The imperative of decolonizing Indian education

The imperative of decolonizing Indian education

Seemingly mindless Hindi movies often drop, albeit unknowingly, pearls of wisdom and offer insights into the working of society. While watching one such experiment titled Yamla, Pagla, Deewana, I came across a typical sardarji character, an aspiring politician named Joginder Singh (played to perfection by Anupam Kher) looking for a Canada based NRI to marry his sister, who will not only keep his sister happy, but more importantly can boost his own fluctuating political career. In a meeting between the prospective bridegroom Paramvir Singh (played by Sunny Deol) and Joginder, the latter tries to convince Paramvir to join him in a political rally the next day and assure the public that he will use his contacts to obtain Canadian visa for one member from each family. Joginder pacifies a visibly agitated and mystified Paramvir saying that all he is required to do is speak something/anything in English and that will give Joginder an edge over his rival. Hearing his prospective brother-in-law speaking in English, people will see the politician as a mythical hero with power and authority: ‘Hamare India me na, jab koi angrezi me baat karta he, log samajhte hain ki o sab sachi bata raha he’ (In India, when one speaks in English, people believe that he is telling the truth).

What happens in the rally is even more incredible. After being invited to the stage to promise Canadian visa to those present, Paramvir decides to expose the politician and declares that he cannot guarantee any visa to anybody and that he is not authorized to do so. The only problem is that he does so in English, and in the chaos of clapping and sloganeering the people only hear the words they were waiting for, i.e. visa and imagine that Paramvir is promising the same. They start chanting ‘visa’ ‘visa’ thereby confirming Joginder’s earlier claim that English carries truth.

The story has implications for our contemporary academic architecture that betrays similar domination of one discourse over another. The presumably honest Paramvir is the well-meaning young academic who thinks he can use English to expose falsehood, but naïve enough not to understand its inbuilt associations of power and truth, thanks to our colonial mentality. Joginder is like our academic administrator, Chairman of some research forum/funding agency or an established academic who exactly knows how to use this language and coopt contrarian voices to advance his ideology. The villagers represent the innocent, gullible students or even naïve teachers/researchers who get lured to the discourse thinking it to be liberating but in the process are forced to sacrifice their agency to be counted as scholars/academics.

Education as site of colonial domination

The successful ascription and investment of truth into Western discourse through English language was the strategy of the colonial administration to create mimic men. Readers know the origin of English education in India and the negative image of India as imagined by Macaulay’s Minutes and his conviction that Hindus have false history, false astronomy, false medicine and false religion. One would expect the reversal of this logic after independence or a revival of indigenous knowledge systems and ways of knowing (with reasonable modifications). Unfortunately that did not happen; our postcolonial education continued with colonialist reason that Hindus and Indians have a false religion, which will crumble anytime under its own contradictions. Though we have heard ad nauseam that colonial hangover pervades judiciary, police, administrative services etc., very few have questioned or even engaged with the colonial legacies of Indian education (most pronounced in humanities and social sciences). The reason for this absence is not difficult to find. Academics, scholars and intelligentsia are the ones who generally question and expose this colonial hangover. They are paid to do this and have the training to produce knowledge in terms of papers, books, and articles or through teaching. Often this exercise is carried out through academic cartels and coteries.

After independence, Nehru was the colossus and his world-view contributed to this slavish mentality in no small measure. Based on Nehru’s notorious idea that ‘there is only one way traffic in time’, our post-independence academic apparatus was designed to advance the idea that there is no glory in Indian past, that we should constantly strive to move forward and that we must consciously denigrate everything India stood for. Nehruvian understanding of society left no room for any organic engagement with India’s traditions; rather it created a complex of academics, intellectuals, publishing houses and funding agencies who in the name of advancing knowledge demonized Indian cultural values. It is a shame that even today the home page of University Grants Commission (UGC) traces its origin to colonialism and asserts its continuity: “The present system of higher education dates back to Mountstuart Elphinstone`s minutes of 1823, which stressed on the need for establishing schools for teaching English and the European sciences. Later, Lord Macaulay, in his minutes of 1835, advocated ‘efforts to make natives of the country thoroughly good English scholars’ ”.

It is very demeaning that modern independent India fondly traces its roots to Elphinstone who had argued that “Divide et impera (divide and rule) was the old Roman motto and it should be ours”. Similarly, in a letter to his father Macaulay had boasted, “No Hindoo, who has received an English education, ever remains sincerely attached to his religion… It is my firm belief that, if our plans of education are followed up, there will not be a single idolator among the respectable classes in Bengal thirty years hence…I heartily rejoice in the prospect.” What is striking is that English (and by extension the colonizing West) was not just any other language or geography, but a carrier of power, science, modernity, progress, development, innovation etc. For mimic men, English language and its reference point Europe was the repository of everything futuristic that can create a brave new world of opportunities and material salvation.

This establishes that Indian education (through UGC as its gate-keeper) is not only a derivative institution, but a slavish one too and self-deprecating as well. At a local level, it was the Nehruvian objective such as ‘national integration, social justice, secularism, the democratic way of life, international understanding and a scientific approach to the problems of society’ which offered Jawaharlal Nehru University its philosophical foundation. There was no room for India’s cultural and spiritual values because that would have meant an India that existed as a cultural and spiritual entity before colonialism, something which Nehru did not believe in.

Colonial residues in contemporary education

 Why is it that independence did not bring any break with colonial tradition or made any attempt to interrogate colonial residues in education that not so long ago aimed at controlling Indian mind and harvesting Indians’ souls? Why do we still continue to produce knowledge on Indian society and culture that will make Macaulay pat his own back (let peace be upon him)? Why didn’t the knowledge producing institutions such as universities and research centers evaluate their relevance in contemporary times? Why did they continue replicating colonial stereotypes of Indians being a divided people or Hindus being petty minded, and went lengths to fund research that cast India as the background of civilization? Also why did they revel in representing India as caste-ridden, unredeemably patriarchal and perennially divided by language, ethnicity and religion, something missionaries and colonial administrators had done earlier to divide and rule?

Perhaps this is due to what may be called internal colonialism or what Prof. Balagangadhara calls ‘colonial consciousness’, which makes Indian education no different from colonial objectives. If colonialism brought about a way of talking about Indian culture framed through caste, gender violence etc., our postcolonial academics did not attempt to transcend that pit fall and instead replicated the same. This is not to say that Indians before colonialism were living in a Golden Age or that India was Edenic in charm. But it was not a fit case for a dystopia either, as our eminent historians make us believe. Though life before colonialism was temporal and subject to vagaries of time as well as cultural encounters, it had not become the entry condition for knowledge.

The Kothari commission report emphasized the need for the economic and cultural development of the country, but unfortunately added that all this will be directed to realize a socialist pattern of society. Later, those who controlled academic institutions such as Nurul Hasan (trained in School of Oriental and African Studies which may have made him internalize Orientalism) mentored generations of ideologically driven academics such as Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar and many more. It was Hasan who founded Indian Council of Historical Research and Indian Council of Social Science Research, which became the source of institutional knowledge as well as legitimacy.

These historians established that total control over people comes not by prescribing the future, but by controlling the past. Left historians and other intellectuals successfully created an idea of independent India that is a vulgar replica of European nation-states, and where the majority community must be subjected to shame. It is no surprise that some such historians were card-carrying members of various Left parties and drew their academic objectivity from that ideology. Arun Shourie has taken pains (in his book Eminent Historians) to explain the machinations of these historians to represent India as a mere geographical expression and how millions of rupees were spent to produce a negative picture of India. But the positive development is that the report of National Policy on Education 2016 reiterates the role of education “in inculcating values, and to provide skills and competencies for the citizens” and “enabling our children and youth to become world citizens, with their roots deeply embedded in Indian culture and traditions.” This is a welcome change, but the new emphasis involves decades of investment in identifying and grooming scholars who will dedicate themselves towards this mission.

How to decolonize education?

Coming out of the old framework is not easy, but not impossible. First, it involves an acknowledgement that our cultural narratives, to the extent possible, must be independent of colonial categories. Prof. Balagangadhara is bang on when he says this can be realized when one knows what is preventing him to know what he is or what India is. This epistemic violence (Western frameworks mediating our understanding) must not be fought with physical violence; it has to be pedagogical where arguments will be made on the basis of facts and viable premises rather than by truisms; this should also involve the openness for new evidence rather than fossilized catch phrases of yester years. Secondly, these facts should be interpreted in light of the contemporary vision of India and what a historical event means in the present time; that will make knowledge production democratic and engender an openness to encourage commoners to be inscribed as subjects of history. This rewriting is an integral part of writing history, as pointed out by the current ICHR Chairman Arvind Jamkhedkar, because every writing and research emerges on the platform of existing knowledge.

That does not mean throwing facts to the wind, but inhaling new life to those facts so as not to alienate a majority chunk of our people, nor gloss over specific violent periods so as not to offend a particular community. This becomes very crucial particularly in the field of history, which in independent India has been used only to advance both academic and political careers. This does not mean an unqualified return to our past, something which is definitionally unknowable; so multiple narratives must be allowed to flourish and be accorded due respect. The authoritative discourse as in India’s research complex, like English language in the beginning of this essay, and its truth claims must be vetted against new vernacular narratives. Those vernacular narratives have a logic of their own and make tremendous sense to real people (if not academics) and these centrifugal forces must be encouraged.

Michel Danino offers an interesting metaphor when he compares Hinduism to a big ancient banyan tree, which has some deadwood owing to thousand years of its journey but still has the capacity to nourish us. Our education should help us reimagine ourselves and our place vis-à-vis that much-derided, yet comfort giving banyan tree, because its roots are still strong and can provide shade to millions. We don’t have to be uncritical apologists for a pure Indian past, but we don’t have to be ashamed of it either. Academics would do well to recognize that the knowledges they produce about people are constructs the same way they dismiss everything as constructs. It is not too difficult to understand that society and people are not mere data; they have a vibrancy and life autonomous of what academics think.

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Jyotirmaya Tripathy

Jyotirmaya Tripathy is Professor in the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras.