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Casting Science Aside

The National Education Policy framed by this government has shifted focus from ‘free scientific enquiry’ to ‘Indian tradition’. The resulting patriotic righteousness can only harm our nation.

The National Education Policy of 1986 (as modified in 1992) was convened by the then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao. In Part II, discussing the essence and role of education, the document says that education has an ‘acculturating’ role. Acculturation is the process by which an individual acquires the culture of a particular society from infancy. This particular role was supposed to develop “national cohesion, scientific temper and independence of mind and spirit.” In other words, the bond that binds the spirit of every Indian to each other is the mutual respect we have for each other’s freedom and employing that freedom to pursue the truth collectively.

Fast forward to the National Education Policy drafted in 2016 by the current Indian administration. In discussing the broad objectives of the new NEP (Chapter 3.1), two sections stand out for looking very harmless and yet capable of extreme malice. The document states (Chapter 3.1.3) that the core values of education are building values, awareness, knowledge and skills. While knowledge and skills are necessarily specific to the objectives of study, and largely determined by factors like future employment or the pursuit of a vocation, awareness and values are universal in nature and should be shared by all. Education should aim to develop pride in India and in being an Indian. It should foster learning about our ancient history, culture and traditions.

Additionally, in Chapter 3.2.4, the document states: 

An acquaintance with the Indian tradition of acceptance of diversity of India’s heritage, culture and history could lead to social cohesion and religious amity. The content and process of education, particularly school education has to be prepared accordingly.

I believe the excerpts above are sufficient to convey my primary point – the National Education Policy of 2016 is incapable of achieving any of its broader objectives due to its internal inconsistency. This piece is restricted to these objectives of the plan.

The broad objective of NEP 2016 distills to creating content and a process of education that acquaints the students with the “Indian tradition” which is “shared by all,” and to develop “pride in India and being an Indian.” 

Initially, the fact that the word ‘science’ did not appear anywhere in the section discussing the broad objectives of NEP 2016 puzzled me. But needless to say, subsequent sections of the document made it clear that scientific temperament was not on the list of priorities for a country that wants to be scientifically advanced. Consider the second point, where the NEP 2016 took the road less travelled by philosophers and thinkers when it said that knowledge and skills are pursued only for employment and vocation. While that might be true for skills, knowledge has served and continues to serve a much higher purpose in the history of human civilization.

The word ‘Science’ comes from the Latin word ‘Scientia’ which means knowledge. Science as we know today can be defined (Oxford dictionary) as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” When NEP 2016 says the goal of knowledge is to get a job or choose a career, it is contrary to the true goal of knowledge (science), which is understanding the world around us and systematically organizing it for future generations to build on. This paradoxical manifestation of ‘knowledge’ is too glaring and undeniably unscientific to be stated as an objective for a document that will guide the intellectual and social development of future generations.

The next great issue is basing a major share of NEP objectives on the scientifically undefined and the culturally vague expression called “Indian tradition.” Every education policy needs to identify an underlying philosophy that acts as the fundamental objective against which conflicting policy solutions can be evaluated for their capacity to achieve this objective. While NEP 1992  stated this to be free scientific enquiry, NEP 2016 seems to provide a larger focus on ‘Indian tradition.

According to Census 2001, India has 122 major languages and 1599 other languages.  At the same census, out of the 1028 million population, little over 827 million (80.5%) have returned themselves as followers of Hindu religion, 138 million (13.4%) as Muslims or the followers of Islam, 24 million (2.3%) as Christians, 19 million (1.9%) as Sikh, 8 million (0.80%) as Buddhists and 4 million (0.4%) are Jain. In addition, over 6 million have reported professing other religions and faiths including tribal religions, different from six main religions. In the face of such diversity, what does it truly mean to be Indian?

When the very definition of our identity is a matter of rational deliberation, what does it mean to extend that identity into the everyday life by defining vague and fictional notions of ‘Indian tradition’ and ‘Indian values’? ‘Tradition’ means to handover the customs and beliefs from one generation to other. Are there well-defined customs and beliefs that are uniquely identifiable as Indian without any additional reference to religion, language, region or caste? If such a set of customs do not exist, then what does NEP 2016 want us to pass from generation to generation?

‘Value’ is the regard that something is worthy of giving importance. Since there is no need for two individuals to give equal importance to the same idea, it is impossible for values to be universal as claimed in NEP 2016.  In this context, what do we mean by Indian values? Are there universally valid ideas that form the ‘Indian’ identity which every Indian cannot help but agree with? I have failed to come up with one such idea that can be claimed as universally worthy of being valued and yet uniquely Indian.

If what we want to uphold truly are universal values, then the best way to arrive at such knowledge is through rational and scientific enquiry, which requires freedom of thought. More importantly, there is no definite rule that what it means to be Indian can only be positive. If an average Indian is using the cultural traditions of past and present to willfully cause pain and suffering to powerless members of the society, then I would rather question the fundamental value of being Indian rather than accept it blindly by living in the false reality of patriotic righteousness. NEP 2016 wants national conformity to undefined objectives and goals which have no scientific basis and are completely unworthy of being the beacon to bring home the best ideas for our citizens.

If the education policies and practices in our country are going to be evaluated against how ‘Indian’ they are instead of how ‘scientific’ they are, India will be a country of patriots who will be slaves to anyone holding the defining narrative at the time on what being Indian means. When such collective compliance to a false narrative becomes the norm, any noticeable deviation from it will be quickly suppressed, coercively if needed. Coercive compliance demanded in the recent past help us build a laundry list of what kind of values, ideas and ideologies are antithetical to our dominant political ideology of today. The failed capacity to discern right and wrong due to blind compliance only leads to a life without knowledge of one’s own predicament in the larger social fabric. When the mind lacks that understanding, as Carmine Falcone said, “you always fear what you do not understand.” Even though the author of our national anthem wanted an India where the mind is without fear.

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About the author

Arvind Ilaraman

Arvind Ilamaran is a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago. He is pursuing policy research on creating safe and secure learning ecosystems for children exposed to long-term trauma.