All that’s hoary does not bring glory
Here is something for Dinanath Batra to chew on. While he leads the charge against cakes and candles on birthdays, all things Western, including English language education, millions of Chinese college students take the country’s many standardised English tests every year, hoping to embellish their resumes with language certificates.
More and more parents in China are urging their kids to start learning English at an early age. Since 2002, Beijing has had a Foreign Language Festival which attracts thousands of people who tell their “Beijing stories” in different languages.
There is more. India is still at number 135 in a list of 187 countries, according to the United Nations Development Programme’s latest Human Development Report. India’s Human Development Index (HDI) rank is the lowest among Brics countries, with Russia at 57, Brazil at 79, China at 91 and South Africa at 118. The HDI focuses on progress in three key areas — a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living. Clearly, we have a lot of catching up to do.
In keeping with our love for the paradox, however, India’s dismal position in the human development pecking order is not the top concern of our “thinkerati”. Instead, we are obsessing over Mr Batra, octogenarian convenor of Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, who has mastered the fine art of grabbing headlines and eyeballs, even during a news-heavy week.
Mr Batra is best known for his “success” in pulping American scholar Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus earlier this year. That made him an instant celebrity. He is back in the news with his agenda to “reform” India’s education system. Over the past week, a flurry of news reports have dwelt on Mr Batra’s desire to purge the young Indian mind of what he considers as polluting Western thoughts, customs and worldviews. How does he propose to do that? According to one report, Mr Batra’s roadmap for a brave, new “Indianised Indian” envisions no foreign collaboration for the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), discouraging teaching of foreign languages in schools, and a call centre to instil “values and nationalism” among students. Mr Batra wants more weightage for Sanskrit and a revision of textbooks. The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks have failed to capture the “rich cultural landscape” of our country, he told a reporter last week. Mr Batra’s string of proposals for the Modi government reportedly includes making Sanskrit compulsory, a ban on foreign tie-ups for NCERT, a deletion of all Urdu and English words from Hindi books. All this at a time when the government is seeking to rebrand India as a site of innovation and exciting change!
Why make such a fuss over the wishlist of an 85 year-old? If the United States of America can have Creationists who refuse to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution, why can’t India put up with a crank like Mr Batra? Alas, this is no laughing matter and Mr Batra is no ordinary crank. His books are now recommended as secondary reading in Gujarat schools.
Many of India’s leading historians say Mr Batra is peddling inaccuracies in the name of Indianising education. One telling idea flagged in Mr Batra’s books relates to redrawing the map of India in line with the extreme-Right notion of an Akhand Bharat (undivided India). Mr Batra says he wants young Indians to draw inspiration from India’s ancient heritage and to learn Sanskrit. No quarrel with that. But there is a difference between being pig-headed and pragmatic in pursuing such an agenda. Valuing ancient India’s rich legacy in the fields of science, mathematics and the arts does not preclude appreciating the legacy of others and learning from them. It is not necessary to savage English or any other foreign language in order to prove one’s love for Sanskrit.
Which brings one back to India’s future, and the vital need to talk about things that really matter — the nuts and bolts of how young India can be equipped to forge ahead. There are immediate priorities. India’s youngsters need knowledge and skills that open up opportunities in the world of work. Not everyone thinks all that is hoary brings glory. India’s education system needs a drastic overhaul. School enrolment is going up but learning outcomes remain pathetic. The immediate challenge is to make sure that every Indian learns to read, write and basic arithmetic and has access to basic social services. That remains a giant task and that is what we should be talking about.
There are hurdles ahead. But lack of resources should not be used as an excuse any longer. There is a compelling case for universal provision of basic social services — education, healthcare, water supply, sanitation and public safety. “One commonly held misconception is that only wealthy countries can afford universal basic services,” notes UNDP’s 2014 Human Development Report. But “universal coverage of basic social services is possible at early stages of development. And recent experience — for example, in China, Rwanda and Vietnam — shows that it can be achieved fairly fast…” the report says. There are other examples. Denmark did not wait till it was a star of the rich world to enact a sickness insurance law. That was done in 1892. Costa Rica made comprehensive investments in education, health and social security way back in 1949. Nearer home, one key reason why South Korea is where it is today is because of the strategic investments it made in education in the 1960s.
Mr Batra has aired his views. In the true spirit of Indian democracy, we could debate them. But if the old man who wants to change the face of India’s education spent time with those he is seeking to “reform”, he would know that the best encouragement to aspirational India is to enable it to live its own dreams, not someone else’s fantasies. For youngsters in this country today, English is less a piece of colonial baggage and more a passport to mobility. Chinese, Japanese and Korean youth are proud nationals of their countries but that has not stopped them from embracing English in increasing numbers and tapping into the opportunities that English opens up. In an increasingly globalised world, youngsters are keen to learn foreign languages — be it Spanish, French, Mandarin — to expand their options. There are those who would opt for Sanskrit to better appreciate India’s rich tradition of poetry, drama as well as scientific and philosophical texts. They should be given the chance.
But the bottomline — let each one make his or her own choice.
The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published in