When a Nation’s Police Tear-Gases Its Libraries, What Use Is a New Education Policy?

The new National Education Policy uses a nationalistic code-word – “integration”. It has meanings we are yet to discover.

On December 13, 2019, there surfaced scenes of police firing inside the campus of a central university. This was the Balakot-test for our universities, where a Jamia Millia Islamia could metaphorically become the model testing-ground of a New India’s civic war. Citizens and immigrants were marked out within the ‘national knowledge economy’ on religious lines, and institutions mapped as ghettos of detainable populations. It is not fortuitous that the injured students were all protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

The same day, teachers of Delhi University decided to intensify their struggle after ten days of night-long vigil in the December chill – which still could not ensure their jobs or salaries.

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A day later, students of JNU were seen demanding an audience from an absconding VC – at which he ordered his car to speed away with a student precariously perched at the front.

He then tweeted about being attacked, while videos clearly showed how he had put the lives of students in mortal danger. I recount these visual indices, because they dress up the ‘foul’ ingredients in a ‘fair’-seeming broth that passes for the new National Education Policy (NEP) 2019.

The “rich heritage of ancient Indian knowledge” – which the policy enshrines as its “guiding light” – requires being evacuated of all that a Hindu state presumes as ‘non-Indian’. Outside the repositories (read: libraries) of such heritage must stand the gun-toting goons on guard – choking interlopers with tear gas and wounding them with pellets.

The deportable mass thus ranges from entire institutions to specific constituencies within them. But, how can a whole institution be snuffed out – if not by violence alone? The policy uses a nationalistic code-word for it – “integration” – that is, to eventually “merge into one coherent ecosystem of higher education” (Section 10.3). That does sound like Modi’s Ek Bharat, Sreshth Bharat slogan – currently overseeing the merger of public sector undertakings and banks within a martyred economy!

The final draft of the NEP, now reportedly being circulated among ministries for feedback, stages a policy trick of the most predictable kind. Reduced to nearly one-tenth of its original size, the protagonist in this policy template is its bundle of internal contradictions. Any attentive reader may in fact find an explanation for what is happening to the nation’s educational institutions within the NEP itself.

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The ‘introduction’ to the NEP begins by aiming at “ensuring teachers their livelihood, respect, dignity, and autonomy”. But, what we see playing out in the heart of Delhi’s public university system does just the opposite. In one stroke of an illegal fiat issued by a non-statutory body called Delhi University Principals’ Association (DUPA), close to 4600 ‘ad hoc’ teachers – across 82 colleges affiliated to DU – were to lose their jobs overnight and be converted into guest lecturers.

The bulk of the daily academic activities of teaching-learning as well as examination and evaluation rests on this overburdened mass of adjunct faculty – appointed on four-month contracts and liable to be dismissed on a day’s notice.

One would assume that the “livelihood, respect, dignity, and autonomy” that a new education policy promises to its nation’s teachers must have had these ad hoc teachers in mind. Why then did the MHRD take six days, a massive teachers’ movement on the streets of Delhi, a complete boycott of examination processes at colleges, a spectacle of the state’s military might and instances of the police’s manhandling of protesting teachers to enter into a dialogue on the fate of its presumed beneficiaries?

Even then, no action has followed the dialogue. Neither the three-month-old DU directive that created the ruckus has been rescinded nor has the DUPA been taken to task for arbitrarily forcing the fates of lakhs of students and teachers into limbo for over a week now. One needs to ask: was this move of de-recognising teachers and paralysing our higher educational institutions (HEIs) really as arbitrary as it seems – or, did it have the tacit support of the same MHRD that limped into delayed attention?

Beneath the rhetorical sheen of the NEP draft and its prefatory nobleness of intention, lies an answer. Section 10.7 of the same document, which boasts of attracting more teachers into the public education system, mandates a drastic reduction in the number of institutions from its current expanse – in order to “increase resource efficiency”.

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The original draft proposed a curtailment of the number to less than one-fourth of its current spread, while the final version sets as the primary task of a new regulatory regime a gradual “phasing out [of] the system of affiliated colleges” altogether (Section 10.11). No wonder that would require a phased disposal of the ‘human resources’ that keep these affiliated colleges running – and, predictably, the contractual workforce becomes the first and easiest collateral.

Towards that end, the policy links the targeted demise of affiliated colleges with more encouragement to “private institutions with public-spirited commitment to high-quality equitable education”. The latter, to be “treated on par” with public institutions, is urged to take on the constitutional responsibility of ensuring both quality and equity.

We are bafflingly told that while student enrolments must double over the next 10 years, the number of institutions enrolling them must be quartered. As a portent to the NEP’s sinister designs, the MHRD’s All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE) Report 2018-19 already declares that a 3.2 million increase in student enrolments over the past five years has corresponded to a loss of 57,000 teaching jobs.

How might equity be achieved within this state scheme of its own bailout from educational provisioning? The NEP begins by paying lip-service to its “special focus on historically marginalized, disadvantaged and underrepresented groups” – only to then call for a “system architecture” that is tied to the eventual goal of ‘financial autonomy’ in Section 20.7.

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Such autonomy is explained (in the same section) by removing any distinction – in terms of regulatory structures and expectations of outcome – between public and private higher educational institutions. Fee hikes – in tuition costs as well as hostel charges – are the only means to creating this level playing field.

And therefore, contrary to much of what has been said, the exorbitant fee hikes at JNU or AIIMS or IIMC or the IITs owe nothing to the latter’s special place as the ‘best’ samples of enlightened knowledge production. Plainly put, this is not a question of an institution’s excellence or wastefulness.

The state’s withdrawal from funding education does not consist in separating the ‘performing’ from the ‘non-performing’ – though that is ostensibly the rhetoric for such a model. In fact, deregulation entails a levelling out of both ends of the ‘quality’ spectrum – by suggesting that while the top-rankers have ‘good will’ enough to earn their resources, the flunkies do not deserve investment for lack of promised returns. This is precisely the neoliberal paradox of equity.

The cunning of such a policy-imagination lies in its prediction of what such equivalence will bring in its wake. The better institutions will muster more attention and seem to cry hoarser than the worse, thus driving a permanent wedge between the charge of quality and the force of the majority. This is what has happened to JNU and the other great institutions of lore, in that their policy-imposed condition of ‘ordinariness’ was measured to heighten alienation.

In April 2000, the Ambani-Birla Report on “policy framework for private investment in education” suggested a similar structural alienation of higher education from the concerns of primary education. It made a pitch for increased diversion of funds from universities and colleges to the schooling system, thus invoking the same spectre of ‘resource efficiency’ that the new NEP is driven by.

But this is a false separation. Because, as the final NEP draft makes clear, the onslaught is against all levels of educational infrastructures. The original proposal for compulsorily including early childhood care and education (ECCE) between ages 3 and 6 as well as higher secondary schooling up to age 18 within the ambit of the Right to Education (RTE) has now been diluted.

Also read: After a Day of Police Violence, Jamia Students Detained for Protesting CAA Released

The extension of the “free and compulsory” aspect of RTE – as a means to ensuring higher quality and access within school education – is no longer mandatory under the new education policy. The CBSE’s decision to unilaterally scale up its examination fees by a damning 2300 % is thus no shock therapy, but merely a sign of the surgical amputation of massive populations from within India’s government schooling circuit.

Since an ill-educated youth makes for a happy nation of mob lynchers and troll armies, our resistance calls for an act of intense imaginative labour. Our universities must ally with our schools, our teachers with the parents of our students, and our ‘centres for excellence’ with our state-aided colleges – in order to fully reclaim the publicness of public education.

Debaditya Bhattacharya teaches literature at Kazi Nazrul University, and has recently published two edited collections titled The Idea of the University and The University Unthought.