Neoliberal Barriers in Education: Return of the Manu Era

Anand Teltumbde

(Professor, IIT, Kharakpur)


Until the colonial times, the vast majority of population of the Indian subcontinent was kept out of the reach of education. Manusmriti best represents the exclusionary paradigm that pervaded India until 18th century. The British colonial regime brought in various opportunities to the oppressed castes albeit with pure colonial logic and the doors of education were also opened to them initially by the Christian missionaries with evangelical motivations and later by the government with the governance logic. It catalysed the revolt of these people against the oppressive hegemony of the caste ordained ruling classes. Right from Mahatma Phule, who pioneered these revolts to Babasaheb Ambedkar who culminated them in the form of dalit movement, stressed the importance of education in the emancipation schema of the oppressed people. Ambedkar symbolically discarded the exclusionary regime of Manu by burning Manusmriti in 1927 in Mahad and literally abandoned it by converting himself and his lakhs of followers to Buddhism. As the chairman of the drafting committee, he wrote India’s Constitution which is euphemistically called Bhimsmriti. The Constitution uniquely stressed the universal and free education for all children up to 14 years by stipulating a time limit of ten years from the adoption of the Constitution. The new rulers however consistently ignored it. Despite it the oppressed people invested their meagre incomes in schooling their children as a part of their movement. These efforts led to spectacular growth rates in education of children belonging to these social groups, surpassing that of generalpopulation and in course of time created a sizable middle class among them with the help of reservations in public employment in their favour. From the mid-1980s, Indian ruling classes accepted neoliberal policy framework of the global capital with its social Darwinist ethos by opening education to private entrepreneurs. There was a spate of private schools and colleges, particularly in professional streams, in the country with a purely commercial logic which not only blocked the entry of Dalits and poorer people but also had various detrimental impacts on their education. On the one hand, the education became increasingly expensive which could only be afforded by their miniscule middle class with great difficulty. On the other, the privatization ethos of the neoliberal policy regime went on eroding the base of public employment, which has been potent motivator behind the spread of education among the Dalits, Tribals and BCs. While the influx of private capital in the growing educational market has quantitatively expanded educational sphere, the multilayered education system eroded its quality and confined it to a handful elite in metropolis. Dalits and other poor being predominantly rural people were totally cut off from any education of consequence. The government in order to cater to the rising aspirations of growing middle classes, recently added many IITs, IIMs, central universities, etc. but this illusory trend also has been detrimental to their interests. India’s higher education, worth $ 50 billion is slated to be opened to foreign players, further constricting its reach to masses. The paper takes stock of this historical trend in order to expose the modernist pretentions of neoliberal India which in reality is facilitating the return of Manu’s exclusionary regime.