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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 10, February 28, 2015

Saffronisation of Education: Questioning The Legitimacy Of An Education That Is Partial

Sunday 1 March 2015

by Vikash Sharma and Ananya Pathak

The debate on the secularisation of education has been one that has being going on for a long time, the need to free education from the clutches of religious dogma or fundamentalist tendencies is not a new one. In fact, it can be stretched back to the enlightenment era in the Western world, where the need to free education from the domination of the church and a movement towards the rational, scientific temper as opposed to a dogmatic, orthodox orientation towards life began to be more emphasised. A similar struggle was generated in India during the social reformation of the late 18th and early 19th century against superstitions, idol worship, caste discrimination and other varied forms of religious orthodoxy, to speak of a new kind of knowledge transmission and dissemination of a wisdom that was more cosmopolitan and universalistic in its values. Thus, it is not the first time that we are talking about the need to free education from the oppressive shackles of religious chauvinism or to democratise education based on universalistic rather than dogmatic principles.

It could be argued that the need to fight for this cause has become even more urgent in the context that India finds itself today. The politics of power, and the game of religious indoctrination has coloured the contour of education and pedagogic expression into the shades of narrow mechanistic religious fanaticism (madness) which, far from liberating one from medieval patterns of altruistic chauvinism, ties one even deeply into them; thus people are unable to learn or appreciate values that are humanitarian, cosmopolitan and universalistic. Therefore, the time is appropriate to engage in an honest and critical debate and relocate the significance of those like Paulo Freire or John Dewey who were important proponents of education that was democratic and liberating, rather than narrow and paternalistic.

We are well aware of the fact that education has continued to be a domain that has been seen as one that is of critical importance in the shaping and moulding of the social structure and shaping what is called people’s consciousness. It is because of this reason that, throughout the centuries, social forces that have sought to create a far-reaching impact have targeted education as a domain that could be utilised to attain this goal. So, from the culture of commercialisation to religious indoctrination, all have tended to target the domain of education to reach an extensive audience and leave a deep impact. Today, within our own socio-political order we can see how the state is using the machinery of education to propagate a certain set of religious values which it (the state) assumes are right; this in turn is being used by the state to frame political decisions which are subsequently underlined with a religious ink rather than a cosmopolitan one. In other words, when religion tends to overarch or predominate the realm of education, it becomes impossible to spread ideas of universal goodwill and peace in society because society tends to get automatically inclined towards one set of religious practices and ideas, which the state propagates as superior or powerful.

In a nation that has witnessed the trauma of partition and the anguish of religious violence along with a massacre that killed innocent people in the name of religion, secularism and religious toleration as ideals shall be the most cherished and respected. But in a political climate like ours, where we are once again falling prey to a religious orthodoxy that sees the world with the prism of hatred, how is it possible to retain a secularist tradition?

 The baggage of religious identity in curriculum is indeed a heavy one. It is one that is not only creating an invisible wall in society but also leading to unanswered questions that are weakening the very fabric of our social structure. On one hand we have cherished India as a land of river-like flow where the civilisational ethos has been enriched by ideas from not only natives but also from settlers from lands near and far; yet on the other hand this very cosmopolitan and open character of India is being challenged by a fundamentalist politics that is narrow, self-centric and immensely ghettoised. Together all this is leading our secularism towards a path that is uncertain, unsure and ambiguous. This is destroying the cultural ideal of national secularism and constructing a society that is closed, chauvinistic and against the values of universalism.

 The inclusion of ‘saffron texts’ in the school curriculum will have its own impact on the minds of children making them think in ways that are communal rather than secular or cosmopolitan. Look at its damaging impact on the child’s consciousness. I asked a child whether he saw any problem with the incidence of the abolition of the Babri Masjid and the resultant communal violence, provoking him to think how this was essentially opposed to our constitutional ideal of secularism. Much to my surprise, far from being disturbed at the thought of the tragic course of events, in a very unapologetic manner, he said: “Being Hindus we should not compromise over Ayodhya, as this is the janmabhoomi of Lord Ram. So what the Hindus did was justified. How could we extend a hand of friendship towards those who seek to encroach on our holy land? So how can we imagine an integration between the Hindus and Muslims? It’s impossible.”

It is a paradox how people, even before under-standing the essence of religion are prepared to kill or die for it. This has lead to a tendency for communal violence and hatred among adults and children alike who, in the absence of the light of true knowledge, confuse between genuine religiosity and religious fundamentalism. This is what saffron politics has done to our society and today saffronisation has deprived education of its true purpose and is destroying the real essence of learning. Recently, the government has introduced the new curriculum for school textbooks, alleging that the previous framework was faulty and problematic because it had asserted a secular heritage and neglected the spiritual inclination of India as a nation. It was also said that the previously lost balance could only be regained by introducing religious education (value education). What is extremely sad is that today what is being understood in the name of spiritual education is only a narrow, fundamentalist view of Indian heritage explicitly based upon the Hindu religion. This new trend in the educational structure is emphasising this paradox instead of evolving a new system of pedagogic exchange based on the humanitarian ideas of peace and brotherhood despite cultural and religious boundaries.

We would like to argue that there is an urgent need to understand that education is not an individual’s monopoly or a religious belief, education in its deepest essence creates the bridge between the self and the world; therefore it is impossible that true education be narrow or confined to the affinities of a particular religious group. Therefore, the curriculum should be structured so that it enables the child to grow in a manner that is holistic and universalistic, education should be such that it should not restrict the child in the development of her/his consciousness and enable her/him to explore her/his horizons. Children are more close to nature, they explore and learn, and in this process, they build a relationship with both nature and society. It is by giving our children this vast realm of exposure that we can hope to build a society that is open to both difference and dialogue.

That is why it needs to be asserted that ‘secularisation’ doesn’t mean the denial of the finest creations that have emerged because of spiritual inspiration. Nor does it mean, another superstition in the name of ‘science’ and ‘technology’. What it means is openness—a mind that invites, includes, and embraces.

We must allow our children to grow up in an environment of open exchange, where humanity matters before creed or caste, where brotherhood comes before religious fanaticism. How can we cage our children into knowledge systems that are oppressive, closed and restricted? How could we not encourage our children to listen to the great music of Mozart who bound together the finite and the infinite, to know about Sufi mysticism which spoke of transcending all artificial boundaries, the struggle of Galileo Galilei who fought against the church to stand for the cause of freeing education from all sorts of fatalistic religious practices, or the benevolence of Jesus Christ who asked us to be humble enough to even forgive those who cause us pain. And, how can we forget those numerous great people who have struggled hard to nourish our humanity, and through their works of poetry, art, music, writing or other mediums of expression reminded us of the triviality of man-made boundaries, telling us again and again to liberate ourselves from all sorts of contradictions.

That is why we believe that knowledge can’t be partial. It cannot teach the child a lesson on liberty and tell the child to remain tied in chains! By approaching the right kind of education, curricula should be designed to help the child to understand things more deeply and also to help her/him move on the right path, developing cosmopolitan values and a universalistic outlook towards life. This is the only way in which we can illuminate our destiny, and bring light to the dark chambers of religious fundamentalism.

Vikash Sharma and Ananya Pathak are working in the field of education, and bring out The New Leaf, a magazine on education, aesthetics and imagination.