Communalism and how to combat it

December 31, 2015

Compiled by Rohit Dhankar

Here is the last post of the year. And it is completely a compilation, nothing written by me; only a few comments. I have selected passages from two very good thinkers of India. Emphasis is mine. Rest belongs to Humyun Kabir and Hamid Dalwai.—Rohit

“THE BROAD OUTLINE of the Indian outlook was evolved in ancient times. The new impulses of thought which entered the Indian stream with the appearance of the Moslems since the beginning of the eighth century led to points of contact at many levels, but by and large what was established was a modus vivendi rather than an intellectual integration. When different outlooks and forces come into contact, mutual adjustments inevitably take-place, but the synthesis which was achieved was largely instinctive and based on the urges derived from feelings and emotions. Without the framework which intellectual integration alone can supply, such a synthesis cannot generally withstand the risk of the disruption due to the impact of fresh or unexpected urges. In India, the lack of intellectual integration has been a major cause of the phenomenon of parallel societies and cultures which to this day exist side by side within India.” Humayun Kabir, Indian Philosophy of Education, page 188.

“Friendship and good relations cannot subsist where disparities are too great and hence the glaring inequalities within … nations must be reduced if man is to survive in the modern atomic age. Physical neighbourhood of all men side by side with their spiritual and mental isolation is one of the greatest sources of danger in the modem world. One of the major functions of education is to overcome this isolation·, and achieve intellectual and emotional integration of mankind by bringing into one common pool the achievements of all for the service of all.” Ibid, 254.

“In one sense, this has been the aim of the Indian outlook  throughout the ages. Even when practice fell far short of profession, the Indian ideal recognised the right of the individual to go his own way in every sphere of life. Not merely toleration but acceptance of differences has been one of the most significant characteristics of the Indian attitude to the real. Indian thought has always accepted that there are degrees of truth and degrees of reality. It has therefore sought to achieve unity in the midst of diversity rather than impose a dead uniformity in which all differences are wiped out. Indian thought has been synoptic and Indian society and polity federal. It is therefore not an accident that India should be one of the strongest supporters of the co-existence of different social ideals, economic forms and political principles in the modern world. India survived the vicissitudes of history because of her capacity to reconcile differences and evolve a framework within which the widest diversities could co-exist.” Ibid, 238. [Are we loosing this capacity? Because of the Hindu fundamentalists or because of the liberals who tell us that there was nothing of the sort in Indian civilisation? Or because of the both? –Rohit.]

“Progress in the means of transport and communication has made the world one neighbourhood. Intellectual and moral integration of man into a world community has not however kept pace with this advance. Physical neighbourhood of all men side by side with their spiritual and mental isolation is one of the paradoxes of the modern age. Unless different peoples with different backgrounds and outlooks learn to make necessary adjustments in their outlook and temper, clashes that are bound to be catastrophic in the modern context cannot be avoided .” ibid, 234. [Is this prophetic? Is India reaching there? Can we do something about it?—Rohit]

Now we turn to the next thinker.

“It is a tragic fact that there does not yet exist a class of critically introspective young Muslims in India. [Keep calm, it was written in sixties,–Rohit] A society which puts the blame on the Hindus for its own communalism can hardly be called introspective. If Hindu communalism is responsible for Muslim communalism, by the same logic it would follow that Muslim communalism is equally responsible for Hindu communalism. The truth of the matter is that the Muslim intelligentsia has not yet given up its postulate of parallel society. It has still not learnt to separate religion from politics. Their idea of religious freedom is merely that the structure of the Muslim society in India should remain unaltered.” Hamid Dalwai, as quoted by Ramachandra Guha, in Makers of Modern India, page 494.

“However, I consider suicidal the Hindu communalist attempt to answer Muslim communalism by obscurantist Hindu revivalism. Muslim communalism will be defeated only when the Hindu achieves a greater degree of social progress and modernizes himself. By making the Hindus more obscurantist—by making them more puritan and orthodox—Muslim communalism can never be eliminated. The movement for a ban on cow-slaughter provides an apt example. I oppose the ban on agro-economic grounds. But I oppose it even more strongly on non-economic grounds, because if the Hindu belief in the sacredness of the cow is encouraged, it would prevent the Hindus from modernizing themselves and from achieving a greater degree of social progress. The Hindus have slid backward only because of their religious obscurantism. Mahmud Ghaznavi could defeat Hindu armies simply by using herds of cows as a shield for his own army! One hopes that such history will not be repeated in modem times. Hindus must discard all those religious beliefs which hindered their progress and deprived them of their freedom . . . I attack all aspects of mediaeval religious obscurantism whether it is Muslim or Hindu. And hence I am opposed to the movement for a ban on cow-slaughter.” Ibid, page 495-96

“History, which has bred prejudices and animosity, is a hindrance to all of us. All of us have to come out of the grip of our prejudices which originate in our past. Hindu communalists must also break away from the grip of their prejudices. It is not the fault of the young Brahmins of today that their ancestors gave inhuman treatment to the untouchables, and today’s Indian Muslim is not responsible for the oppression to which Mahmud Ghaznavi or Aurangzeb subjected the Hindus. Fortunately, there is a class of Hindus today which bears the burden of its ancestors’ sins and conscientiously tries to undo the damage by embracing social equality as a fundamental value. Similarly, there has to emerge a class of Muslims which would accept the sins of Aurangzeb and, to undo the damage, would therefore embrace the concept of secular citizenship. The emergence and sustained growth of such a class of modem, secular, dynamic liberals is the only effective answer to the Hindu—Muslim communal problem.” ibid, pages 496-97

“Secularism in India, although embodied in the Constitution, is as yet only an aspiration. It has not yet permeated our social life. It is even in danger today. Within the Hindu majority, there is a strong obscurantist revivalist movement against which we find a very small class of liberals engaged in fight. Among Indian Muslims there is no such liberal minority leading the movement towards democratic liberalism. Unless Indian liberals, however small they are as a minority, are drawn from all communities and join forces on a secular basis, even the Hindu liberal minority will eventually lose its batle with communalist and revivalist Hindus. If Muslims are to be integrated in the fabric of a secular and integrated Indian society, a necessary precondition is to have a class of Muslim liberals who would continuously assail communalist dogmas and tendencies. Such Muslim liberals, along with Hindu liberals and others, would comprise a class of modem Indian liberals.” Ibid 497-98

“Indian Muslims believe that they are a perfect society and are superior to all other communities in India. One of the grounds for this belief is the assumption that the Islamic faith embodies the vision of a perfect society and, therefore, being a perfect Muslim implies not having to make any further progress. This is an unacceptable claim by modem criteria.” ibid, 599

“The only leadership Indian Muslims have is basically communalist. An exceptional Muslim like M.C. Chagla has no place in Indian Muslim society. Nor will individual modem liberals suffice. Indian Muslims today need an avant garde liberal elite to lead them. This elite must identify itself with other modem liberals in India and must collaborate with them against Muslim as well as Hindu communalism. Unless a Muslim liberal intellectual class emerges, Indian Muslims will continue to cling to obscurantist medievalism, communalism, and will eventually perish both socially and culturally. A worse possibility is that of Hindu revivalism destroying even Hindu liberalism, for the latter can succeed only with the support of Muslim liberals who would modernize Muslims and try to impress upon them secular democratic ideals.” ibid, 499-500

“It is often argued that Muslim communalism is only a reaction to Hindu communalism. This is not true. The real conflict in India today is between all types of obscurantism, dogmatism, revivalism, and traditionalism on one side and modem liberalism on the other. Indian politicians being short-sighted and opportunistic, communalism and orthodoxy is always appeased and seldom, if ever, opposed. This is why we need an agreement among all liberal intellectuals to create a non-political movement against all forms of communalism. If this is not done, democracy and liberalism will inevitably collapse in India. The stakes are high. It is a pity that few people realize the gravity of the situation. It is even more unfortunate that they are hardly informed about the true nature of the problem.” Ibid, 500

But to develop such dynamism Hindu orthodoxy itself has to be liquidated. The caste system has to be eliminated. The Hindus must embrace modernism. They must create a society based on fundamental human values and the concept of true social equality. Unfortunately, the Hindu mind lacks balance. Even those Hindus who have accepted modernity, justice and brotherhood as their guiding principles sometimes support Muslim communalism. Some avoid speaking against it and some even indirectly encourage it. Those Hindus who ought to be combating communalism today seem, instead, to be trying to put the clock back. They are supporting obscurantism, revivalism, the caste system and the cult of the cow. This is a process which would drain Hindu society of whatever little dynamism it may still have. There have to be enough Hindus trying to modernize the Hindu society and, at the same time, opposing the irrational politics of Muslim communalism. I hope this would happen. For that would precisely be the process by which the Hindu-Muslim problem can be eliminated. Muslim communalism today makes the most of the rift between liberal Hindus and communalist Hindus. It is ironical that Muslim communalists gain the support of Hindus, both liberal and communalist. The Muslim communalist demand for making Urdu a second official language in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar has been supported by the so-called modernist Hindus under the impressive label of secularism. The ‘secularism’ of such Hindus encourages the anti-secularism of the Muslims. These so-called secularist Hindus are opposed to the creation of a common personal law because it might displease the Muslims.” ibid 500-501

“We have to support Muslim modernism in India. We have to insist on a common personal law for all citizens of India. All marriages in India must be registered under a common

Civil Code. Religious conversion should not be allowed, except when the intending convert is adult and the conversion takes place before a magistrate. Children born of inter-religious marriages should be free to practise any religion but only after they reach legal adulthood. If either a [Muslim] dargah or a [Hindu] temple obstructs the passage of traffic on a thoroughfare, it ought to be removed. Government should have control over the income of all religious property. This income should be spent on education and public welfare alone. It should not be obligatory to mention one’s religion and caste (even today, the admission form used in schools compels students to state their religion) . . . For all this to happen, the present division among the Hindus should cease to exist. Those Hindus who want to counter Muslim communalism unfortunately try to strengthen Hindu revivalism. And those Hindus who want to lead the Hindus and ultimately the whole of this nation on the way of modernity are unfortunately supporting Muslim communalists. This has to change. I am on the side of all Hindus who oppose Muslim communalism; but when the same Hindus help Hindu revivalism, I am opposed to them. I support all those who want to modernize the Hindus; but when they adopt a policy of not opposing Muslim communalism, I oppose them. If the Hindus develop a proper balance of mind, I believe the present tensions would soon begin to resolve.” Ibid, 504

[Was Hamid Dalwai right? Have we missed the bus? Is the rise of BJP and Sangh parivar a result of not understanding what Dalwai was warning in 1960s? If the Indian liberals (Hindus and Muslims together) had heeded Daliwai could we have avoided the rise of RSS and the communalist elements among the Hindus? Are the Indian liberals still making the same mistake?—Rohit]


Perils of obsession with politics

December 20, 2015

Rohit Dhankar

[There have been many controversies regarding curbing freedom of speech recently. Four of them are used here as examples: Aamir Khan’s statement on intolerance, Professor Vohra’s quotations from a European scholar, cartoon in Lokmat in which “Muhammad is messenger of Allah” written on a piggy-bank, and Kamalesh Tiwari’s calling Muhammad a homosexual and rapist. And a question is raised: why have we responded to them differently? How far that differential response is justified? The blame is placed at the door of a mistaken theory of relationship between politics on one side and knowledge and morality on the other.]

Knowledge and morality are socio-politically determined, goes the theory. The term is “determined” and not constructed or influenced. If it were only “constructed” it would mean formulated in interaction with others and in a given political environment. If it were “influenced” it would mean shaped up to a certain extent by social and political consideration. Both would leave some space and hope for some more objective criteria for calling something ‘knowledge’ and accepting a moral principle. But it is “determined”, that means there is nothing beyond political considerations and there is no hope for objectivity.

Politics, as we all know, is concerned with power and self-interest of individuals and groups. Power is, to put as mildly as possible, capability to influence others’ against their will and against their own interests. And interest, in this theory, as we all know are determined by our material conditions; again ‘determined’ not only shaped and influenced.

Of course, this is a simplification of a particular theory about human ways of thinking and behaving. But I hope this captures the core. Let’s see how we Indians use this theory with regard to freedom of speech guaranteed by our constitution. I will consider four cases to understand how this theory operates in the Indian intellectual mind.

Legal position on freedom of speech

Before we get to our examples, a cursory understanding of the legal position on freedom of speech would be necessary. I am saying “cursory understanding” because I am not a lawyer, just an ordinary citizen making sense of some articles in the Constitution of India and Indian Penal Code.

The constitution of India guarantees freedom of speech. In Article 19(1) it states: “All citizens shall have the right—(a) to freedom of speech and expression; …”. And then by the way of clarification defines limits to this freedom in clause 19(2): “Nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”

So the right to freedom of speech has limits. The state can impose those limits through making laws to safeguard certain things, “public order” included in them. And existing laws, including Indian Penal Code (IPC), can also put limits to this freedom.

Paraphrased for the current purpose Article 153 of IPC reads “153. Wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot—if rioting be committed—if not committed — Whoever malignantly, or wantonly, by doing anything which is illegal, gives provocation to any person intending or knowing it to be likely that such provocation will cause the offence of rioting to be committed, shall, if the offence of rioting be committed in consequence of such provocation, be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both; and if the offence of rioting be not committed, with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine, or with both.”

This is regarding provocation for rioting “malignantly” and “wantonly” by doing something “illegal”, whether the riot is actually caused or not, such provocation remains an offence punishable by the law. The terms “malignantly”, “wantonly”, “with intent” and “provocation” are not difficult to understand; but may not be easy to establish. With the judicial and law-enforcing machinery like ours this difficulty in establishing is more likely to go against the accused than being used in his/her favour.

“Provocation” has a very serious added difficulty, it places the citizen legitimately exercising her freedom of speech in at the mercy of an unknown citizen who may get ‘provoked’ unduly, which seems to be the case in many instances in the current mood of the country.

The Article 153A creates further difficulties for someone who wants a free-spirited public debate. Here I am focusing on freedom of speech in concern with religious matters, therefore am quilting only the relevant part of the article. “153A. Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, … and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony —(1) Whoever—(a) by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, promotes or attempts to promote, on grounds of religion, … or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, … groups …, or (b) commits any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, …, and which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquillity, … shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”

Now I will not argue that this leaves very little of the right of freedom of speech guaranteed by the constitution in Article 19, because it is quite obvious. I would rather examine how we Indians (particularly the ‘intellectual’ variety) react to attacks on freedom of speech; be the attack from the state or the politicians or the common public. In this I will take four recent incidents and public response to them. The incidents I am using are (1) Aamir Kha’s views on intolerance, (2) Professor Vohra’s speech in a seminar, (3) the piggy-bank cartoon, and (3) Kamalesh Tiwari’s pamphlet (?) on Muhammad.

The Aamir Khan episode

Aamir Khan in a very balanced and sane interview highlighted certain things which worry him. The most repeated part of what Aamir Khan said is: “I do feel there is a sense of insecurity. When I sit at home and talk to Kiran. (Wife) Kiran and I have lived all our lives in India. For the first time, she said, should we move out of India? That’s a disastrous and big statement for Kiran to make to me. She fears for her child. She fears about what the atmosphere around us will be. She feels scared to open the newspapers every day. That does indicate that there is a sense of growing disquiet… growing sense of despondency. You feel depressed, you feel low.. why is it happening? This feeling exists in me too.”

Let’s note a few things in this:

  • He said nothing about any particular community, religious or otherwise. He was talking about general atmosphere in the country.
  • In the given atmosphere and recent controversies it was easy to come to the conclusion that the intolerance referred to was from a section of Hindu community (usually called ‘Hindutva’ section) and the BJP.
  • He might be wrong in his assessment of the situation, he might even be pretending, but he was well within his right of freedom of speech.

Let’s also note the reaction against his statements:

  • There was no reaction or threat of prosecution from any government.
  • There was some condemnation from the official spokesperson f BJP, but well within the sane limits of expressing one’s views, be they right or wrong.
  • There were usual rubble rousing and highly provocative statement from some minor BJP politicians. Within the limits of law (as far as I could see) but morally depraved.
  • There was a strong and sometimes offensive attack and trolling on social media.

The response from the vocal, intelligent and liberal India:

  • Strong counter attack on social media, sometimes almost as offensive as the opponent group. With equal kind of trolling.
  • Many articles in the media written by intellectuals which came in defence of Aamir Khan and condemned the people attacking him. Rightly so.
  • Accusations on the government despite of the government doing nothing against Aamir Khan.

The strange case of Professor Vohra

Professor Vohra, a well-respected academic and retired professor of philosophy from a highly regarded university was speaking in a seminar held by another university on inter-faith dialogue. In an academic paper he was trying to explore how to interpret faith from in-side and out-side which can be objective and more conducive dialogue. In this process within the well-respected Indian (actually world over) tradition of debate he quoted some foreign scholars as examples of how NOT to interpret Hinduism and defended Hinduism against their, in his view, unreasonable interpretation.

Professor Vohra quoted some interpretations of Hindu gods and rituals by outsiders at length. I am taking one of them, though at length, to my mind most erroneous: “Let me now take up the specific cases of those of our contemporary ‘others’ who have used ‘particularly Eurocentric categories to analyse Hindu religion and folklore’. The first that comes to mind is the description of Lord Ganesha by Paul Courtright. In his book Ganesha Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings[i]  he begins with the elephant’s head of Ganesha for his analysis. He says, “from a psychoanalytical perspective, there is meaning in the selection of the elephant head. Its trunk is the displaced phallus, a caricature of Shiva’s linga. It poses no threat because it is too large, flaccid and in the wrong place to be useful for sexual purpose.  . . . The elephant’s head is also a mask, and, as it is a mask’s purpose simultaneously to reveal and to conceal, it both disguises and expresses aggression inherent in the story. So Ganesha takes on the attributes of his father but in an inverted form, with an exaggerated phallus – ascetic and benign – whereas Shiva’s is ‘hard’ (urdhavalinga), erotic and destructive”[ii].

The cause of Ganesha’s celibacy is traced for opposite reasons to both his father and mother. He cannot “compete with his father, a notorious womaniser, either incestuously for his mother or for any other woman for that matter”[iii]. That Ganesha is an incestuous son is traced to the following anecdote: “Once Parvati asked Ganesha whom he would like to marry; he replied, ‘Someone exactly like you, Mummy’. And Mummy got outraged by such an openly incestuous wish and cursed him with everlasting celibacy”[iv].

Let me remind that these are not Professor Vohra’s views, he is quoting others with references from published and available books. His own views are as follows: Such a partial, biased, superficial approach can be called nothing else but unethical, misleading and highly irresponsible. It is because of such uninformed explanations by the others, the outsiders that the insider is hurt. Such explanations cannot be said to be either objective or scientific as they are based on a one sided vision of the observer and do not take into account the totality of the concerned lived life.”

The reaction against Professor Vohra:

  • ABVP started a strong protest.
  • Some academics including two VCs considered this very objectionable.
  • The Rajasthan Government (through one of it’s Ministers) ordered an FIR against Professor Vohra, which I underside duly filed.
  • There seems to be a talk of presentations in seminars organised by universities in Rajasthan to be submitted in written beforehand.

The response from the vocal, intelligent and liberal India:

  • So far have seen only a few articles written in favour of Professor Vohra’s academic freedom and his right to freedom of speech.
  • Social media revolutionaries completely ignored it.
  • National press took some note, but then forgot it.

The piggy bank

There was an article in Marathi paper Lokmat on ISIS funding. In which the declaration that “Muhammad is the messenger of Allah” is written on the nose of piggy-bank in Arabic. This same claim figures on the flag of ISIS and that is why the artist used it to indicate ISIS funding in the cartoon.

As a result there were protests from Muslims in several cities of Maharashtra and some vandalism as well. The Lokmat has to render an unconditional apology. And perhaps some action against the artist is also taken, but I am not sure of this.

The social media and intellectual variety of Indians completely ignored the episode. It did not concern them much.

The unknown case of Kamalesh Tiwari

Dianik Bhaskar on 30th November 2015 published a news item, some parts of it are as follows (my translation): “In response to Azam Khan Hindu Mahasabha has declared Pagambar Muhammad as gay. They have claimed that Muhammad sahab was the first homosexual in the world.”


“Hindu Mahasabha has issues a statement through a press note. They have said that Muhammad sahab was not only homosexual he was also a rapist. He was also a terrorist. The karyakari adhyaksha of Hindu Mahasabha Kamalesh Tiwari has said that Muhammad sahab had intimate relations with his friend Abu Bakr, because of that Abu Bakr’s 9 year old daughter became a rape victim.”

This statement from Tiwari came after Azam Khan said that RSS leaders are gay, that is why they do not marry. Some say that Tiwari is working president of local unit of Hindu Mahasabha. The national vice-president of Hindu Mahasabha denies this claim.

It seems from the Hindi press that Kamalesh Tiwari is arrested for this statement. There are several protests from Muslim community that demand capital punishment to Tiwari for blasphemy. There are also protest marches from some Hindus demanding release of him.

The social media and intellectuals have largely ignored the issue.

Politics as determining criteria

I have no intention of communicating that Aamir Khan, Professor Vohra, Piggy-bank and Kamalesh Tiwari cases are at the same level in their claims, their social implications and their intellectual content. Aamir is expressing his concerns on an issue of national importance in a very balanced manner. Professor Vohra is analysing in the best academic tradition how religious dialogue should be conducted and how not. The Lokmat was perfectly within its rights in publication of the article and the cartoon. Kamalesh Tiwari is trading insult for insult, with intention of communicating tit-for-tat. But as far as state of freedom of speech in the country goes all four cases merit attention and comment.

So why have the intellections responded differently in these cases? The legal provision leave no doubt that all but Tiwari were clearly within the bounds of the law. There could be some doubt about Tiwari but if we want to protect freedom of speech then we also have to recognise that response to what Tiwari said should have been in the form of counter argument, and not arrest.

It seems that politics as the ultimate measure of truth and acceptable behaviours is the only explanation.

Supporting Aamir Khan against the so-called Hindutva forced fits with the narrative of resisting intolerance; therefore, full support to him and a lot of noise. That noise provides opportunity to push the political agenda.

Professor Vohra’s case actually deserves support more than Aamir’s if one looks at the attack on academic freedom and its possible disastrous results. But professor Vohra may not be on the right side of the politics and then he is defending Hinduism; which is politically incorrect. Therefore, very little reaction to his harassment by the government.

In the case of piggy-bank cartoon the matter is even more serious: a newspaper had to tender apology for doing what it ought to be doing. There was intolerant reaction from the mobs, and vandalism. But no reaction from the intellectual India. Why? The politics of the moment cannot accept fair principles; application of the right to free speech has to be calibrated to suit the politics. If the right is exercised in a manner that Muslim sentiment is heart, it is incorrect use of the right; because the best democracy is that which safe-guard the rights of its minority. But if it is exercised in a manner where the majority Hindu community objects then they are being intolerant; and the right needs to be protected; because if one does not resist that there is a grave danger of majoritarianism.

The Tiwari case is as intentional and deliberate as organising public beef (cow meet, not buffalo variety) festivals. The supposed to be Hindu hurt feelings because of such festivals can be as genuine or fake as hurt feeling to Muslims due to calling Muhammad a homosexual and rapist. However, in India we will allow beef festivals but not a derogatory statement about Muhammad. Again the political determination of truth and acceptable behaviour in play.

The problem I want to raise through these examples is: can we do away with subjective biases and double standards if we accept the theory roughly articulate in the beginning of this article? I don’t think so. To stem intolerance and to protect freedom of speech we need a better and more objective set of criteria than politics can provide us with. I have a suspicion (though am not sure) that the real reason behind the seeming double standards in our intellectual world is neither hypocrisy nor dishonesty as some unfairly accuse. The real reason is the theory of political determination of knowledge and morality. We need to examine it more closely. This theory obliterates difference between knowledge and belief, and undermines independent critical thinking. In the absence of some reasonably defendable criteria the authority of some people becomes all important; and that encourages bhed-chaal, mindless following of the flock. That is precisely what we seem to be doing.


[i] Oxford University Press, New York, 1985.

[ii] Ibid., p. 121.

[iii] Ibid., p. 110.

[iv] Ibid.

Skill-Based Curriculum: Will it help students?

December 17, 2015


Rohit Dhankar

Skills based curriculum seems to be the current silver bullet for curing educational ills of the country. The Ministry of Human Resource Development discussion note on new education policy wants to “revamp … our education system to make skill development an integral part of the curriculum at all stages.”

Indian education is too often criticised for its ‘theoretical’ orientation and ignoring usable skills. This is supposed to be the main reason why it churns out supposed to be ‘unemployable’ school and college graduates. These claims as usually understood in their simplistic term may not be true; still, emphasis on ‘usable skills’ in education without compromising academic development should be welcome.

However, when one looks at the use of this term ‘skill’ in the current educational discussions several questions arise. What kind of skills are really usable in real life? How can they be taught? And more importantly: what does the term “skill” really mean? Some examples of the use of term skill (in current discussions) will be in order here: Life skills; basic language and numeracy skills; cognitive skills; self-employment skills; problem solving, critical thinking and reasoning skills; functional skills.

What does the term skill mean in all these cases? Is there really a common meaning of the term here? Can they be taught in the same manner across these domains? These questions become crucial when one starts developing a curriculum, teaching material, pedagogy and assessment. Just a rough skill-talk may sound very appealing in a vague debate, but will not help us develop any good educational programme.

Traditionally, the term skill was used for dexterities that could be taught directly through practice, involved but not much of knowledge and understanding, and which were of limited generalisability. For example, swimming. It could be taught directly by practice; does not necessarily need understanding of fluid dynamics. Its applicability remains very close to the situations in which it is learnt. Today, this is considered a ‘narrow’ use of the term skill; and a wider use encompasses all the things that are listed above. And therein lie a host of curricular and pedagogical problems. Just to hint at one of these problems let’s take three examples of skills: driving (it could be one of the self-employment skills), critical thinking and empathy.

Driving is a paradigmatic example of skill. It is directly teachable, little knowledge (of how the engine functions) is necessary and is not transferable; a car driver does not become a pilot automatically. Therefore, a short course could easily be designed and successfully implemented for driving. All you have to do is give sufficient practice and tell the traffic rules. And you have a thriving school of driving.

Now, think of critical thinking. A person to be a critical thinker, say in mathematics, necessarily needs a substantial amount of mathematical knowledge base. S/he needs an understanding of how mathematical reasoning works: deductive logic based on axioms and definitions, mainly. S/he needs to do a lot of mathematics, understand the principles of logic, for example inference; and has to internalise the logical relationships between abstract concepts. But it cannot be taught just by solving mathematical problems.

It requires much imagination, an attitude to stick with the logic and demanding proofs. It is highly generalizable but only on mathematical models. A critical thinker in mathematics is not necessarily a critical thinker in, say history. In history, one needs a lot of insight into interpretation of the available facts; and deductive logic works but only as a limited basis. One cannot have a short course in critical thinking (either in mathematics or in history) then; it develops in the process of acquiring a vast amount of human knowledge.

How to teach empathy

Third, let’s take empathy. It’s not even a skill. It is a feeling towards another sensitive being (humans and animals). It is a capability to feel the others’ pain. We do not know how to teach it. Though we do have some idea that a person himself treated with sensitivity and in close emotional relationships with other human beings is likely to be more empathetic to others compared to one who has not experienced such emotional bonding. We also know that a developed moral sense is likely to enhance one’s empathy with others. But there is no guarantee. And a course to teach empathy is impossible. Calling it a skill is ridiculous.

Now, when one talks of emphasising ‘capability for action’ in a curriculum; that may be a sensible thing to do. But when one treats all those capabilities as ‘skills’ education is likely to slide on the wrong path. Once you call something a skill, you get into the mode of thinking that it could be taught like driving. Which is not the case. Therefore, by over emphasising skills in school education you can make students into plumbers, drivers, computer jobbers, and hospitality workers; but not into good engineers, doctors, historians, mathematicians and scientists. And a country requires both to function well.

The skill talk in school curriculum, then, may be useful up to a certain extent, but may mislead our education if disproportionately emphasised.

A simple statistical indicator of this over emphasis on skills is that the word “skill” occurs in the MHRD discussion note for school education 25 times, “knowledge” seven times and “understanding” zero times! A close analysis of the themes and questions leaves no doubt that the overwhelming emphasis is on narrow skills; and where values and knowledge are mentioned they are more in a supportive role; while for good education you need to have it the other way round. Now, we can attempt at the least one of the questions asked in the themes document: Would skill based education help students to be employable? May be, at the lower end of the social and economic spectrum; but at a huge future cost to the student and to the nation.


The ideal of citizenship in Basic Education

December 4, 2015

Published in Teacher Plus

Rohit Dhankar

The ideal of citizenship is conspicuous by its absence in the current government-led policy debate.

It would be useful to look at one important milestone in Indian educational thought to underline the role such ideals play. The milestone I intend to look at is The Wardha Scheme of education. I am taking the Basic National Education: Report of the Zakir Hussain Committee1 as the main text for the Wardha scheme on the authority of Dr. K.L. Shrimali. He uses the report as being synonymous with the Wardha scheme and states that it was “approved by Gandhiji”2.

The report was the outcome of a churning of ideas first in the form of debates through the newspaper published by him in which Mahatma Gandhi was a central figure and then the Wardha National Education Conference on 22nd and 23rd October 1937. The conference appointed a committee under the chairmanship of Dr. Zakir Hussain. The committee included stalwarts like K T Shah, VinobaBhave, Kaka Kalelkar, and E W Aryanayakam. This is a very thoughtful and well written report. In spite of not being very long it touches almost every aspect of school education including general theoretical moorings, curriculum, syllabus, examination, and teacher education. In this article the focus is only on the ideal of citizenship in this scheme of education.

Wardha scheme is obviously part of the Gandhian thought on education; but this also has contributions from the conference, from the committee members, and it is no difficult task to see that in spite of being written under Gandhi’s guidance, many of Gandhi’s ideas are also modified, if not compromised, in this. For example, the report does not demand that schools be financially self-supporting through their own production in the process of learning; it only recommends that and expresses a hope of realizing this goal with the government’s help. But it mentions Gandhi several times, included two letters to Gandhi by the committee and states that it is an authentic expression of Gandhi’s ideas on education. Gandhi himself, as indicated above, approves it. In his foreward to the report, however, Gandhi does not seem to be totally satisfied by the title of the report. He thinks that a “more correct though much less attractive description” of the report “would be Rural National Education through village handicrafts.” His explanation baffles an ordinary reader . He says that ‘rural’ will exclude “the so called higher or English education”. One would think rural excludes urban also, and that is the more important meaning of the term. But does that mean that Gandhi thought this education was fit only for the village children? He does say in the preface that the report should communicate that for the framers “the scheme expect(s) the teachers to educate village children in their villages” through “village handicrafts”.

Basic schools, however, were opened in rural as well as in urban areas and perhaps more urban middle class children were educated through this than the rural children. Also, the term ‘national’ in the title of the report can be seen as encompassing the whole nation, irrespective of rural or urban. But then Gandhi’s explanation of the term ‘national’ baffles one even more. He says: “‘National’ at present connotes truth and non-violence.” It is possible to claim, unjustifiably though, that truth and non-violence were at that time ‘nationally accepted’ ideology; but how can ‘national’ connote that? Is it not tantamount to saying that any ideas that do not accept the ideology of truth and non-violence cannot be considered national? What does this claim do to the more common definition of national used by ordinary mortals: “concerned with or applicable to or belonging to an entire nation or country”?

After these preliminary remarks we should turn to the ideal of citizenship in this scheme; we will see that the above mentioned Gandhi’s characterization of ‘national’ plays an important role in the formulation of this ideal.

The ideal of citizenship
The scheme has a very strong and clear ideal of citizenship that runs through the report and informs all of its formulations. This ideal is also explicitly stated in a small section which is so pregnant with ideas that one can easily write a book making those 328 words the sole basis for it. Therefore, what I say below is nothing more than a glimpse of this ideal.

Cooperative community
The citizen in this scheme is situated in a “cooperative community” which is civilized, has social and political equality and is caring for every member. Not directly mentioned here but if one looks at Gandhi’s ideas regarding social organization, it is an autonomous and largely self-reliant community which takes care of its governance and economic needs with a large degree of independence. And is fairly close to his ideal village republic.

The political ideal
The report prophecies that the “citizenship” in modern India “is destined to become increasingly democratic in the social, political, economic, and cultural life”. Which directly requires from every citizen an “understanding” of his/her “own problems and rights and obligations.” According to the report a “completely new system is necessary to secure the minimum of education for the intelligent exercise of the rights and duties of citizens.” (Emphasis added) The idea that citizens have rights immediately demands the capability to exercise those rights in a thoughtful manner. And of course, rights come attached with duties. It seems to me that the greatest failure of Indian education after Independence lies in its lack of capability to help future citizens to be able to exercise their rights and duties in an intelligent manner.

Economic ideal
The scheme declares quite clearly that “[a]n education which produces drags and parasites – whether rich or poor – stands condemned.” Every citizen in this scheme is envisaged to be both capable and willing “to repay in the form of some useful service what he owes to it as a member of an organised civilised community”. The ideal is not merely concerned with social efficiency; as production of parasites also “engenders a dangerous and immoral mentality”. In such a scheme all work and labour, including “scavenging”, naturally has to be seen as equally honourable. The moral emphasis on work takes it beyond the efficiency paradigm and is unmistakable in the report.

Transformative and moral expectations from education
The children who are educated in such a scheme, directly contributing to useful productive work in an environment of cooperation and democratic decision-making are supposed to develop a commitment to these ideas and are also supposed to take them forward in the community beyond the school. Thus education is for the moral and intellectual transformation of the society at large.

Personal qualities
Achievement of or failure to realize these ideals obviously depends on the transformation and development of capabilities of the children who are being educated through the scheme. Therefore they are supposed to develop into “the citizens of the future” with “a keen sense of personal worth, dignity and efficiency” and education should “strengthen in them the desire for self-improvement and social service in a co-operative community.”

This five-fold ideal of the society and citizenship is powerful, clear and can become a basis for aims and ideals of education in any democratic society, of course, appropriately interpreted in the context.

And still, the Wardha scheme has at the least one very serious philosophical problem if examined in terms of education in a democracy. It’s pedagogical and curriculum related problems are well known as no single handicraft can bear the burden of achieving all learning objectives through productive work. To my mind this is no great philosophical problem. As today, we may not know how to formulate a curriculum that can achieve all academic learning through productive work through a central handicraft; but there is nothing conceptually impossible about it; as in future through empirical research we may be able to solve this fundamental problem. What I am indicating in this article is a contradiction of different nature, and to my mind much more serious.

Is the scheme dogmatic?
Let me ask the question without mincing words: is the Wardha scheme dogmatic in a seriously problematic sense?

To understand this let’s look at some ideas in the scheme. We can start with recollecting Gandhi’s characterization of ‘national’ where he says that national “at present connotes truth and non-violence”. The report itself gives this definition of ‘national’. It claims that education for Indian children has to be “radically” different from education in the West, as unlike the West “in India the nation has adopted non-violence as the method of peace for achieving all-round freedom. Our children will therefore need to be taught the superiority of non-violence over violence.”

This, in spite of Congress being the main party fighting for free India and Gandhi being the unquestioned (and that is the problem, by the way) leader of that party, was not true of India in 1937-38, never has been, and never can be. This is exclusionary in the sense that there were still nationalist extremists who did not mind armed struggle to win freedom, there was Subhas Chandra Bose who did not agree on this ideal, there was Nehru who accepted non-violence only as a strategy, there was the Left movement which never accepted it, and there was the Muslim League who considered it as indoctrination of children into Hindu values. One could hardly declare this ideal ‘national’ without excluding all these streams of thought which were right within India and as concerned about its betterment as Gandhi was.

It requires much more space than available for this article to do justice to this issue. Therefore, I will limit myself to paraphrasing the All-India Muslim League’s criticism of inclusion of the doctrine of ahimsa in a scheme of education. The council of AIML appointed a committee to examine the impact of the implementation of the Wardha Scheme on Muslims of India under the chairmanship of the Raja of Pirpur. The report of the committee, of course, has much that is unfounded and expresses only AIML biases; but the criticism of the scheme for inclusion of non-violence is sound and well argued.

The report states that “in an educational scheme there must be scope for teaching different forms of political doctrines. If, from their childhood, boys and girls are made to think in terms of superiority of non-violence it may produce the same results as the doctrine of superiority of race has done in certain totalitarian states.” It is totalitarian in nature to “base an education scheme on the creed of a leader of a political party”. This gives education a “religious garb”. “It will … … facilitate the conversion of the youth to the ideals of the Congress.” In a country like India a “system of education which emphasises the superiority of one political ideal over others will encourage intolerance.”

AIML was looking from its own angle, but this criticism stands even in the light of democratic ideal of critical citizens with independence of mind as well; because making non-violence a central principle of a system of education is clearly indoctrination. It moulds children in a tender age to think in a particular way, which may make them incapable of rationally examining it in their future life. Which means that education will be trying to control their ways of thinking.

Implications for the curriculum
This bias is clearly visible in the curricular objectives and detailed syllabus in the report, generally in the mother tongue, social studies, and particularly in history; as is expected. We will look only at history in this article. Actually, the objectives of social studies curriculum are very laudable and can hardly be faulted. Present day curriculum framers can learn a lesson or two from the report in structure and principles of objectives based curricula. But the content selection and treatment, at many places wants uncritical acceptances of the doctrine of ahimsa. Some examples are given below.

“Stories of the great liberators of mankind and their victories of peace should find a prominent place in the curriculum. Emphasis should be laid on lessons drawn from life showing the superiority of truth and non-violence, in all its phases and its concomitant virtues, over violence and deceit.” (Emphasis added) No one in one’s sane moments can object to pointing out struggles of liberators and role of non-violence in them, if any. But making a decision before hand to show “superiority” of truth and non-violence over violence is clearly dogmatic. The issue in history should be to develop as rational and evidence based an understanding as possible. If it happens to show the superiority of non-violence, well and good; but being determined to show this superiority will itself be neither true nor non-violent. There are several examples of this nature in the scheme.

The Wardha Scheme of education is a landmark scheme in the development of educational thought in India. It has much more than just historical value for students of education and teacher education today. It is an exercise in brevity, clarity of expression, and structure of curriculum; particularly objectives-based curriculum. But in at least one aspect, it is also dogmatic and illustrates what should be avoided in developing educational schemes and curricula in a democratic country. It is deeply sectarian in this sense. At present, we are engaged in debating the new education policy. The pronouncements from various sections of the society and even the government raise a deep suspicion of sectarian agenda being pushed into this exercise. There are many thinkers on education who look hopefully towards Gandhi’s ideas of education as a means to resist this sectarian push. This analysis sounds a note of caution. There might be much good in his ideas on education, and they may be used; but there is much to be avoided as well. If one legitimizes the use of history and social science to indoctrinate children into the idea of the superiority of non-violence, there remains no ground for resisting use of the same to indoctrinate children into the underlining superiority of Hindu culture and need to use violence to ‘protect’ it. History and indoctrination are double-edged weapons.


  1. Basic National Education: Report of the Zakir Hussain Committee,Hindustan TalimSangh, Wardha, 1938.
  2. K L Shrimali, The Wardha Scheme, Vidya Bhavan Society, Udaipur, 1949.(page 80)
  3. Basic National Education, (Foreward.)
  4. I must confess here I am no Gandhi scholar, and many things Gandhi says baffle me. Nor do I find Gandhian scholars on most of such issues very satisfactory.