OPINION

Failing to lead by example

Krishna Kumar  

Politics alone cannot explain the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Sabarimala case. This is because for the rest of India, Kerala has served as a model of progress guided by a long-sustained pursuit of welfare policies, especially in health and education. Kerala also has a history of social movements that mobilised people to let go of the grip of custom and ritual. Some of these movements were aimed specifically at propagating reason and knowledge. If the regime of modernity got a fair test anywhere in South Asia, surely it was in Kerala.

A patriarchal ethos

These common impressions are hard to reconcile with the discomfort and palpable tension that the Sabarimala verdict has caused. Conflict and the threat of violence can, and perhaps, should be attributed to political rivalry and administrative ineptitude. But there seems to be a wider unease with the verdict.

In a phone-in programme of the Hindi service of the BBC, a senior woman journalist, who knows Kerala socially, said that the verdict is ahead of the times, that it will take one or two more generations for people to accept the entry of women of all ages in the Sabarimala temple. That sober prognosis left me wondering about the value and meaning of Kerala’s achievement in public literacy and children’s education. Was it wrong to imagine that the spread of education would cause a deep enough dent in all forms of gender inequality? Persistence of dowry certainly suggests that. So does the acceptance of misogynist humour I have myself witnessed in the middle of serious discussion.

Apart from its failure to dilute a patriarchal ethos, education has also performed rather poorly in widening the space available for dialogue between contending positions. This is one reason why both the state and society are finding it difficult to appreciate a civic solution to a faith-related practice.

Promise of education

Education tends to arouse many expectations, both in the individual and the social mind. First, there are economic expectations. They are so strong that the educated do not mind enduring long stretches of unemployment. Equally complex is the political expectation association with education. It is widely believed that education nourishes democratic values and behaviours. But historical evidence suggests that education can nurture democracy as well as dictatorship. It depends on what is taught and how. If schools and colleges are intellectually exciting places, and if the curriculum encourages critical inquiry, we can expect education to strengthen democracy. If schooling stifles curiosity by regimenting the body and the mind at an early age, education can nourish authoritarianism.

Similarly, if language and literature are taught to train young minds for participation in open-ended dialogue, we can expect education to sustain an ethos where freedom to differ without fear is guaranteed and dissent is tolerated. The opposite may happen if language and literature are marginalised in the curriculum or subjected to mechanical testing and other means of oppression. Similar things can be said about the teaching of the subjects that constitute the social sciences. They can either be used for indoctrination or to encourage reflection.

Subject to regime change

The question why education has not improved Kerala’s capacity to sustain a culture of dialogue is not difficult to answer. Education did spread widely, but efforts to reform its inner world — curriculum and pedagogy — remained weak and somewhat confused. Significant initiatives were taken more than once, but the financial and intellectual resources deployed for this task were inadequate. Also, the effort remained subject to regime change. In teacher training, one had expected that Kerala would make a breakthrough by investing significant academic resources in this unfortunate area. That did not happen. Bridges between universities and schools remained half-built. As in other States, progress of education in Kerala remained confined mainly to expansion of the system. That too did not proceed coherently. Social and economic divisions got entrenched within the system of education. Successive governments remained indifferent to this trend and to the need to create a provincial policy.

Hailed as a model, Kerala has disappointed. Apart from failing to create an ethos where dialogue and deliberation are conveniently possible, Kerala’s progress on the gender front has also remained unimpressive. The grip of early socialisation into deep-set notions of womanhood has stayed tight. One consequence of this grip is the perpetuation of deeply negative beliefs about the physical aspect of maturation. At this level, gender disparity deserves to be understood as a far more complex cultural phenomenon than merely a matter of unequal opportunities. Education can influence gender roles and their relations by creating new predispositions in early childhood. This is a tough area for reform. It has remained on the margins of education, both in terms of funding and status as a policy sector. Few would admit that they do not fully understand it or its significance.

Moreover, not everyone believes/wants education to disturb established social patterns. In fact, many people feel unsure about the introduction of critical pedagogy in schools. Why Kerala disappoints us today is because it had fostered the hope of being different. It probably is, but not to the extent one had assumed. Its system of education is just as bureaucratised and compartmentalised as anywhere else. Complacent attitudes also block vision and direction. A common meaning of progress now is to secede from the local board and join the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) or its private counterpart. Kerala set the benchmark for total literacy and implementation of the Right to Education Act. Looking ahead, Kerala could have sorted out the tenacious points of confusion such as the crucial role of language, both in children’s growth and in enhancing society’s capacity for dialogue. The social incoherence one sees in Kerala gains strength from poor teaching of language and related fields of knowledge.

The Sabarimala prism

It is true of many other parts of India, but Kerala’s case hurts because a sound basis for putting in place a sophistical system of education existed there. Had its early advantages been used with greater focus and commitment, we might have witnessed a somewhat smoother transition in Sabarimala.

Krishna Kumar is a former director of

the NCERT