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The draft National Education Policy (NEP) 2019 found itself drawn into a high-profile controversy soon after the ministry of human resources development posted it online for soliciting feedback late last month. The point of contention: the NEP’s recommendation that Hindi be mandated as one of the three languages of study in school. The opposition in south India, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu, was so strong that the NEP committee swiftly withdrew the linguistic policy mandate at issue.
A careful scrutiny of the 484-page NEP 2019 reveals an issue deserving of wider, more heated opposition. The words “secular" or “secularism" are not found anywhere in it. The NEP 2019 is expected to reset the government funding policy on education, the structure of school education, the curricular design for school and higher education, the nature of teacher training and recruitment, among others. A clear, unequivocal commitment to secular education however is vital to see as anchor for these ambitious reform proposals.
The missing word
The absence of the word “secular" in the NEP 2019 becomes all the more pronounced when the National Policy on Education (NPE) 1986, which laid down the policy framework which guides the Indian education system at present, the National Curricular Framework (NCF) 2005, which formed the basis of the revision of the National Council Of Educational Research And Training (NCERT) textbooks, and the National Curricular Framework for Teacher Education (NCFTF) 2009 are brought into view.
The NPE 1986 categorically states: “All educational programmes will be carried on in strict conformity with secular values." Among the “social values within which we locate our educational aims", the NCF 2005 affirms, “the first is a commitment to democracy and the values of equality, justice, freedom, concern for others’ well-being, secularism, respect for human dignity and rights."
In another instance, it notes: “Seeking guidance from the Constitutional vision of India as a secular, egalitarian and pluralistic society, founded on the values of social justice and equality, certain broad aims of education have been identified in this document."
The NCFTE 2009 declares that the country needs teachers who “promote values of peace, democratic way of life, equality, justice, liberty, fraternity, secularism and zeal for social reconstruction".
Against this policy tradition of honouring secularism as a core Indian value for designing Indian education, the omission of the words “secular" and “secularism" in the NEP 2019 is odd. Indeed, the NEP’s frequent affirmation of its aim of inculcating constitutional values in education makes it doubly odd.
Consider the definitive claim that the NEP makes and the non-mention of secularism in the long list of constitutional values it lets us glimpse: “The process and the content of education at all levels will also aim to develop Constitutional values in all students, and the capacities for their practice. This goal will inform the curriculum as well as the overall culture and environment of every school. Some of these Constitutional values are: democratic outlook and commitment to liberty and freedom; equality, justice, and fairness; embracing diversity, plurality, and inclusion; humaneness and fraternal spirit; social responsibility and the spirit of service; ethics of integrity and honesty; scientific temper and commitment to rational and public dialogue; peace; social action through Constitutional means; unity and integrity of the nation, and a true rootedness and pride in India with a forward-looking spirit to continuously improve as a nation."
On another occasion, while discussing the need to use inspiring texts in the classroom, the NEP 2019 states: “Excerpts from the Indian Constitution will also be considered essential reading for students, for the values of Equality, Liberty, and Fraternity that it espouses."
The non-invocation of secularism is also seen in the few other instances where it similarly affirms the centrality of the constitutional values for education followed by a glimpse of what those values might be.
The absence of an explicit commitment to secular ideals simply does not guarantee that the other ideals of pluralism and diversity that the NEP 2019 abides by will be realized.
Defining secular education
Could the NEP 2019 be practicing secularism without invoking it explicitly?
The model of a secular education of course can be imagined in varying ways. It could mean either an avoidance of religious instruction in government schools or making available equal space for texts from the various religious traditions in the country. Led by the former understanding, the Indian government hasn’t allowed for religious instruction in its schools.
The NEP 2019 proposals for incorporating “ethical and moral principles and values" in school education, and the examples of those values that it offers, however, clarify that it makes explicit space for using religious texts in the classroom. This constitutes a departure from the existing model of secular education in the country and violates constitutional guarantee that states that “no religious instruction is to be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of state funds (Article 28 (1))".
While religious instruction is kept out of government schools, the practice of secular education in India has not meant an absence of “religious" texts in the classroom.
For instance, the language and literature textbooks make space for devotional poems. The poetry of bhakti saints like Basava, Tulsidas, Kabir, Mirabhai and Soordas, and Sufi poets and saints like Malik Muhammad Jayasi and Shishunala Sharif , or Christian hymns like Lead Kindly Light by John Henry Newman are features of Indian textbooks. The scope and success of how school curricula have managed the secular imperative of ensuring representation to diverse faiths might be debated, but the evidence is clear to see.
What kind of evidence does the NEP 2019 extend vis-à-vis the practice of secular education? In a section titled Incorporation of basic ethical and moral reasoning throughout the school curriculum, it declares that “traditional Indian values of seva, ahimsa, swacchata, satya, nishkam karma, tolerance, honest hard work, respect for women, respect for elders, respect for all people and their inherent capabilities regardless of background, respect for environment, etc. will be inculcated in students."
The moral dichotomy
The sheer multiplicity of moral tradition in the country makes it tough to shortlist traditional Indian values for the classroom. The difficulty is amplified by the fact that these values often have varying interpretations across religious traditions or even are in conflict with each other.
To take an instance from the pool of values cited from the NEP 2019 above: the Jain value of ahimsa, which extends the scope of human abstinence from violence to the animal world, is not shared by Buddhists or Sikhs or Christians or Muslims or tribal communities or a majority of the Hindus. And, there is no forgetting, of course, the competing visions of morally desirable values within each of these religious faiths.
The point is not that the task of identifying traditional values is impossible, but to suggest that such a task, especially in a secular and democratic country like India, involves a struggle and demands great philosophical care and an in-built openness to ongoing revisions in the light of new knowledge and discussions. The pronouncements on moral and ethical instruction in the NEP exhibit neither of these.
The traditional Indian values listed above are a mix of generic values expressed in English like respect towards women and the elderly and specific values expressed in Sanskrit such as seva, satya and ahimsa. The lexical register of the latter make symbolic place for the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain religious traditions, but not for the Islamic and Christian streams of Indian tradition.
The exclusion of Christian and Islamic traditions of India is consistent whenever moral instruction is discussed in the NEP. Noting that “a one-year course on ethical and moral reasoning will be required for all students sometime in Grades 6-8," the NEP offers a glimpse of the course contents: “Subjects such as seva, swacchata, non-violence, respect and safety for women, cheating (sic), helpfulness, tolerance, equality, fraternity, etc. will again be discussed in this context."
This list of putative Hindu and generic values offers no guarantee that a sincere eclecticism in relation to the Indian faith traditions will guide the choice of texts for discussing them. Making space for the Islamic value of charity (zakat) and the Christian value of compassion, for instance, in that list would have been more reassuring.
In a section titled Inspiring lessons from the literature and people of India, the NEP states: “Children will have the opportunity to read and learn from the original stories of the Panchatantra, Jataka, Hitopadesha, and other fun fables and inspiring tales from the Indian tradition."
A care for crafting a secular curriculum would have surely meant the inclusion of texts like Aesop’s Fables and Arabian Nights among the fun fables and tales from the Indian tradition.
Accommodating diverse faith traditions in the moral curricula ensures that students from certain religious backgrounds are not alienated in the classroom.
The encounter with the moral imagination of diverse faiths enriches the humanism of all students too.
A delicate task
Since different regions inhabit distinct moral traditions, forming a moral curriculum will perforce be a decentralized exercise. Just as the Jnaneshwari, the Thirukkural and the Vachanas of the Lingayats occupy an exalted position in the moral worlds of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, other moral texts will matter for other regions of India. The value instruction that NEP 2019 seeks to introduce in the classroom will need regional editions.
Controversy upon controversy seen across India serve to remind us that secular ideals also matter for devising the curriculum for just about every subject taught in schools and colleges: history, social studies, civics, geography, and science. If state governments can sneak in spurious claims about science in ancient India and revalue and devalue historical figures for communal reasons in school and college curricula despite the existing constitutional mandate for secular education, the absence of explicit secular guidelines in NEP 2019 will offer a free hand for partisan politics in education.
A care towards a responsible engagement with Indian tradition, a care for the constitutional guarantee that the state shall not discriminate against Indian citizens on grounds of religion, and, indeed, a care for a maximally democratic classroom experience, entail serious revisions in the NEP 2019.
Role of gender and caste
Rajeev Bhargava, the political theorist, has drawn attention to the multidimensional nature of Indian secularism. Besides calibrating the relations of the government with different faiths, he notes, India’s secularism is integrally linked to the struggle for gender and caste equality within religious communities. Reflecting this layered character of the country’s secular commitment, perhaps, the NCF 2005 categorically asks that classroom teaching ought “to be sensitive to gender, caste, class and global inequalities."
The NEP 2019 invokes the value of gender equality in general and not specifically in relation to the religious subordination of women. And, it offers a severely limited relevance to the issue of caste, which surfaces as an obstacle for school enrolment, as a source of discrimination in classroom seating, as a basis for proposing that more teachers from lower castes ought to be trained and recruited, as grounds for crafting non-alienating curricula in areas with a large presence of lower castes. There are no curricular recommendations for sensitizing students to caste prejudice in India.
A categorical statement like “in order to achieve gender equality in education, the Policy aims to integrate gender as a cross cutting priority for all aspects of policy implementation", is not available in the case of caste or, for that matter, religious equality in the NEP 2019.
In contemporary India, which has seen a sharp rise in caste and religious violence, the curricula and pedagogic methods in Indian classrooms clearly have a paramount role to play in undoing caste and religious prejudice in society. The challenge is to find fresh and creative ways of making young minds grasp these difficult social realities. A seriousness in this regard ought to be integral to the NEP 2019.
The omission of secularism as a guiding ideal in the draft of NEP 2019 opens up a variety of risks and vulnerabilities for many religious, caste and tribal communities in the country.
It prevents a satisfying realization of their citizenship experience. It impoverishes the learning experience of all. It harms Indian culture.
By *Chandan Gowda is professor of sociology at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.