Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2009 > April 2009 > On the Centenary of Hind Swaraj

Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 16, April 4, 2009

On the Centenary of Hind Swaraj

Thursday 9 April 2009, by A K Biswas


Debabrata Bandyopadhyay has brought to bear his characteristic clarity and depth in analysing Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj (Mainstream, March 7, 2009), which touches millions’ heart even after a century. Gandhiji’s views on mass education, however, were, in contrast, marked unfortunately by narrow vision, if not by sheer orthodoxy. With due respect for his gigantic stature and epic struggles for freedom, we are constrained to place the record straight. To drive the point home, let me quote his statement on compulsory education, which the country is still to achieve. When asked to elaborate his views vis-a-vis the British policy on compulsory education, he nonchalantly replied:

“The ordinary meaning of education is a knowledge of letters. To teach boys reading, writing and arithmetic is called primary education. A peasant earns his bread honestly. He has ordinary knowledge of the world. He knows fairly well how he should behave towards his parents, his wife, his children and his fellow villagers. He understands and observes rules of morality. But he cannot write his own name. What do you propose to do by giving him a knowledge of letters? Will you add an inch to his happiness? [........] it is not necessary to make this education compulsory. Our ancient school is enough [.........] We consider your modern school to be useless. It is not necessary to make your education compulsory.” [Italicised by this writer] ( Hindu Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, Ganesh & Co., Madras, 1924, pp. 97-98 and 100]

Notwithstanding his unsurpassed universal appeal within and outside India, one cannot conceal one’s shock when the great crusader of freedom and love for humanity says: “What do you propose to do by giving him a knowledge of letters? Will you add an inch to his happiness?” Our farmers and labouring classes, even now, are, by and large, illiterate, a legacy we can, no longer, dump at the doorsteps of the erstwhile colonial masters.

The rebuff to Gandhiji’s thoughts, however, came a source free from taint. A booklet entitled, Education and Economic Development, issued by the UNICEF in 1993, asserted:

“Some of the strongest arguments for basic education is associated with increased agricultural productivity and significant payoffs to added income.”

The UNICEF document made it clear further that a literate farmer earned 30 per cent and a literate mill-hand 40 per cent more than their respective illiterate counterparts.

Free and compulsory primary education in India still is a dream notwithstanding the specific directive in Article 45 of the Constitution of India. It says:

“The State shall endeavour to to provide early childhood care and education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years.”

An appropriate legislation is yet to be put in place in obedience to the Supreme Court direction of mid-1990s in this regard. Effectively the wish of Gandhiji that “It is not necessary to make your education compulsory” continues to hold good as the nation’s motto. The privileged India does not want education to reach far and wide for reasons not far to seek.

Katherine Mayo of Mother India (1927), the much maligned writer of 1920s and 1930s, appears to be not only prophetic in her perception but holds good also even now after 62 years of indepen-dence!!! She wrote with characteristic realism and foresight:

“[......] if Indian self-government were established tomorrow, and if wealth rushed in, succeeding poverty in the land, India, unless she reversed her own views as to her ‘untouchables’ and as to her women, must still continue in the frontline the earth’s illiterates....” [Italicised by this writer] (Mayo, Katherine, Mother India, New York, Harcout, Brace & Co., February 1928, p. 202)

Going by official statistics [Census of India 2001], India boasts of 350 million illiterates who mostly, if not wholly, belong to the ex-untouchables and women. The illiterate India, speaking practically, eke out their living by resorting to agriculture or to primary sector of the economy in some form or other and wallow in blinding darkness in the midst of a shining and rising India. Education could have, by now, brought them out of the deep gorge of accursed life by empowering them with skills and knowledge. The indelible prejudice of the dominant sections of the society did not allow them access to education to help overcome their handicap. India’s abomination for the ex-untouchables and women are far from over.

When Gandhiji was writing Hind Swaraj, two years later Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea, the hero of the Anti-Partition agitation of Bengal 1905-11 [Bango-Bhango Andolon] authored an unsavoury chapter in education. He opposed the Primary Education Bill moved by Gopal Krishna Gokhale. (B.R. Nanda, Gokhale, Oxford University Press, London, 1977, p. 389) The British bureaucracy along with their loyalists defeated the Bill in the Central Legislative Council in 1912. This was not all. Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, the celebrated educationist and Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University, and Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea were in the forefront to frustrate Governor-General Lord Hardinge’s plan to establish a University at Dacca, following revocation of the partition of Bengal in 1911. Ultimately the University came into being in 1921. A strange synchronisation of Hind Swaraj, defeat of Gokhale’s Education Bill and conspiracy of Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee and Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea to foil the plan for a University in the then East Bengal had thrown a dark, long shadow over the fate and fortunes of millions of illiterate people. Many noble sons had left their footprints on the shores of India’s educational destitution.

Alas! The Mahatma should have been living in our midst to see the plight of illiterates in the Swaraj of his Hind.

Education, whether we agree or not, forms the darkest chapter of the history of India.

A.K. Biswas
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