Dhaka, Bangladesh
Decolonising the curriculum

Decolonising the curriculum

Will the BJP government be content with just some platitudes about golden-age flying chariots? Two important essays in the right-liberal magazine Swarajya have just appeared as if to serve as a wake-up call to the Bharatiya Janata Party government on matters of education. The more recent of these is an erudite extended interview of Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee by Srinivas Udumudi. Mr. Adluri and Mr. Bagchee's latest book, The Nay Science, lays bare the colonial origins of several normalised assumptions in Indian historiography and politics, including, perhaps most significantly, the "Aryan" origins issue. Their work, very simply, has enormous ramifications for the future of liberal arts in and on India. The interview suggests that much of what is taken for granted in the story of India's past needs to be shaken up and transformed: our school-level history lessons about Aryan invaders and Brahmin colonisers are perpetuations of projections about Jews and Catholics in 19th century Protestant theology blindly applied to India. And this is not a mere classroom conjecture. Mr. Adluri and Mr. Bagchee have demonstrated the arbitrariness and emptiness of the fantasy about India that was produced by the German Indologists. A derivative discourse There is much unnecessary hatred in Indian debate today that ought to be put aside for more precise and accurate critiques of power. For too long, academic discourses (and political rhetoric) in India have relied uncritically on European Christian invective about an evil and corrupt Brahmin race ("caricatures of rabbis drawn with brown chalk") rather than an indigenous account of social groups and relations. Some academicians have even concluded (largely among themselves but then they are such an influential lot) that the ancient Indian texts associated with devotional philosophy in India are somehow responsible for genocide in Europe during World War II. The Nazi-Sanskrit linkage, however pretty it sounds in the halls of academic showmanship, is an insult to reality and to academia. Mr. Adluri and Mr. Bagchee rightly say that comparing National Socialism with Brahminism is "pernicious" and diverts culpability from the people who actually did it to the language of ancient Indian texts. The two scholars are presently on a speaking tour in India, and one of the questions they are engaging with is the idea of time in the Mahabharata. This is not merely an academic debate. Our politics, mobilised around identities inscribed during colonialism to serve colonial interests, cannot live up to our aspirations if we fail to decolonise our temporal assumptions, our teleologies of progress, development, and golden ages. Gandhians who believe in Hind Swaraj, and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh volunteers who venerate Integral Humanism might both find something useful in recognising the utter arbitrariness, and indeed, the violence in an ecological and epistemological sense, of Time as we have succumbed to it, in life, curriculum, and modern national destiny. One can hope that The Nay Science will spark introspection and change in academia, but there is the more practical side of things; the continuing neglect of arts and humanities. Despite frequent rhetorical references to Indian civilisational genius, the present government does not quite show that it intends to take anything more than the technocratic trades seriously, at least on the basis of how the New Education Policy team has been set up (there are no arts and humanities scholars in it). This is the criticism made by Sanskrit scholar Bharat Gupt in a sharp essay in Swarajya entitled "Is BJP Reviving Macaulay?" Mr. Gupt identifies the destruction of education in arts as one of the most crippling acts of colonialism, and one that was continued blindly not only by the ideologues of the left, but also by the "puritanism of Gandhi" and the "staunchness of Hegdewar", among others. Without an education in the cultivation of laalitya ("aesthetic softness") and tushti ("satisfaction"), things once viewed as citizen's prerogatives in India, Indian students have been content to pursue a curriculum of aggression and competitiveness. With its focus on "mugging", education in independent India has perpetuated the colonial imperative to produce not citizens but mere clerks, or cogs in the coding (and consuming) machine. Ironically, considering our popular association of classicism with elitism, we find Mr Gupt saying something shocking to left and right dogmas; it is not the affluent, he says, but mainly the poor in India who still retain "some traditional aesthetic sense". Taken together, these essays call for an honest debate on what an Indian (or Indic) liberal arts might look like minus the enforced dogmas of the Protestant-colonial era, and without the clumsy technocracy and cliché-laden approach of the other side. The government has to show whether it takes "civilisation" seriously enough to help students engage, question and discover it for themselves, or whether it is content to let it pass with some platitudes about golden-age flying chariots. It would be a fate worse than Macaulay indeed if the New Education Policy fails to seize this moment of great promise for a rich and transformative vision of Indic liberal arts.

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