The Oxford dictionary defines education as, “a process of teaching, training, and learning, especially in schools or colleges, to improve knowledge and develop skills.” . The gurukul is envisaged as “a place where students live together as equals, regardless of their social standing at birth to create an environment and share a vision that helps them grow spiritually and mentally.” Legally, Article 21A of the Indian Constitution, provides for the right to free and compulsory education for children from 6 to 14 years of age, under the Right to Education Act (RTE) (2009) to ensure that children attend and remain in school. “No discrimination should be allowed in schools with respect to caste, creed, religion, financial or social status” . It also sets a vision and blueprint for schools, universities and educational institutions to become spaces where students understand innumerable social hierarchies, injustices and inequalities and learn to address them.
Education prepares individuals to build communities, society and the nation with values enshrined in the Constitution. An educated society is better able to critically think, understand, make informed choices and decisions while being cognizant of the consequences of their actions as individuals and as a society. Cognitive, physical, social and emotional skills which develop maximally during school years, are not just required for a child to excel academically but also as social beings. Children are highly influenced by their environment at home, educational institutions and community at large, and as educators, we must understand that without investing in good quality and accessible education for all children, the economic and social advancement of the state and country will be undermined.
Educational institutions in the country have an enormous responsibility on their shoulders not only to prepare students to understand social issues, but also to find ways to address and overcome these. One may argue that there is no need for someone who is going to become a doctor or engineer or scientist to understand issues of social or humanitarian concern, but any of these professions detached from a human perspective are necessarily mechanical and incomplete. A student who doesn’t understand social structures cannot function as an informed being in a country that is rife with inequalities.
Tragically, in Karnataka, educational spaces have become the hub of hate politics.
The hijab issue has excluded many Muslim girls from the educational system. Evidence shows that the higher women are educated, the more likely they are to delay the age of marriage and age of having children. Children have better life outcomes, lesser disease, lesser deaths, lesser malnutrition the more their mothers are educated. Education of women should be our priority and the state should flex its enormous power to bring in more and more girls into the educational system. By bringing in the hijab with only the intent of targeting the Muslim community, the state has done a great disservice to the girls of our state. It has also pushed the state away from improving its own development indicators. This shows a lack of vision or even statesmanship.
Even before the pandemic, there was much that could have been done to improve the public education system, whether it was infrastructure, potable water, safe toilets, availability of sanitary napkins, the teacher-student ratio, the mid-day meal scheme, scholarships etc. Children in government schools have been struggling with less than adequate resources at all levels. The pandemic further shot the issue into crisis. By the government’s own data, which could very well be an underestimation, of the 46,000 children who dropped out of school during the pandemic, only 35% have rejoined school. The mid-day meal is often the only decent meal that many children may have, and even this has been bombarded with ideology and corruption. Very often the meal is not even edible and this is a gross violation of children’s right to nutrition.
Targeted attacks on Christian educational institutions under the farce of the Karnataka Right to Freedom of Religion OrdinanceBill or the Anti-conversion Bill 2021 have to concern all of us. Using clever terminology such as ‘forced conversions’ and ‘allurements’, this Ordinance ‘bulldozes’ its way through the Rule of law and lays the door wide open for attacks on the Christian community in the state. The clear agenda is to push this community into a corner such that they are fearful of carrying out what has been their charitable work over decades, specifically in the health and education sectors. Employment and free education in reputed schools run by religious bodies now come under the tag of ‘allurement’ and directly impinge on Constitutional rights envisaged in Article 25. If fear of targeting by an openly discriminatory State pushes charitable religious institutions to withdraw from offering subsidised education, it is some of the most vulnerable communities in the state that will take the hit. Whether this is by design or by oversight should be left for citizens of the state to analyze and interpret.
In the wake of the pandemic, online education suddenly became the new mantra. The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 is premised on an ideological and corporate dream. Online education was declared as the ‘core of the education policy’ enabling India’s education to reach ‘global standards’. What it did in reality is to show up the looming distances not just technologically, but socially and economically between children who could access education through a button, and those for whom education became an even more distant dream. Real life experience shows that children need interactions with their teachers and that the digital divide is not a figment of imagination. It is real and it cannot be pushed under the carpet as though it is of no consequence. Most of the children who face exclusions because of online classes are the same ones whose families and communities have traditionally faced discrimination in the Indian society. The irony should not be lost on us that girls who were being excluded in Karnataka for wearing the hijab were not even offered these same online classes !! So much for online education being the ‘core of the education policy” !!
The NEP has foregrounded brahmanical traditions and texts while the rest have been left out. This ideological agenda is again very visible in the way textbooks have been urgently ‘revised’ in Karnataka. One would only wish that the government had shown similar urgency to improve the infrastructure, mid-day meals, and basic amenities in government schools. While schools continue to languish, textbooks have now become the new tool of radical indoctrination.
Dalit writers who have critiqued age old gender, caste and communal social evils, have been summarily dismissed from the Karnataka textbooks in what can only be seen as an assault on our Constitution which offers a legal framework to challenge these very inequities. Like a bad surgery, crucial parts have been chopped off from the textbooks. 27 dalit writers have now been replaced with lessons mostly written by brahmins. Mudnakudu Chinnaswamy’s anti-caste writing, Bolwar Mahammad Kunhi’s clarifications on Islam, Chennanna Walikar’s poem dedicated to Dr. BR Ambedkar, Malathi Pattanshetty’s articulation against social injustice, Dr. HS Anumapa’s essay on Savitribai Phule, a lesson on Gandhi’s early days in the Freedom struggle and many other progressive writings have been removed. The landmark ‘Ambedkar Maththu Avara Sudharanegalu’ (Ambedkar and his reforms) from a Class 7 Social science text book has been erased as also a lesson on women freedom fighters. A chapter on Savarkar replaces a lesson on social equality and Jawaharlal’s letter to his daughter has been replaced by a mythological play. Historical lessons have now been replaced by the Vedas and the Mahabharatha, India’s map has been distorted and chapters on human rights, social movements and social issues have been discarded. Importantly, credit for the Constitution to Dr. BR Ambedkar has been removed. RSS leaders are now being inserted into textbooks as our heroes.
It is important to understand these changes for the intent that they come with. The question that we need to ask ourselves is whether these changes reflect how our society has been and more importantly, do they offer a beacon for our children to reach higher moral, ethical and humane standards? History holds a mirror to us as a society. It reminds us of the beauty of our past but also the cruelty, the dogma, the evils. Do our textbooks teach our children to be honest and humble about our history, so that we learn and do not repeat mistakes from the past, or have textbooks now become a tool to instigate hatred and discriminatory thoughts in our children? Manipulating history with an agenda of misinformation is a great disservice we do to our children. We teach them also that lying, manipulating, misrepresenting is okay if there is an agenda driving it. We teach them that if we want to hate one community, we can build false stories about that community and that we need not be honest or truthful to our own past.
The textbooks being introduced in Karnataka in their current form, go against the Constitution that many of us struggle to uphold. We will continue the struggle, but we need parents, academicians, activists, educationalists and other concerned citizens, even students themselves, to stand up for basic principles of justice, equality and fraternity that is enshrined in our Constitution. The Karnataka textbook revision committee has drawn criticism for its lack of representation and for favoring party loyalists.
Ironically, while caste is being erased from the textbooks, there have been serious implementation gaps in the post-matric scholarship in Karnataka, intended to keep dalit students within the education system. The scheme in Karnataka has been plagued by delays in disbursement with students from rural areas being particularly affected. Till January 2022, no scholarship for the expected 3.6 lakh applicants had been disbursed. By March 31st, of the 3.39 lakh scholarship applications received, only 2.3 lakh had been sanctioned. The delays cause undue stress on students and their families, with pressure from colleges to pay fees in the interim period and definitely dropping out of of dalit students from the educational system.
The effects of the current destabilisation of the education system will be felt several years in future and it will be hard to undo the damages caused. Youth who have not had access to education are less likely to have satisfied jobs and this can contribute to increased mental health issues, substance abuse, violence, and overall affect the ability of a society to grow.
Let us resist this attempt to convert our educational institutions into hotbeds of hatred, discrimination and divisiveness. The educational spaces should not become laboratories for ideological and political experiments by vested interests. We need to protect these spaces to offer knowledge to our children, provide analytical skills, social engagements and values to promote co-existence, fraternity and mutual respect. As educators and policy makers, our single minded focus should be on creating the highest quality of education to all our children and youth irrespective of their social, religious or economic background. Our children have to be educated enough to seek the best possible employment, both nationally and internationally, while being ethical, thoughtful and socially conscious citizens who work for their own development but also that of their families, society and country. For that we need to keep all kinds of politically and ideologically driven agenda out of our educational spaces.
An edited version of the article appeared in The Federal on 27th June 2022.
Jerald D’souza is Director of St. Joseph’s College of law and an advocate.