Was India’s knowledge elitist? – Michel Danino

Book Knowledge

Prof Michel DaninoThomas Babington Macaulay … declared that traditional Indian knowledge consists of “false History, false Astronomy, false Medicine … in company with a false religion”, many Indian academics and intellectuals have implicitly or explicitly accepted that knowledge from the West is the real thing. – Prof Michel Danino

Indian civilization’s obsession with knowledge was our last “master idea,” with endless and still poorly explored contributions in nearly every field (“India as a Knowledge Creator”, The New Indian Express, 29 November). But there is another side to the story, which in many ways characterizes the paradox of Indian culture.

No Indian university, IIT or IIM has a regular, comprehensive course on Indian knowledge systems (IKS) (though IIT Gandhinagar made a beginning a few years ago). There are, no doubt, a few scattered courses on systems of ancient science (IIT Bombay and Kharagpur), and a few universities teach courses on Indian philosophical systems or even “Indology,” whatever that means. By and large, however, indifference, neglect, or hostility to IKS is the rule.

All three are part of India’s colonial legacy: ever since Thomas Babington Macaulay, a powerful British figure of the first half of the nineteenth century, declared that traditional Indian knowledge consists of “false History, false Astronomy, false Medicine … in company with a false religion”, many Indian academics and intellectuals have implicitly or explicitly accepted that knowledge from the West is the real thing.

Our philosophy courses cover mostly European philosophy; the same goes with psychology (from which yogic systems of self-knowledge are generally excluded); contemporary Indian literature is often studied; classical texts rarely are. Students of Ayurveda are compelled to devote much time to modern medicine, but not vice versa. Political scientists generally know nothing of the systems of polity that prevailed in ancient India. And so forth. In 1946, the freedom-fighter and statesman K.M. Munshi wrote: “Modern education in India assumes that Indian culture is dead, only requiring post-mortem dissection, and that a new culture can be developed by imitating the West. No attention is paid to the importance of a ceaseless reintegration.”

That accounts for the indifference and neglect. But why hostility? I see it essentially as a survival of the colonial-cum-missionary stereotype that Indian knowledge systems were “elitist”, “upper caste” when not “Brahminical”, and denied to the lower castes and “untouchables”. Such declarations are usually based on a few Dharma Shastra texts prohibiting the teaching of the Vedas to lower castes. Granted, those texts and a few more were Brahminical and set down a caste-based order for the society.

However, the said society was far from circumscribed or defined by a few orthodox texts. A careful look at the mechanisms of transmission of knowledge gives a very different picture. “Brahminical” texts of mathematics produced number systems and calculation methods that were, in time, adopted by the population at large, down to the carpenter and the farmer. Astronomy created calendars that punctuated people’s lives and stood behind astrology and the ever-popular panchangas (almanacs).

Architecture was rooted in Vedic principles but practised by Vishvakarmas: technically Shudras, they often regarded themselves as higher than the Brahmins in their application of those concepts to temple construction and iconography (for the making of bronze or stone images), and themselves wrote manuscripts in both Sanskrit and regional languages. So too, texts of medicine, metallurgy, agriculture, animal and plant treatment, water management and other civil engineering techniques, were often written by the practitioners of those disciplines rather than by “upper caste” theoreticians.

All this points to a sustained, intense and complex dialogue between the Shastras (the theories or systems) and the popular practices (loka parampara). From the Ayurvedic classic which declares that for the knowledge of medicinal plants one should consult the hunter or the tribal, to Kautilya’s Arthashastra which explains how the quality of a metal ore is to be assessed through its taste and smell, this dialogue has clearly enriched the two sides, if at all there are sides. In literature and the arts, it is the much-discussed marga-desi interplay, or classic (generally pan-Indian and Sanskritic) vs. popular (regional and often non-Sanskritic) texts and art forms. Again, it is a story of mutual enrichment, with classical forms often emerging from popular ones and eventually influencing them back. This is perceptible in the epic genre (Mahabharata and Ramayana), in all performing arts (drama, dance, music), and in sculpture. A scholar friend of mine has compared this interaction to the double helix of the DNA molecule; as the helices, though joined by numerous bridges, never meet, I prefer the symbol of Hermes’s caduceus with its two intertwined snakes.

In 1920, Sri Aurobindo wrote to his younger brother, “I believe that the main cause of India’s weakness is not subjection, nor poverty, nor a lack of spirituality or Dharma, but a diminution of thought-power, the spread of ignorance in the motherland of Knowledge. Everywhere I see an inability or unwillingness to think—incapacity of thought or ‘thought-phobia’.” The last term perfectly applies to our cultural negationists of the day. Indian knowledge systems were not “elitist” or exclusivist, even if specialized fields did exist for the various castes. Overall, while they invoked lofty concepts, they were often remarkably pragmatic. No, they did not tell us how to construct vimanas or nuclear weapons; instead, they sought to equip the society with all the tools it needed for a complete development in the material, aesthetic, intellectual, ethical and spiritual fields. – The New Indian Express, 31 December 2018

» Prof Michel Danino is a French-born Indian author, scholar of ancient India, and visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar.

Vidhyarambham ceremony at Santhigiri Ashram



India as a knowledge creator – Michel Danino

India was once the world's greatest knowledge creator.

Prof Michel DaninoThe India that was a creator of knowledge, has become a consumer rather than a supplier in the market. Two centuries of colonial dominance certainly played a part, but we have enjoyed seven decades of independence. Clearly, as a nation we have not done justice to Indian knowledge systems, which no Indian university teaches today except in bits and pieces. – Prof Michel Danino

Launched with great fanfare in 2005, India’s National Knowledge Commission claimed to work “towards a Knowledge Society”, an objective which Dr. Manmohan Singh, then prime minister, repeated on many public platforms. It sounded quite noble, but few noticed how it implied that India was not yet a “knowledge society”, and perhaps never was one. Paradoxically, such a statement reflects a profound ignorance of the cult of—almost obsession for—knowledge in pre-modern India.

Indeed, India is the only ancient civilisation where knowledge was deified, with the honour going to Sarasvati. (Other cultures’ pantheons did often include knowledge, but only as a peripheral attribute.) Now, this fine move perhaps does not take us very far in practice—how do we assess whether knowledge was genuinely worshipped, or at least revered? We have a choice of methods; two will help us here, deviating from the stock answer that “Veda” comes from vid, or “knowledge”, that Upanishads view the knowledge of the Self as the highest knowledge, or that moksha is really liberation from ignorance—an objective shared by the Buddha. All that is fine, and perhaps essential; in the nineteenth century, however, it helped stereotype Indians as being “contemplative” or “otherworldly.” Let us be, therefore, crudely empirical.

A first answer comes from estimates of the number of manuscripts available in Indian libraries, repositories or private collections. They run into millions, with the U.S. scholar David Pingree once reaching an educated guess of 30 millions. This figure is but a tiny fraction of the mass of production over the last three millenniums, since numerous texts disappeared owing either to destruction (Nalanda’s library is an oft-cited case), the vagaries of time, neglect or obsolescence. A tiny fraction, again, of this figure has been published, and a much tinier fraction translated into some other language. We are therefore judging the mass of knowledge created in India by the tip of the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

What do those manuscripts deal with? Every topic under the Indian sun: philosophies, systems of yoga, grammar, language, logic, debate, poetics, aesthetics, cosmology, mythology, ethics, literature of all genres from poetry to historical tradition, performing and non-performing arts, architecture, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, chemistry, metallurgy, botany, zoology, geology, medical systems, governance, administration, water management, town planning, civil engineering, ship making, agriculture, polity, martial arts, games, brain teasers, omens, ghosts, accounting, and much more—there are even manuscripts on how to preserve manuscripts! The production was colossal and in almost every regional language (with, expectedly, Sanskrit having the lion’s share).

The second answer comes from formal or informal educational institutions, the humble gurukula or the large Buddhist monasteries. A great concern in imparting knowledge—both inner and outer—is perceptible through a number of texts and inscriptions, and struck several European travellers to India. The Italian writer and musician Pietro Della Valle reported in 1623, during his journey across Asia, “They [Indians] are particularly anxious and attentive to instruct their children to read and to write. Education with them is an early and an important business in every family.” Two centuries later, Bishop Reginald Heber, who spent a few years in India, noted, “The Hindus are brave, courteous, intelligent, most eager for knowledge and improvement.”

If India was such a creator of knowledge, how has it become a consumer rather than a supplier in this market? Two centuries of colonial dominance certainly played a part, but have we not enjoyed seven decades of independence? Clearly, as a nation we have not done justice to Indian knowledge systems, which no Indian university today teaches, except for a fragment here and a snippet there. Many scholars, Indian and non-Indian alike, have flagged this debilitating lack of self-confidence in our creative abilities, and have demanded a place for the best of classical knowledge to be given due place in our academic spaces—to no effect as yet.

Exactly a hundred years ago, Sri Aurobindo wrote: “When we look at the past of India, what strikes us … is her stupendous vitality, her inexhaustible power of life and joy of life, her almost unimaginably prolific creativeness. For three thousand years at least,—it is indeed much longer,—she has been creating abundantly and incessantly, lavishly, with an inexhaustible many-sidedness, republics and kingdoms and empires, philosophies and cosmogonies and sciences and creeds and arts and poems and all kinds of monuments, palaces and temples and public works, communities and societies and religious orders, laws and codes and rituals, physical sciences, psychic sciences, systems of Yoga, systems of politics and administration, arts spiritual, arts worldly, trades, industries, fine crafts—the list is endless and in each item there is almost a plethora of activity.” But that was in the past; the “inexhaustible many-sidedness” seems exhausted.

Even when India’s contribution to knowledge is somehow acknowledged, it has often been characterised as “elitist”: it was reserved, we are told, for the social elite and denied to the lower castes or the casteless. Does this serious charge withstand scrutiny? This will be the object of our next exploration, and our next master idea of Indian civilisation. – The New Indian Express, 29 November 2018

» Prof Michel Danino is a French-born Indian author, scholar of ancient India, and visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar.

Village school in UP


Should Indian education be secular? – Michel Danino


Prof Michel DaninoThe entire “Indian” system of education conveys the message that India never produced any knowledge worth teaching. … The misconceived secularisation of education … has resulted in cultural nihilism. – Prof Michel Danino

A retired computer scientist who regularly visits an Indian institution of higher education recently told me how, in the course of his schooling in erstwhile Yugoslavia, he had studied the outline of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. He was shocked when I answered that Indian schools can do no such thing: anyone attempting to do so would immediately be branded “communal” and accused of undermining the “secular” principles of Indian education.

Who determined these principles? Just as most of India’s freedom fighters had an idea of India that was far removed from our nebulous and hypocritical concept of secularism (Our freedom fighters and secularism, 2 May 2018), most pre-Independence thinkers had much to say on what a genuinely Indian education should be. Tagore, for instance, reviled the cultural disconnect Indian students suffered from: “Their education is a chariot that does not carry them in it, but drags them behind it. The sight is pitiful and very often comic. … The education which we receive from our universities takes it for granted that it is for cultivating a hopeless desert, and that not only the mental outlook and the knowledge, but also the whole language must bodily be imported from across the sea.” Gandhi echoed this view: “I find daily proof of the increasing and continuing wrong being done to the millions by our false de-Indianizing education. These graduates … flounder when they have to give expression to their innermost thoughts. They are strangers in their own homes.” The great art critic and Indologist Ananda Coomaraswamy added: “The most crushing indictment of this education is the fact that it destroys, in the great majority of those upon whom it is inflicted, all capacity for the appreciation of Indian culture.”

Indeed, as earlier as in 1908, having served as the first principal of Bengal National College, Sri Aurobindo had defined the problem very lucidly: “In India … we have been cut off by a mercenary and soulless education from all our ancient roots of culture and tradition. … National education … [is] the education which starting with the past and making full use of the present builds up a great nation. Whoever wishes to cut off the nation from its past is no friend of our national growth. Whoever fails to take advantage of the present is losing us the battle of life. We must therefore save for India all that she has stored up of knowledge, character and noble thought in her immemorial past. We must acquire for her the best knowledge that Europe can give her and assimilate it to her own peculiar type of national temperament. We must introduce the best methods of teaching humanity has developed, whether modern or ancient. And all these we must harmonise into a system which will be impregnated with the spirit of self-reliance so as to build up men and not machines.”

Did independent India take steps to remedy the ailment and implement this programme? Quite the contrary, it gradually took deculturalisation to greater heights, in a way that even our colonial masters would not have dreamed of. Today’s school and college student is profoundly ignorant of India’s cultural, intellectual, artistic, scientific or technological heritage. Sanskrit—indeed, all Indian languages—has been relegated to the status of a suspicious oddity. When, in 1994, “secular” groups approached the Supreme Court to prevent the CBSE from offering Sanskrit as an elective, Justices Kuldip Singh (a Sikh, incidentally) and B. L. Hansaria rejected the whole perverse argument and asserted that, “The stream of our culture would get dried if we were to discourage the study of Sanskrit.”

Of late, the media have generously ridiculed statements by various ministers rejecting Darwin’s theory of evolution or asserting that India had in the Mahabharata age an Internet of its own and satellite communications. Indeed, many more such silly misconceptions could be produced from pseudo-scholarly literature. But the central point has been invariably missed by our equally ignorant media: why should there be such a total neglect of ancient India’s genuine, well-researched and well-documented knowledge systems in the first place? Why should an Indian student be allowed to learn nothing of ancient Indian mathematics, astronomy, medicine, water management, town planning, construction techniques, agriculture, environmental conservation, martial arts or board games? Nothing of Indian systems of philosophy, of psychology based on methods of self-exploration and self-fulfilment that go by the name of yoga? Nothing of systems of governance, polity, education, business, management, trade practices, ethics?

Any decent book on Mesopotamia or classical Greece will have a few chapters on the science and technology created by those civilisations; standard books of Indian history have nothing comparable. Our philosophy departments teach mostly Western philosophy; psychology departments blank out the whole yogic view of the human being; Bangalore University’s MSc programme in mathematics has a module on the history of mathematics which includes (as it should) Greek and Arab developments, but not a word on Indian ones (or Chinese ones, for that matter). And why has India not lobbied for kabaddi to be recognised an Olympic sport, when beach volleyball can be one? The list goes on endlessly and can be summed up in a single sentence: The entire “Indian” system of education conveys the message that India never produced any knowledge worth teaching.

There may be much that needs to be discarded from India’s past, but there is also much of timeless value. We rightly complain about the vulgarisation and loss of values in Indian society, but refuse to address one of their chief causes: the misconceived secularisation of education, which, in the Indian context, has resulted in cultural nihilism. – The New Indian Express, 19 May 2018

» Prof Michel Danino is an author and visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar.

Modern Education

Must Read:  Ten distinctive features of the Japanese education system that made this nation the envy of the world.

Dalai Lama: Integrate Indian traditions with modern education system – Swarajya Staff

Dalai Lama

BharatvarshaIndia has the capability to combine modern education with its ancient traditions to help solve problems in the world. – 14th Dalai Lama

Exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader Dalai Lama has called for ancient Indian traditions to be integrated with the modern education system to rid the world of issues like war and global warming.

Speaking in New Delhi on the “Role of Ethics and Culture in Promoting Global Peace and Harmony” (see video below), Dalai Lama praised the greatness of Indian civilisation which gave rise to the Nalanda tradition of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism borrows heavily from the Nalanda tradition, Nalanda being one of the most important centres of learning in ancient and medieval India.

“Serious discussions on how to include the ancient Indian traditions in educational system should begin. India has the capability to combine modern education with its ancient traditions to help solve problems in the world,” Dalai Lama said.

He also called modern day problems like war, terrorism and religious extremism as products of materialism and expressed concern about global warming citing the reduced snowfall in Dharamshala.

He also said that the concept behind quantum physics was explained by Indian philosopher Nagarjuna 2000 years ago, as he called for ancient Indian literary traditions to be revived.

He stressed that Indians should maintain their identity the way Chinese do, saying “Wherever Chinese go, they have a ‘China Town’. Why not an ‘India Town’ by Indians?”

“Try to revive ancient Indian traditions. Actual change does not come from prayer, it comes from action,” he added. – Swarajya, 23 April 2018


PISA Test: English medium education weakens India – Maria Wirth


Maria WirthBefore Muslim invaders destroyed the centers of learning, India was known as a knowledge hub. She was the vishwaguru of the world. To reach this status again, common sense demands that students need to understand what they are taught. It means they need to study in their mother tongue. Further, Sanskrit should be taught right from the start as it optimally develops the child’s potential. – Maria Wirth

It is no secret why the British replaced the indigenous education system and Sanskrit gurukuls with English education. They wanted to create a class of Indians who think like the British and in this way weaken India. Sanskrit culture and Vedic knowledge were the backbone of Indians. This backbone had to be broken. English medium education did it to a great extent. Indians were cut off from their precious tradition, and they had to study in a completely foreign language, as if this was an easy thing to do. Somehow, the children of the tiny elite managed. They were motivated to make it into colonial government jobs and English was the only gateway. Naturally, these westernised students and their offspring, who had no roots any more in their own culture, influenced the future of independent India in a big way.

So it is no surprise that even after Independence, English medium in higher education and in the “better schools” which were often run by missionaries continued with the argument that English is the necessary link-language between the states. It was in the interest of this elite and the Churches to continue with the status quo, where jobs at the top require fluency in English, as for this tiny minority English is their mother tongue. They are not fluent in the language of the region where they were born. And they are still successful in convincing the policy makers that English medium is the way to go in education—to the detriment of India.

There is no doubt that Indian children are intelligent—in all likelihood more intelligent than their western counterparts. An NRI based in Seattle and Gurugram, Sankrant Sanu, tested the intelligence of Indian and American children via a non-verbal IQ test. Village children from Haryana came out on top. They outperformed their peers in Delhi and in the US. In one village over 30 per cent scored over 90th percentile which means that out of 100 Indian children over 30 were as intelligent as the topmost 10 out of 100 American children. It was an extraordinary result.

Yet in 2009, India got a severe shock, which should have woken her up, but this wake-up call was not heeded. For the first time, India took part in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Secretariat (OECD). Around half a million 15-year-old students from 74 countries were tested for two hours in maths, science and reading skills. Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu students were chosen to take part, as these states were doing well in education.

When the results were out, there was celebration in Asia. Asian countries were leading the list and had much higher ranks than Europe or USA—with one shocking exception: India came on rank 73, second last, beating only Kyrgyzstan. The best Himachal kids were 100 points lower than their average peers in Singapore and 250 points lower than the top performers. It was a huge embarrassment. Indian experts explained that the students faced “language difficulty”. It was true. The problem was the language. The tests were held in the mother tongue of the respective countries: German in Germany, Japanese in Japan, but English in India. Yet there was no serious introspection.

Ever since, India did not take part in the 3-yearly PISA test, but in 2021 Kendra Vidyalayas are expected to take part—again students in English medium. There is probably the hope that these students will do better, as their parents, being in government service, are likely to speak good English. Yet is this representative for India? Is it not cheating India?

Being German, I know that fluency in English doesn’t come easy. But when I sometimes advocated that Indians should study in their mother tongue including in higher education, there was always opposition from Indians fluent in English. They don’t seem to get the difference between studying in English medium and studying English as a subject. Nobody advocates not learning English. But having to read textbooks, question papers, and write essays in an alien language is too much for students and the PISA study proved the obvious.

If we need more proof, we only need to look to certain European countries today to realise that students don’t do well if they don’t understand the language. Sweden and Germany had a significant drop in their ranking in the latest PISA test in 2015, and I dare to predict that Germany will drop even further in 2018. The reason is simple: even after a year of intensive German language classes for migrant children, these children don’t speak German well enough to be good in their studies.

These migrant children at least attend German lessons for one year before they can join the regular classes. In India, children from homes where parents don’t speak any English are put into English medium schools with no preparation whatsoever. This is a disaster. I really wonder how this can be allowed. It should be obvious that it is a huge blunder. Yet it is not only allowed but was even encouraged: Under the previous government, millions of students changed from government schools to third-rate, private “English” schools, which popped up everywhere. This craze for “English schools” may have been deliberately fanned by interests who don’t want a strong India, for example the Church. Parents, who do not know English, were made to believe that “English school” is the best for their children.

It is not the best but the worst. Where in the world would children be sent to a school where the teachers speak in a foreign language? Just imagine the plight of the kids. They learn to spell and can read after a while, but they don’t know the meaning of what they read. They will be left in a limbo: they are neither good in English, nor in their mother tongue. And they will dread going to schools. Forget about a happy childhood where it is fun to learn. It is a perfect recipe for teaching in vain, because no learning happens.

Any surprise that even in 5th standard, kids cannot form simple English sentences and just stare at their textbooks when their parents tell them “to study”. They may not miss much if they don’t understand their social study or history books, because the content is often not worth learning. But the situation is serious when it gets to maths and science. Kids cannot solve even the simplest of tasks in maths like “put the numbers in ascending order”. The textbook authors cannot imagine that the instruction is not clear, but if you don’t know English—put, number, order, ascending—all this is a mystery. Naturally the children lose self-confidence.

Yet India is huge and the majority of people managed to keep their culture and India’s strength alive and their innate intelligence and competence intact. Their children went to schools where mother tongue was the medium of instruction. They understood what they read and could freely express themselves.

It would be interesting to find out, how many ISRO scientists, or generally students in the science and maths stream had studied till 12th class in their mother tongue. It may well be the majority. It would also be interesting to find out how students from Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, who attend vernacular schools, fare in the PISA test. They surely would not be at the bottom of the ranking list.

Indians have brains and the world knows it. But in English medium their great potential is suppressed and not tapped. Except for the tiny minority who speak English at home, the great majority of Indian students are at a huge disadvantage compared to students in other countries. It is a huge disadvantage also for India.

Isn’t it about time to phase out this colonial hangover of English medium schools? The argument that English is needed as link language is no argument in favour of English medium.  Why can’t Indian students learn English like students all over the world do—as a subject? Sanskrit, too, needs to be revived in a big way to open up the treasure that is hidden in the Vedic texts. The value of Sanskrit is recognised all over the world. It is the most perfect language, and especially suitable in fields like IT. It has strength, dignity, beauty. It develops the brain and improves the character. Indians have a great advantage here, as their regional languages are connected with Sanskrit and it is much easier for them to learn it. It is truly incomprehensible why Sanskrit was/is sidelined—of all places in India.

Even Sanskrit medium education would be much easier than English medium and far more beneficial for an all-round development of the students. It would be worthwhile to find out whether in the long run, Sanskrit can be introduced as the medium in education. It is not yet too late to give Sanskrit another chance.

Imagine if India had IITs and IIMs in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi etc. The technical terms could be sourced from Sanskrit and would be the same all over India. Students would have an advantage in many fields, for example in artificial intelligence, which is an important issue today. They would be free from the burden of English textbooks, and could freely express themselves. There is a lot of talk about “the right to freedom of expression”.  Yet the greatest curb on freedom of expression is ignored. It happens in English medium education all over India. Students cannot say what they want to say, because they lack the vocabulary. Those, who have a natural talent for languages, can become translators, and translation apps, too, can be used to facilitate communication.

Committees have been instituted who look into improving the education, yet they deal mostly with the content. But what is the use of good content when the students don’t understand it? The most important issue is the language issue. This needs to be sorted out first. Suggestions exist, for example in The English Medium Myth, which are worth considering. The result of the PISA test, too, must be analysed honestly and consequences be drawn.

Before Muslim invaders destroyed the centers of learning, India was known as a knowledge hub. She was the vishwaguru of the world. To reach this status again, common sense demands that students need to understand what they are taught. It means they need to study in their mother tongue. Further, Sanskrit should be taught right from the start as it optimally develops the child’s potential.

Let there also be some international schools and courses at universities in English medium for expats or those who want to go abroad, like in European countries.

If even tiny Denmark and Israel manage to teach higher education in their mother tongue, surely the big Indian states will be capable to do this and translate the existing syllabus or even better, source new material including for higher studies. Only then justice is done to the great potential of Indian youth. Only then India will truly shine.

» Maria Wirth is a German author and psychologist who lives in Uttarakhand.

PISA Test Country Score


The atrocious state of education in India – Madhura Karnik

Students Govt Primary School Hyderabad

Madhura KarnikA large number of children still don’t go to school. And many of those who do, drop out at some stage. … The country is home to the highest number of illiterates—in 2011, it was 282.6 million people aged over seven. – Madhura Karnik

An evaluation of college teachers in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) last week showed that some of the professors lack even basic knowledge of the subjects they teach. For instance, an economics professor did not know what “audit” means or what “IMF” (International Monetary Fund) stands for.

There was a similar revelation among students in Bihar in June. In this state, neighbouring UP, the class 12 topper said political science involves cooking.

Such instances are proof of the grim condition of education in India.

Even the Narendra Modi government has come to acknowledge the mess, with a recent report (pdf) by the Human Resource Development Ministry pointing out various challenges.

From dismal quality to lack of research, the report, proposing draft guidelines for the National Education Policy 2016, explains the dire need to fix these problems.

Low enrollment, high dropout

A large number of children still don’t go to school. And many of those who do, drop out at some stage.

In the age group of 6-13, the percentage of children out of school has dropped “significantly” since 2000, the report says. But, in absolute terms, the number is still high in India. Besides, enrollment rates in upper primary education (class six and seven) and secondary (class eight to 10) are still very low.

“India has the second-largest higher education system in the world. Although Indian higher education has already entered a stage of massification, the gross enrolment ratio in higher education remains low at 23.6% in 2014-15,” the report said.

The country is home to the highest number of illiterates—in 2011, it was 282.6 million people aged over seven.

Poor quality

The quality of education in India has long been criticised. Not only is it based on rote learning, but there is also hardly any practical knowledge gained by students. Many students can’t even do basic arithmetic even in higher classes, studies have found.

Of the 2,780 colleges accredited by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC)—a government body formed to assess and grade educational institutions—only 9% have an A grade currently. Some 91% fall in the average or below average categories, the report says.

No skills

With its economy growing at 7.6%, India wants to be the next economic superpower. Modi himself dreams of making it a manufacturing powerhouse. But an acute skill-deficit hampers the country.

The ministry’s report says that many graduates and post-graduates do not get jobs in their respective chosen fields. “The utility of higher education in assuring employment remains questionable,” it added.

By 2050, India will have some 1.1 billion working-age people—the highest in Asia-Pacific. If most of these aren’t employable, then there’s going to be a huge talent gap.

Outdated curriculum

One reason for both poor learning outcomes and lack of skills is the curriculum at Indian schools and colleges. The report says there’s a “serious disconnect” today between what’s taught and what’s needed in a “rapidly changing world.”

The existing curriculum does not foster creativity and innovation, nor does it enable critical thinking or independent problem-solving, the report says. Even the assessment processes and practices at schools and colleges are unsatisfactory, it says.


Teachers simply aren’t well-equipped. Even their training programmes aren’t effective in a changing social, economic, cultural, and technological environment. There have been few initiatives to upgrade their skills or build synergies between teaching and research, the report says.

Besides, there’s also chronic shortage to deal with. “There exists a continued mismatch between institutional capacity and required teacher supply resulting in shortage,” the report says.

Educational inclusion

An often-ignored, but critical, aspect is whether education reaches everyone. The report says that disadvantaged sections still can’t access it.

“While there has been a rise in demand for secondary education … the spread of secondary education, remains uneven. Regional disparities continue, as do differences in access depending on the socio-economic background of students,” the report says.

Besides, the gender gap in adult literacy is high at 19.5 percentage points. Some 78.8% of male adults are literate compared to 59.3% of women.

Poor governance

Schools aren’t governed efficiently. Funds don’t reach educational institutions in time, the administration isn’t well-equipped, and implementation of policies is a key issue, the report says.

Lack of research

India boasts of producing some of the world’s best engineers and scientists. But its universities aren’t exactly a breeding ground for scientists and their research.

Universities need to encourage higher education institutions to engage with international faculty so that the quality of research back home can be improved, the report says. – Quartz India, 5 July 2016


Ministry of Human Resource Development, Govt of India: Some Inputs for Draft National Education Policy 2016 (pdf)

» Madhura Karnik is a business journalist for Quartz India in Mumbai. Tweet her at @mskarnik.

Ministry of Human Resourse Development Header

Students Govt School Chandigarh

Nehruvian secularism has compelled some citizens to think in a communal way – Madhav Nalapat

Prof M.D. Nalapat“True to the tenets of Nehruvian secularism, during the period when Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister, the UPA passed legislation such as the Right to Education Act (RTE), which placed the entire onus of providing free education for citizens deemed needy by the state on only those private schools run by Hindus. Those run by those of other faiths were given exemption from such an obligation. This individual knows a Muslim educationist of impeccable secular credentials … who converted a school into a “minority” institution to escape the onerous burdens imposed by the RTE. Perpetuation of Nehruvian secularism has driven many citizens to think in a communal way. Of course, such a fault is deemed to be so only in the case of the “majority community”, while those in the minority are considered “secular” even if undilutedly communal in their outlook and activities.” – Prof Madhva Nalapat

Religion & PoliticsIf “secularism” gets used in occasional discourse as a term of abuse, the reason is that it has never been officially practised in India for centuries. Jews and Zoroastrians came to India during what may be described as “Vedic” times, and there is no record of any discrimination against them, rather they were ensured equality of status with other inhabitants of the subcontinent. And from almost the time of the revelations made in the Holy Quran, Muslims came to parts of India and settled down peaceably, unlike the larger groups that came much later and which succeeded in subduing much of the local opposition to their takeover. Given that “secularism” means the equal treatment of all citizens, irrespective of the faith to which any of them owed fealty, this showed that this very concept was implemented in practice by rulers during ancient times. Incidentally, during that period, caste had yet to degenerate into the “madness” flagged by Vivekananda, a ritualistic system, which based itself on birth rather than merit as the source of position and privilege. This post-Vedic and ossified caste system moved away from the earlier practice of each individual entering a caste only by virtue of the work he or she did, rather than from birth. A corollary doctrine was that the caste system, which thus evolved, was “horizontal” in nature rather than the later “vertical” form. In other words, there was equality within society for those of different castes rather than a hierarchy based on birth that so enervated subcontinental society that it succumbed to invaders from outside. Needless to say, neither during the Mughal nor the British period was secularism practised. During rule by the former, those belonging to the invaders’ faith were given preference, while in the latter period, in cities across India, the land and assets of temples which still remained after the depredations of Mughal rule, were seized by the colonial state. Those Hindu places of worship placed in the custody of the state during the time of the British Raj remain so to this day, despite the six years when A.B. Vajpayee was Prime Minister of India, and constitute an obvious and massive violation of the core secular principle of equality of treatment of citizens of all faiths.

Nehru + Gandhi in 1942Mahatma Gandhi regarded Jawaharlal Nehru as his successor, and it must be assumed that the Mahatma, with his immense intellect, must have known precisely what the mindset of Nehru was towards the economy and society. Indeed, the younger person made no secret of either, speech-making and writing prolifically over the decades that he worked alongside the Mahatma. Hence, it is likely that Gandhiji approved the unique definition of secularism evolved by the individual he bestowed to the nation as the first prime minister of post-colonial India. This was that there indeed was discrimination based on faith, but this was done only in the case of the “majority” i.e., the Hindu community. Even those historians in thrall to Nehruism would find it difficult to argue that Hindus oppressed Muslims during Mughal rule and belaboured Christians during the two centuries when the British were in charge of most of the country. This is in contrast to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, who, indeed, suffered gross forms of discrimination during the post-Vedic but pre-Mughal period of this country’s history. However, such lack of Hindu culpability did not prevent Nehru and his successors from maintaining a system whereby Hindus were denied the same right of ownership of their places of worship as was enjoyed by those of other faiths, besides other forms of relative discrimination. The divide between communities caused by Nehruvian policies is what is responsible for the occasionally toxic nature of communal relations across all too many parts of India these days.

St. Stephen's College, DelhiTrue to the tenets of Nehruvian secularism, during the period when Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister, the UPA passed legislation such as the Right to Education Act (RTE), which placed the entire onus of providing free education for citizens deemed needy by the state on only those private schools run by Hindus. Those run by those of other faiths were given exemption from such an obligation. This individual knows a Muslim educationist of impeccable secular credentials (and it must be said that such moderation is representative of the overwhelming majority of Muslims, as it is among Hindus, Christians and Sikhs), who converted a school into a “minority” institution to escape the onerous burdens imposed by the RTE. Perpetuation of Nehruvian secularism has driven many citizens to think in a communal way. Of course, such a fault is deemed to be so only in the case of the “majority community”, while those in the minority are considered “secular” even if undilutedly communal in their outlook and activities.

The people of India deserve better. They deserve to benefit from actual secularism, which is a system whereby the state is wholly neutral between different faiths and does not discriminate between them in any form. Only such a system would be true to the syncretic—or “Indutva-vadi”—ethos of India, which is a blend of the Vedic, the Mughal and the Western, with each strand present in the cultural DNA of each citizen of this fortunately moderate country. – Sunday Guardian, 29 November 2015

» Prof Madhav Das Nalapat holds the UNESCO Peace Chair and is Director of the Geopolitics and International Relations Department at Manipal University, an international private university headquartered in Karnataka. He is also the Editorial Director of The Sunday Guardian.

Nehruvian Secularism

Secularism of Congress