Yet another rhetoric during the pandemic? This time, its arrival is with the approval of the NEP 2020 by the prime minister amid no parliamentary proceedings and political dialogue because of the outbreak of the coronavirus. For the government, this time is suitable precisely because the prevalent times leave no room for creative criticism. From the shocking proclamation of demonetisation to the complete countrywide lockdown in the pandemic time, the public at large was left to trust and accept with little agency or voice.
The media has created an image that the current prime minister, in contrast to his predecessors can speak directly and convincingly to the Indians who take his words as gospels. So far this government, journalist Shekhar Gupta argues, ‘neither promised nor delivered to their gospel believers.’ As the corporate media houses selectively forecast what the government desires, they are devoid of criticality. Therefore, one thing the present dispensation speaks in public is completely different from what it does. The unintended consequences of its fractured governance inflicting social sufferings are among the least of concerns for this dispensation. For them, every dissenter is an anti-national being charged with false allegations to clamp down on any form of criticism. It has further created a smog of fear amid the public. This specific political predicament of the governance and its disastrous impact on the governed is quite risky to Indian democracy and it appeals for fundamental reflection.
One of the rhetorics that was loosely included in the educational policy and extensively circulated for public discourse has been ‘critical thinking’. My attempt right here is not to repeat what is being written in the policy as is already in circulation. Instead to make sense of a context that narrates the techniques of power politics being consciously silenced through the policy text in education. The usage of texts is primarily to express ideas publicly, visibly and make them communicative. But below the text, not only it belies but also suppresses and silences voices which are otherwise useful for a meaningful critical analysis.
The Context of Claims
Given the reality that no policy is written on a clean slate, the latest educational policy claims to be reclaiming the educational landscape afresh and replacing the previous ones. But many factors have been corroborated from the past texts if one archives India’s educational documents. One need not be surprised if anyone denounces it as plagiarism of ideas because the previous regime keeps levelling against the current ruling party on the same coin. To be fair, there is no harm in re-reading the previous policies.The political motivation to force the Indian tradition put us in the reverse gear on whatever we achieved as a secular, democratic republic unless they have been taken the task of critical scrutiny. It is a common-sense idea that the educational progress is incremental at least the agencies and institutions involved in the process of studying and teaching. A similar assumption may not prove wrong for those wishes to engage in education as a field of investigation. It does not mean that progressive or radical ideas should not be incorporated into the policy discourses, for instance declaring elementary education as a fundamental right after a prolonged struggle waged by the social movements, civil society and advocacy groups. Similarly, the academic opportunities for the socially and economically disadvantaged sections via affirmative action policies had been radical steps. These political interventions to a large extent have taken education in the direction of further democratisation.
After seven decades of independence, there is a tremendous progress of education at many levels. The growth of institutions and access to educational avenues and academic engagement in many fields have contributed to the advancement of human capabilities. Despite the massive educational avenues, many issues particularly public provision of quality education and huge educational disparities remain unaddressed as the policymakers by and large disinterested to make a genuine effort. Had we paid due attention in time; the same problems would no have fallen back in the ordering of new policies. In other words, it is the failure of the policymakers, educationists and practitioners to understand what they have committed for. Instead of blaming the policy documents per se, we ask these organizations and groups whose intention, political commitment and involvement to realise the educational goals have earlier been established. Moreover, what are the necessary conditions laid out to achieve educational objectives particularly to channelize resource for teaching the citizens in the first place?
Policy and the Discursive Regime of Power
The policy domains have been frequently used as a weapon of the ruling party to control the centre of power. In doing so, it dismisses those who are subjected to the effects of such policies. It is the discursive power held with the authoritarian state that dictates, repeats, avoids and silences based son what would be appropriate for the public in the name of democracy. From time to time, the ruling regime has deviated from the democratic ethos and the political commitment to serve for its vested interests or to legitimise its slender ideology to garner populist politics with the aid of corporate media. Misusing the power of the state is not an exception any more for these groups to divert the real intent of the policy which eventually destroy our academic institutions.
Unjustifiable political patronage given to private educational providers accelerated the process of privatisation on account of quality outcomes as a symbol of development and progress. From the very beginning, it was the private sector that cornered the image of a quality education when compared to the public-funded institutions. Gradual withdrawal of state funding in public education led to the motivation of private funding and commercialisation of education. With the introduction of the Neo-liberal policy in the 1990s, ‘quality’ was more pronounced as a key issue raised from the market.
The elite construction of quality of education as a meritorious good defamed the image of deprived sections as worthless. In addition to quality and merit, the current policy talks of competency to set the global agenda in education. Annexing regulatory bodies to distribute autonomy and thereby improving the quality of education will end up bureaucratisation and take away whatever autonomy and freedom are left with the academic community. At a time when the drivers of the world market shape public policy, the state has increasingly become powerless to protect its national interest and citizens’ rights. This challenges the very notion of education as a public good aided by the state-funded institutions.
It is erroneous to shy away from the learnings of one’s tradition and at the same time adopt meaningful ideas from elsewhere. With the advancement of information and communication technology, there are global conversations and exchange of ideas for mutual learning and co-production of knowledge. But the danger here is the blind conception of a singular culture/tradition and a deliberate attempt to homogenise the heterogeneous ideas, thinking and lifestyles, destroying the very fragrance of unity in diversity. Structural inequality and new forms of discrimination rooted in the caste system would also explain the existence of the tradition. With a parochial attitude and world view, the mythical tradition produces disaster consequences on the progressive agenda of development. There are two structural factors which keep constraining the discourse in the current educational policies: the uncritical acceptance of old tradition as a holistic educational knowledge on the one side and uncritical import of the idea of ‘global knowledge superpower’.
Ideally speaking, educating and learning, especially on what to educate and how to teach the nation, have been the most important subjects for the academic community. The outbreak of the pandemic has disrupted teaching and learning which has led to a new crisis in education. With no sympathy for human suffering, the authorities have arbitrarily dictated themselves to online classes, reduction of curriculum, mode of evaluation and academic time. Moreover, to avoid the overload of online classes the authorities have selectively excluded concepts such as democracy, citizenship, secularism, federalism social actions from the course content.
When the new educational policy intentionally avoided to discussing the secular ideas of India, it became clear that the pandemic was used as the right time for censorship. Nothing is surprising about the fact that the ideological apparatus of this regime is obsessed with the foundational values in the preamble of our constitution from its inception. In reality, excessive usage of political power undermined the autonomy and freedom of the academic community to layout the curriculum and pedagogy. No wonder, the right-wing forces have already knocked the doors of the supreme court to sensor the word secularism from the constitution as it does not fit with its ideological apparatus.
Education has made gradual political awareness amongst the citizens as well as freedom of political choices which contributes to the strengthening of our democracy. As a result, Indian democracy has tested different political parties and varieties of leadership in electoral politics since independence. Similarly, the political parties from time to time gasped the real trial of democracy too. I am of the view that unless an elected government hold the credibility with clarity of thought and sincere efforts to demonstrate a good governance, it is hard to capture the imagination of the public on its policy agendas. While holding the power of the state, many parties lost their credibility to win their electorate on account of their mis-governance. But one would hardly find that they have undermined and subverted our democratic institutions except by the current dispensation. As a consequence, citizens have been made to suffocate and suffer.
To conclude, unless we open up our thought from the seductive forces of tradition, the interdisciplinary approach in education will remain a myth. Here starts the basis of critical thinking. Coupling of education and democracy is a minimum condition for the sustenance of human life, though it is extremely difficult to realise. Other than its pedagogic and functional requirement, education and its ideals are fundamentally associated with the democratic principles to conduct one’s own life with our fellow beings and to establish harmony with our immediate surroundings. Therefore, educational activities will be trivial if they were not guided by democratic principles. Individual autonomy and freedom of expression are crucial values embedded in democracy.
Education is to compassionately permit and allow these critical faculties to nourish through dialogue, negotiation and negation. Educating the state then becomes significant and meaningful to establish a political culture guided by democratic principles and constitutional methods. It would be a wakeup call for the policymakers and experts to keep the spirit of democracy alive and vibrant for the collective future.
Suresh Babu G.S. teaches at the Zakir Hussain Centre for Educational Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.