Remembering Yash Pal, a Proponent of People's Knowledge and People's Science

'A significant fraction of children who drop out may be those who refuse to compromise with non-comprehension. They are potentially superior to those who just memorise and do well in examinations, without comprehending very much!'

Anita Rampal is a professor and former dean at the faculty of education, Delhi University.

Sitting through a memorial meeting in honour of Yash Pal last week, I had a strong, uncanny feeling of having him close by, nudging us with his characteristic mischievous smile, saying “Arre yaar, couldn’t you think of some other songs to remember me by!” It was a very long session of (often off-key) bhajans, little in consonance with the essence of the person we had come to remember. Interestingly, another memorial meeting soon after, for a dear friend, the historian Robi (Basudev) Chatterjee, strove instead to honour his deep scepticism of the sombre incongruence of such occasions, in a moving celebration of his irreverent humour, deep passion and brilliant scholarship.

Yash Pal was a scientist, humanist, educator, a passionate science communicator, and much more. We had known him for several decades as a staunch supporter of innovative ways to re-envision science – through education as well as through people’s movements. In the 1970s, while he was at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, he had supported the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme in rural schools, to relate science with children’s lives and cultural contexts, through a participatory, enquiry-based curriculum. The programme had attracted scientists from the best national institutions and universities to be associated with it – during teachers’ orientation workshops or textbook development. In the early 1980s, when Eklavya was being set up to consolidate this work in the state of Madhya Pradesh, he, with some other scientists, had helped involve national agencies such as the Department of Science and Technology, the University Grants Commission and the Planning Commission to extend possible support.

Having worked in the most eminent and highly resourced research institutes and government establishments in India, Pal was keenly sceptical of scientists’ ‘ivory tower’ existence in the largely impoverished reality of science education across the country. His anti-colonialist inspirations from the  struggle for independence made him more sensitive to social and systemic disparities, and unlike most ‘establishment scientists’ he tried to explore spaces to work with communities – as he did at the Indian Space Research Organisation in Ahmedabad during SITE, the first satellite communication programme. Through the years, he understood the problems of the dominant discourse of ‘science (or development) for the people’, through its often hegemonic top-down perspective that tended to attribute a ‘deficit’ and dismissive view of the so-called ‘illiterate’ and ‘unscientific’ masses. This helped him build closer relationships of mutual respect and solidarity with groups working at the grassroots, in related areas such as education, health, water management, agriculture, artisanal production, etc. under the loosely federated structure of the People’s Science Network. Shared concerns and interventions on how science could impact lives and livelihoods shaped his commitment to interrogate and disrupt the entrenched hierarchies of ‘skills versus knowledge’ and ‘indigenous versus scientific knowledge’.

Many of us working towards these goals had actively interacted and collaborated with him through the years, through the 1980s and the coming together of the All India People’s Science Network, the 1990s during the Literacy Campaigns and the work of the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti, the Yash Pal Committee Report of 1993, subsequently for the National Curriculum Framework of 2005 and the new textbooks, and finally the Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009.

The last time I met him was over a year ago, when we were together on a TV panel passionately defending the RTE Act, after attempts were being made to revoke its main clauses regarding comprehensively assessing children without detaining them in elementary school. We saw this as crucial for good quality and equitable education for all our children, and argued that it was their right to be nurtured to participate in schooling, creatively, innovatively and meaningfully. Schooling must respect the knowledge they bring with them, and what they construct through the process of meaning-making in their own languages, without humiliating them or ‘pushing them out’ by a pernicious examination that makes them memorise information which cannot be understood at that age.

Pal had persistently stood by this, which he enunciated in the report titled ‘Learning Without Burden’ (1993) as chair of the national advisory committee, to advise on improving the quality of learning. He had held consultations in some places around the country and had tried to summarise the problems with school curricula, shaped more by the demands of the disciplines at the university-level, by teachers of higher education who did not know or understand children and their diverse lives. I often quote from his provocative personal comments to the then education minister, Arjun Singh, especially where, while presenting the report, he says it is not the gravitational load of the school bag but instead the pernicious burden of ‘non-comprehension’ that is more cruel. “In fact, …a significant fraction of children who drop out may be those who refuse to compromise with non-comprehension – they are potentially superior to those who just memorise and do well in examinations, without comprehending very much! I personally do believe that “very little, fully comprehended, is far better than a great deal, poorly comprehended.”

He was often provocative in his style, particularly when he expected high resistance to what he thought was ‘good sense’. He worked for a democratic vision of quality education and scientific development. However, he was open to disagreement from those who were co-travellers, allies or even co-conspirators in the long and often frustrating journey of educational change. His eyes had a glint of his irrepressible sense of optimism. Even in the most exasperating circumstances, he was always there to conspire and inspire, with often child-like excitement. We fondly miss him. We will almost certainly find it difficult, in the near future, to see such a rare example of an ‘establishment scientist’ or a ‘head of institution’ who can passionately promote constructive scepticism, keen questioning, and advocate for ‘out of the box’ thinking by younger colleagues and students.