India’s New Education Policy: Creeping 'Saffronization'?
Image Credit: Flickr/ Yorick_R

India’s New Education Policy: Creeping 'Saffronization'?

 
 

The first full-fledged National Education Policy in India was drafted and implemented in 1968 and the second in 1986. Barring some modifications in 1992 and in 2005, the first major overhaul of the 1986 policy has been taken up by the Modi government now, which is seeking to address and accommodate changes in the realm of education – at all levels from elementary to college education across rural and urban India. In April 2015, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) under Minister Smriti Irani announced the initiation of the consultation process for the formation of the New Education Policy (NEP)

According to the formal announcement, the aim was to respond to the “changing dynamics of the population’s requirement with regards to quality education, innovation and research” and help the country move towards becoming a knowledge superpower. The process was announced as a multiple level consultation process both on ground and online across stakeholders. Grass root opinions were soon to be garnered also from the Gram Panchayats (village councils) and online consultations had begun on thirty-three themes.

On May 27, 2016, the TSR Subramanian Committee entrusted with the preparation of the policy draft submitted its report to the ministry, aiming to give direction toward addressing quality concerns. The five-member panel of the committee had been given the task of compiling the MHRD’s collected feedback from the multiple consultations. The report was well over two hundred pages long and had about ninety suggestions. The ministry announced that it needed an evaluation before public release and that the actual new policy based on the report would take at least two more months to prepare.

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In June 2016, the head of the committee, Subramanian, urged Irani to make the report public before the final policy was out. He wrote to her saying that it was important to release it in public interest as the contents were not classified, and that after “soul searching” he felt that he ought to release it himself if she would not. While he has not released the full report so far, he was not the only person to place this pressure on the MHRD. The civil society organization Common Cause also made a request for complete content disclosure in order to facilitate informed public discussion on the first revamped NEP in three decades.

Irani responded to these requests by stating that the report was not the property of merely an individual and could only be made public once all the states had provided their opinions on it. At this stage she spoke of all the efforts made towards taking in public opinion, citing that the ministry had received written suggestions from about 110,000 villages. While the TSR Committee saw their report as a draft policy, the ministry at this juncture seemed to see it as only a set of recommendations, and said that they would release the actual draft when it was completed.

This is despite the fact that when the TSR Committee was appointed, it was called the ‘Drafting Committee for the New Education Policy’ and in the official press release its duties included the provision of a Framework for Action (FFA) for policy implementation. Subsequently it was rechristened the ‘Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy’ and the FFA was not submitted as the policy was pending approval. The actual report is still not publicly available as of this writing.

The policy itself was to have been out by the end of last year, but has had multiple extensions on grounds of more extensive consultations. In the wake of this, the Modi government’s cabinet reshuffle seemed to throw a spanner in the works – Minister Smriti Irani was removed from the MHRD. Her tenure until the Modi government’s own halfway point had been rife with controversy – beginning with allegations of so-called saffronization by multiple groups not allied with the BJP. The suicide of Dalit scholar Rohit Vemula, the subsequent protests at the University of Hyderabad, and the controversy regarding the curbing of free speech at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi earlier this year added to the turbulence. Irani has been given the position of the new Textiles Minister.

Minister Prakash Javadekar who is the only one of Modi’s nineteen new appointees to make it to the Senior Cabinet has promised to ‘build upon her good initiatives’ and has said that he takes the issue of education very seriously and sees it as an emancipator and agent of change. Javadekar, who was a student activist during the Emergency period in India, has promised to come out with a “student-centric education policy.” He has invited comments on what is now a forty-three page report with inputs from the MHRD on the NEP draft.

He has further attempted to address some of the allegations against the MHRD in his speech at an event organized by the Bhartiya Shikshan Mandal, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a prominent organization with heavy right-wing leanings. He said that education ought not to be reduced to a BJP versus Congress feud or be subject to party politics and said it was open for discussion. He has promised to let the aim of the new policy be to “raise the quality and encourage innovation” through education.

The allegations of saffronization have not fully settled despite his insistence that the views of all ideological sections were necessary for a good draft. The lack of appearance of the full report does not help his cause. Further, at the same event, strong arguments were made to encourage the teaching of Sanskrit in schools, and the recommendations for the policy are already reported to have a significant component of ‘value’ education – which has raised worries about the possibility for political manipulation. Other speakers at the event implied that this meant a need to teach the “basics of all religions” in order to inculcate religious harmony, but the steady emphasis on the need to provide a value system through education is rife in the MHRD document as well.

With the month end slated as the deadline for comments, one can only wait and see what the way forward is – and hope that a strong NEP 2016 emerges from the messy back and forth that its incubation process has been.

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