like Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. When I asked him the reason for this, he said that he did not like the prospect of electing a Scheduled Caste person as their representative since most of the residents of his constituency were not members of the Scheduled Caste but were forced to elect a Scheduled Caste person because the constituency was reserved to be represented by a Scheduled Caste person. According to him, Ambedkar was the one who created this policy. I pointed out to him that Ambedkar was not the one who imposed Scheduled Caste representatives on other castes. In fact, Ambedkar fought for separate electorates for the Scheduled Castes who would elect their own representatives. In 1932, it was Mahatma Gandhi who went on a "fast unto death" to oppose separate electorates, and forced Ambedkar to accept the precursor of today's reserved constituency system. In his book What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables, Ambedkar says: "I had to make a choice between two different alternatives. There was before me the duty, which I owed as a part of common humanity, to save Gandhi from sure death. There was before me the problem of saving for the Untouchables the political rights, which the Prime Minister had given them. I responded to the call of humanity and saved the life of Gandhi by agreeing to alter the Communal Award in a manner satisfactory to Mr. Gandhi. This agreement is known as the Poona Pact." Given the situation of disrespect shown to Ambedkar's statues and pictures by the dominant castes, often resulting in inter-caste violence, ignorance of basic historical facts such as the above often adds to misinformation that results in violence.

While ignorance of history caused the above misunderstanding, the following case illustrates what happens when knowledge of literature and social studies is deficient. A few months ago, I met a young village panchayat president belonging to a Scheduled Caste. His work in the villages based on the Gandhian approach had earned him well-deserved recognition. During my conversation with him, I learnt that many Scheduled Caste members of his acquaintance did not like the poet Subramanya Bharati. This was because in one of his songs, the poet says, "paraiyarukkum ingu tiyar pulaiyarukkum vidutalai", which was interpreted by them as "freedom for Paraiyas and Pulaiyas who are bad people." I explained to him that it was a very wrong interpretation of what Bharati really intended. The term `tiyar' did not mean `bad people' but referred to one of the oppressed castes in Kerala called Tiyyas and the correct interpretation of the line is "freedom for Paraiyas, Tiyyas, and Pulaiyas". Here was a misunderstanding based on ignorance of sociology and literature. Since Bharati was a Brahmin by birth, such a misunderstanding could have potentially led to a clash between members of the Scheduled Castes and Brahmins at some point in time. Needless to say, the panchayat president was very glad to know that Bharati was blameless in regard to this song.

The three instances I have outlined above, involving upper and lower castes as well as urban and rural backgrounds, show how ignorance of HSS creates a potential for caste and religious violence in India. Literacy in the Indian languages is a necessity if one wants Indians to be knowledgeable about Indian literature, society, history, and culture. But Indians' proficiency in Indian languages as well as HSS has been decreasing for decades.

When I joined IIT-Madras in 1970, I was one of the few students in my batch from a non-urban background. A large majority of my colleagues were from the big urban centres of India. The urban students were in general far more comfortable in an anglicised world than in a world of `vernacular' languages. But, at that time, even among the urban students, there were many who were literate in their native languages. But the situation today seems to be different even among the general urban student population. According to Dr. Aruna Sankaranarayanan, a Harvard-trained developmental psychologist and founder-director of Prayatna, Centre for Educational Assessment and Intervention in Bangalore and Chennai, Indian children in the metropolitan cities are literate in English but illiterate in their own mother-tongues. With the growth of English medium schools in the last 30 years even in small towns and villages, one can expect this malady to afflict even the non-urban areas.

As people become illiterate in their native languages, they also lose access to their own history and culture. They are divorced from their cultural heritage. As a result, the ignorance of Indian literature, history and culture among the qualified scientists and technologists from India is striking indeed. The contrast between the advances in technology achieved by Indians and the concomitant decline in their knowledge of HSS is best illustrated by a webpage of the Systems Development Laboratory of IIT-Madras, which is part of a website for teaching Sanskrit ( Whoever created the webpage does not seem to be familiar with the conclusions of historians and linguists regarding Sanskrit. For instance, the webpage supports the belief that Sanskrit is the oldest of all the languages in the world and derives the words nir in Tamil, niru in Telugu, denoting water, from the Sanskrit nira. But it is well-known that the languages in ancient Egypt and Sumeria have left behind written records far older than Rig Vedic Sanskrit. More important, all languages are ultimately traceable to the earliest humans in Africa. As for the Tamil nir, the Telugu niru and the Sanskrit nira, according to the Dravidian Etymological Dictionary as well as Etymologisches Wrterbuch des Altindoarischen, it was Sanskrit that was the borrower. Also, the author of the website does not seem to have realised that as early as the seventh century A.D., Tantravarttika, the work of the eminent Purva Mimamsaka Kumarila Bhatta, recognised the presence of foreign words in Sanskrit. Thus, the views presented at this website by elite Indian technologists reveal a disturbing lack of knowledge of HSS, which could be exploited by the forces of Hindu fundamentalism.

Ignorance of HSS is even worse among the rest of Indians, especially young Indians who do not have access to good schools and teachers. For more than a generation, many of the HSS teachers in Indian educational institutions have represented their cohort population's low performers left behind by their better-performing peers who had gravitated towards science and professional degrees. Students "educated" by such "intellectuals" are even less prepared as citizens of a democracy and unfortunately become teachers for the following generation, resulting in a downward spiral of quality in HSS education. Moreover, a "well-rounded" education is made even more `unnecessary' by the current demand for programmers and software engineers who until recently could get a job even without a formal college degree. As a result, among many younger Indians, there is a profound ignorance of HSS, which makes them ill-fit to be democratic citizens. In this informational vacuum, lies can be presented as facts, myths can be presented as history, and bigotry can be presented as justice. In an era of globalisation of human resources and information dissemination, the consequences are being felt not only in India but also in the United States. The IITs can play a role in remedying this problem.

What the IITs can do

The IITs should introduce a language test as part of the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE). In addition to mathematics, physics and chemistry, students should take a test in an Indian language of their choice. The student should be able to choose any one of the non-English literary languages of India recognised by the Union Public Service Commission. The standard of the test should be commensurate with 12 years of study. Currently, the JEE is conducted in two stages. Apparently, about 200,000 students take the first stage and approximately 20,000 qualify for the second stage. The language test can be included in any one of the stages. To normalise language scores across different languages, percentile scores in the individual language tests could be treated as marks in the language examination. If university faculty salary scales can be common across different languages, that is, the salary scale is the same for a Telugu lecturer or a Hindi lecturer irrespective of which M.A. was more academically demanding, normalisation across languages in the JEE can also be justified.

Clearly, this will make the JEE process more complicated in terms of logistics and security. But the benefits will far outweigh any additional administrative costs and, of course, if there is a will there will be a way. For instance, the announcement regarding the introduction of the language test can be publicised some years before implementation. This should give adequate time for aspiring students to prepare for the test. Since any Indian languages can be chosen, no language group will be put at a disadvantage. Adding a language requirement to the JEE is not an undue burden on students. After all, English once used to be a subject tested in the JEE.

What are the likely consequences of this new policy? First of all, the new policy will generate annually about 200,000 motivated students who would have mastered an equivalent of 12 years of study in Indian languages and achieved very high language proficiency. With this language proficiency they would become conversant with their own cultural heritage. Secondly, there will be a demand from all the JEE coaching schools for good teachers of all Indian languages. Similarly, all the schools catering to the IIT-aspiring students will improve the quality of their language teachers.

This will also provide teaching opportunities for some excellent language teachers who have retired from their regular college and high school jobs. As these institutions select good language teachers, the salary levels of language teachers will go up. This will encourage students who perform better to take up language studies also. As students compete in the entrance examination, the standard of the language tests will continue to rise.

Thirdly, as other scientific and technological institutions follow the lead of the IITs, one can expect an even wider dissemination of knowledge in HSS among Indians. In the longer term, as these students with high language proficiency and access to knowledge in different fields of HSS gain leadership roles in society, they will know enough to demand excellence from others engaged in jobs involving HSS. This in turn will result in better HSS students with better economic rewards. As a consequence of all this, Indian society will be able to address its socio-economic problems in a more democratic and peaceful way.

India's emphasis on technological progress has brought about a concomitant neglect of HSS education and has resulted in a society that is less humanistic and more violent. One of the ways of increasing HSS knowledge among Indians is to improve their proficiency in Indian languages. Introduction of Indian languages as a subject in the IIT entrance examination will have a beneficial cascading effect on the overall language proficiency of Indians. This will also lead to an improvement in the knowledge of HSS among Indians, leading to a more democratic India.

(An excerpt from an earlier version of this article was published in the IIT Golden Jubilee Souvenir, January 2003.)

S. Palaniappan is an alumnus of IIT-Madras and holds a Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania. He has written articles and presented papers on Indological topics.

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