The Damocles’ sword

May 12, 2024

An important milestone in understanding the role education is playing in creation of the new India

The Damocles’ sword


rof Marie Lall is well-known to scholars and students of education, especially education in Myanmar and India, as well as the connection of education with politics; the construction of social identity; and socio-political change in society. She has published widely on these subjects and is considered an authority in these fields.

The book under review has three parts, each of which consists of chapters (two in Parts 1 and 2 and one in Part 3). An introductory chapter and the epilogue are in addition to these. The introduction provides the theoretical framework of the book. It outlines the relationship between the economic policies that go by the name of neo-liberalism and Hindu nationalism, also known as Hindutva.

Briefly, neo-liberal economic policies – which may also be called rampant capitalism – aggravate the socio-economic stress to an intolerable level. This makes people hanker for some magic wand to transform their lives. This, in turn, gives rise to populist leaders (pied pipers if you will) who claim that they possess just such a magical wand.

Populists make people believe that they are against those who rule them (the establishment, crooks, the gang etc) and that they should just follow them uncritically. Such leaders play upon the hatred, biases and perceived injustices of the majority while ignoring the minorities.

Applying this framework to India, Narendra Modi, argue the authors, played upon the Hindu majority’s resentment against giving concessions to minorities; fixing quotas in jobs and admissions to educational institutions for them; and the idea that India is coterminous with the essence of the Hindu cultural being and identity.

This stance of finding one’s authentic roots in one’s own country; one’s imagined history; and one’s spiritual journey gratified the middle classes that were vociferously rejecting colonial pasts. These pasts, as it happened, were both British and Muslim.

Hence, inherent in the idea of the new India was the idea of the rejection of the Muslim heritage of the country and, at the popular level, rejection of and hostility towards the Muslim minority.

But how does education connect with this? It connects with national identity in many ways. Primarily, the state socialises citizens through the educational system. This happens everywhere in ways that often go unnoticed and are taken as common sense.

In India, too, the new common sense is to fashion citizens around the concept of non-colonial or anti-colonial authenticity of the self. This boils down to the insertion of Hindutva populist values and ways of perceiving the world. There is, however, another aspect of the rise of the middle classes in a highly competitive India.

This middle class is aware of the inequalities of income prevalent in society and, therefore, desires to empower its children through education. That is why, despite the Hindutva emphasis upon Hindi, ancient wisdom and local knowledge, the parents belonging to this class pragmatically choose to buy expensive English-medium schooling and private or state-sponsored high-prestige universities.

This is a contradiction in the attitudes of the middle class, which, despite its mouthing of authenticity and Indian identity rhetoric, actually hedge their bets by buying into world-class education if they can afford it. This pragmatic strategy, argue the authors, is also an aspect of neo-liberalism which creates such economic instability and fears that people have to take protective measures just to save their children from falling below the poverty line.

Empirical evidence for these claims is based on interviews with teachers and other stakeholders, statements from political leaders, documents, policy papers and the findings of other scholars. Part 1 provides a brief history of the creation of ideological textbooks by different BJP regimes.

The main point is that these textbooks “underpin Hindu pride and disparage India’s Muslim heritage, drawing battle lines between those who believe India is a secular country and those who want to redefine India on Hindu lines.” In the schools, the subject of Chapter 3, teachers are engaged in promoting the Hindutva ideology, which these textbooks are meant to disseminate. This engagement is much more visible in the RSS-managed schools, which were designed to promote this ideology.

Chapter 4 details teachers’ views. In this context, it is useful to learn that private school teachers, though viewed as more competent and autonomous than public school ones, do not usually confront Hindutva directly.

They do, however, support the teaching of English and the use of that language as the medium of instruction on the neo-liberal grounds arguing that it provides greater social mobility. As the authors comment, this runs counter to the government policy of privileging Hindi and Sanskrit (returning to the roots).

This deviation is quietly accepted since both the policies of promoting private schooling (based mostly on better provision of English) and the assertion of Hindutva run together. Chapter 5, on higher education, is most interesting, especially as it has close parallels with the system followed in Pakistan.

The universities, in common with the schools, are also sites for the dissemination of Hindutva in the name of anti-colonial authenticity. Here, too, the government follows the neo-liberal line of reducing government expenditure so as to allow the private sector to slice out a chunk of the higher education pie for itself. More alarmingly, dissent is stifled, sometimes by force, even in prestigious, hitherto left-leaning places such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

In Chapter 6, the effect of these policies on the concept of political citizenship - the identity of an Indian citizen - is examined. The conclusion of this chapter is grim: the very concept of citizenship is no longer based on Nehruvian inclusiveness but on excluding minorities, especially Muslims, since they are seen as foreigners.

This narrative continues despite the fact that most Muslims converted from Hinduism and that all of them were born in India. The epilogue takes this finding forward and projects it to the future. The authors sum up the message of the book in these ominous words: “A ‘New India’ is being forged through a combination of corporate India and the Hindu Rashtra.”

The book is relevant to Pakistan in several ways. First, the new Indian identity being forged by the factors given above will be aggressive both in promoting capitalism and thus linking the country to global capital, which projects its power, both soft and hard, in ways hitherto unseen in South Asia.

Secondly, this new Indian will be less inclined to be friendly to Pakistanis as well as Indian minorities, which by itself is a psychological imperative for ‘othering’ people, leading to conflict. It should be obvious to anyone who has followed the trajectory of educational changes in Pakistan that this country has followed the path of privatisation and Islamisation even earlier than India.

In our case, however, it has not made the state richer (just the opposite) but has made private purveyors of education very rich. Like India, private institutions appeal to parents because they sell English and are seen as being more competent than public ones.

As public institutions are denied funding and less competent people join them, they become ghettoes. The project of political Islamisation, including the Single National Curriculum, weds nationalism with aspects of religion chosen by the state in ways that create an intolerant, aggressively nationalistic and, hence, pro-war citizen.

With the same processes working in India and Pakistan, it is a wonder that we have avoided a full-scale war. However, it hangs upon our heads like the proverbial Damocles’ sword. The subcontinent can only survive by reversing these dangerous policies in both countries.

This book is an important milestone in understanding the role education is playing in creating the new India. It is written in accessible language and is based on a solid mass of evidence from schools, colleges and universities and those who study or teach in them. It is indispensable for those who work on education, politics and economics.

Since it affects all of us, it should be necessary reading for all educated people both in South Asia and other countries. I recommend the book wholeheartedly to scholars, students and all concerned citizens of South Asia in particular and other countries in general.

Bridging Neo-liberalism and Hindu Nationalism: The role of Education in bringing about contemporary India

Author: Marie Lall and Kusha Anand

Publisher: Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2022

Pages: 321

The reviewer is part of the faculty at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore.

The Damocles’ sword