Conflict and collaboration between eurocentrism and brahmanical hegemony: revisiting science education in the colonial and post-independence period 

Harjinder Singh

(International Institute of Information Technology – Hyderabad 500032)


Recent critiques of education during the colonial period in India present a counter-narrative locating eurocentrism in science education as a tool to legitimise the imperialist goals. We revisit this question and look into possible modes of conflict and collaboration between power hierarchies existing prior to and parallel to colonisation in the Indian society and the European modernity and imperialism. It is argued that unlike many other countries colonised by European powers, India had a host of well-entrenched complex hierarchies with well-defined class, caste and gender categories and their social functions. Education in pre-colonial India was structured into fairly exclusive domains legitimising a  brahmanical power hierarchy. Even the multi-cultural, egalitarian belief-systems that came to India with Islam could not resist for long the hegemony of the Brahmanical order and degenerated into an oppressive social system. This is reflected in the exclusion that 'lower caste' Muslims experience and it shows in the Madrasa system also. Gender discrimination was and is ubiquitous. It would appear that such a hierarchical system would come in direct conflict with the 'enlightenment' core of modernity and indeed it did, as is apparent in the nineteenth century rhetoric of occidentalism and later orientalism and as in the justifications of imperialist goals.  After initial conflicts with the eurocentric institutions of knowledge, the brahmanical order adopted a collaborative role to perpetuate itself safeguarding the privilege in different ways. The processes of conflict and collaboration went together - in the initial stages, it was mostly conflict, and today, it is mostly collaboration, with some residual resistance from some quarters. Seen in this light, the scrutiny of curriculum of science education becomes more than an exercise of critiquing eurocentric hegemony in education. Both the claim of universality of modern science and its complete negation become equally suspect. Eurocentrism in modern science education is the default discourse. Its complete negation exists in the post-modern criticism (which, ironically,  is in the Eurocentric framework using the language, idiom and tools borrowed from modern Europe) and also in the kind of resistance we see from the political right consisting of traditionalists. There is also a more credible negation from the middle-ground that values the core of enlightenment but resists imperialist tendencies of the West. While the epistemic framework in science education during the colonial period does not accommodate indigenous knowledge systems, the elite adapted to it and internalised it well. It was accepted by the privileged to an extent that surpassed the levels of comfort that the elite in the West exhibits in relation to modern science education. This blind acceptance has continued and intensified in the last nearly seventy years after the independence from the colonial powers. The tendency for a universal curriculum, insensitive to local conditions, is one consequence; mechanical nature of training of teachers and obscure pedagogic practices are the others. A major component of this submission has been the language or the medium of learning science, namely the English language, which has served well to keep science intensely mystified to most people. While the brahmanical elite chose to adopt the alien language, a vocabulary comprising of terse artificial jargon was made mandatory for the so-called vernacular science education effectively making it impossible for the marginalised to ever acquire formal knowledge in modern science. It also worked as an internal imperialist tool to keep the majority enslaved.  Several alternatives have emerged as resistances to this canon. As an episteme, science with its more rigorous characteristics like verifiable reproducibility of observations and falsifiable propositions, much more than humanities or social science, is a domain where the subaltern have *not* been able to excel. A legitimate alternative of use of mother-tongue as a medium for earliest stages of education together with liberal attitudes in framing technical vocabulary and constructivist pedagogy in general, remains a struggle.  I will explore aspects of these questions and related issues in my paper.