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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 38, September 5, 2009

Universalisation of Education: India in a Trap

Bane of Negligence Portends National Disaster

Wednesday 9 September 2009, by A K Biswas

The ordinary meaning of education is 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 the 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 system is enough..... We consider your modern school to be useless.

—Mahatma Gandhi, Indian Home Rule

There is hardly any need to dwell on the boon education endows to a human being anywhere under the sun. Nelson Mandela, the South African Nobel Laureate, underlined succinctly: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” People all over the world duly recognise its potential. There were vocal and sincere advocates in India to underline the need for education for all, irrespective of caste, creed and sex. Nevertheless India is awfully backward. A nation that shuts up its educational avenues for all and sundry and favours the privileged alone has to rue in the long run for the selective hostility. With a vast humanity outside the pale of education, as is the case with India, ultimate prosperity eludes the country. Those left behind become an unmitigated and monstrous drag on its march to the pinnacle of glory and achievement. In his inauguration speech on January 20, 2009, the President of the United States of America, Barack Hussein Obama, drove this point home with his characteristic clarity and gush: “A nation cannot prosper long when it favours the prosperous.”1 India, known to favour the privileged since time immemorial, needs to note this warning with the seriousness it warrants.

The wisdom of the two observations cited above can hardly be underestimated by any yardstick. They are so self-evident in their consequences that no proof is required. The moot question that needs to be grappled with for an answer is: why is India, boastful of glorious ancient civilisation and culture, a laggard in education?

Educationists Shied Away to Advocate Education for the Indian Masses

The road to national prosperity and happiness can be achieved by educating and thereby equipping every soul with modern knowledge and skills in every nook and corner of the vast country. Failure to do so is an inescapable prescription for pitfalls. The planned economy and its development are sure to falter sooner or later. The turmoil engaging rural India is the result of criminal negligence and disregard for education of the disadvantaged in the lower social strata. The apparent Indian prosperity in the upper crest is ephemeral and will dissipate sooner than later.

Prior to independence, India embarked upon framing her future Constitution. In the Constituent Assembly, one of its illustrious members, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), acclaimed as an educationist and philosopher, was the first to be called upon to deliver his maiden speech after the election of Dr Rajendra Prasad as the permanent Chairman of the august House. It was on Wednesday, December 11, 1946. On December 9, 1946 the Constituent Assembly was inaugurated with Dr Sachchidanand Sinha as the temporary Chairman. Dr Radhakrishnan had observed, inter alia:

Take the problems from which we suffer: our hunger, our poverty, our disease, our malnu-trition—these are common to all. Take the psychological evils from which we suffer—the loss of human dignity, the slavery of human mind, the stunting of sensibility and shame of subjection—these are common to all: Hindus or Muslims, Princes or peasants. The chains may be made of gold but they are still chains that fetter us. Even the Princes will have to realise that they are slaves in this country.2

The damning national illiteracy, strangely, escaped the eminent educationist’s attention. He did not stress that mass illiteracy should receive the highest national priority of official policy for attack in independent India. He was most eminently placed to demand that education and education alone for all, irrespective of caste, creed, sex and place of birth, should be the only agenda for the government of independent India. It would have befitted Dr Radhakrishnan if he had echoed the Japanese imperial declaration on education which, in 1869, enunciated that there should be no village in the country with an illiterate household and no house with an illiterate inmate in Japan. In three decades Japan emerged as the powerhouse of the world, undoubtedly the gift of education. But the eminent educationist, on whom India takes immense legitimate pride, turned a Nelson’s eye to the colossal Indian illiteracy.

Our hunger, poverty, disease and malnutrition were serious problems to merit attack and nobody could have questioned any emphasis on these. But failure to accord mass education the pride of place in the scheme of prioritisation of the Indian social and political agenda is no accident per se. The Indian mind has been shaped and conditioned by its ancient religious scriptures and practices. Sacred scriptures have ordained against the lower social order getting education at all. Had some of the rulers of the Princely states (quite a number of them were there) in the Constituent Assembly ignored the need for education for the masses as a priority issue, no question could have been asked. But Dr Radhakrishnan adorned the offices of the Vice-Chancellor first in the Andhra University (1931-36) and next in the Benares Hindu University (1939-1948). Prior to it, he held the prestigious King George V Chair of Philosophy in Calcutta University. In Oxford University he taught for over a decade (1936-1952). In 1931, the British Government knighted him for his services to education. The Chancellor of Delhi University (1953-1962), Radhakrishnan, chaired free India’s first Higher Education Commission (1948-49).3 A Vice President for two terms as also the President of India (1962-1967), he was a towering personality to dictate the educational agenda for free India. His birthday is celebrated as the Teacher’s Day. The first step for drafting the future Constitution was marked by noble sentiments and lofty ideals as India was emerging out of the shadows of colonial rule to the light of freedom. Nevertheless, the enlightened philosopher ignored, without any qualms of conscience, the issue of education for the masses. How come? Does it not throw poor light inasmuch as that his profession was not in his passion, nor in his vision? Though he taught, he lacked commitment to education. The psychological evils, for example, loss of human dignity, the slavery of human mind, the stunting of sensibility and shame of subjection of Indians, were results of a blinding darkness caused by widespread illiteracy. In colonial India, these evils afflicting Indians could be placed at the doorsteps of the rulers. Over six decades ago they left the shores of India, consigning things to Indian hands to manage. Have we overcome the evils of loss of human dignity, the slavery of human mind, the stunting of sensibility and shame of subjection of vast section of Indians? Those evils have become the hallmarks of the lives of the underdogs. The elite Indians, who have been at the helm of affairs, are not really concerned about the well-being of the disadvantaged. They prescribe palliatives but do not want lasting cure of the diseases. Universalisation of education with commitment and sincerity would have altered radically the situation long back. The elites had different calculations for the millions of deprived Indians.

Why Don’t we have a Ripon?

See, in comparison, what the graduates of Calcutta University were told in one of the finest convocation addresses 127 years ago:

It is not desirable in any country to have a small highly educated class brought into contact with large uneducated masses: what is wanted is, instruction should be more equally distributed, that the artisans and peasants of the land should have brought within their reach facilities as may be possible under the circumstances of their condition, and that there should be no sharp line drawn between the educated few and the ignorant and untrained many.4

In these words Lord Ripon, the Governor General of India, addressed the students of Calcutta University on March 11, 1882. This alien ruler, whose regime saw the first Indian Education Commission with William Hunter as the Chairman, had issued a clear warning of impending disaster in store for the country if the sharp line between the educated few and the ignorant and untrained many was not erased soon. A deceitful, brutal and cliquish intellectual class since the colonial days had occupied the centre-stage of Indian education. They not only did not pull down the discriminatory line between the educated few and the ignorant and untrained many, they perpetuated it as a standing feature of the national life. The masses were not allowed any space for education. The educated few have penetrated in every layer of Indian polity and frustrated every attempt to ensure education reaching the common man. We have no parallel in authority with integrity and honesty to issue a warning as Ripon eminently did. On the contrary, illiteracy of the masses has been used, true to Ripon’s apprehension, as opportunity by the “small highly educated class” to harvest golden dividends at the cost of the ignorant masses. In a word, the havoc wrought in India’s education and consequent ills inflicted on national life can be attributed to none other than the educated few, who usually have assumed the role of self-proclaimed heaven-born guardians of the masses.

India Does Not Audit her Heroes’ Performances

India is a land of hero-worshippers. The perception of an idol in the hero here, is more often than not built up by the orchestra of relentless hype: he is projected as pious, blameless, faultless and peerless. By relentlessly dinning into unsuspecting ears, ignorant people are made to believe that their hero suffers from no shortcomings or frailty of human beings. Divine glow is smeared over him, making him look dazzling, supernatural and surreal. This ensures that no finger is ever raised by any critic at such a luminary. Faults, frailty and failures in his character and actions are shoved out of sight. Anybody pointing a finger at him is stigmatised as blasphemous. Alas! we never attempted at auditing the public cost of negligence or failure to point out the faults of many of our noble and celebrated souls, particularly when they guided the course of public life in narrow lanes, if not to murky directions. The Indian “great men” are placed on high pedestals, far above reproach or critical analysis by the common man. Anybody doing or attempting to do so is hauled up before the public bar as a malicious campaigner or malcontent. Nobody questioned why Dr Radhakrishnan, the quintessential educationist and philosopher, was so apathetic to giving education its rightful place in the future official agenda in the august House of India on the threshold of freedom from British domination. India did not boast even of 20 per cent literacy in 1946. This is India’s disease, not the symptom.

Betrayal of Friends Responsible for
Gokhale’s Death

Did our intellectual class fail to pinpoint this? They did not fail. It seems, they acquiesced in giving low priority to, if not displaying total neglect towards, universal primary education for reasons of their clannish convenience and benefit. The educated and privileged Indian elite did not want education to spread far and wide. They even brazenly offered opposition to education reaching the illiterate and unlettered millions, who have been beyond the pale of consideration for decent human treatment. Many would perhaps be surprised to note that Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea, the earliest to launch the nationalist movement, soon after his dismissal from the ICS in 1874,5 vigorously opposed the Compulsory Education Bill of Gopal Krishna Gokhale in the Governor General’s Central Legislative Council in 1911. Indian history is replete with the bitter and vicious discourses that the Education Bill met with the colonial rulers’ vehement opposition leading to its defeat. This is not a fact. The truth, however, is just otherwise. Those who vigorously campaigned against and voted for the disgraceful rejection of Gokhale’s Bill included the political giants of the day like Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea.6 The reputed scientist and founder of Bengal Chemicals, Prof P.C. Ray, had long later bemoaned that Gokhale died not because his Bill was thrown out by the Central Legislative Council on account of bureaucratic arrogance, as it is often made out, but because he could not bear the shock of betrayal of his close friends who had back-stabbed him over it.7 Nobody called the bluff of Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea.

Gokhale was Not Radical

In any case, the Bill, though eulogised in sonorous voices by the Indian intellectual class, has hardly any laudable or radical provisions to warrant notice. To drive this aspect home and to disarm adverse attack, I would quote just the central provision in the Bill:

In any area, where 33 per cent of the male population is already at school, there this principle of compulsion should be applied.8

No village in the subcontinent qualified during the colonial rule for enforcement of compulsion under the 33 per cent yardstick. Perhaps a few towns and cities, for example, Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, Poona, Karachi and Lahore, had 33 per cent population already in school in 1911. Even today the urban population barely exceeds 30 per cent. Who did then actually benefit from the introduction of compulsory primary education as such in India? The answer is quite simple. Looking closely at such developments, one would be convinced that our heroes in history are more often than not creatures of shrill, orchestrated propaganda!

Legendary Educationist and Education Minister Frustrated the Dacca University Plan!

Truth, we were taught early in childhood, is stranger than fiction. We were asked to write stanzas or paragraphs on this theme. Often practical instances were waiting to understand the deeper implications of such a proverb. Here is one culled from the history of Bengal.

On revocation of the partition of Bengal in 1911, Lord Hardinge, the Governor General of India, declared that a university would be set up at Dacca [now Dhaka]. India had by then four universities at Calcutta, Bombay, Madras and Allahabad. This benevolent proposal was greeted by trenchant opposition from Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, the Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University, Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea and others. As an educationist, Sir Ashutosh till date is a legend in Bengal!!! Egged on and propelled by the geniuses like them, the Education Minister of Bengal, Provash Chandra Mitra, and their cohorts ensured that budget provisions on account of the proposed Dacca University were not passed by the Bengal Legislative Council year after year till 1921, when the university came into being.9 Rarely in history do saboteurs of the establishment of a university occupy as high a stature as Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee and Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea. The fifth university of India and second in Bengal could not be established as a result. We cannot imagine why Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea and Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee set themselves against a university at Dacca so pugnaciously. But we cannot, however, overlook a demographic truth that the overwhelming majority of the population in Eastern Bengal was Muslims, low-caste Hindus and untouchables. The opposition of these luminaries of Bengal had dashed the aspirations for higher education of those educationally backward people. Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea, who had emerged victorious by defeating Gokhale’s Compulsory Primary Education Bill, conjointly with Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee throttled the Dacca University plan.10 Both actions synchronised in the immediate post-anti-partition agitation (1905-1911) era of Bengal. The elite and intelligentsia in general, and of Bengal in particular, have strangely overlooked the misdeeds and grave socio-political implications of these actions. These sordid episodes have been swept under the carpet lest it became embarrassing public knowledge.

Vidyasagar Opposed Education on
Comprehensive Scale beyond Higher Classes

The Charles Woods Despatch, 1854 is considered on all hands as the Magna Carta of Indian education. It adopted a new policy towards ‘mass education’. Hitherto the official focus was on the upper classes of population for education, euphemistically called the ‘Down Filtration Theory’. In 1859, the government’s education policy reiterated: “The spread of vernacular elementary instruction among the lower orders.”11 Upon this Pundit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar addressed a letter on September 29, 1859 to John Peter Grant, the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, underlining his perception:

An impression appears to have gained ground, both here and in England, that enough has been done for the education of the higher classes and that attention should now be directed towards the education of the masses... An enquiry into the matter will, however, show a very different state of things. As the best, if not the only practicable means of promoting education in Bengal, the Government should, in my humble opinion, confine itself to the education of the higher classes on a comprehensive scale.12

The words “higher classes” does not or should not construe in Bengali parlance anything but caste which ipso facto bestows or forfeits privilege of education on a person, as the case may be, by birth. The same renowned scholar earlier in 1854 had scoffed at the representation of the wealthy goldsmith caste of Bengal for admission in the Sanskrit College, Calcutta.13 His argument to deny their prayer was simple: he wrote that “in the scale of castes, the class (goldsmith or Subarnabanik) stands very low”.

Since ancient times, there has been no advocate of education for the socially disadvantaged in India. Sympathy, if any, has been showered selectively on higher education as we have seen in the case of Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea. We have also seen how the prospect of higher education for the underprivileged provoked the ire of Bengali educationists and intellectual classes. No person in high position, irrespective of political persuasion or ideological affiliation, has ever been sincere in promoting education. We have not heard from any person of eminence to declare: “It is not at the summit of our educational system that improvement is most urgently required but at the base.”14 Nor have we ever been warned by men in authority like Prof Rushbrook Williams, who observed:

It must be plain that until the proportion of literates can be raised, the masses of India will remain poor, helpless and prey to political dangers too serious to be contemplated with equanimity.15

Social Superiority Education-centric

The census of 2001 revealed that India’s literacy stood at 65 per cent. The definition of literacy has not overcome the colonial yardstick yet: ability to read and write small sentences is still considered as the objective of the Indian literacy drive. But why has the planned economic development failed to accord education its primacy in priority for the masses? It is not an oversight or accident but a calculated design to keep vast sections in the eternal abyss of ignorance, deprivation and segregation. The history of Indian education does not suggest a carefully designed roadmap for educational reform and development. An American researcher of repute, Prof Mayron Weiner of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has highlighted the aspiration of the dominant Indian society.

Education in India is regarded as a form of social superiority. Those who are educated dress and speak differently than those who are not educated. Those who are educated have power over those who are not. The educated can give commands to and shout at the uneducated and can expect deference and obedience.16

The most liberal, enlightened Indian does not want to forgo the advantages of the social superiority bestowed by birth. So they do not drive education in the direction its reform merits. The education that is being imparted across the country for the lower strata starkly lacks quality. The reforms in education face opposition from the mandarins of education themselves. They do not want such reforms in education that the men who work with hands would start working with brains. That would bring down the age-old distinction between men who work with brains and those who work with hands. They are afraid of this undesirable implication of the educational reforms, if any. The aforementioned MIT researcher found this out after prolonged interactions with a cross-section of Indians including the officials in the Ministry of Human Resources in Delhi.

Can Election Commission of India Step In?

Education endows a man knowledge, which is power capable of equipping him with skills, tools and techniques, unknown to him or his forefathers. Education showers wisdom. An enlightened man has vision that opens up multiple avenues before him for prosperity and happiness. A visionary man sets up a mission for himself and the people. A man bereft of education is worse than an animal. India occupies almost the lowest rank in the human development scale by international reckoning. The illiteracy of the masses contributes maximum to India occupying that embarrassingly low position. The claim of 65 per cent literacy is not above genuine suspicion. In truth the actual level of education is far less than projected. A cursory visit to villages even within 30 miles of the national Capital would unfailingly convince any impartial man about the futility of the claim that the percentage of India’s literacy is 65.

Elections to Parliament have come to a close. Before the end of the polls one wondered if the Election Commission of India could issue a commandment to political parties to accord the highest priority for quality universal education for the masses in their manifestos. The fundamental objective of a democratic polity is all-round uplift and actualisation of the aspirations for the happy and contented life of every citizen, irrespective of race, religion, caste, sex and place of birth. Illiteracy of a citizen denies him the fundamental right to life with dignity, happiness and freedom. Elimination of illiteracy is, therefore, the most urgent agenda of immense public importance for the nation. So a direction by the Election Commission to political parties contesting polls to incorporate universal compulsory quality primary education as the highest agenda in their manifestos would have gone a long way to combat the evil of illiteracy. Else the political parties have discovered goldmines in illiteracy among the masses. The illiterate and ignorant voters do not complain, nor do they pose questions to their elected representatives on issues seriously affecting them. Neither do they hold MPs, MLAs or MLCs accountable for failure to ameliorate their life and living. They deceive and cheat them with impunity. Look how a Chief Minister, otherwise known as suave and cultured, camouflaged his party’s deceit on education as the official policy: “To us communism means land reforms, agricultural growth, industrial development and cultural progress.”17 He was candid. Even out of pretension, education for the masses is not incorporated as an instrument of growth and development, though that is the solitary key for advancement of man. It is unnerving to imagine that a cadre-based party with deep penetration among masses excludes universalisation of primary education as an ideological strategy for growth and development. It may be a tragedy but its ideology does not favour or encourage the masses getting education any more than literacy!!!18 Rushbrook Williams had correctly foreseen this danger nine decades ago. The illiterate masses have fallen “prey to political dangers”. Illiteracy, left to ongoing political processes, will be perpetuated. India is in a deep trap.

Educational destitution forms the darkest chapter of Indian history. Alas! this chapter cannot be attributed to the enemies of India. We have per-force to point our fingers for this at our countrymen, hailed as noble, celebrated and dedicated. When will India come out of the blighting shadows and pernicious influences of the past legacy and present political trap?


1. The Times of India, New Delhi, January 21, 2009.

2. Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol. I, December 11, 1946.

3. Encyclopedia Britannica.

4. Speeches and Unpublished Resolutions of Lord Ripon edited by Ramachandra Palit, Calcutta, 1882, p. 286.

5. A.K. Biswas, “Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea and his Dismissal from ICS”, Mainstream, Vol. XXXI, No. 42, August 28, 1993, New Delhi, pp. 27-31.

6. B.R. Nanda says: “Surendra Nath Banerjea opposed it (Compulsory Education Bill), fearing that it would divert funds for elementary education from higher education.” Gokhale, Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 389. Incidentally, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, to note some prominent few, besides many municipalities had supported the Bill.

7. A Bengali article by Prof P.C. Ray in Bengali monthly Probasi, Kartik 1336, Series 27, Vol. II, pp. 86-87.

8. T. V. Pavate, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Ahmedabad, 1959, p. 338.

9. Naresh Chandra Sengupta, an autobiographical account in Bengali Yugaparikrama.

10. Sir Surendra Nath had established a college in Calcutta in memory of Lord Ripon. It was called Ripon College. Now it is has been renamed as Surendranath College.

11. Herbert Alick Stark, Vernacular Education in Bengal from 1813 to 1912, Calcutta, 1916, p. 72.

12. A. K. Biswas, “A Nation of Slow Learners”, The Telegraph, Kolkata, December 23, 1993.

13. Sanjiv Chattopadhyay, a biographer of the Pundit, has revealed that Iswar Chandra started his primary education in a school established and maintained by Shibcharan Mallick, a rich man of goldsmith caste in Calcutta, Bartaman, Sharad Special Issue, Calcutta, 1411 B.S., p. 345. Gratitude has no place in the lexicon of caste, particularly for those lower in hierarchy.

14. Lord Ripon, op. cit.

15. Rushbrook Williams, India in 1919.

16. Mayron Weiner, The Child and the State of India.

17. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Chief Minister, West Bengal, quoted in The Times of India, Kolkata, August 6, 2007.

18. This does not seem new or unfamiliar in the ideology-driven party of the masses. In the post-Bolshevik revolution era, the Soviet Union’s police had resorted to brutal action against students. The great Russian novelist Maxim Gorky strongly condemned the action of the authorities. In September 1919, Lenin wrote in reply tersely to Gorky: “In general, as you probably know, I am not particularly fond of intelligentsia, and our new slogan ‘eliminate illiteracy’ should by no means be taken as expressing a wish to give birth to a new intelligentsia. To ‘eliminate illiteracy’ is necessary only so that every peasant, every worker can read our decrees, orders and appeals by himself without anyone’s help. The goal is purely practical. That’s all there is to it.” Quoted by D. N. Ghosh, in an article captioned “A God that is failing” in The Times of India, Kolkata, December 6, 2007.

The author is a former Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar. He can be contacted by e-mail at atul.biswas@gmail.com

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