The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 21, 2003

Information replaces knowledge
A. J. Philip

Knowledge, Power & Politics: Educational Institutions in India
edited by Mushirul Hasan. Roli Books. Pages 463. Rs 495.

Knowledge, Power & Politics: Educational Institutions in IndiaON a visit to Santiniketan early this year, a lecturer there showed me rows of university quarters which remained vacant not because there were no takers but because they were unliveable. It was indeed difficult to believe that it was the same Viswa-Bharati, founded by Nobel-laureate Rabindranath Tagore, which had as its Chancellor the Prime Minister of India. As I took round of the university, set in sylvan surroundings, what struck me most was the neglect all around.

But as I read the 12 studies of some of the great educational institutions founded before Independence in this book, I realised that the situation was not different at the other "centres of excellence" too. "The much-despised elitism might or might not have been destroyed but good institutions certainly have. The decrepitude of Presidency College is there for all to see," commented The Telegraph a decade ago.

If this is the condition of what is still considered one of the best colleges in the country, one can easily imagine the state of affairs in colleges like Delhi College, renamed Zakir Husain College, or Patna College or Elphinstone College in Mumbai.

Take the case of Patna College where the writer Sujit Mukherjee revisited the campus "through a breach in the wall near the main gate which was shut and barred, it seemed, forever." Walking through "remembered triumphs and forgotten failures, in and around the decay of buildings and devastation of tennis courts," he gave up trying to visualise what would happen to his college: "Perhaps, late on some not too far August or September night, when the water is high, the college will simply jump into the river. The Ganga will neither pause nor look back, it has seen too much already."


Why does such despair run through these essays? There are theorists who blame the British for destroying the indigenous education system and for grafting Western education on to it. Fifty-six years after the British left, these know-alls continue to blame the aliens even for the present-day ills. Anybody who disagrees with them is dismissed as a child of Macaulay.

Little do they realise that the turning point for India’s Independence was not the 1857 struggle, which yielded nothing while destroying much, including the wonderful collection in the hallowed Delhi College library, but the establishment of the universities of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras the same year. These universities had their origins in the 1845 "Educational Despatch" drafted by an evangelical Sir Charles Wood. They nurtured Indian nationalism in the nineteenth century, which, in 1885, resulted in the formation of the Indian National Congress by the graduates of Calcutta University.

The institutions that are studied in this book came into being as a result of the missionary enterprise that sought to demolish the system that considered knowledge as a source of power to be guarded strictly by the elite and for the elite. There was considerable resistance to the spreading of the concept of mass-education. Alexander Duff had the shock of his life when the elites of Calcutta approached him with the plea that he should, under no circumstances, teach girls. It was in this milieu, Lala Lajpat Rai thunderously asked, "Are our daughters to become Munshis and do naukari that they should learn Urdu?" Several decades passed before five girls joined the ‘Intermediate’ class at Delhi’s Indraprastha College in May 1924.

Resistance to English education found expression in the gurukuls set up in southeast Punjab in the early 20th century where the students were "not encouraged to think but to obey." The gurukuls produced "subaltern" men whose ultimate ambition was to serve the gurukuls and become Shastris". Small wonder that in the long run they failed to carry conviction with the masses. In sharp contrast to such gurukuls, the DAV colleges, which also had similar moorings, continue to flourish because they did not fight shy of teaching English. Mercifully, the gurukuls with their emphasis on cultural identity, rooted in the Arya Samaj, continue to insulate their adherents from Hindu majoritarianism.

The founders of St. Stephen’s College who visualised their institution becoming the "Alexandria on the banks of the Jamuna" may be turning in their graves as it progressively slips down in the best-colleges list that a newsweekly routinely publishes. Likewise, the quest for azad talim (self-directed education) that motivated the founders of Jamia Millia Islamia has ceased to have any influence on teaching in the university, which witnessed one of the most shameful agitations over an innocuous statement on Satanic Verses made by Mushirul Hasan who, incidentally, has ably edited this book and wrote the chapter on his alma mater, Aligarh Muslim University.

Hasan, who bemoans the inglorious role AMU played in the creation of Pakistan, notes with satisfaction that it has now become a symbol of secularism. But its founder Syed Ahmad’s dream of fostering liberal and modernist ideas and take the lead in debating issues of education, social reform and gender justice remains unfulfilled. The same holds true of Lucknow’s Nadwat al-Ulama where the curricula have remained unchanged for several decades.

Ideally, the studies should have included representative institutions from Punjab and the South, though there is one on Christian Medical College, Vellore. Nonetheless, the book is invaluable as it throws light on why the great institutions of the past today present a picture of neglect and decay. Is it because information has replaced knowledge as power?