On the 6th of April, 2021, The Bhartiya Janata Party celebrated 41 years of its inception. The year 2014 had marked the beginning of a new era for the party as the Narendra Modi-led government came to power, paving the way for a new India with the promise of “Acche din”. Or so it seemed. The last seven years have been a crucial turning point in Indian history as the very concepts of democracy, secularity, and freedom of speech have come under direct threat and the one of the heaviest burdens of this rests upon the significantly altered sphere of Indian education.
Nelson Mandela once said- “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
However, recent policy decisions made by the Indian Central Government have exhibited that conversely, with means and motive, education can also serve as a lethal political weapon. In the wake of their 41st Foundation Day and with the decisive 2021 West Bengal Elections underway, it is a good time to examine the contentious relationship between the ruling party and educational institutes; in particular, eminent Indian universities and its students.
Policy implementation has never been the BJP’s strong suit, be it the disastrous demonetisation of 2016, or the failure of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) of 2017, for starters. Yet nothing could have prepared India for what was to follow. On 29th July, 2020, in an appalling violation of protocol, the National Education Policy (NEP) was approved by the Union Cabinet, without being presented in the Parliament for discussion. This move sparked immense controversy and has forced us to face a serious question: Why is there a sudden, substantial interference in schools and colleges by the BJP? What does it mean for the youth and their academic futures? Hence, there is an urgent need to demand a meticulous enquiry into the consequences of the landmark changes in the educational structure as well as its long-term side effects.
A growing concern among critics is the fear that the NEP may be misused by the government to propagate its Hindu Nationalist agenda. While there are several grey areas that need to be addressed, one of the major red flags is the portion which mentions that the medium of instruction in schools must be the respective regional languages of states and that English must not be introduced before Class 5. Further, tremendous emphasis has been given to the revival of Sanskrit, citing it as an “enriching, important option”.
Thus, in an implausible attempt to de-westernise the educational framework, and reinstil the predominance of indigenous languages, the NEP fails to recognise the necessity to keep up with the times and why well-planned, holistic educational goals, in line with international academic standards are the need of the hour. While preserving tradition and culture is important, it must not give way to the concerning obsession that consumes the BJP- the blind race to restore India to its former Hindu glory, even if it comes at the cost of its citizens’ well being and interests. For when a country turns to its past not to learn from its mistakes or honour its achievements, but to revive it and force it into the present, there is little room for doubt that its development will be stunted and it will struggle to establish itself at par with other countries of the global order.
Moreover, the ruling party has been known to rewrite textbooks to refocus history upon its own founders and supporters and to further their own ideologies. They claim to want to take India back to its pre-Mughal invasion era, pre-British rule splendour and eventually establish a Hindu state. However, the Modi-led government either refuses to or is incapable of comprehending that history holds the intrinsic truth in itself, even when tampered with. These events are what shaped our country and they form an undeniable part of the rich heritage that we proudly call ours. Thus, this crude imposition of Hindu purism and primacy upon a population as heterogeneous and diverse as ours, is not just a gross defilement of the constitutional rights of its people but also a menace to the very essence of what India stands for.
Naturally, several critics, mainly formed by an informed cross-section of scholars not only all over the country, but also beyond its geographical boundaries, have expressed their outrage and hostility over the nature and motive of such decisions. The country was still reeling from the rancid aftertaste of the scrapping of Article 370 and the final judgement of the Ayodhya dispute, when the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 was passed. In response to the outrage that these policies elicited, the BJP maintains that their intentions have been misunderstood and blamed the opposition and other adversaries for wanting to create unrest. This is sufficiently exhibited in the Prime Minister’s speech on the BJP’s Foundation Day, wherein he addressed his party members to be wary of the people who state that the constitutional rights of Indian citizens are being undermined. He stated that this was an attempt to malign their good deeds by manipulating the narrative and encouraged his followers to clap back against the same. This stance is in keeping with the aggressive social media vigilance that the BJP IT Cell has undertaken, to ensure that digital platforms cater to the needs of the party and to penalise all those who dare to raise their voices against it. If this is how the ruling party reacts to dissenters, it becomes crystal clear that our freedom of speech and expression are under severe threat.
Further, the alarming frequency of campus violence, targeted specifically at Muslim minority institutions like Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University, and politically vocal institutes like Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jadavpur University, in the wake of their anti-BJP protests, presents the glaring truth for what it is: ideological and political criticism is being suppressed. The resignation of erudite minds like Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramanian from Ashoka University is a warning reminder of the shrinking liberal spaces for unrestricted discourse and healthy debates.
However, silencing questioning voices is not enough for the saffron goal. The existing discourses must be replaced by the ones woven by their founders, in order to complete the process of ideological brainwashing. This is achieved by an energetic propagation of their wildly pseudoscientific notions and ancient beliefs; visible in the budgetary cuts made in the usual areas of scientific research, diverted funds towards ludicrous projects based on exceedingly superstitious claims, such as the trials to check the effects of the Gayatri mantra in treating Covid-19, nationwide cow science examinations etc.
Hence, the crackdown on innumerable facets of the academic environment points in but one direction- the BJP recognises the need to transform the educational sphere in order to consolidate its power. For in the absence of a strong political adversary, the only challenge that they face is the one posed by questioning academicians. Whether the BJP wishes to stifle their voices for the fear that they may go on to become the fierce and powerful opposition that the country needs, is debatable. But it is certain that in many ways, they feel intimidated by the unity and the knowledge pool of the educated sections of the public: one which has intellectual and rhetorical prowess but most importantly, the vision and passion to bring about the kind of change that the modern-day citizens of India actually wish to see. Thus, this deceptively fragmented yet cleverly planned dismantling of the existing educational structure to benefit their own end goals, is a master plan which we must actively resist.
Behind the several masks it wears, the current face of Indian politics is changing. Unlike the masks that keep the coronavirus at bay, these masks hide behind them the slow disintegration of the world’s largest democracy and a possible shift towards a totalitarian state. The future of India is thus uncertain, as it looms over us, shrouded in saffron smoke.