When ‘We the People’ Stand With the Constitution
What does this solemn text within beautiful borders mean to young readers?
Textbooks and the Constitution
What does this solemn text within beautiful borders mean to young readers? Many of our national and state textbooks are imprinted with the Preamble of the Constitution, which often goes unnoticed unless specifically discussed, during the social or political science classes. The National Curriculum Framework 2005 and several national textbooks developed thereafter (now in the process of being changed by the present government), have followed a social constructivist approach, encouraging learners from diverse social realities, to engage collectively and critically in constructing their knowledge.
So, for instance, a chapter titled ‘Whose Forests?’ of the Class 5 textbook (NCERT, 2008, 2020) introduces Suryamani, a real-life protagonist from a tribal community in Jharkhand, who agrees to go to school far from home, to empower her to save her forests. Presenting decolonial and indigenous perspectives on ‘natural resources’ and sustainable development, the textbook asks its young readers what they think is a forest, why Suryamani calls it a ‘collective bank’, or why a student’s letter (reproduced in the text) to the Chief Minister, questions the clearing of their forests for government projects ‘in the name of development’. It urges teachers to encourage differing views and debates on the impact of big dams, mining projects, fish trawlers, etc. Similarly, the Class 6 chapter on ‘Diversity and Discrimination’ presents the personal experience of ‘untouchability’ of a nine year old Dalit (scheduled caste) child, Bhimrao Ambedkar, who later led the drafting of the Constitution, the preamble of which is then discussed. These early exposures to tacit but lived notions of diversity, difference and disadvantage, along with examples of peoples struggles and the constitutional commitment to equality and justice constitute a critical pedagogy of empathy for democracy (Rampal and Mander, 2013).
Indeed, the Indian Constitution in 1950 was a bold pedagogical project (Khosla, 2020), to educate citizens to live together and create an empathetic society, after the brutal partition causing massive migrations at the time of Independence. When western democracies were reluctantly opening their doors to women, poor and people of colour, the adoption of universal suffrage was a revolutionary commitment to the ability of poor non-literate voters in a deeply hierarchical society to forge a participatory democracy. Inspired by the ideas of John Dewey, the education theorist who had taught him at Columbia University, Ambedkar invoked the notion of democracy as not simply the act of voting or a form of governance, but rather as a mode of ‘associated living, of conjoint communicated experience’ (Stroud, 2017). However, striving for equality and liberty without losing fraternity, in the context of social segregation and caste oppression, where life did not allow opportunities for communication or association, the site of education was crucial for shared experience. Even today, the Supreme Court mandates such association – through the school mid-day-meal that offers the rare space for children to eat together, irrespective of caste, religion, or ethnicity; and the Right to Education Act, 2009 for twenty five per cent seats reserved for economically weaker sections, which when challenged by elite schools was upheld by the Supreme Court for social inclusiveness, to strengthen the social fabric of democracy.
Post-colonial visions for transformative education
Post-colonial emancipatory struggles to Educate-Agitate-Organise (as inspired by Ambedkar and Phule), called for pedagogies to interrogate the relationship between power and knowledge and democratise the culture of teaching and learning, through critical understanding, empathy and equality (Rege, 2010). Significantly, before the constitution was finalised, the University Education Commission (1948-49), the first in independent India, chaired by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, with Dr. Zakir Hussain as a member (both of whom later went on to become the president of the country), had organised its chapters around the themes of democracy, justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. Acknowledging caste based hierarchies, it warned of intellectual arrogance that discriminated between courses on manual craftsmanship for ‘inferior’ minds, and professional education for ‘intellectuals’. “This separation of skill of hand from skill of mind has greatly retarded the mastery of the physical world and has been a major cause of poverty” (GoI, 1950, 498). It asserted the need to nurture human relationships, and the ability to live and work together to overcome divisive forces in society. Acknowledging the role of traditional education in perpetuating the status quo, it stressed that the aim must not be to produce conformist citizens but individuals who can bring social change. The opportunity of learning is not a class privilege, but a universal right for all who have to carry the privilege and responsibility of citizenship. “Freedom of individual development is the basis of democracy. Exclusive control of education by the State has been an important factor in facilitating the maintenance of totalitarian tyrannies….We must resist, in the interests of our own democracy, the trend towards the governmental domination of the educational process….Intellectual progress demands the maintenance of the spirit of free inquiry. …Professional integrity requires that teachers should be as free to speak on controversial issues as any other citizens of a free country. An atmosphere of freedom is essential for developing this ‘morality of the mind’” (GoI, 1950, 42).
Indeed justice is imparted not just by laws but through the promise of freedom to people – “to think, speak, …criticise and break the strangleholds of prejudice …and violence and to remind people of the promise of justice…. Democracy lives in the promise of people overcoming their privileges and attending to other people.” (Bhattacharjee, 2018, 65-66). How can education help empathise with others with whom we co-construct our knowledge? “There is no thinking without wounding, particularly if you have neglected a wound beside you, the wound of the other. Thinking is born from the other, and the university offers the first chance for it. To think politics means raising new questions about certainties….Replacing debate with violence in the name of nationalism kills democracy and the possibility of a just future….A university is a place where students learn to resist all that is forced upon them, all that does not taste like liberty…” (Ibid, 163-164). Rabindranath Tagore, the educational thinker and poet who founded Vishwa Bharati in Shanti Niketan, and whose poem is the national anthem, recited at every educational platform (and ironically, disregarding his critique of narrow notions of patriotism, now even before every film begins in a cinema theatre), had questioned an education which taught that a nation is greater than the ideals of humanity (Tagore, 1917, 2009).
Seventy years later, standing with the Constitution
Seventy years later we have several questions to ask. Why does the Constitution find itself etched on plaques of stone in thousands of villages in the forests of Jharkhand, as part of the ‘Pathalgadi’ movement for democratic rights? (Angad, Indian Express, December 23, 2020). Seventy years after the promise of freedom was entrusted to the largest democracy, to develop the morality of a free questioning mind through education, why has it become ‘seditious’ for students and teachers to think or call for justice, as they stand with the preamble of the Constitution? Why was the doctoral scholar Rohith Vemula, an active seeker of equality and justice, humiliated to the point of taking his life? Indeed, his poignant last words continue to interrogate the ‘alternative reality’ of these challenging times: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. Never was a man treated as a mind” (Vemula, 2017, 406).
Affirmative action had brought about a demographic change in the best public universities over the last two decades and offered a democratic site to students from disparate backgrounds to engage with their social realities (Deshpande, 2016). Students and teachers in these institutions have challenged the present dystopian market forces (Rampal, 2018) that are dismembering education from its essential discourse of democracy, social responsibility and civic courage. They mobilised against growing commercialisation and commodification of education, resisted crippling fee hikes, trivialisation of curricula, and protested against gender, caste and religious discrimination. However, these institutions ranked at the top as per official criteria, have been facing hostile administrations, centralised fiats and growing repression. Those who have stood up for human rights and social justice are facing unprecedented threats for being ‘anti-national’; during the pandemic many have been put in prison charged under the most severe laws against terrorist and unlawful activities (Mehta, 2020).
Meanwhile, during the crushing pandemic the long awaited National Education Policy 2020 (MHRD, 2020) was quietly approved without a parliamentary debate (Rampal, 2020; 2021). It abandons a commitment to expand good quality public education, and ignoring the deep digital divide that crippled education of the majority during this year, asserts that open distance learning and online education will provide the ‘natural path’ to access higher education. Though there was an increase in gender parity at undergraduate levels, but channelling women students into home-based learning or low-skill vocational courses undermines their critical agency, and renders them more vulnerable to early marriage and the dominant demands of regressive patriarchy. Following market principles of efficiency not equity, for economies of scale the policy proposes consolidation and mergers; a college to have over three thousand students (in 2019 only 4 percent of the 40000 colleges were in this category), and a university with over twenty five thousand. It projects half the students to be in vocational education courses, which have remained low-skill low-status without any educational component. Moreover, it legitimises exit at each year of a four year undergraduate course, and without scrutinising the complexity of equivalence of institutions, proposes a credit bank so that students can ‘return or migrate at will’. But will they return? Right now this is the biggest question, about how many will return to schools and colleges, after they reopen from the long closure during the pandemic. Some predict not the loss of a year, but a major generational loss. Tomorrow’s generation will address its challenges …and some will begin early in all earnest (Banerjee, 2020)
In his evocative essay ‘The End of Tomorrow’, Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee (2016) discusses a poem posted by the feminist writer Meena Kandasamy which depicts through ‘chilling aphorisms’ the present dystopian state of surveillance with a declared ‘war on terror,’ even as ‘democracy turns against itself’:
Tomorrow someone will arrest you. And will say the evidence is that there was some problematic book in your house.
Tomorrow someone will arrest you. And your friends will see, on TV, the media calling you terrorist because the police do.
Tomorrow someone will arrest you. They’ll scare all lawyers. The one who takes up your case will be arrested next week
Tomorrow someone will arrest you. Your friends will find you active on Facebook a day later. Police logged in as you…………
Tomorrow someone will arrest you. The police will prepare a list of names. Anyone who’d protest will be named.
Tomorrow someone will arrest you. Your home will be searched tonight. You will be taken for questioning now. Stop speaking.
Tomorrow someone will arrest you. The court, in a rare gesture, will give you the benefit of bail. The police will rearrest you in another case.
Tomorrow someone will arrest your children. You will be underground. Some measures are essential to keep a democracy alive.
Long Live Silence.
— Meena Kandasamy, “Tomorrow Someone Will Arrest You”
Angad, A. (2020) What is the Pathalgadi movement, and what is JMM govt’s stand on it? Indian Express, December 23, 2020. Available at https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-what-is-pathalgadi-movement-and-what-is-the-jmm-govts-stand-on-this-7114979/
Banerjee, M. (2020) A small ‘feastie’ in a Republic’s anniversary. Indian Express. Available at https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/akhtar-constitution-schools-preamble-education-a-small-feastie-in-a-republics-anniversary-6235432/
Bhattacharjee, M.F. (2018) Looking for the Nation: Towards another idea of India. Speaking Tiger, New Delhi. Also (2016) The End of Tomorrow. Los Angeles Review of Books Dec16, 2015 Available at https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/end-of-tomorrow; als
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Rampal, A. (2020) The NEP Goes Against the Existing Constitutional Mandate of the RTE https://m.thewire.in/article/education/national-education-national-education-policy-right-to-education
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Available at https://www.forwardpress.in/2017/05/john-dewey-pragmatism-communication-and-bhimrao-ambedkar/?amp
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Vemula, R. (Ed) (2017) Rohith Vemula’s Last Letter. In A. Vajpeyi. India Dissents: 3000 years of difference, doubt and argument. Speaking Tiger, New DelhiBack to top