India’s NEP 2020 Can Only Work If Freedom Of Speech Is Guaranteed

NEP 2020 can best work in an environment that encourages freedom of speech and critical thinking & dialogue.

5 min read
Hindi Female

The farmers’ protests are raging against the three contentious farm laws. One of the key points that has united many, is, the manner in which these laws were passed, introduced via ordinance, then steam-rolled through voice-vote in violation of all rules in the Upper House of parliament sans debate or dissent vote. By the mass support the protests are garnering, it might appear that this is the only set of laws passed sans parliamentary debate or public consultation.

Lest we forget, the New Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020) was also passed via similar modus, sans debate.

With due respect to Shri John Lennon, “Life is what happens when you were busy making other plans”. Our government has embraced Lennon’s line by rail-roading major life-altering policies while we are trying to survive a pandemic. That the NEP 2020 was shared with the citizens as a fait accompli, without a parliamentary debate, had become standard practise already and ceased to surprise. But the policy has been analysed threadbare. You can read some fine critiques and commentaries here and here.


What Good Is NEP 2020’s Emphasis On ‘Critical Thinking’ When Thinkers & Dissenters Are Being Persecuted In Real Life?

The NEP 2020 has some good provisions too. One such is introduction of humanities and ethics in technical education. One of the biggest weakness of STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Management) pedagogy in India is, that, it produces technically efficient professionals but most times they are low on ethics with scant understanding of social realities, as Prof Faizan Mustafa aptly put it. Compare that with the young doctors in Sudan who triggered the 2019 revolution. Yes, doctors! Just like the decolonisation and forever revolutionary icon, Che Guevara, a doctor!

Another such provision in NEP 2020 is its emphasis on critical thinking across across streams. But what good does mentioning critical thinking in NEP do when the real-life treatment of critical thinkers is the exact opposite?

There has been unprecedented repression of students and professors recently in universities for exercising their critical thinking faculties while organising and protesting against fee hikes in universities or unjust legislations.

“Encouraging critical thinking requires a very different form of course design and curriculum curation. It needs moving away from the printed word, to develop the thinking faculties and observing the real world as it plays out”, explains Sohini Bhattacharya, CEO, Breakthrough, a leading women’s rights organisation that works via education and communication.

Pushing For Gender Parity — And Its Effect On Ground

Taron Ki Toli (TKT), a leading initiative of Breakthrough, is its gender equality curriculum seeded in schools and society targeting adolescents, boys and girls, from class 6 to 9. Working in government schools of Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar, this programme has a curriculum curated with special emphasis on the lived and living realities of the students in tier-II districts like Sonipat, Rohtak, Jhajjar and Panipat. This runs in government schools with most students come from low resource households.


The curriculum is conceptualised in Hindi (or the mother tongue) consciously, so that the case studies, thinking, reflection, learning and retention remain organic and contextualised.

It is education that is experiential, participatory and draws from the children’s lives. It focusses on confidence-building, self-awareness, builds decision making skills of both boys and girls on matters that are central to their lives.

It builds a sense of self-worth amongst children, especially since children from poor households tend to lack confidence and have low self-worth. It encourages inter-generational and inter-gender dialogue, differentiates between healthy and unhealthy notions of masculinity and shifts to gender-just norms. The course embeds critical reflection of one’s own behaviour, one’s family members’ behaviour too. The children are encouraged to make life choices that matters to their lives and works with teachers and parents to stand by those choices too.

This has resulted in boys supporting their sisters for more opportunities in household and outside, calling out their own siblings’ unhealthy behaviour like eve-teasing.

This has also resulted in discussion on extremely sensitive issues like property rights for women, intersectional discrimination like caste and class discrimination too.


How Critical Thinking Has An All-Pervasive Positive Impact

So, while these students grow in their critical thinking faculties and life choices, they also grow in their core course. The pilot intervention in Haryana was evaluated via Randomised Control Trial (RCT) by no less than J-PAL, the organisation founded by Nobel Laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. The baseline was done in 2013-14 and the end line in 2018, a good two years post Breakthrough’s exit, 94.2 percent children retained their learnings on gender equity.

Thanks to critical thinking, the boys shared household chores, supported their female siblings in their professional career aspirations, practiced gender equity in their everyday lives. TKT is now running in Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi too. 92 percent TKT graduates in Uttar Pradesh feel there is absolutely no valid reason to hit a girl. The same Uttar Pradesh, which has given the world screaming headlines on crimes against women in the last few years. This is why courses like TKT need to be scaled up pan-state.

Once critical thinking is triggered, there’s no going back. Instructors, family members, teachers, friends, elders and society at large have to accept that these children will think, question and accept when they are engaged with — with reason and spoken to with reason.

Just exercising authority, seniority won’t cut it. This requires instructors, faculty who are more than just teachers, who are friends, mentors, realistic aspirational role-models, who encourage thinking, analyses, challenging norms. The litmus test of critical thinking in schools is enabling safe ecosystem with allies in school, in households and the larger society. To never forget that education is not just a right in itself but also an essential right to enjoy other rights, underlines two time UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Education, Kishore Singh.


Importance Of Freedom AFTER Speech

Such curriculum curation requires clarity in what is a ‘go’ area and what is ‘no-go’, explains Bhattacharya. Sexual rights, bodily autonomy—these topics are consciously broached at an advanced stage of the course, and these concepts come in a staggered manner, only when a safe ecosystem and circle of allies has been built and strengthened.

As in the case of freedom of expression, the stress-test is actually freedom after speech, similarly in courses embedding critical thinking, safe/nurturing ecosystems when students practise critical thinking is crucial.

Seeding and encouraging critical thinking in course work requires real commitment. And this commitment is not just for the core course but what the act of critical thinking by students would unleash.

The NEP 2020 also needs to mainstream this “freedom after speech” and engage with students and their thoughts on their lives, state and society for its section on critical thinking to mean something, anything in real world.

(Biraj Swain works on the intersection of international development, human rights and media watch. She has been a fellow of International Centre for Journalists Washington DC and Senior Fellow of Kalam Institute of Health Technology. She can be reached at This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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