If formal education, pedigree and degree are the panacea for the ills that plague Indian education, then India would be a global education powerhouse. Of the 29 Union ministers—including three former Prime Ministers—who presided over our mildewed, divisive education system since 1952, eight had doctoral degrees. Though the rest came from cultured families, neither had they studied abroad nor at any of India’s best-known, expensive educational edifices. Even after 67 years of Independence, a little less than half the population is not literate enough to possess writing skills. Does it mean that our elitist educationists conspired to let Indian educational establishments remain exclusive clubs for the rich and allowed basic education to suffer? India produces more graduates annually than more than half the world put together. Its education system breeds unemployment, criminality and caste and class conflicts. Hence, it is evident that even illustrious academic doyens couldn’t change the system. The furore over the qualifications of Smriti Zubin Irani, 38, who’s not only India’s youngest and least-educated HRD minister ever but also the first woman to hold the post, has much to do with the social disruption her appointment has caused among elitist academia and Congress’ imported ideologues, generating questions that confound them.
How can over 500 Vice-Chancellors of various universities, directors of IIMs and heads of other academic institutions hold a dialogue with a minister who hasn’t ever been to college? How will she provide affordable and quality education to over 220 million schoolgoing children and 11.7 million college students? Will she be able to tame the avaricious education mafia, which opens colleges and schools with the sangfroid of multinationals launching fastfood chains? Her antagonists fail to appreciate PM Narendra Modi’s Disruptionist Model of Governance. Like him, Irani, too, comes from a lower middle class family, which could ill afford a formal education for her. But she became a household name as a conventional Indian bahurani (daughter-in-law) on television, promoting Indian culture and values and not by doing item numbers. Her journey from a small screen diva to India’s HRD minister proves that practical education is also a route to success. It is because of her experience that she was chosen to draw a roadmap that would connect Indian education with the needs of the masses. Who else but Irani can address the agony of those ridiculed for lacking a college degree—the only recognised symbol of literacy?
Irani represents Modi’s mission of upending the Indian education system. Her agenda is clear. She has rightly asked to be judged by her work as a minister and not by her paper qualifications. She will have to deal with powerful CMs and ideology-driven NGOs. According to BJP insiders, those who were expecting better positions for themselves targeted her from within. Outsiders have chosen to put her on the defensive because they fear she would depoliticise the academic world. Since she doesn’t carry an ideological tag of either secularism or liberalism, she is expected to strike at the fault line of learning systems. Her objective is to completely Indianise the educational apparatus, which puts a premium on money-making and not all-round development. Barring Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, who ran the ministry for six years during NDA regime, all others were determined to take education either to the extreme left or left of centre. For example, Dr Nurul Hassan and Arjun Singh, who controlled the ministry for over 13 years, ensured that the primary and higher education syllabi were filled with either Nehruvian paeans or Leftist gobbledygook. All aspects of ancient Indian culture and nationalism were dismembered. All universities were filled with Leftist intellectuals. Those with contrarian views were hounded and deprived of jobs they deserved. Since Irani’s mandate is to restore ideological balance in all academic institutions, her opponents are leaving nothing to chance to un-nerve and cripple her before she drops those occupying top jobs, thanks to their connections to the previous Leftablishment. They dread her resolve to peel off the false, fake veneers of liberalism and pseudo-secularism from India’s temples of learning.
During the past 66 years, singing the National Anthem in schools has been a matter of faith or discretion. Various parties have placed more emphasis on expounding about their political icons in school rather than teaching children how to become responsible citizens. India’s institutions of instruction lack proper roofs and teachers. Every fifth child goes to a school that doesn’t have drinking water facilities. Even after six decades, Indian children haven’t been taught a language which can help them communicate with children in other parts of India. Over 33,000 degree colleges turn out graduates, most of whom end up joining the unskilled labour market or receive MGNREGS dole.
Irani’s hands are also tied since education is a state subject. But she has the power to set the benchmark for higher and school education because institutions like UGC and CBSE regulate the quality of learning in the country. Irani will not be judged by how many new schools or colleges she opens. She will be under pressure from market forces to open up the education sector for private investment without ensuring connectivity with employment generation. For the first time, we have a Prime Minister and an education minister who are not products of uber educational institutions. It is challenge for them to Modify the system so that their personal education-through-struggle model becomes an integral part of India’s school and college curriculum. After all, Irani has to prove that the best educated are those who successfully acquire excellent and effective forms of knowledge rather than those who acquire expensive degrees from glamorous institutions based in India or abroad.
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