The New Right shows signs of disdain for education
Conservative, or moderate right wing, thought in India was one of the main agencies for the provision of quality education in the country over the last 100-150 years. That seems to have dramatically changed, and the present right-wing surge is being seen as synonymous with a new approach where quality public education is to be shunned as “elitist”.
The right-wing in India may have a history that is more than a century old, but in one crucial sense, the present right-wing surge is a break with the past: investment in quality education.
There are other elements of a break too, but it would be meaningful to look at the field of education at a time when Jawaharlal University and Delhi University are witnesses to strikes. While it is both students and teachers who are up in arms against the Narendra Modi government in JNU, it is primarily teachers who have struck work in DU -- over a circular that endangers the future of ad hoc teachers -- even deciding to boycott invigilation work.
How is this a break with the past?
Conservative, or moderate right-wing, thought in India was one of the main agencies for the provision of quality education in the country in the last 100-150 years.
That seems to have dramatically changed, and the present right-wing surge is being seen as synonymous with the disruption of top institutions with a heavy left and liberal presence – like JNU and DU – and with steep fee hikes in other quality public institutions like the IITs.
The advent of modern times – and colonialism, which introduced the practice of counting the populations of each religious community with the beginning of the decennial census in 1881 -- produced a heightened sense of community competition in India. And while such competition led to acrimonious debates and speeches – and, indeed, sometimes to incendiary writings leading to riots – it led to a bursting forth of creative activity in the educational field.
If one looks at the competition between Christian missionaries, Hindu movements like the Arya Samaj and Muslim reform efforts, one thing that stood out was an investment in quality education.
The effort of these competing cultural actors was to use education as an instrument for the future modelling of society around their own cultural vision. The ideal citizen of the future was, thus, supposed to be both a carrier of excellence and a desirable cultural slant.
One look at educational institutions in India boasting excellence shows how religious movements and endeavours contributed to the cause.
Think of the Aligarh Muslim University, a product of Syed Ahmad Khan’s vision to modernize Muslims though education. Yes, it was loyalist and also had many backers of Pakistan, but there was no doubt about its excellence. The university till today boasts of eminent alumni and has had on its rolls some of the brightest intellectuals. Names like historian Irfan Habib still stand testimony to its brilliance. In the Narendra Modi government’s NIRF rankings of all universities in 2019, AMU stands 11th.
On the “Hindu” side, Madan Mohan Malaviya established Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in 1915. The university soon became a centre for excellence and still ranks as the third-best university of India, as per the National Institutional Ranking Framework.
A BHU professor told me an anecdote some years back regarding how Malaviya – a Congress as well as Hindu Mahasabha leader – valued education. He even invited the communist leader from Varanasi Rustam Satin to pursue his education at BHU, to enhance his learning alongside his activism. Satin, the academic said, sarcastically told Malaviya that he would not be able to bear the presence of a communist in his university. Malaviya assured him everything would be fine. Satin took admission and indeed studied in BHU. When Malaviya died, Satin recorded this in his memoirs, said the professor.
The Arya Samaj, a right-wing Hindu movement, itself created a string of DAV schools, many of which have done very well. Not just this, Hansraj College, one of the best colleges of DU and of India, owes its origins to the Arya Samaj. If one takes a look at the Aurobindo Society, a culturally oriented movement, The Mother’s International School in Delhi is not just one of the top schools of the capital but also one of the best schools in the country.
One look at Christian missionary institutions would show that many cities in India have missionary schools that are the preferred educational destination of people across communities. Among colleges, the St Stephen’s College in Delhi is widely believed to be the best college in India.
There can be countless examples like these. Suffice it to say that educational excellence has been one of the desired objectives of many culturally oriented movements. They have sought education with a specific cultural tilt but not sub-standard education.
In this sense, however, the RSS has been a laggard. While it has established a network of Saraswati Shishu Mandirs and also Ekal Vidyalayas (single-teacher schools), no top institution in the country since 1925 -- when the Sangh was born -- boasts an RSS association.
The New Right and the break
However, the cultural project of Hindutva under the present BJP shows no evidence that it desires educational excellence.
It is being seen as harsh on a left-leaning JNU or even DU, but it is replacing them with a vacuum. No new institution pursuing educational excellence alongside a Hindu cultural tilt is anywhere to be seen. If the question was ideological reorientation, one would have expected the Modi government, with active encouragement from the RSS, to try and set up world-class universities with a Hindu tilt. That would have been what a Malaviya or Sir Syed would have done to “serve” their communities. And that is what the Arya Samaj or Christian missionaries would have attempted. There is, however, no evidence that the government has any such desire.
In fact, an unstated binary is under construction in India. Quality education is being seen as the “enemy” of the masses, who have often not been to quality institutions. It is a perverse sense of pulling down though who are “privileged” – not in terms of birth or money but in terms of their individual and emotional investment in quality education – and flattening things to ensure the equitable distribution of mediocrity.
This is how the New Right seems to be approaching education. Social media trolls calling for a shutting down of JNU or seeking to know why they should subsidise public education are examples of this. And so are stray voices in the BJP that continue to attack spaces like JNU time and again in the most vicious manner.
While there were some signs of a decline under the more moderate Atal Behari Vajpayee, things were never the way they are now. Murli Manohar Joshi had as HRD minister lowered the fees of the IIMs, seeking to know why they need to charge high fees if management education does not entail the use of costly equipment. The present pitch is the opposite: increase fees in JNU and the IITs, thus rolling back subsidy, and make it difficult for the 4500 ad hoc teachers in Delhi University to pursue their careers.
The DU crisis flows from an August 28 circular that mandates the appointment of only guest teachers and not ad hoc teachers against unfilled permanent vacancies. While ad hoc teachers have contracts lasting for a semester and no annual fee hikes, guest teachers are paid per lecture.
The way out, logically speaking, should have been to expedite permanent appointments. However, what is being done is the opposite: convert ad hoc appointments to guest appointments, which would mean massive insecurity and drops in earning, in the name of permanent recruitment.
The Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) has already announced a strike to protest a decision by college principals to keep the reappointment of 4500 ad hoc teachers in abeyance and hold back their salaries. The principals’ body has now said that those who were already teaching as ad hoc teachers up to July can be reappointed but not fresh ad hoc teachers. Teachers’ outfits have rejected this compromise. At stake is the future of thousands – many with PhDs, published papers and a track record of teaching in DU colleges for years of end.
JNU ranks second among all Indian universities – as per the 2019 NIRF – and DU 13th. Yet, they are plunged into sudden and unprecedented crises.
For some, JNU and DU are hotbeds of left and liberal thought. They believe the government wants to pull them down because of ideological differences.
The right question to ask is: when was the last public institution of high quality in the field of higher education set up in India. The facts are discomforting. The IITs, IIMs and AIIMS were the first quality institutions set up in independent India and were largely Nehruvian in their origins. JNU was set up during the time of Indira Gandhi and quickly rose to become one of India’s top institutions. The National Law Schools came up during Rajiv Gandhi’s time and also became good institutions soon.
In the last few years, perhaps more than a decade, many central universities have been set up but none of them comes close to any of these institutions.
And this is what is making the BJP’s ideological self seem less than enthusing. One feature of culturally oriented movements in the world is their immense investment in education. They see laying foundations for a robust future in sync with their vision as very important.
There is plenty of evidence that left and liberal academic spaces are under strain in the last few years. But there is no evidence that quality institutions with a Hindu cultural tilt are taking their place. What is replacing them is a vacuum.
This seems to be an investment in love for a culture of mediocrity, which is zealously guarded like a prized possession.
Photos by Biplov Bhuyan/Hindustan Times via Getty Images