Politics and education may have an undeniable, almost inextricable relationship in this country, but if left to the movers, thinkers and policy drivers who debated their hearts out at the ThinkEdu Conclave in Chennai — this is one marriage that may not go the distance.
After two days of compelling discussions about the most important reforms that the Indian education system needed, Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani underscored the debate about education’s politicisation with one simple statement, “Is there politics in education?” she asked quietly, before adding with the resolve that has been the characteristic of her time at the helm of the higher education ministry, “As long as I’m here, there will be government in education. But never politics.” The applause was understandably loud and long.
In the same vein of simple agreement, her colleague, Nirmala Sitharaman, Minister of State for Commerce and Industry, conceded, “If education should not become commercial, then the government obviously has a role to play.” The debate over de-politicisation of our educational system was so recurrent that it kept cropping up — even in sessions that had little to do with it.
In the first session chaired by The New Indian Express Editorial Director Prabhu Chawla, this was among the biggest issues raised. “Universities need autonomy, away from government control,” stated Mohandas Pai, Chairman of Manipal Global Education Services, “Academic, financial and administrative freedom is needed. At the moment, an IIT director cannot take a simple decision about hiring staff or allotting funds because the decisions about everything is taken by the government. All the power is concentrated in a place called New Delhi in two buildings,” he added. This found agreement both with Union Minister for Science and Technology Dr Harsh Vardhan and Congress leader Sachin Pilot. “Political interference has to be minimsed, no doubt. Luckily, only history can be politicised, not maths or science,” he observed.
It wasn’t just politics and its role in education that saw heated debates during the two day long conclave. Putting four imminently qualified women and the humourous and articulate Omar Abdullah on stage together gave the audience a session that not many would forget in a hurry. Especially when the panel ended up discussing gender bias in Indian textbooks.
The reasoning that actor-politician Khushbu Sundar and MPs Kavitha Kalvakuntla, Sushmita Dev and Supriya Sule came up with managed to put forward plentiful food for thought.
“Culturally we revere women. We speak of Rani Lakshmibai and Mother Teresa, but there is a disparity in how they are portrayed. Even today, women are shown scrubbing floors and cleaning the house in the illustrations, whereas men are seen doing extremely masculine things,” shot out Kavitha Kalvakuntla.
Khushbu took it further by asking how many students actually knew about freedom fighters who were women. “The text books talk about Gandhi, Tilak, Ambedkar and all the others. How many of us think of the women who have been involved?” she queried, further buttressing her point by asking the audience how many of them knew about Tyagi Mohanavalli Vadivu. A meagre three hands went up in the packed auditorium. “She was the first suicide bomber in the world and was a firebrand in the freedom struggle. She threw herself into an arsenal filled with explosives because she didn’t want those weapons to be used against freedom fighters,” she explained.
Sule spoke about how well her State had done in shedding gender-centric stereotypes and Sushmita Dev gave solutions. “What we need is a textbook that can reach a girl in a small village and tell her that she can be a pilot,” stressed Dev.
And what about the prickly issue of foreign educators teaching Indian children? Asking a panel that included the poised and incisive Lok Satta party founder Jayaprakash Narayan, the question gave rise to a damning diatribe on all the ills that ailed Indian education and its need for all the best minds. “Why should we care where they come from, as long as they are the best?” This was the panel’s overriding argument against what they termed ‘knowledge nationalism’.
“Before we ask whether we should open up our education system to foreign educators, we should ask ourselves if they should be open to Indian educators,” began Narayan, who went on to destroy the apparent successes of the current system.
“A reputed international survey on education outcomes at the age of 15 was done on math and logic. India ranked 73rd out of 74. The government’s solution was to immediately withdraw India from the next year’s survey,” he said. He went on to speak about how the very state of Indian education needed to destroy all barriers in making it the best, on chain snatchers who were engineering graduates and on the need for open windows.
“We need to open up our windows and get the best here wherever they are from. Because higher education is all about the cross-fertilisation of ideas,” he said. His fellow panelists, Amit Shovon Ray, Director, Centre for Development Studies and Nitin Pai, Co-Founder & Director, Takshashila Institution, concurred.
The conclave began on Friday, with riveting speeches by India’s rocketman Dr K Radhakrishnan and Dr Harsh Vardhan, with opinions on how the country could go about skilling our massive student force dominating the discussion.
Amongst the various viewpoints thrown around, the most telling one was from the Sarpanch with an MBA, Chhavi Rajawat, Village Soda. “The teacher’s job is to ignite the longing to learn in the student. The current system fails to provide conducive teaching. The Gurukul system is better,” she said. Instead of a one size fits all, teachers must bring in innovative ways to deal with different personalities. To bring in this change in the education system, she said that teacher training programmes should also focus on child psychology.
Just before the day wound up, the heated debate over whether nationalism was being stifled by our text book fired up passions. RSS’ Dattatreya Hosabale was vocal with his viewpoint, “This system of Education has injected a virus (into us) that anything that is nationalistic is a taboo. It is essential for our growth and though education hasn’t killed it, it has certainly not helped it. Such education deserves to be condemned.”
Pawan Agarwal and his slice of life from a dabbawala’s line of sight delighted students from the biggest B-Schools around and set the stage for the second day. With two young, strapping politicians talking about sports, there’s very little that could have gotten the young audience more excited. Rajyavardhan Rathore, the Olympic medal-winning shooter and Minister of I&B had a ‘sporting’ suggestion while speaking to former Jammu and Kashmir CM Omar Abdullah.
Have more sports periods in schools and conduct organised sporting activities, he suggested. “I have requested the Human Resource Development ministry to enable online educational opportunities for sportspersons who might miss their regular lessons while practicing. They should have an Option B,” he said.