National Education Policy: Resolve to Resist Attack on Toiling Masses

After labour law ‘reforms’ and intensive attacks on civil liberties in the midst of Covid pandemic and lockdown, the fascist government, in series of open declared attempts to convert ‘Calamity into Opportunity’, has launched another onslaught on the downtrodden working people of the country in the name of National Education Policy (NEP) released on 30th July. It not only further reserves and restricts the right to get meaningful education only to the rich bourgeois elite and is effectively a policy of ‘exclusion’ from education for all sections of poor working class and various oppressed minorities but is also a blatant roadmap for obscurantist saffronisation of education, designed for imposition of parochial Sanskrit-Hindi linguistic formula and strengthening the existing hierarchical education-employment order based on reactionary RSS Brahminist ideology on the whole country. But some historical context first.

As the vast multitudes of people of Indian landmass reawakened from their thousand years long deep slumber and started their great struggle to establish a modern nation free from the brutal inhuman yoke of both plundering foreign colonial rule and native feudal oppression, they had many dreams and aspirations. One among these was to end the thousands of years of deprivation from education in all branches of knowledge – science, art, literature – that had been forced upon them by the feudal oppressors who, by feudal law and enforced by cruel force, reserved it only to the ruling elites. This great aspiration of the people was given voice to by many stalwarts of Indian Renaissance. Jyotiba Phule, the great fighter for justice and equality of all kinds from the West voiced the demand for universal equal free public education in the latter half of 19th Century, Prafulla Chandra Ray, the father of Indian Chemistry from the East took it up in early 20th, and Premchand, the great literary voice of the downtrodden and working class from the North, spoke up for it in 1920s and 1930s, to name only three among many. They all raised this demand and expected it to be the foundational cornerstone of a free modern democratic nation.

But the Indian bourgeois ruling class who inherited the power from the Imperialists, true to their historical character, lost no time in betraying this great national aspiration through the Constituent Assembly representing only 11% of the population – industrial-mercantile bourgeoisie and landlords. Dishonouring this longstanding demand of the people, the Constitution refused to guarantee a free universal equal public education system and just included a hollow assurance of universal primary education of 6-14 year olds in non-binding Directive Principles.

For couple of decades after this, ruling class continued to assure fulfilment of this dream through mouthing many a nice sounding platitude like the first National Education Policy (NEP) of 1968 formulated on recommendation of Kothari Commission. This had many ‘promising’ declarations like increasing the expenditure on education to 6% of national income and Neighbourhood Schools for equal education, but nothing much was to be implemented in reality except some expansion of bare elementary schools bereft of all necessary means and tools – teachers, buildings, books, materials, etc and some secondary/higher education level expansion through mostly public minded individuals and institutions guided by the legacy of nation movement. The government focussed only on creating some Centres of Excellence – few IITs, NITs, an AIIMS, a JNU, etc – to fulfil managerial/executive cadre needs of the bourgeois state and developing capitalist economy.

However, as the shoots of neoliberal economic policies and fascist reactionary politics were started to be raised and nurtured with greater urgency and force in 1980s by the ruling capitalist class, even mouthing these nice sounding platitudes became too great a burden for them. Then came the NEP of 1986 which completely trampled upon the democratic demand for, and gave a deep burial to the promise of, free universal equal public education system. On the contrary, it laid down the foundation of triple layered education system – public funded centres of excellence for a few ‘exceptionally talented’ like Navodaya Vidyalaya, private capital owned teaching shops earning profit for the rich having sufficient purchasing power and functional basic literacy cum vocational skills through fund starved government schools, or informal distance learning and open schooling. This is, with some variations and flavours here and there, the architecture of existing education system in India. New NEP takes this architecture to a new level.

True to the character of many voiced fascist lingo to confuse people, new NEP mouths many high-sounding phrases, but as the Minister Nishank says in an interview “the beauty of this policy is flexibility”, all are immediately negated. To please the bourgeois ‘liberals’ it professes all sorts of nice things, makes all the right noises, but then goes on to recommend entirely opposite things. For example, for providing universal education, it talks of building schools where none exist but then dwells at length on all the things kids can do if there is no school close to their home. Each “suggestion” undermines the original stand till that is reduced to just hollow meaningless words. It pays lip service to equity, inclusion etc but pushes alternative schooling, distance learning and poor quality private education. Not one person involved in the framing of this NEP will send their kid/grandkid to any of these schools. “State Open Schools will be expanded and strengthened for meeting the learning needs of young people in India who are not able to attend a physical school.” So poor kids in remote areas are supposed to get educated by correspondence courses! And what about teachers? “Databases of literate volunteers, retired scientists / government or semi-government employees, alumni, and educators will be created” to pick teachers from and help curtail dropouts.” But there needs to be something to satisfy the liberal advocates of ‘equality’ so that they can proclaim it as a great step forward. Yes, there is – ‘3-4% of kids will be identified as geniuses from each class’. Liberals have got their ‘equality’ but universal equal public education is dead!

What about quality of education? A ‘National Mission on Foundational Literacy and Numeracy’ is the answer. Sense of déjà vu? Yes, we heard all this in NEP 1986 – functional and basic literacy for the poor children. Why do they need quality education after all, they have only to become wage slaves selling their labour power to the capitalists? The government has introduced vocational and polytechnic education for them. These courses include teaching skills such as plumbing, painting, carpentry, and other manual work. Children will also be made to intern at the local shops and businesses. This will lead to an increase in child labour. Also, when India is already known as the most unsafe country for women, who will guarantee the safety of children, especially girls, from getting sexually assaulted?

Then some more of the same – “There will be no hard separation among ‘curricular’, ‘extracurricular’, or ‘co-curricular’, among ‘arts’, ‘humanities’, and ‘sciences’, or between ‘vocational’ or ‘academic’ streams.” Means there will really be nothing in this ‘education’, just empty rhetoric to befool the gullible. Anyway why do they need more? They don’t need any critical and rational abilities. They only need enough ‘functional literacy’ to read WhatsApp forwards created by some IT Cell! Then it goes to talk about lightening the burden of board exams to reduce pressure on children. But again, “all students will take school examinations in Grades 3, 5, and 8 which will be conducted by the appropriate authority.” Exam not evaluated by kids’ own teacher is public exam akin to a board exam. So, it actually introduces more board exams from Grade 3 itself to increase rote learning.

NEP talks about increasing the expenditure on education to 6% of GDP. Many liberals and experts are praising this. But from where is it going to come? In fact, this government has been reducing the budget allocation on education every year. Again, it talks of massive restructuring of higher education. But, with what funds will this massive restructuring of higher education happen? To put the NEP2020 reforms in perspective, UGC has recently set up a committee to study university spending on security guards, water, electricity, etc. That’s how badly off the higher education funding is.

Then comes the question of medium of education. NEP states that, “Wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother tongue/ local language/ regional language.” This is in continuation to the RTE Act 2009 which also states that the medium of instruction, as far as practicable, shall be the mother tongue. Very good. But first thing, will it be applicable to all? ‘We will try to take everyone along in the process of making a vibrant India.’ Nishank replied when asked regarding medium of education in private schools. (The Hindu, July 31). So, they will be completely democratic when it comes to Private owned Schools – no language will be imposed on them. This is to be done only in government schools where only the children of poor go. Hence, we’ll continue to have 2 sets of schooling with medium of instruction based on paying capacity of parents.

Therefore, there is something else hidden behind it. In the name of strengthening and enriching Indian languages, there is the agenda of imposing Hindi. Sanskrit will also be introduced at all schools. During BJP rule Hindi has already become India’s default language for official communication. The Modi government, and the bureaucracy that surrounds it, deals with the citizenry almost exclusively in Hindi. The PM always addresses the nation in Hindi. It will be natural, then, that non-English-medium instruction and the three-language-formula, will gradually strengthen Hindi’s position as the language of power and authority. Anyway, no government fiat can enrich and strengthen any language. The way to strengthen Indian languages is to ensure that the world’s knowledge is available in them (publish books, books, books – both original and good translations), and that commerce is possible across a variety of languages (technology to support). And also, to make everyone capable in English and other foreign languages if and when they want.

“Certain subjects, skills, capacities will be emphasized in school: such as, scientific temper & evidence-based thinking; creativity & innovativeness; sense of aesthetics & art;…” and “Pedagogy must evolve to make education more experiential, holistic, integrated, inquiry-driven, discovery-oriented, learner-centred, discussion-based, flexible, and, of course, enjoyable.” But how? By integrating “Knowledge of India” which will include knowledge from ancient India and its contributions to modern India and its successes and challenges, and a clear sense of India’s future aspirations with regard to education, health, environment, etc. These elements will be incorporated in an accurate and scientific manner throughout the school curriculum wherever relevant, says Nishank in the interview referred to above. For example, students of modern medicine will also have to study Ayurveda now as “Knowledge of India” is to be integrated in all the courses. There goes the scientific temper and evidence-based thinking down the drain! Similarly, B.Ed. curriculum will emphasise Fundamental Duties – appears twice in same highlights document, but not Fundamental Rights. Similarly, no secularism, no freedom of expression, no socialism – that is the whole design.

National Education Policy also has multiple headings against commercialisation of education (profiteering). But if you read the paragraphs below their proposals actually will lead to that very commercialisation, for example, the 2 different types of medium of education discussed above will lead to proliferation of more of these private shops everywhere. There will also be a greater focus on e-learning with new & modern technology. Again, this is discriminatory towards poor children. We are currently seeing poor children and their parents literally die by suicide because they can’t afford smartphones and an internet connection. In higher education, Foreign universities will be allowed to set up in India, which basically means that education is being privatised. Not only will poor, working class kids not be able to afford these colleges, but historically marginalised communities will also not be represented because there will be no reservation, which is a constitutional right.

Hence, the NEP will only lead to further entrenching of the economic divide in a country that already suffers from huge economic inequality and exploitation. The poor will continue to get poorer while the rich will keep on getting richer. Words like holistic, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, overall learning are all just for show. The real motive of the NEP is to make it easier for the privileged rich to exploit the labour of the working class. Above all, it aims to deprive the working-class children from the benefit of all knowledge which can develop their critical, rational and questioning faculties to prevent them from analysing the reasons for their fate in the current economic-political system and how to fight for justice for themselves. We all need to recognise this attack on toiling masses to resolve to struggle against this.

Originally published in the Editorial of The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 4/ August ’20)

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