I was born to a lower-middle-class Dalit family in a predominantly Dalit neighbourhood on the outskirts of Nagpur. My parents, despite not being financially well off, enrolled me in an English medium school. I spent 11 years there and I excelled. Not many people from my community have had the same privileges that I have. In fact, I was the first person from my family to matriculate from an ICSE board school. Relatives would often remark how fortunate I was to have had the opportunity to study at an English school. Friends from my neighbourhood would ask me what it was like to study in a ‘rich’ school. I am aware of the privileges that come with being proficient in English. It allows me to be confident about myself and assert my identity. It lets me question my professors and interact with my socially privileged classmates. It gives me respect and admiration in public because speaking in English is a mark of being 'educated' in India.
On 28 July 2020, the Union Cabinet approved a renewed National Education Policy (NEP). This decision comes in the middle of a global pandemic, a nationwide lockdown and at a time when teaching institutions across the world are struggling to effectively move towards digital schooling. The NEP is the first significant restructuring of the much-critiqued Indian education system in the last thirty four years. On the surface it appears to be a promising effort towards instituting a progressive and inclusive education policy, a closer look reveals another story. The new revisions to the NEP make it tougher than it already is for children from backgrounds similar to mine to access the same opportunities that I did.
One of the NEP's main aims is to promote regional languages, and as such, advise private and public schools to switch to a regional language as the medium of primary education in schools. It states: ‘When possible, the medium of instruction – at least until Grade 5 but preferably till at least Grade 8 – will be the mother tongue/local language.’ The policy fails to qualify what exactly is meant by ‘mother tongue’. Is the assumption that all cultural complexity of a particular region can be homogenised under a single 'mother tongue'? In a country with a large internal migrant population can ‘mother tongue’ be a fixed entity? Moreover, this will only include those twenty two local languages that are cited in Schedule 8 of the Indian Constitution and discredits languages such as Bhili, Bhoti, Tulu, Nyishi, Khasi, Magahi, Mizo, Gondi, amongst others.
Formal education is a critical path to employment. While the NEP appears to provide equal footing to those who are not fluent in English, it achieves the exact opposite. There are structural barriers that render higher education hostile for marginalised students even after admission. Language plays a crucial role here. The NEP lends itself to producing a comparatively less literate underclass that may be denied the same positions an English educated upper-caste population would be offered. The private sector will continue to give preference to English speaking candidates. Can the public sector absorb the influx of more applicants?
The NEP Draft of 2019 also downplayed the relevance of English in today’s world by stating: ‘English has not become the international language that it was expected to become back in the 1960s.’ Let us not forget that the same ministers who have approved this policy have also sent their own children to study in America and Britain.
The NEP announced that ‘Every student will take a fun course, during Grades 6–8, that gives a survey and hands-on experience of a sampling of important vocational crafts, such as carpentry, electric work, metalwork, gardening, pottery making, etc.’ Framing these courses as 'fun' choices detracts from how labour continues to be distributed according to caste. Caste confines generations of the same family in a single occupation which keeps them in brutal conditions. The policy writes that vocationalisation will be conducted by assigning decision making power to local communities. Would this not reinforce occupational divides given that ‘local communities’ themselves are structured by caste based segregation?
“Absent in the document, as far as I could see, is any mention of the term “caste”, apart from a fleeting reference to Scheduled Castes. Also absent is any mention of reservation in academic institutions, whether for students, teachers, or other employees. Reservation, necessary but not sufficient, is the bare minimum required in terms of affirmative action in the highly differentiated socio-economic milieu in which we exist. The silence of the document on this issue is troubling, to say the least.”
Sanskrit will also be introduced as an option in all schools. It is worth remembering that Sanskrit was a language primarily spoken by Brahmin priests and scholars. The present government’s emphasis on Sanskrit across state schools reads as an attempt at institutionalising assimilation. As English is a reminder of our colonial past, Sanskrit is reminiscent of our casteist past. Dr. Ambedkar campaigned for public and affordable education as he thought it to be a crucial part of freeing oneself from the shackles of caste. He supported the democratisation of Sanskrit. He also recognised the need English to be taught across schools. Isn’t it time to break with the notion that English must remain the domain of only private school students?
Under the new NEP, the government plans to encourage foreign universities to set up campuses in India. While the government has asserted that it would regulate the fees charged by these universities, one can expect them to still be out of reach for socio-economically marginalised students. More colleges will be given autonomous status, granting these universities disproportionate financial and managerial powers to manage trusts and university administrations the ability to raise student fees and start courses in the self-financing mode, all leading the end result of deepening existing social fault lines of caste, gender, and religion. Lower caste students continue to endure various hardships. Even today, reservations are not adequately implemented. Weakening them even more by privatising learning will systematically preclude marginalised students from entering higher education. Most Dalits cannot afford expensive private colleges such as Ashoka University and Amity University. Privatisation insulates institutions that uphold pre-existing inequalities.
‘We are arriving at a stage when the lower orders of society are just getting into the high schools, middle schools and colleges, and the policy of this department therefore ought to be to make higher education as cheap to the lower classes as it can possibly be made.’
— B.R. Ambedkar, in Sampoorna Vangmay (vol 3, p 56-57)
Caste functions as a protective bubble. Historically in India, power has been gained by displacing Adivasis and exploiting Dalits. Caste decides who controls resources. Words like ‘holistic’ and ‘multidisciplinary’ are all distractions from the real intentions of this policy. The NEP is one part of the government’s project to further entrench caste in the labour market. It will worsen economic divides already prevalent in this country. This is consistent in the current political moment which aims to dispossess lower castes and Dalits by providing reservations for upper castes, diluting the SC/ST act, and repressing Dalit activists.
Ambedkar gave us the slogan ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’, and the first step towards educating ourselves would be to master the language that enabled him to study at prestigious universities such as Columbia University and the London School of Economics. It took us a long time to reach where we are today, and some of the changes envisioned by the NEP 2020 have the potential to take us back to the dark days of the Manusmriti. Remember, Gandhi shedding his modern clothes, spinning a charkha, and renaming us as ‘Harijans’ changed nothing. But Dr. Ambedkar wearing a three piece suit and holding the constitution in his handled to our emancipation.