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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 1 New Delhi December 23, 2017 - Annual Number

Ransoming Educational Institutions: Remembering J.P. Naik’s Idea of “Educational Revolution”

Sunday 24 December 2017

by Murzban Jal

The imposing tower of misery which today rests on the heart of India has its sole foundation in the absence of education.Rabindranath Tagore.

For the last year-and-a-half after the JNU incident, many reflections on the malfunctioning of universities have been articulated mostly from the liberal democratic framework. Such reflections work on the binary: liberalism=good/authoritarianism= bad. While such binaries seem to be ever present in the cranium of the liberals, what they do not do, is that they cannot provide even the simplest solutions. What liberalism does not understand is that authoritarianism and fascism emerge from the contradictions of capitalism, which the liberal refuses to see. For the liberal, liberty lies in the phantasmagorical realm. And, of course, liberty has never to be soiled by political economy. The latter is filthy, according to the liberal. In actuality it is the liberal who has sabotaged the very funda-mentals of common sense itself. What the liberal has also not understood is that behind the brave words of bourgeoisdom: liberty, equality, fraternity lie the cruel truth of infantry, artillery and cavalry.

Consequently articles appearing in The Indian Express like Dhananjay Singh’s article, ‘Holding JNU to Ransom’ (July 19, 2017) and Suhas Palshikar’s article ‘Tank or No Tank’ (July 27, 2017) appear in this same liberal narrative. They offer no solutions. It must be noted that while mentioning these liberal writers talk of educational politics at the JNU, their views also have repercussions for other educational institutes in India.

Let us see the liberal narrative. According to Singh, there are a “miniscule number of teachers and students” who “hold the campus to ransom and destroy the university’s ethos”, while according to Palshikar, the issue is much larger where universities actually recall and stress the colonial project of the “value of obedience” instead of producing the “spirit of fearless questioning the powers to be”. In such a situation that specifically emerged at the JNU (in February 2016 and which will continuously emerge not only at the JNU but in many education institutes), what is presented is an extreme binary discourse; where sharp polarised opinions hegemonise the entire discourse of university education in India.

In such a scenario the real issues remain buried. After all, the creation of what Slavoj Zizek calls after Jurgen Habermas calls Denkverbot (the prohibition against thinking) followed by a spectacle is necessary to bury real issues. We know that false appearances are a necessity to veil the real content of social life like the “commodity (which) strips off its original commodity form on being alienated...”1 While it is obvious that spectacles do emerge (and will continue to emerge) in the discourse of university education in India, what needs to be stressed is that India produces systematically the best social scientists, largely from the Leftist point of view.

It is probably not recognised that this “excellence” in the social sciences was due to a system that was built in the 1960s when the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) was formed to nurture, cultivate and develop the social sciences. A comparative study between India and neighbouring countries (both in West and East Asia) shows that Indian social sciences do stand out. China, of course, is an exception, whose record far exceeds the growth of the social sciences in India.

Yet one man’s voice is drowned in the present epoch of deliberate chaos and that is the voice of J.P. Naik (1907-1981), the bohemian polymath, freedom fighter and lover of humanity. While textbooks (sometimes) do show him as being recognised by UNESCO as one of the greatest educationists that India has ever produced, there is a sort of forgetfulness of not only an institution maker, but basically on the art of institution making and what being a lover of humanity can mean. The incidents at the JNU are a sign of this forgetfulness. It is not a case whether a tank should be on the campus or whether an ex cricketer along with a retired military general should march on the campus. It is about institutions, institution making and what the “first principles” of running institutions ought to be.

One forgets this fine art of understanding the “first principles” of institutions. It is necessary that merely taking sides on campus battles—the phantasmagorical right or the left that refuses to engage with Revolutionary Marxism, instead coveting liberalism—would be creating phantasies and then being devoured by these apparitions. Instead we need to go to the “first principles”. What are these?

The first thing that we need to note is that there is a certain crisis in higher education, a crisis that is overwhelming us because we have moved from the first principles, that is, moved away from the reality of class and caste-divided society that is far removed from higher education. What needs being done is first noting that there is a crisis and then one needs to find solutions for the same. Instead of going into the metaphysics of “first principles”, it is necessary to move into the everyday life-simplicity of these “first principles”. Now it must be noted that Naik, besides founding the ICSSR, also founded the Indian Institute of Education in Pune, the Shri Mouni Vidyapeeth at Kolhapur, apart from other institutions. It is necessary to recall an anecdote that the manager of the Bank of Maharashtra said of an incident that happened around 40 years ago. Once, when the funds were delayed from the ICSSR (it was allegedly delayed only by a few days), Naik went to the bank to mortgage their house so that payment of the salaries to the staff would not be delayed. It is from this simplicity that one needs to address systematic issues.

Naik in his celebrated essay ‘To Begin a Revolution with a Revolution” (Slavoj Zizek would much later use the term “revolution with a revolution”’ a term that emerged in the French Revolution) talked of the dire need of an “educational revolution”.2 In the same essay he quotes Nehru who had said that “the entire basis of education must be revolutionised”. And in the next sentence Naik laments: “We did not make the most of this opportunity, to the detriment, not only of education but of life itself.”3

This is the central tragedy of the education system in India. Yet Naik was optimist. He thought that there could be a “second chance”. He called this “a very rare occurrence in life” where “an educational revolution has now to precede a socio-economic revolution in life”.4 The goal was clear for Naik. It was to be “a great adventure of national reconstruction whose objective is to abolish poverty, unemploy-ment and ill health and to create a new social order based on the dignity of the individual, liberty, equality, and social justice”. What has not been recognised is that policy-makers and the political elites (right from the time of independence) made promises that they would never be able to keep. Maulana Azad, in the Chairman’s address at the 25th meeting of the CABE’ (1958), lamented that education was ignored when the first draft of the Plan was made, and only that which brought in “quick returns” had priority for the government.

Free and compulsory education, the motto that seemed to have been etched in the cranium of the freedom movement, was to be swallowed by “Quick Returns, Inc”. The latter did not understand what Naik predicted, namely, that “destiny is ruthless”. “She generally gives,” so Naik went on, “one chance for survival and we are unfortunate to have had two.” We “missed the first. Can we dare miss the second?”

Unfortunately we live in the age of post-tragic tragedy. The educational revolution, that was to organise national life, would be aborted. “Quick returns, Inc” would never want this educational revolution. The consequent answer to the holding of JNU (and many, many educational institutions) to ransom is found in the above noted tragedy. Education was never to be an essential part of the National Movement. Nor was it to be part of the National Imagination. Instead it was (and continuously to be) treated as a terrible commodity and that too a commodity of alien (to be precise colonial) origin.

The Indian educational elites (we can call them “native elites” as distinct from the “colonial elites”, as Jean Paul Sartre said in his Colonialism and Neocolonialism) never bothered to question the educational system that grew systematically from the seeds sown by the colonial masters. What the educational elites did was treat educational institutions growing “naturally” and “normally”, as if school and university education in modern India went through a process of natural history. This of course is totally false. The colonial system was a system to administer people in a ruthless way. Their system was a panoptic system. One then was made to believe that this system was actually a system of liberation. The system went under the names of “English education”, “modern education”, “secularism”, “development”, etc.

In actuality the Indian political state (like the earlier colonial state) was at best a patronising state where it was not democracy and teacher-student relation that were cultivated. Instead the relation that was established was that of patron and client. The teacher would be the patron and the students would become mere clients. What is not remembered is that in this patron-client nexus, both the Indian political state as well as the education system started reproducing extreme social divisions based on primordial identities. Students as clients could exist only when there would be divisions of such magnitude, divisions that one could call after B.R. Ambedkar as “enclosures”. These “enclosures” would create so-called students of “merit” and others who cannot achieve that level. The universities, instead of creating the letter and spirit of education as democracy, created and recreated hierarchies. These are silent hierarchies. But the cries of these hierarchies do speak out.

Hierarchies are then continually being manu-factured. But then this “manufacturing” of caste starts from the primary school level, where children enter the education system with the stamp of caste marked on their foreheads. It is therefore not mere university education that is in crisis, not only education per se, but society itself that is in a terminal state of crisis. The education revolution thus needs to create a comprehensive system from KG to PG. We have forgotten the idea of common schools. We have also forgotten that real national bonding will start from the common schools. We start at the KG level at an extremely uneven manner—excellent schools for the rich and next-to-nothing for the poor. Have, for instance, educationists ever seriously thought how to annihilate caste and with it the annihilation of hierarchies and poverty that accompany caste?

No government has bothered to imagine a programme for the annihilation of caste, societal hierarchies and poverty. No government has thought how democracy should be practised and taught. The system is going well beyond the control of even the political elites.

It must stop, but who is to stop this? Who will see that universities are the places of democratisation and the celebrating of fraternity? Most certainly it is not the political oligarchs. And here it is not one or two parties to blame. Right from the Stalinist Left to the liberal Centre and the conservative Right—everyone is to blame. Everyone has become an oligarch. The only difference is that whether one is a Stalinist oligarch, a liberal oligarch or an authoritarian oligarch.

The need of an “educational revolution” is to basically learn whether we can truly learn how to transcend the trappings of oligarchy. But the education system truly needs to transcend itself. This would imply that we must give up all the trappings of caste and class elitism. We must learn thus to be truly human. But would the Indian elites allow this?

Or would one need another revolution to allow this?


1. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983), p. 110.

2. J.P. Naik, ‘To Begin a Revolution with a Revolution” in The Social Context of Education. Essays in Honour of Professor J.P. Naik (New Delhi: Allied Publishers Ltd., 1978), p. 1.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

Prof Murzban Jal is the Director, Centre for Educational Studies, Indian Institute of Education, Pune.

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