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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 21

Higher Education : Basic Problems

Wednesday 14 May 2008, by R M Pal


Towards a New Paradigm in Higher Education by Ashok Celly (ed.); Papaz Publication, Delhi; pp. 206; price: Rs 400.

Dr Celly has selected writings of well-known intellectuals and academics like Tagore, Professors Daya Krishna, S.C. Dube, P.C. Joshi etc. in this publication. It is a timely book in that not many thoughtful people, even academics, are taking the question of higher education and research in our country seriously. In spite of the Knowledge Commission, which has been set up by the Government of India, many bright students find it difficult to get admission in well-known centres of research and higher education like IITs and IIMs. How many people know that the admission ratio in Harvard University is 11 per cent, that is, 11 per cent of the applicants get admission in Harvard, but in India only 0.5 per cent of applicants get admission in the IITs. The only reason that the intelligentsia and educationists give is that it is because of the system of reservation. They won’t ever think of opening new institutions across the country. If the state does not have the funds why can’t we allow the private sector to open institutions of research and higher education? The government has rejected a similar recommendation made by its Knowledge Commission. Dr Celly does not deal with this question. The publication of this book, one hopes, will make those responsible for managing higher education and those who are genuinely interested in the spread of education and who believe that without the spread of education it is not possible to make a society modern nor even to make any economic progress, think on the subject.

This reader has been particularly struck by the neglect of reviving our Indian heritage, which will go a long way to make India modern. Let me quote a couple of such references.

Kautiliya’s Arthasastra is an important book not only for the students of Indian political thought—these intellectual milestones cannot be pigeonholed—it is also an important text for sociologists and historians. For one—the sort of political scenario it depicts is not very different from ours—intrigues, manipulation and the lust for power etc. This is the world of realpolitik par excellence. Also it recognises the primacy of the science of government in man’s societal existence. Furthermore, it provides the necessary antidote to the romantic scenario that the traditionalists like to conjure of the past when the king was a selfless, dedicated servant of the people in the manner of the hero of The Ramayana and seers and scholars are seen as engaged in the exalted pursuit of knowledge. In a word, Arthasastra, by idolising our past helps us to understand it better, recognise the links that exist between the past and the present. The irony is that while foreign scholars have recognised it as a significant political text, Indian scholars afraid to be labelled obscurantist (so much for our intellectual daring!) are reluctant to do so.

Richard Lannoy, known for his serious engagement with India’s culture, pays a glorious tribute to the originality of Kautiliya’s Arthasastra.
The daring originality of this difficult, complex work is unquestioned; the nature of its novel thinking is nevertheless firmly set within the large scheme of dharma. Kautiliya has been compared with Machiavelli in this respect; from the similarities and their differences much useful clarification can be obtained. The Arthasastra was written approximately 1800 years before the publication of The Prince ……
- (The Speaking Tree, p. 316)

Dr Celly also refers to another Indian classic, The Natya Shastra, which deals with Indian poetics a reading of which enables one to understand the intimate relationship in our culture between drama on the one hand and dance and music on the other. One would see that this classic is a very different kettle of fish from that of the West. To quote Prof Kantak who is equally at home with European and Sanskrit literature,

Firstly, there is a peculiar integration of music, poetry, dance and drama as in Bharat’s Natya Shastra. Dance and drama are indeed so close that the net word for drama ‘nata’ is supposed to be the Prakrit form of ‘nata’, meaning to dance.
- (Perspectives on Indian Literary Culture by V.Y. Kantak,
- Pencraft International, Delhi, 1996)

Shahnaz Hussain, the herbal queen, owes her spectacular success and international reputation entirely to Ayurveda as she herself admitted in an interview with The Times of India.

In the past 25 years I have been doing nothing but trying to reproduce in bottles and jars wisdom distilled from ancient Indian texts. Up till now we have produced 50 products all of whom have been sure-fire success, and all based on prescriptions given in Ayurveda. (The Times of India, November 11, 1998)

Dr Celly also refers to the Manusmriti (The Laws of Manu) in the context, as he writes, of our past, which lies buried in our classics. To read Manusmriti is to become aware of the roots of Hindu social structure, a reading of which will make us aware that there is nothing sacrosanct or eternal about the Hindu social structure, for at least women in the pre-Manu India enjoyed equality with men, and a Gargi or a Maitreyi could hold her own against the best male scholars of the land. As Lannoy observes in The Speaking Tree,

Pre-Manu India accorded women equality with men in the Vedic sacrifice. At that time women could become priests. There was no immolation of the widow on her husband’s funeral pyre (Sati) and widows were allowed to remarry. The Vedic age was more liberal in its attitude towards women than the long period following the composition of the laws of Manu, which became the canon laws of Hinduism.
- (The Speaking Tree, London, OUP, 1971, pp. 102-03)

THE above observations and the comments made by Dr Celly make it imperative that India must have a Renaissance movement like the one that Europe had, so that India too, by reviving and imbibing positive aspects of India’s past and burying the horrendous past, like the hierarchical system (which, according to M.N. Roy, is an ugly relic of the past), would become modern and prosperous and find a place in the comity of civilised nations. Obviously, this needs massive research and massive scholarship. M. N. Roy set up the Indian Renaissance Institute at Dehradun with the above aim in view but unfortunately he died before he could bring scholars and specialists on different subjects at the Renaissance Institute to start research. If you look around the higher education scenario in our country, we do not find any such attempt being made anywhere in the country. How many research institutes do we have where serious scholars could go and pursue research on subjects of their interest like history, Indian sociology, Indian politics etc.?

At this point I must make reference to another aspect and it is that (which, I may make it clear, does not form the subject matter of Dr Celly’s book but very relevant in the context of education) this reader was greatly surprised to note that none of the intellectuals and academics referred to above, who have written on higher education in India, make even a pale reference to the fact that the vast majority of people in India remain illiterate even after 60 years of independence. (A recent study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai reveals that one in three young people in India is illiterate.)

Dr Celly refers to his own article, “To Hell With Public Schools”, which he had written a few years ago but does not refer to the non-implementation of the most important welfare scheme of compulsory free education to children up to the age of 14, as provided in Article 45 of our Constitution which reads as follows:

The state shall endeavour to provide within a period of 10 years from the commencement of this Constitution for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years. (It may be noted that our Child Labour Act states that no child below the age of 14 can be employed, especially in any hazardous industry like match factory and carpet industry.)

This constitutional provision remains unimplemen-ted even after 60 years of independence. What is worse is that even today India has the largest number of Child Labour in the world. I would, therefore, write a few words about this aspect by way of observation. According to this reader, a few basic questions need to be raised in the context of child labour—which is one of the worst forms of human rights violations—prevalence of illiteracy, non-implementation of our constitutional provision. Is it possible to eradicate child labour without implementing Article 45 of the Constitution? Why is it that while child labour is recognised as a human rights violation, non-implementation of compulsory free education for children up to the age of 14 is not recognised as a human rights violation? As is well known, the entire child labour force belongs to SC/STs, the Muslim minorities and girls.

The sad part of the story is that in spite of Amartya Sen getting the Bharat Ratna, his thesis— namely, that without universal basic education no development is possible—will not be implemented. He and his thesis have been dumped—he has been given the Bharat Ratna and lifetime free travel in Air India and Indian Airlines! It is in the above context that a one-day seminar on the subject was held at the Indian Social Institute, which was organised by its Legal Aid Department. A book was brought out later. This book contains the background paper and other written papers presented by participants.

It was heartening to hear participants like Virender Dayal, a member of the NHRC, Swamy Agnivesh, Surendra Mohan, the Janata Dal and editor of the weekly Janata, and many others say that without implementing the programme of universal basic education, child labour can never be eradicated. It must be added that without a vigorous movement by social activists, the provision of Article 45 will never be implemented. Politicians and bureaucrats have no intention to implement this social welfare programme and they know how to get away with it through the in-built escape route in the system. Over the years they have perfected and legitimised the art of doublespeak and the languge of deceit and arrogance. The language of reason has been lost on them.

Even the founding fathers—the Constitution-makers—did not attach any importance to this social welfare programme. It may be recalled that originally the sub-committee on Fundamental Rights of the Constituent Assembly proposed that basic education be included in the list of Fundamental Rights but subsequently it was rejected by the Constitution-makers including M.R. Masani, who claimed to be a socialist, a Gandhian, a progressive, all in one! Only one member, K.T. Shah, gave a dissenting note. He said that if the right to education becomes non-justiciable, it “would remain as no more than so many pious wishes”. He added that if it does not become

imperative obligation of the State towards the citizens, we would be perpetuating a needless fraud.... Once an ambiguous declaration of such a right is made (justiciable), those responsible for it would have to find ways and means to give effect to it. If they had no such responsibility placed upon them they might be inclined to avail themselves of every excuse to justify their own inactivity in the matter, indifference, or worse.

Prophetic words, indeed!

What is worse is that even NGOs, “progressive” intellectuals and activists like the Sarvodayists, radical humanists, do not place compulsory education at the top of their agenda. Late V.M. Tarkunde did not consider “compulsory education” to be a feasible proposition for legal and other reasons! Late J.P. Naik, a well-known Gandhian, maintained that literacy could not be achieved without eradicating poverty—a classic example of putting the cart before the horse!

It hardly needs any emphasis that illiteracy has many adverse effects: the freedom and welfare of the people; social change; health care; large scale female infanticide; abysmal poverty; economic disparity; alarming rise in population; social evils like discrimination based on caste and sex; child labour. (India contributes the largest share in the child labour force—it is all the more tragic that almost 90 per cent of child workers, employed in the notorious match factories in Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu, are girls.) The list is vast. In short, no development, specially related to freedom and welfare of our people including abolition of child labour, and no improvement in the quality of life of our people, can take place without implementing universal primary education.

LET me quote Professor Amartya Sen:

Basic education, good health, and other human attainments are not only directly valuable as constituent elements of our basic capabilities, these capabilities can also help in generating economic success of a more standard kind, which in turn can contribute to the quality of life even more...The remarkable neglect of elementary education in India is all the more striking given the widespread recognition, in contemporary world, of the importance of basic education for economic development. Somehow the educational aspects of economic development have continued to be out of the main focus.
- (India: Economic Development and Social Opportunities
- by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, OUP, 1995)

The painful fact in regard to this social welfare programme is that the picture is grim all over (except in Kerala). In UP, for example, one-third of the male children and more than three-fifths of the female children are illiterate. It is the same in respect of school attendance for India as a whole, more so for UP. In rural areas, more than a quarter of boys and more than half the girls have never been enrolled. In fact, in the field of elementary education India is not only behind countries like China, Indonesia, Kenya, Myanmar, the Philippines, Zambia, we are behind even the poorest of the poor, sub-Saharan Africa.

Anyone with sensitivity will realise that the tragedy, all the greater because it was a wholly avoidable one, that has befallen our country is non-implementation of the programme of universal primary education and not putting this social welfare programme first on the list of priorities. For this the rulers of our country during the period from 1947 till the mid-sixties are squarely to blame.

In a directive in February 1993 the Supreme Court gave a ruling that primary education must be considered a fundamental right. The Court then said, while discussing the failure to fulfil the obligations of the provisions of the Directive Principles (Article 45) of the Constitution, namely, that “the state shall endeavour to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of the Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years”:

Does not the passage of 44 years, more than four times the period stipulated under Article 45 convert the obligation created by the Article into an enforceable right? In this context we feel constrained to say that the allocation of available funds to different sectors of education in India discloses an inversion of priorities indicated by the Constitution.

Very telling, indeed! The Judges added:

Be that as it may, we must say that at least now the State should honour the command of Article 45. It must be made a reality—at least now.

The government, since the February 1993 judgement, has hardly given any attention to fulfil the obligation. Some steps were taken to provide mid-day meal to schoolchildren. Recently there have been a lot of advertisements on the Doordarshan about adult education, “value-based education” (whatever that may mean), and so on. They are no doubt very essential but they are no substitute for compulsory primary education.

Prof Daya Krishna maintains that concepts of Higher Education are always imported by the East from the West. Why is it that the West does not import anything from us? I may ask a simple question: what is it that India could export to the West? Is it Manusmriti, where a woman from her birth until her death is not entitled to independence of life? The Laws of Manu clearly state that a girl when infant will remain under the care of her parents. When she grows up and is married she will remain under the guidance and control of her husband. When she is middle aged and old she will remain under the umbrella of her son.

My one question is : What is she to do if she has no son? In any case, the laws make it clear that a woman cannot claim independence at any stage of her life. It is no wonder then that the great Renaissance man of the 19th century Bengal, Pandit Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, exclaimed in sheer disgust and despair:

Oh, unfortunate woman, what sin have you committed that you should be born in this blessed country, where men have no sensitivity?

Is this what Prof Daya Krishna wants the West to import from India?

I may now refer to another aspect of liberal education, that is, the Right to Question. None of the religions (except perhaps Buddhism) give us the right to question the religious scriptures. The Koran, the Bible and the Geeta cannot be questioned. How many of us have questioned the karma theory in the Geeta? Or, how many opinion-makers, historians and political scientists have quesioned the absence of the philosophy of morality in politics (Gandhi’s philosophy) in Gandhi’s treatment of Subhash Bose after Bose was elected the President of the Indian National Congress in 1939? This question of the Right to Question, based on rationalism and most important in the search for truth which is the primary object of all education and research, is not raised by any of the great minds included in Dr Celly’s book.

Dr Celly is very unhappy that a degree from a foreign University is still regarded superior to ours but then where is the opportunity for Indian students to join the centres of higher learning in India given the fact that only 0.5 per cent candidates are able to get admission in IITs and IIMs here? Besides, and this also needs to be mentioned, the Mumbai IIT is the only Indian institution which is included in the list of hundred best institutions in the world and that too is ranked 50th in the list.

[Note: I am grateful to my young friend, Mahi Pal Singh, General Secretary, PUCL, Delhi and President, Indian Radical Humanist Association, Delhi for all the help that I received in writing this review article—R.M.P.]

Editor of PUCL Bulletin, Dr R.M. Pal is a former editor of The Radical Humanist and former President of the Delhi State PUCL. He has co-edited with G.S. Bhargava the volume, Human Rights of Dalits, proceedings of a conference held in Chennai and organised by the National Human Rights Commission in collaboration with the Dalit Liberation Trust, Chennai. The initiative for this conference was taken by Dr Pal. Dr Pal has also co-edited with Meera Verma the book, Power to the People, the Political Thoughts of Gandhi, M.N. Roy and Jayaprakash Narayan, published by Gyan Books, New Delhi (in two volumes).

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