April 16, 2023

NEP 2020: Echoing the Colonial Legacy

Nitheesh Narayanan

IN discussions about the laws and policies passed and implemented by the Modi government in recent years, one crucial similarity is often overlooked. Many of the policies, such as the farmers' law, labour laws, environmental laws, and forest act, have been modelled after those of the colonial era. This point was repeatedly emphasised during the farmers' protests, which became one of the most radical and determined movements in independent India's history and lasted for a whole year at the borders of the capital. Images of Bhagat Singh were displayed everywhere in the protest locations, from tents to trucks, reflecting the awareness that the agrarian movement instilled in its members. They saw parallels between the laws enacted by the British Empire to advance their colonial agenda and the legislation passed by the current regime in India. This comparison allowed them to connect their struggle with the fight for India's independence and transform it into a battle to save all of India, not just the farming community. From the standpoint of building a movement, this remains the most effective aspect of the Indian farmers' uprising.

Three aspects of colonialism should be noted. Firstly, it denies the native population's sovereignty. Secondly, it exploits all of the native society's resources, enslaving the native population to work for them. And thirdly, it places the people in subordinate roles, never allowing them to represent themselves or demand better treatment. Every law passed by the colonial administration aimed to separate people from their resources- workers from their labour choices, farmers from their crops, and tribes from their land, forest, and water. The labour codes introduced by the Modi regime deprive a large number of workers of labour rights and the right to organise, and even pave the way for capitalists to force workers to work overtime. Adivasis are pushed to the margins, becoming mute spectators as companies take over the land they have lived on for centuries.

In this context, it is important to examine what the National Education Policy 2020 (henceforth NEP 2020) of the same government entails. There are four crucial points that need to be emphasised.

Education was a crucial issue addressed by the national movement for India's independence. Despite its flaws and shortcomings, the modern Indian education system is largely linked to the discourse of India's freedom struggle. The leaders of India's freedom struggle recognised the need for a new education system that supported India's aspirations and addressed the issues faced by the Indian people, rather than colonial interests. Many of India's premier educational institutions were founded in this manner, contributing to the process of modern democratic nation-building. These institutions were also active sites in India's struggle for independence and democracy. However, the valiant tradition of anti-colonial struggle and the values it offered to the concept of education itself have been completely ignored by NEP 2020. The ideas of the national movement have no place in the section that outlines the policy's guiding principles and legacies.

Colonial education policies were never intended to have knowledge production as their primary goal. The British established educational institutions only when they realised they needed native labour sources to support their colonial projects. The stated goal was to create "a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, opinions, morals, and intellect." The attempt was not only to train a group of people who could help them in clerical work and the industrial sector but also to establish an education system that emphasized the inferiority of Indian sources and traditions of knowledge while emphasising the superiority of the western world.

NEP 2020 rigorously advances the idea that education has less to do with constructing a society based on democratic credentials and more to do with preparing a generation for the labour market. Today's liberalised labour market in India has little to do with the public sector. The government has almost completely exited the market, and monopoly capitalism has strengthened its grip on almost every sector. The much-touted 'vocational training' should be viewed as an extension of this, a project to provide cheap labour to corporate behemoths.

Under the NEP 2020, students in the sixth grade are given the option of pursuing vocational training. Whose natural choice might this be? This option may be more attractive to students from families who believe that they will get a job as soon as possible. These are often first-generation learners, primarily children of dalits, adivasis, poor peasants, wage labourers, and so on. Are these children expected to gain understanding about the next step in their academic pursuit only by actively engaging in the academic circle. By being directed toward vocational training at an early age, these children are shaped for the labour market and are barred from entering the arena of knowledge production. The structure of institutionalised discrimination begins here, with a form that naturally diverts students from disadvantaged groups to 'unskilled' work and those from privileged groups to higher learning and research.

The colonial regime purposefully concealed India's vibrant engagements in the knowledge system in the past. They divided Indian history along religious lines, giving the impression that India was always a divided society until the British arrived. While mentioning the various heritages of knowledge systems of India's past, NEP 2020 has consciously avoided many elements of India's rich history. This includes various streams of materialist interpretations of the world, rationalist schools, contributions to knowledge circulation during the Mughal period, including translation, the role of various languages such as Urdu, Persian, and Arabic, and cultures such as Buddhist and Dravidian, among others. The 'glories' of the past were presented in accordance with the Hindutva interpretation of history. It is, without a doubt, a political project. The NEP 2020 not only lacks the word "secularism," but also its spirit. This has been demonstrated by the latest changes made to the NCERT texts.

The NEP 2020 lacks concrete measures to protect the academic community's democratic ethos, rights, and an atmosphere of dissent, debate, and fearless independent research. Instead of preparing students to combat societal issues such as inhuman caste oppression, patriarchy, and various forms of social segregation, educational institutions are directed to instil deep pride in students about the 'culture' of the past and present. The NEP 2020 is not conducive to the democratisation of society, as it is only an extension of the political Hindutva that is aggressively pursued in India.