School girl in India [cropped]. Photo: Johan Bichel Lindegaard/Flickr, Creative Commons License:
A schoolgirl in India. Photo: Johan Bichel Lindegaard / Flickr

The last governor general of India, a celebrated political figure and a co-recipient of the inaugural Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari was hailed as a visionary leader, statesman, and a hero of the Indian freedom movement. Yet a single educational-reform proposal forever tarnished his legacy in the eyes of the Indian masses.

Indian society was historically organized into four social classes or castes. The Brahmins were the topmost and enjoyed the highest social respect and veneration. The lowest of the four were the Shudras, who were denied education, among numerous other ordinary rights, amenities and entitlements.

Then there were the Dalits, or the untouchables, who lay outside this social stratification and were grossly dehumanized.

Traditionally, studying scriptures, treatises, and other scholarly texts was exclusively and rigidly the domain of Brahmins. Shudras and Dalits could not enjoy the prerogative of literacy, and their attempts at learning were met with harsh punishment.

In fact, ancient Indian normative codes of lifestyle and behavior such as the Manusmriti and the Gautama Dharmasutra prescribe severe penalization of attempts to hear, recite, or memorize scriptures or to interrupt, argue with, or correct Brahmins. Punitive measures include filling the listener’s ears with molten metal or oil, severing the tongue of the reciter, or even killing the subject in a merciless manner.

In 1953, in a purported bid to counter the colonial influence on education, and roll back occidental (read modern) impressions, the erstwhile chief minister of Madras state, Rajagopalachari, introduced the Modified Scheme of Elementary Education under which schools were to work in the morning and students compulsorily had to learn their respective family vocations in the afternoon.

It had only been a few decades that Dalits and Shudras had been attending schools and joining government jobs. The scheme of two sessions in elementary school where the latter would be spent learning one’s family trade, craft, or profession, was problematic as it indirectly ensured that the practitioners of underprivileged, menial, and dishonorable professions, already egregiously mistreated, obligated and underpaid, at times unpaid, would pass on the burden to their children.

In fact, for hundreds of thousands of Indian children, their “family vocation” meant partaking in obligatory menial activities like manual scavenging, rag picking, domestic labor such as sweeping.

It was seen as a crafty ploy devised by the Brahminist Rajagopalachari abusing his authority and legislatorial designation to keep the downtrodden in utter, bleak ignominy and perpetuate the ongoing social paradigms and caste hierarchy. By stripping children of choice, the suggested reform was not merely detrimental to social mobility but was imposing perpetual servitude upon the lowest castes.

Against the backdrop of abject poverty and illiteracy, this was seen as an attempt to restrict knowledge to those who already favorably possessed it, reinforce entitlements and the hierarchical social order, and distract youth from modernization and exposure to Western ideas. The scheme was deferred and the whole controversy indirectly cost him his chief ministership. His successor dropped the very idea altogether.

Sixty-seven years later, the new National Education Policy (NEP) brought in by the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government should trigger similar concerns. While like most other sudden strides of the regime, this proposal could be deemed “well intended,” for it seeks to make youth self-reliant, enhance and uphold the dignity of labor, and address the commonly bemoaned lack of self-dependency in Indian children, it will likely end up doing more harm than good in practice.

Whereas such countries as Japan and Russia train students early on in performing chores, everyday tasks, and basic repairs and crafts, as an integral part of education, these measures are seen as duties and responsibilities that help make the classroom and the society more egalitarian, united by the dignity of labor. They inculcate the spirit of prompt initiative-taking and a neutral, grounded outlook to life.

In India, however, even the best-intended of landmark steps, such as the introduction mid-day meals, the provision of lunch at schools to attract children and prevent dropping out, end up expressing and reinforcing the socioeconomic divide.

In the case of mid-day meals, numerous reports are heard of rural schools segregating children by caste, and often providing Dalit children with lower-quality, lesser, or blander food. Children hailing from traditionally lower castes are made to sit away or lower in elevation than those belonging to the upper castes. Segregation or distinction of water sources and utensils isn’t unheard of, either.

Given how prone unregulated and unsupervised rural schools are, it is thus quite foreboding that such institutions would be entrusted with imparting vocational training at the middle-school level.

It is very likely that an informal arrangement will materialize where upper-caste students will be provided the limited portion of higher-earning and more refined, reputable, and dignified professions.

They would either get to cherry-pick the alternatives more in line with their traditional caste occupation of scholarship, erudition, business, and fine work, or none at all, while the brunt of the labor would be shouldered by the lower castes, distracting and sidelining them from mainstream education.

No real choice would thus exist, and the supposed aim of the NEP 2020, that is to make education more diverse, holistic, flexible, and accessible would backfire.

The optional nature of vocation makes it all the more prone to abuse by local authority, unlike other measures that promote inculcation of self-reliance such as routine, rotational classroom, and washroom cleaning in Japanese schools that applies to one and all unvaryingly. This is a paradoxical case of cannibalistic choice – the availability of choice curtails its own scope.

Moreover, since India has a high level of stigma and a pronounced gradation of dignity enshrouding one’s choice of profession, allocation of vocations are likely to either be arbitrary or dangerously caste-systematic. The latter would only serve to further fuel the stigma and indignation regarding certain means of livelihood-derivation, which often comprise essential services.

A basic common education up to the 10th grade is of utmost importance, since it builds conceptual fundamentals of various disciplines that help an individual tackle all sorts of everyday life scenarios. First-generation learners from underprivileged backgrounds are likely to be compelled by their parents to take up their own vocations and spiral down the continuation of hereditary occupation in a self-destructive pursuit of extra earning to fund further education.

Underprivileged students would frequently settle for low-paying jobs and won’t pursue higher education, paving way for the sustained elitist dominance of top academic and employment positions, perpetuating this legacy of alienation.

In the long run, the measure would confine social mobility to a roundabout and unleash a cascade of socioeconomic rifting. The proponents of the NEP 2020 explicitly call for blurring the line between vocation and education, thus invariably tying a rightful amenity to a means of sustenance, an obligation, and the very basis of socioeconomic inequality. This will only serve to reinforce the current stubborn, compulsive social organization.

With its new proposition, the BJP government is undoing decades of developmental progress on various fronts, and reversing the role of education from being emancipatory and liberating to being restrictive, obligatory, and burdensome.

Pitamber Kaushik

Pitamber Kaushik is a columnist, an independent journalist, a writer, and an amateur researcher. His writing has appeared in more than 60 outlets in 30 countries.