What is wrong with saffronising education

The Vice-President of India arguing for an overhaul of the Macaulay system of education is fine, but there are challenges

March 30, 2022 12:12 am | Updated 09:50 am IST

A part of the public debate

A part of the public debate | Photo Credit: AP

The short answer to the question ‘what is wrong with saffronising education?’ is ‘really nothing... well... except that ….’

In his address earlier this month at the inauguration of the South Asian Institute of Peace and Reconciliation, on the Dev Sanskriti Vishwavidyalaya campus in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, the Vice-President of India, M. Venkaiah Naidu, argued for a major overhaul of the Macaulay system of education which he rightly observed is both dominant in, and damaging to, India. It produces in us a sense of inferiority, replaces our traditional education in the bhashas with the alien curricula of the English, gives us a colonial mindset, makes us ignorant of our heritage, and, most of all, disconnects us from the rich body of ideas and philosophies that constitute our ancient civilisation.

A resonance earlier

In making this claim, Mr. Venkaiah Naidu has joined a stellar list of public persons who, over the decades, have made a similar argument. Rabindranath Tagore, a moving force of the National Education Movement in the early 1900s, fashioned an innovative nationalist curriculum in Visva Bharati, the great university he established. Eminent Indians such as Amartya Sen, Satyajit Ray, and Mahasweta Devi were educated there. Further, K.C. Bhattacharya in his seminal lecture (October 1931), ‘Swaraj in Ideas’, also spoke of the enslavement of our minds by western education which produced ‘shadow minds’ instead of ‘real minds’. This had to be overcome. Abu-ur-Rashid Moulvi, even earlier in 1888, in the Asiatic Quarterly Review, argued for higher education in Punjab to be delinked from Calcutta University because the university was exhibiting an ‘anglicizing tendency’ which would lead to the ‘denationalization of the younger generation of Punjabis’. The creation of Punjab University, he hoped, would resist such anglicisation since the literatures and sciences would now be taught in the ‘vernaculars and classical languages’. Arguing for an Indian system of education has, therefore, been an important part of the public debate in India for over a century. Mr. Venkaiah Naidu was not the first. But he is in good company.

He is right when he ascribes to the Macaulay system the production of a sense of inferiority among us Indians. This is an idea common to other anti-colonial thinkers such as Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon. He is also right when he warns against us becoming ‘mental cripples’, to use Tagore’s term, because we imitate alien ideas and adopt them uncritically. His case of the Macaulay system producing ‘amnesia and erasure’ is also persuasive as is the fear of ‘denationalization’, an idea espoused by T.B. Cunha when he argued against Portuguese colonialism. However, for us not to see Mr. Venkaiah Naidu’s address as merely rhetorical would require him to give us a road map of how to decolonise this Macaulay system, make it more Indian. Honest saffronisation would primarily require sincerity of intent since it would confront many conundrums and challenges along the way. Let me indicate just a few.

An inclusive list

Let me begin with the first challenge. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, whose knowledge of the depth and the quality of Indian civilisation is second to none (for which he was appointed as the Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford University), recommended in chapter eight of the 1949 report of the University Education Commission (he was Chairman), that religious education (call it saffronisation) be introduced in our universities. He suggested that the class day begin with a few minutes of silent meditation and that students in the first-year degree course be introduced to the lives of great thinkers such as ‘Gautama the Buddha, Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Jesus, Somkara, Ramanuja, Madhava, Mohammad, Kabir, Nanak, Gandhi’. This is Dr. Radhakrishanan’s own list. It is very inclusive and shows the openness of his curious mind. By including the founders of major religions in his list, Radhakrishnan was affirming their value for an Indian education. Would Mr. Venkaiah Naidu’s saffronisation be similarly open-minded?

About diverse narratives

His inclusive list leads to the larger question that saffronisation would have to address. Call it the second challenge. It would need to decide which themes and topics should be included and which excluded in such a saffron education. For example would A.K.Ramanujan’s essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’ be included? If one really wants to overcome the amnesia of a Macaulay education, as Mr. Venkaiah Naidu suggests, to ‘feel proud of our heritage’, then Ramanujan’s essay would have to be included. Ramanujan’s scholarship on the folk tales of India, just like Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, has few equals. His essay celebrates the rich performative and narrative practices of the living epic, the Ramayana. Would saffronisation accept this diversity of narratives? Would it smile at the idea, in one of the performances he describes, of Sita berating Ram who was advising her not to come to the forest, by asking him whether he has seen any performances where Sita does not accompany Ram? Is such philosophical playfulness allowed, if not encouraged? How we answer this important question of inclusion will depend on how we position ourselves on India’s cultural diversity.

This leads to the third challenge. Would the model for recovery and reconstruction of India’s ancient culture, which is what saffronisation does, be that of Dinanath Batra who in a long letter to Smriti Irani, when she was HRD (Education) Minister, set it out, or would it be that of D.P. Chattopadhyaya’s Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture (PHISPC) which has already published several volumes of India’s intellectual achievements? The former espouses Vidya Bharati’s project of cultural assimilation, a thin but toxic agenda, while the latter is a substantive philosophical response to Macaulay, who, had he read the PHISPC volumes would not have the temerity to write, in his 1835 ‘Minute on Education’, that a ‘single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia’.

On Indianisation

So does Mr. Venkaiah Naidu’s saffronisation side with Dinanath Batra or D.P. Chattopadhyaya? If by saffronisation Mr. Venkaiah Naidu really means Indianisation, it would include both the orthodox and the heterodox traditions of India, the Brahmanical schools and their Buddhist and Jaina challenges. It would include the great architectural practices of the Mughals well as the Sufi and Bhakti movements. Here, Indianisation would have many colours besides saffron.

Moving to science

Moving from the humanities and social sciences, to the STEM educational stream, i.e., Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, then what would Indianisation entail? Would it just involve the simple task of translating the best science textbooks of the world into the various Indian languages, as they do in Japan, since scientific knowledge is universal? Or would it mean advocating some crazy theories as those propounded at the 106th Indian Science Congress in January 2019 where, it was claimed, that we in India were making test tube babies thousands of years ago and that Albert Einstein did not understand relativity. Indianisation must decide if science is only a western product, or is universal. Is Mr. Venkaiah Naidu suggesting that there is a distinctive Indian science? After all this STEM proficiency in India, a product of Macaulay’s system of education, has produced the Nadellas and Pichais of the world. Or am I holding the wrong STEM?

And, finally, the paradox. Does saffronisation endorse the decision of the vice-chancellor to permanently station a Central Industrial Security Force camp inside Visva Bharati, the only university in India that has established a nationalist curriculum? The vice-chancellor did this because of student protests. The Government of India supported him. If his conception of saffronisation endorses this decision then, sad to say, Macaulay has triumphed over Tagore. Macaulay may have designed the system of education for India but he was also the author of the Indian Penal Code. We decry Macaulay on education, rightly so, but (sadly) enthusiastically embrace Macaulay on the Indian penal system.

Peter Ronald deSouza is the D.D. Kosambi Visiting Professor at Goa University. The views expressed are personal

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