In July 2020, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government released a 62-page ‘New Education Policy’ (NEP) to much excitement. It had been 34 years since the last education policy was rolled out, so the excitement was understandable.
On the surface, the policy looks grand and attractive. It speaks of reformation and becoming a ‘Global Knowledge Superpower’. However, India’s religious minorities are dissatisfied. In the 18 months since its release, there have been several protests against it by Muslim and Christian groups, claiming that they have been left out of the central government’s glorious vision for the future.
Here are some of the key concerns.
Lack of representation of religious minorities
While the 1986 education policy focused on giving minorities and women access to education, reducing child drop out rates and introducing education for adults, the NEP 2020 seems to focus more on technology, new-age curricula and innovation, with hardly any specific agenda to uplift members of minority communities. In fact, the word ‘minority’ is only mentioned twice and ‘Muslim’ is mentioned once – ironically to admit that they are under-represented.
The NEP boasts of India’s glorious past and draws inspiration from ancient institutions and their contribution to science and knowledge. However, the medieval period (Mughal rule) has been completely omitted. The contribution of Muslims and Muslim institutions receive no mention.
The Muslim Students Federation also noted that while several foreign languages have been introduced as optional languages to learn, “Arabic has been deliberately removed, while Urdu (a language commonly spoken by India’s Muslims) has also been removed from the list of Indian languages.”
Meanwhile, Sanskrit (an ancient Indo-Aryan language closely linked to Hinduism and Hindu nationalism as the language in which the Hindu scriptures are written in), will be offered at all levels from primary to higher secondary education, in what is seen by many as a subtle attempt to promote a Hindu nationalist agenda.
The contribution of Christians in the educational sector is also omitted. Christian groups run more than 12,000 schools in the country, in addition to at least 130 institutions at university level, many in the most remote and rural parts of India. They have played a huge role in the transformation and uplifting of India’s underprivileged communities, however these too find no mention in the NEP.
Lack of clarity on future of minority institutions and its impact on the economic status of minorities
According to Article 30 of the Indian Constitution, minorities have the right to ‘establish’ and ‘administer’ their own institutions. The article was brought about with the intention of uplifting members of minority communities, however, the NEP remains silent on what the administration of minority institutions will look like under its provisions.
For example, India is home to an estimated 24,010 madrasas (schools where Islamic law is taught along with secondary subjects like mathematics and science). These madrasas cater to some of the most underprivileged members of the Muslim community, but, again, there are no mentions of them in the policy. Neither is there any mention of scholarships or reservations for Muslim students.
This is concerning, as data indicates that India’s Muslim community, which constitutes nearly 15% of the country’s population, has some of the lowest enrolment rates at elementary, high school and higher education. According to the 2014-15 All India Survey on Higher Education, only 4.4% of Muslims were enrolled in higher education, while the Sachar Committee Report found that “one-fourth of Muslim children in the age group of 6-14 years have either never attended school or are drop-outs. For children above the age of 17 years, the educational attainment of Muslims at matriculation is 17%, as against national average at 26%. Only 50% of Muslims who complete middle school are likely to complete secondary education, compared to 62% at national level.”
This in turn has a concerning potential impact on the future economic status of Muslim students, thereby perpetrating a system in which Muslims continue to occupy low-skilled and low-paid jobs and suffer poverty and marginalisation as a result.
Saffronisation of education
The NEP states that: “All curriculum and pedagogy, from the foundational stage onwards, will be redesigned to be strongly rooted in the Indian and local context and ethos in terms of culture, traditions, heritage, customs, language, philosophy, geography, ancient and contemporary knowledge, societal and scientific needs, indigenous and traditional ways of learning etc. in order to ensure that education is maximally relatable, relevant, interesting, and effective for our students.”
This is seen by many as an attempt to “saffronise” education, a term that refers to attempts to embed the influence of Hindutva ideological narratives. The tone and tenor seems rooted in the Hindutva ideology of creating a Hindu nation, going back to Hindu roots and removing the influence of other religion and belief groups.
Centralisation of education
Finally, the policy proposes the creation of an apex body to possess all the powers to control and monitor the educational institutions. It gives the regulator complete authority, without provisions for consultation and coordination with state regulatory bodies – a dangerous proposal for any democracy.
Many minority institutions feel threatened by this and fear that this will hinder them from achieving excellence. Although medical institutions have been exempted from this regulation, previous policies like The National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) have alienated many of the medical fraternity from the government’s intentions. The proposal of a central regulatory body also raises fears of Hindutva ideology being promoted through education.
In a time when nationalism is a hotly debated topic, the principles that embody an all-inclusive India are fragmenting and democratic institutions show signs of disintegration.
As the current regime seeks to shape India’s education policy to fit with its political ideology and take another step towards its vision of a Hindutva nation, it is clear that, if left unchallenged, its realisation will have damaging long-term impacts on the country and its religious diversity.
By CSW’s India Desk