No Thought Control, Please! Ideological Defiance in Karnataka via Textbooks

What is the purpose of education in the Republic of India and how does it tally with constitutional values?

5 min read
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"We don't need no, education. We don't need no thought control."

Those cynical, idealistic thoughts reflecting teenage angst from the British rock band Pink Floyd's cult album, The Wall, come to mind as policymakers in India squabble, dribble, and quibble over what should be taught in classrooms  — or what should not be taught.  In this masked power struggle marked by an ideological chasm is a hidden truth: youngsters are often made to remember or forget things, through the instrument of textbooks, to suit the powers that be.

It does not come as a surprise, therefore, that Karnataka's Congress-led rulers have decided to restore to the government-driven school textbooks, the life and thoughts of some radical, reformist leaders and icons of democracy and free thought in India. This reverses the action of the previous BJP-controlled establishment that had decided to drop the works of the same.


The Thinkers That Karnataka Has Brought Back Into Teenage Conversations

The Karnataka Textbook Revision Committee, trying to revise what kids in classes eight to 10 will learn, has undone a BJP-inspired committee's decision to drop the thoughts of radical poetess Akkamakadevi, liberal intellectual Girish Karnad and others of similar disposition, and re-introduces topics on Savitribhai Phule (feminist social reformer), the Young Bengal Movement (free thinkers), and Periyar E V Ramaswamy Naicker (the anti-casteism evangelist).

Notably, this has also been a week in which a judge in the Madras High Court controversially said that recent statements made against Sanatana Dharma by Tamil Nadu Youth Welfare and Sports Development Minister Udhayanidhi Stalin (son of CM M K Stalin) and former Union minister A Raja were “perverse, divisive, contrary to constitutional principles and ideas and also tantamount to gross dis/misinformation.” However, it is noteworthy that Judge Anita Sumanth refused to issue an order to question their right to hold office.

We have to connect the dots between the court's observations and the Karnataka education initiative to ask a simple but disturbing question: What is the purpose of education in the Republic of India and how does it tally with constitutional values? In the backdrop of Hindu revivalism led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's frequent reference to ancient and religious factors as essential to Indian identity, we have to solve an ideological puzzle to separate what the powerful are saying from what it means to society in terms of ground realities.

The thinkers that Karnataka has brought back into teenage conversations are among those who have challenged the traditional social hierarchy and rules of Hindu customs and traditions and stereotyped roles based on gender and caste. Stalin and Raja have stirred controversy because to people like them, "Sanatana Dharma" is not a hold-all term for a liberal Hindu social order and civilisation (as claimed by the BJP's intellectual supporters) but a rigid, conservative social organisation that stops people from doing what they want (which is a democratic value).

The sociolinguistic interpretation of Sanatana Dharma and what constitutes Hindutva,, according to the BJP and its ideological parent, i.e., the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, should be part of a healthy debate. But what we are witnessing is a political tug-of-war with electoral and judicial conflicts.


A See-Saw Political Struggle Over Education

Article 29 of the Indian constitution protects minority groups and forbids discrimination against them based on race, religion, caste, and language. It should be logical, therefore, that thinkers who spoke against unfair discrimination should be encouraged to be part of any textbook. Article 51 of the Constitution, which concerns a directive principle (a duty, not a right) asks citizens to work for the unity and sovereignty of India. But then, freedom of expression is a fundamental right in India, as are cultural and educational rights, besides the right against exploitation and the right to equality.

If you weigh all those things together, it would seem the Chennai judge was speaking of a citizen's duty, while the Karnataka textbooks seek to empower young Indians by teaching them to debate and imbibe the reformist thoughts of activists whose views are baked into the Constitution.

What we have had in India thus is a see-saw political struggle over education, with different policies being subjected to the winds of ideological preference. The BJP typically prefers unity as an unconditional goal, while any society that must struggle against exploitation based on religion, gender or caste must come out to discuss these things in the public domain, which includes the fields of education and the media.

The National Policy on Education (1986) under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi said education nurtures a "scientific temper and independence of mind and spirit" to further the constitutional goals of "socialism, secularism and democracy." Such an outlook is clearly reflected in the approach of the government of Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.

The education policy of the BJP government adopted in 2020 talks of education as "representative of the Indian ethos" (in the words of Modi's official website). It lists a slew of ancient thinkers and concepts as the policy's guiding inspiration, and also speaks of the need for "regulation and revamping of all aspects of the education structure."


Where Do We Go From Here?

Notably, education is a state subject in India. In that sense, the Union government cannot usually be telling a state what it should or should not do.

The BJP's emphasis on radicalising educational philosophy towards ancient philosophers rather than modern free-thinkers is a core aspect of the ideological struggle in the field of education. Karnataka and other southern states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala have had reformist thinkers and social movements against social inequities. Karnataka's dominant Lingayat community follows the teachings of heterodox guru Basava, and it has even sought the declaration of anti-caste Lingayatism as a distinct religion.

What we see in the schools of Karnataka is the playing out of a Progressive vs Conservative tug-of-war. Where do we go from here?

One way to look at it is to also think beyond ancient Hindu philosophers and look at more recent reformers who have questioned conservative Hindu practices. These include Raja Ram Mohan Roy who fought against Sati, and freedom fighter and reformer Swami Shraddhanand who fought against casteism. A reconciliation of the views of reformers and radicals may make more sense.

What is clear is that modern democracy cannot be meaningful without freedom of expression and open-minded debates, and the debates must include the thoughts of those who have questioned inequality and injustice, which have been part of the ground reality of social injustice and conservatism. While words like "ethos" speak of the intended thoughts of ancient teachers, in the here and now, we need to encourage a contextual approach that encourages critical thinking, which goes hand in hand with science.

Or else, we may have young Indians singing to teachers, like Floyd: "All in all you're just another brick in the Wall."

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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