ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Politics of Knowledge

The parallel coexistence of central and provincial spheres in education has a visible functional role but also a less visible political and an even less visible sociocultural role. Several decisions announced since the beginning of 2022 enable us to observe these disparate and simultaneous roles. Decisions taken in some of the states are quite noticeably related to impending assembly elections.

Since the beginning of 2022, education has been a busy site of politics and bur­eaucratic action. In Karnataka, a political move was backed by a circular from the dep­artment of education and further reinforced by a court order. In Gujarat, two “decisions” taken by the government were announced in the ­assembly: first, to start teaching English from Classes 1 and 2, and second, to include the Bhagavad Gita from Class 6 upwards. At the national level, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) ann­ounced its decision to drop certain topics from the syllabus of political science followed in affiliated schools. The University Grants Commission de­­clar­ed that a centralised admissions test will govern entry to undergraduate courses in all central universities. The course itself will now cover a four-year curriculum, with a wider range of choices, in­clu­ding vocational subjects and multiple exit options. And most recently, Haryana announced that it will replace grants to universities with loans.

The Context of Curricular Changes

All of these are decisions, first made, then ann­ounced, and then duly covered by the media. Why should that be noteworthy, one may ask, assuming that the government’s job is to make decisions and then to implement them? In this assumption, no distinction needs to be made between the government’s role in deciding what should be taught in schools and the police’s role in which car should be purchased for use. Changes in financial allocations for different sectors of education are decisions of a different kind. They reflect changes in the state’s macro view of different domains of its responsibilities and how they are to be fulfilled. Decisions of this kind respond to a social universe and the ongoing assessment, by the state apparatus, of how that universe might accommodate the change. The Haryana government’s decision to change financial grants into loans for state universities has now been reversed, rep­ortedly because the original decision met with protests by students and teachers’ organisations. Unrest among college-level youth might have affected the course of the impending elections, media reporters were told.

Though significant, this episode does not offer us a general or theoretical basis to claim that educational decisions are politically impor­tant. The context plays a crucial role. The time left for an election and the specific constellation of parties and factions are two major ingredients of the context. Like Haryana, Karna­taka is heading for elections, but the government stood firm over its decision on school uniforms. Apparently, the constellation of social and political considerations did not require the decision to be reviewed, let alone reversed, even though it was widely criticised within the state as well as outside. In this case, the government’s firmness was politically more beneficial than the display of flexibility required for a ­review.

Karnataka has also gone ahead with its decision to make changes in the Kannada textbooks used in state board schools. These changes are consistent with the ideological predilections of the government. Quite similar is the decision taken in Haryana to develop new history textbooks for state board schools. The perspe­ctive and details of this new history present no surprise and require no examples worthy of comment. Indeed, the pursuit of ideological dominance through curricular decisions is no more in the stage where professionally inspired critical analysis might be needed to illuminate the nature of the decision. Examples of outrageously indefensible items of knowledge are also unnecessary, although a protest against the inclusion of wild information does provide some solace to the relatively more concerned reader in the midst of political gloom.   

Autonomy, Elections, and Education

We also need not dwell on the absence of any lengthy or wide-ranging deliberation justifying these changes. The case of Gujarat government’s decision to introduce the Bhagavad Gita is not all that different, although it seems so ­because it invokes the old, quasi-legal debate on whether religious learning can occur in state-supported schools. Professional issues like the writers commissioned to prepare curricular, age-appropriate frames for different sections of the Gita would also be superfluous. With the announcement of the government’s decision to introduce the Gita in the state’s school curriculum, a political point has been scored in the pre-election ethos. It connotes ideological dominance. This is all that matters in the shrunken atmosphere of democracy.

The centre–state division is underscored by the various decisions taken in these past few months. The systemic structure of education marks out the boundaries of professional spheres. In school education, the kendriya vidyalayas (or central schools) and the CBSE override the geographical territories of the provinces (or states). From their inception in the 1960s, the kendriya vidyalayas have been symbols of high standard. The justification to run them centrally was originally given with reference to the need to provide the ease of curricular continuity to the children of central service cadres who were transferrable throughout India.

Central universities are also believed to signify higher standards and relative freedom from provincial politics. In reality, these symbolic qualities have proved to have little substance. The move to administer a centralised admission test for undergraduate courses in central universities marks an attempt to under­score their freedom from local or regional influences. Their curricular structure is also being resculpted under a centralised plan. The new structure offers an American look to learning during undergraduate years. In this import of a foreign model, two key features of the source country—institutional autonomy to choose students and the teacher’s autonomy to design the curriculum—have been ig­nor­ed. Sele­ctive import of ideas is hardly new, and the poor record of transplanted ideas enjoys worldwide familiarity.

What happens at the provincial (state) level is mainly of political significance. Professional considerations are beyond the institutional cap­acity of emaciated organisations and committees. They fun­ction under permanent political and bureaucratic pressure in a social universe where the limited force of civil society is absorbed by the central or pan-India sphere (represented by the CBSE, Indian Certificate of Secondary Education, and now international boards). However, this situation may also be heading towards a change. The CBSE’s announcement of its decision to drop certain topics from the political science syllabus has been received within its client schools with silence. A similar decision announced earlier in the context of online teaching showed that the CBSE was constrained to fiddle with the curricular structure shaped by the National Council of Educational Research and Training through its 2005 reform exercise. A new exercise is now underway and is due for completion in 2024.

Curricular changes in the states, with few exceptions, are sporadic and piecemeal. They affect the learning and also the cultural and ideological grooming of children whose parents’ income is lower than that of their peers whose children attend the CBSE schools. The pan-Indian character of these latter schools is both symbolic and real, that is, in terms of the market of jobs they are associated with. The schools affiliated to provincial boards use the appropriate regional language as the medium of instruction, whereas CBSE schools, including the kendriya vidyalayas, use English. This division occasionally acquires political meaning. A state heading for elections prefers to cover the language divide, and that explains why Gujarat has announced its decision to introduce English from Class 1. As a gesture, its politics is hardly an innovation. Political parties have reason to believe that this kind of gesture politics works. Silent gestures are also worth noticing. In Karnataka, the state government’s order on school uniforms was irrelevant for the kendriya vidyalayas located in Karnataka, but they quietly complied with it.

Clearly, politics shapes education in more immediate ways than education shapes politics. The power play involved in politics unfolds in the present, whereas the influence that education might exert over politics takes a considerable length of time to consolidate and express itself. This contrast between the agencies of the two helps us appreciate why the benefits of edu­cation are accessible mainly to societies where history—that is, what happened in the past—is no longer capable of providing some ­political advantage.


Updated On : 11th Jul, 2022
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