We in India are destroying the spirit of education — the spark of engaged pedagogy, critical thinking and humanistic sensibilities. Possibly, the dominant political culture — often celebrated by sections of the media in this ‘post-truth’ age — is not in tune with the art of debate and dialogue. Furthermore, as the ‘will to power’ often characterises our leaders, it becomes difficult to acknowledge solid facts and truth that might unsettle their images as the ultimate saviours of the nation. It is no wonder that the escape from truth becomes the new normal. And this pathology seems to have crippled the educational sensibilities of our academic bureaucrats.
Poverty of imagination
Is it, therefore, surprising that the CBSE issued an apology for the “inappropriate” question on the Gujarat riots asked in the Class XII Sociology board exam paper ? The question read: “The unprecedented scale and spread of anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 took place under which government?” Why is this inappropriate? Students of the social sciences ought to reflect on the dynamics of culture, politics and society. They ought to learn, unlearn and think critically of the complex trajectory of sociopolitical ideals like secularism, cultural pluralism and religious nationalism. What is the point of studying sociology if they do not become aware of, say, the violence implicit in caste hierarchy or the tyranny of majoritarianism?
However, our academic bureaucrats are not spirited teachers or pedagogues. See the poverty of imagination in their justification for the apology. We are told that this “inappropriate” question is in violation of the CBSE guidelines. A question, we are told, should be purely “academic oriented”, “class and religion neutral”, and not touch upon domains that could “harm sentiments of people based on social and political choices”. If we go by this strange logic, our children should not be told about, or encouraged to debate on, the historical/political episodes which affected the trajectory of the postcolonial Indian state — the propagation of the ‘two-nation theory’ by V.D. Savarkar and Muhammad Ali Jinnah; the brutalisation of human consciousness in the Partition violence as depicted with immense sensitivity by a literary figure like Saadat Hasan Manto; the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a Hindu fanatic; the horror of Emergency; the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984; the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992; or the rise of feminist/Dalit/working class/environmental/civil society movements in the country. It is possible that the techno-managers of the CBSE might argue that all these episodes are “political” and therefore not “academic”. Furthermore, they would argue that debates on these would hurt some group or other. They might say don’t refer to anti-Sikh riots because it would hurt the sentiments of Hindus or don’t talk about Gandhi’s assassination because it might hurt the sentiments of many Hindu nationalists. Hence, children, as the CBSE logic seems to suggest, should grow up with the notion that no one demolished the mosque in 1992; no riot took place in Gujarat in 2002; and no COVID-19-related deaths due to the scarcity of oxygen cylinders took place during the pandemic.
The potential of critical pedagogy
Imagine the likes of Paulo Freire and Bell Hooks responding to the CBSE’s logic. They would possibly make three points. First, they would demythologise the notion of value-neutral academics. They would argue that in the name of value-neutrality, we often end up legitimising the status quo. In fact, the spirit of critical pedagogy awakens young minds and makes them capable of reflecting on the discourse of power. Hence, a young student should not merely memorise the Preamble of the Constitution as a fact; instead, they should be inspired by teachers to see the harsh reality and wonder why our secular, socialist republic is characterised by gross inequality and caste/gender violence. Education is about asking difficult questions and striving for a just social order.
Second, they would stress on the creative agency of a young learner. The idea is neither to memorise facts like a parrot nor to master the strategy of cracking the multiple-choice questions pattern of standardised tests. In our classrooms, they must find their voice, their argumentative spirit, and their urge to walk with teachers as co-travellers and critical thinkers. There is no harm if in our classrooms they ask: Does the cult of narcissism negate the ethos of democracy?
And third, they would remind us of the art of building the bridge between the ‘self’ and the ‘world’, or ‘personal’ and ‘political’. When you are introduced to the ideas of Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar and Savitribai Phule, you undergo a process of inner churning; you begin to strive for a new world.
Our political masters seek to negate this liberating potential of critical pedagogy. And ironically, our academic bureaucrats abhor the spirit of emancipatory education.
Avijit Pathak is Professor of Sociology at JNU, New Delhi