NEP Turns Blind Eye to Deep-Rooted Inequalities as Caste, Reservation Take a Backseat

Our young adults must be given the opportunity to envision how respectful difference helps in peacefully inhabiting places with histories of violence, and how human dignity is a fundamental right of every citizen.

In the hoary past of pre-pandemic era, which is the month of February of this calendar year, my days would often start with children’s voices – rising and falling in unison in their morning assembly in the nearby Kendriya Vidyalaya. I usually tried to avoid the road in front of the school mid-morning since children and parents crowded the pavement, spilling over to the road and slowing down traffic.

These days, the road lies sleepy and empty like the school. There are few spaces more heartbreaking than an abandoned school ground, growing wild flowers and full of butterflies without feet to pluck or chase them.  The changing rules of sociality have also morphed our perceptions of the relationships between people and places – how a space becomes part of our everyday lives through the ways people occupy it.

It is rather stating the obvious that teaching and learning have taken a beating like many other essential services since the classrooms had to be abandoned. Distance learning could have been developed or reshaped to address the crisis of empty classrooms, but our over-reliance on ‘smart’ online lives has actually deepened the digital divide, sustaining it with every passing day through digital exclusion. One serious casualty of the pandemic lockdown is the shortened CBSE syllabus for Class 10 and 11.

The learning curve for both teachers and students is steep to acclimatise fast with online classrooms. For senior school students, coping with the pressure of examination along with the enormous human tragedy of the pandemic is difficult. A few ‘deleted chapters’ (as the revised syllabus reads) must feel like a breath of fresh air.

The shortened syllabus, however, becomes a far graver concern because of the selection of ‘deleted chapters’. For example, in the Political Science section of Social Sciences for Class 10, the chapters that will not be taught are ‘Democracy and Diversity’, ‘Gender, Religion and Caste’, ‘Popular Struggles and Movements’ and ‘Challenges to Democracy’.

The list is more conspicuous in the context of the New Education Policy, which puts emphasis on “knowledge and practice of human and constitutional values” without any allusion to fundamental rights – the bedrock of India’s Constitution.

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Even those of us who have rarely spent any time thinking about pedagogical practices, have been school students at some point in our lives and possibly have school-going children at home. We must admit that a grudging read through prescribed chapters in school textbooks often stay at the back of our minds for years to come. I never heard the term ‘gender’ in my entire school-life and it took our generation several years of struggle to understand and fight for gender justice.

Senior school students of the present batch of Class 10, I believe, would have been in a much better position to understand the ‘real world’ for which they are preparing at school and from which their adults protect them, had they learnt about gender as a constituting element of the society we inhabit. One could argue that it is only a single batch of students who will miss learning these chapters, but the serious question remains the logic behind excision of these specific themes.

The New Education Policy is creating ripples of debate in the past two days. The astute voice of Professor Kumkum Roy alerts us that the new policy document rarely mentions ‘caste’ or, reservation in academic institutions, whether for students, teachers, or other employees, which will have serious implications for majority of those covered under the acronym SEDGs (Socially and Economically Disadvantaged Groups).

The digital divide in accessing online classrooms put the students from disadvantaged backgrounds in further disadvantage. Prof Roy, in the same article, has also expressed concern about the passing reference to educational institutions in tribal areas, designated as ashramshalas (NEP 1.8) and envisaged as part of the Early Childhood Children Education programme.

Representative image of Jyoti Randhe, a class 10 student of BMC school, studying at home at Aarey Colony in Mumbai. Her father looks on. Photo: PTI/Mitesh Bhuvad)

The mention of ashramshalas reminded me of Bengali author Subodh Ghosh’s short story ‘Chaturtha Panipater Juddho’ (The Fourth Battle of Panipat, 1944). It is an evocative yet sharp critique of the colonial education system in a ‘tribal area’ of Chhotanagpur.

Stephen Horo, an adivasi boy in a missionary school with teachers from caste Hindu backgrounds and a mixed population of students created sensation for his academic and athletic talents. Ghosh writes the story from the perspective of a caste-Hindu classmate of Horo, jealous with a deep-seated racism against adivasi people, and weaves his account with an ironical tone of appreciating Horo’s achievements.

Horo passes through several phases during his years in school – from being the best student in English to a dogged commitment to learn Sanskrit to search for his tribal roots and falling in love with Chirki Murmu, the daughter of the old custodian of Munda temple in the hills. From the beloved disciple of the Irish missionary head of the school, Horo turns into the despised savage who turned his back on the enlightened religion. But Horo could not care less.

Years later, Ghosh, the narrator of the story, meets Horo in a local police station. “I was the officer in charge at Lopo police station. That morning a few Birsait Mundas had come to report to the police station. They got their release from prison today. After reporting to the police station, they will go off to their own villages…the last one who came to report was Runru Horo.” Birsaits are described as an ‘unruly group of tribals’ who refuse rational governance like paying taxes for the forestland, or civilised financial systems like usury, or the law like seizure of land for unpaid taxes! They even had declared swaraj a couple of years back (from the date of publication of the story it would be 1942) and got into a skirmish with the police!

The description of Runru Horo, in a single sentence, paints the picture of a man one finds in so many colonial anthropological accounts – naked except for a tiny piece of cloth around the waist, a huge metallic armlet on the wrist, rough bushy hair bunched as a top-knot over his head.

“A pair of penetrating, modern eyes glared from this prehistoric outfit. Unable to suppress my astonishment, I gazed at him and then blurted out ‘Stephen Horo’! With a sweet smile the man replied, ‘No, Ghosh. I am Runru Horo’.”

Their following conversation reveals how Stephen Horo became a follower of Birsa Munda, how the Birsait movement carried on after the custodial murder of Birsa Munda, and how Stephen Horo became Runru Horo. By the end of the conversation, Ghosh learns that Horo had not only lost his health in the Birsait cause (he had contacted tuberculosis) but also his love – Chirki Murmu has converted to Christianity and moved to a mission in Hazaribagh. As Horo departs silently from the police station, Ghosh is struck by remorse for the gigantic mistake ‘we’ have committed.

“Perhaps we have forced Stephen to lose the fourth battle of Panipat by remaining neutral”.

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The school children of India read about three battles of Panipat (1526, 1556, 1761), in each one of whom the neutral forces played significant roles in ensuring the outcome of the battle. If our young adults of today are left unaware of democratic process, responsibilities of elected representatives, popular movements they will be pushed into that role of ineffectual neutrality. Curtailing components of the syllabus, which range from knowledge about mathematical reasoning, ecology, natural resources like water and minerals, to citizenship, federalism, caste and gender will make students uncomprehending towards the crises that face us as human civilisation.

Depriving them of these key concepts at this stage of their learning will impair them in developing a scientific temperament, an essential condition but in short supply in this age of pandemic. These are the themes that build on constitutional fundamental rights and human rights in the larger world. In the context of revised shortened syllabus and the New Education Policy, learning about caste and adivasi conditions, the histories of discrimination and violence is absolutely necessary for understanding affirmative action.

Reservation is not a perfect policy and yet it is the least that has been acknowledged as a policy in India. Erasing reservation from educational policy and remaining neutral to this history of violence will neither create an equal playing field, nor help in developing a sensitised generation.

However, Horo, through his search for emotional and political commitment had found Birsa Munda. We must remember that he chooses to fight for swaraj that grants rights to adivasis in terms of habitat, in terms of livelihood and in terms of dignity.

Our young adults must be given the opportunity to envision how respectful difference helps in peacefully inhabiting places with histories of violence, and how human dignity is a fundamental right of every citizen.

Re-reading Ghosh’s fourth battle of Panipat also helps us to pledge that Horo will not lose this time round.

Mallarika Sinha Roy is assistant professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.