Educational Discourse & Experiments in India: Countering Hegemony from Colonialism to Neo-Liberalism

Anil Sadgopal

(All India Forum for Right to Education & Former Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Delhi)


The struggle to construct a pro-people transformative ‘national’ vision of education in India has been going on since East India Company’s Council member Macaulay wrote his Minutes in 1835 to lay the framework of the British colonial policy. Macaulay’s Minutes attempted to establish that (a) none of the Indian languages were capable of expressing or transacting modern knowledge; (b) entire knowledge produced by the Indian civilization (and Arabian too) would be accommodated in merely one shelf of any European library; and (c) since the Company Raj did not have adequate resources to educate the whole population, it will prepare a class of intermediaries between the British rulers and the ‘natives’ who will advance the commercial interests of the Company. This three-pronged colonial policy framework basically continues to determine India’s policy making to date in the neo-liberal capitalist economic order as well. 

The first recorded challenge to this policy framework was given by Savitribai Phule in 1848 in Pune who opened schools for girls and boys belonging to backward classes and castes in their mother tongue. The paper will trace how the early discourse evolved in the 19th century to question and resist the Macaulayian premises under the leadership of, to name just a few, Kandukuri Veeresalingam, Narayan Guru, Iyothee Thassar, Gurajada Apparao, Dadabhai Naoroji and Jotirao Phule – each one dissecting them from one’s unique historical context while also articulating an alternative vision. To be sure, Mahatma Jotirao Phule stands out as an organic intellectual of the oppressed classes and castes, applying critical thought to historical exploitation of the productive forces while also denying them knowledge. The first significant counter-vision was established by Rajarshi Shahuji Maharaj, ruler of Kolhapur State (presently Maharashtra), at the beginning of the 20th century who established a universal state-funded public education system from primary to higher education founded on the twin principles of equality and freedom from discrimination, thereby mocking at the colonial framework serving the interests of upper classes and upper castes. Rulers of some other states like Gondal, Baroda and Bhopal also can be viewed in the same vein. The emerging discourse during the first two decades of the 20th century on Right to Education and the need to develop a ‘national’ system of education will be examined from the conflicting standpoints of the liberal strands of the ‘national’ movement backed by the then incipient bourgeoisie on the one hand and feudal economy on the other.

The assertion of the anti-colonial movement in education took a new turn with the civilisational critique of the western capitalist development model offered by Gandhi in his seminal ‘Hind Swaraj’ (1909) followed by his historic call in 1920s to quit British educational institutions and establish national educational institutions in order to advance the struggle for ‘swaraj’ [self-rule]. The paper will also interweave Shaheed Bhagat Singh’s essays during this period respectively on the socio-cultural role of language and the question of liberation of the ‘untouchables’ along with his calls to the students as a reflection of the then evolving counter-hegemonic educational discourse in Indian polity. The Gandhi-Ambedkar debate on the issue of caste in Hindu religion initially in 1932 and later continuing through exchange of letters between the two stalwarts unfolded a radical discourse that was to impact on policy making during the making of the Constitution and well beyond in post-independence contemporary educational planning. 

The paper will examine Gandhi’s 1937 radical pedagogic proposal of Nai Taleem and advance an hypothesis of how its curricular and pedagogic framework reveals the impact made by Ambedkar on Gandhi’s mindset in 1930s. The epistemic challenge posed by Nai Taleem to the hegemony of the colonial notion of knowledge for maintaining status quo in the interest of British trade and commerce with support of India’s ruling classes and castes will be addressed while also analyzing how this challenge was ultimately diffused and co-opted by the then ‘national bourgeoisie’ and the post-independence policy of ‘mixed economy’. Some of the key educational questions relating to the Constitutional provisions, including the negation of the status of Fundamental to education, shall be addressed from the standpoint of the class character of the Constituent Assembly, if not of the freedom movement itself. An attempt will be made to locate this issue in the context of the ongoing debate on the development model to be pursued after Independence.

It is crucial that the post-independence policies are located in the emerging political economy and the social conditions which mitigated as well as distorted the Constitutional vision of education representing the gains of our anti-imperialist struggle. The paper will attempt to take a fresh critical look at some of the outstanding educational experiments both within and outside the state sector and will reflect upon the question of how the changing political economy determines the outcome by limiting or even distorting their transformative potential. Three such experiments shall be examined in some detail from this standpoint. First, the universal state-funded and free school system built in Tamil Nadu in 1950s by the then visionary Chief Minister Late K. Kamaraj along with the revolutionary introduction of the mid-day meal programme and how the latter idea of mid-day meals was misconceived in 1990s by the Central Government in a multi-layered school system rooted in increasing inequality and discrimination. Second, the DIGANTAR pedagogic experiment in villages on the outskirts of Jaipur, Rajasthan initiated in 1980s as an example of what is the potential role of initiative outside the state sector as well as its limitations in educational transformation, especially when the experiment attempts to engage with the state-sponsored curricular improvement programmes under the neo-liberal policy framework. Third, the 30-year long Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme (HSTP) in Madhya Pradesh (1972-2002) as an example of a powerful social intervention in the state sector and how this democratic space was steadily eroded in the wake of the formal announcement of the globalization agenda and the neo-liberal structural adjustment policies from 1991 onwards, leading finally to its closure by the state government. The HSTP story will also elaborate on how the intervention unfolded the great hidden potential of the state school system which ironically was not acceptable to the neo-liberal policy makers since the epistemic foundations of HSTP came in conflict with what neo-liberalism was designed to impose in the interest of the global market.  

Finally, the paper will explore the democratic spaces available presently for intervening in the education system by countering the twin dangers of neo-liberalism and communalism. The potential of taking recourse to the Constitution as a potent democratic weapon in the hands of the masses, despite some of its bourgeois limitations, in building resistance to neo-liberalism shall be addressed. Acknowledging the multi-dimensional neo-liberal assault on all sectors of society and economy, the critical significance of establishing organic linkage of education movement with the movements for jal-jangal-zameen-jeevika (i.e. water-forest-land-livelihood) will be underlined. The lessons drawn from the working class movements regarding the transformative potential of the politics of Sangharsh aur Nirman (Struggle and Reconstruction) in opening up democratic spaces for social intervention shall be highlighted. The paper will also contend that the way forward lies in synthesizing and reconstructing the basic theses of the pioneers of educational discourse from the freedom movement ranging from, among others, Phule-Ambedkar to Gandhi-Tagore and locating the lessons within the revolutionary framework of Bhagat Singh, despite their contradictory political philosophies. Recent experiences of mobilizing people’s consciousness on key issues of educational transformation shall be briefly shared and parallels drawn with the ways similar objective was pursued during the anti-imperialist movement, the inevitability of socialist reconstruction of political economy notwithstanding.