Will we ever learn to listen and respond?

May 7, 2021

Rohit Dhankar

The fundamental rights related to expression, association and attempting to shape the society according to one’s ideals are not earned, they are granted just by virtue of being born human. They cannot be alienated. Therefore, democracy has to function on listening to all concerns and all thoughts and responding to them with rational arguments keeping fraternal feelings in heart. No matter how obnoxious in your personal opinion the others’ views are.  

Yes, there is selfishness, bigotry, stupidity and even evil in human heart. But if we want to include all humanity in our dreams of peace, justice, freedom and prosperity; we have to deal with all these things with humility and open mindedness. We have to remain open for dialogue; to listen with benevolence in heart and openness of reason in mind. Even to that which we consider evil. Genuine rational dialogue is the only way if, repeat, we want to include all humanity. If we shut our hearts and minds to those we consider bad, fools, bigoted or even evil, we have become too conceited to think of ourselves as custodians of the only truth and guardians of human morality.

Inclusion means taking everyone’s concerns, aspirations and dreams on board and creating something like the Rig Veda aspires for.

समानी व आकूतिः समाना हृदयानि वः । समानमस्तु वो मनो यथा वः सुसहासति ॥ (Rig Veda, 10:191:4)

“Common is your purpose; common your hearts; let your thought be common, so that it will go well for you together.” (Translated by Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton in The Rigveda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India. OUP, 2014)

No, our dreams and aspirations are not common. They differ. One sees others dreams and aspirations as unjust and may be bad for humanity. And no, they are not all equally good for the flourishing of humanity. But we have to learn to listen to all of them, consider all of them this concern of well-being of all. And then strive with our reason and love to create common purpose, common heart and common thought, so that it goes well for us all together.

Presently our analysis is marred by categories of ‘my religion’ and ‘other religion’, upper caste and lover caste, leftist and rightist, government supporter and government opponents, and so on. In our arrogance we take these categories as rigid and iron clad; defining property of humans; ourselves and well as of others. This stops us from listening, paying attentions to others concerns and fears, their aspirations and dreams. We simply shun them, call them names and reject them in their totality. Simultaneously, we declare ourselves (on both sides) champions of humanity; and don’t even notice that by demonizing the other, considering the other unredeemable evil, we are rejecting the humanity of the other. And by rejecting humanity in the other we fall from our humanity, unnoticed by ourselves.

People don’t change by shunning, by rejecting, by coercion, fear and force. The only way is to listen and pay head. And remember that we may be as evil on the others’ eyes as s/he is in ours. We have to allow the other to stand on the same ground and use the yardstick of benevolence for all, reason, equality and freedom. In a serious and genuine dialogue, we may discover that the other has a heart that beats the same as ours and s/he was as mistaken about our intentions as we are of his/her.

Complete rejection of the other dehumanizes him/her, once the dehumanization of the opponent is normalized, the only option remains is complete subjugation of the other. Whichever side be successful in this evil project, democracy is lost, and humanity is insulted. We have no way but to learn to listen and respond with reason and love.

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7th May 2021


Some thoughts on Objectivity in Human Thinking

April 29, 2021

Rohit Dhankar

[I stumbled upon this today while looking for something else. This is part of an intense, often heated debate on deciding curriculum for MA Edu in 2013. Here I am sharing only a particular understanding of objectivity. It was a rejoinder to claim that there can not be any objective criteria for deciding which course should be included in Core Course. That decision will depend on the interest of individual faculty only. This note claims that it is possible to have objective criteria in all human endeavours.]

From a pragmatic point of view the notion of objectivity, perhaps, emerged out of the concern that different people ‘see’ a given situation differently; and these differences come in the way of dialogue, cooperation, and action. What makes us see a situation differently may be called our legitimate subjectivity, or idiosyncrasy and/or prejudice.Thus, one way of looking at objectivity could be to oppose it with subjectivity, idiosyncrasy and prejudice. But this already assumes that there is a ‘situation’ (reality, natural or social) which is common to two on lookers, there is something independent of the minds of the onlookers. It also assumes that this reality can be seen as it is, that is truthfully. Therefore, objectivity may assume the notions of reality and truth; and also, the possibility of attaining the truth about that given reality. Now these assumptions about the existence of reality independent of human minds and the knowability of that reality can be challenged. There may be good (objective? Or idiosyncratic?) grounds to challenge both the reality and its knowability.

The denial of the first—reality—is more difficult than the denial of the second—knowability. A complete denial of the any reality independent of our minds gets us into serious trouble. It leads directly to solipsism and involves denial of all other human beings except the subject, which is impossible to deny even if you hate Descartes. Let’s stay with this idea a little. Suppose that two of us—you and me—are standing in front of Parliament House in Delhi and looking at it. I say, “what an ugly building” and you say “not at all, it’s beautiful”. Our disagreement is about an attribute of the building and not about existence of the building. We both are accepting the existence of the building independent of our own minds; what we are disagreeing is about its aesthetic merit. We can generalise from here: we may not be able to agree on the beauty, shape, material it is made of, its size, even it being a building, and so on; but we do agree that ‘there is something out there, independent of both our minds’. We may not know what it is, what its true nature is; but cannot deny that there is something out there.

If you want to deny that there is something there, then you will have to say something like: “what building? I see nothing” in response to my first utterance. I might respond “ok, what an ugly object” and you might respond “what object? There is nothing there”. Then one of us is deluded. But even here there is a lot we both are admitting, and independent of our own minds to boot. We are admitting that we hear some sounds, that there is a common understanding of language—beauty, object, ugliness. If you want to insist that all this is entirely in your own mind, then you have to deny my existence. So, there is no dialogue; only soliloquy going on in your own head. End of the other, end of humanity, end of the work; I wish you happy living ever-after in your soliloquy, you have erased my existence!

So, for humans denial of the existence of independent reality is not possible. There is something outside our own minds. If we are debating curriculum in APU with our colleagues then there is something called curriculum, APU and our colleagues. And this existence is independent of our individual minds. This is objective. Objectivity here is not the same thing as reality or truth; this is an approach to truth; an approach which accepts existences of reality independent of our minds.

But what is the use of an objective acceptance of some independent reality if we can say nothing definite about it? It is useless for all our human purposes if its true nature is unknowable. It can in no way be used to decide our curricular issues or nay other issues in day-to-day living. But we have listened only to the first half of the story. We have been looking outside ourselves; ignoring our subjectivities. There might be something that provides a foot hold to objectivity right within out subjectivities. Let’s explore that next.

I notice that this discussion is becoming too long; so will directly jump to three fundamental characteristics that we all share and that can be used to construct markers of objectivity; if not the objectivity itself just yet.

One, we use language; and strangely understand each other; though not perfectly but enough to carry a conversation, express intentions, cooperate, quarrel, express love, express hate, help each other and to kill each other. We may deny that we perfectly understand each other through language but cannot say that we do not understand at all; if we do that, writing letters to faculty and debating curricular issues would be downright stupid; holding classes and creating the whole educational paraphernalia would be a first class folly; that is, in case the meaning of folly itself survives! Language includes not only commonly understood (imperfectly, I will not repeat it again and again) words, but also grammatical rules to use them in conjunction with each other to construct very complex meaning. And more, it includes criteria to judge whether a word is used appropriately or not; this is in addition to the grammatical rules. It contains the germ of notion of truth. This makes it possible for us to think and communicate that thought to others. Something even stranger: thoughts in all human languages seem to be translatable from one to another; again, not perfectly but good enough to communicate, cooperate, care, love, hate, fight and kill. So, there is something across the humanity that binds us together. Though it might be created by our own minds over the eons, it acts as independent of any particular human mind. It is common heritage of all humanity; and to use the hated word—it is universal in humanity. Too bad for nay sayers to anything universal, but cannot be helped. I understand that the language not only binds together, it also divides humanity. But please realise that it could not have been able to divide if it did not have power to bind together. This is a package deal; lets reap the benefits of it and try to mitigate as far as possible its evil effects.

The second, (I am not listing them in any order of priority), characteristic seems to be the availability of various forms of sensibility. We all have only five senses, normally speaking. And each sense gives us certain kinds of impressions of the common reality we live in. This gives substance to our concepts, our thoughts. And since the senses in their fundamental forms are universal across humanity, they provide a basis (only basis) for inter-subjective comparability and agreement across humanity. We just bumped another another hated universality!

The third characteristic is the capabilities of our minds to organise the sense impressions we receive from our senses and create meaning (with the help of language of course). We do seem to accept some common ways of thinking; our minds, at the most fundamental level, seem to work on similar lines. For example, it is not possible for human mind to accept both p and not-p simultaneously. (Example: p = “the earth exists” not-p = “the earth does not exist”.) Human mind is incapable of annihilating space, human mind if incapable of unthinking the self (unthinking is not the same thinking as ‘not thinking about’). Under the force of several such things human mind recognises undeniable conceptual connections. The third hated universality we are incapable of getting rid of. Let’s call this one logic, in a rough sense, a better word would be reason, if acceptable to those who deride reason day-in and day-out.

So, we have four (at the least) niches in human nature[1] itself which could be used to construct markers of objectivity and then finally construct a workable notion of objectivity. A first and rough formulation of these markers could be as follows:

  1. Universal capability of humans to have a Language. “L” is capital here to indicate it is not a particular language like Hindi, English, Kannada or Chinese. But a natural Human Language.
  2. The greater the inter-subjective agreement (expressed largely through language) greater the objectivity.
  3. The greater the intra-subjective and inter-subjective logical consistency the greater the objectivity.
  4. The greater the intra-subjective and inter-subjective agreement in sense perceptions the greater the objectivity.

In using these criteria we have to remember that number 2 without support form numbers 3 and 4 does not constitute objectivity at all. In a given community—which can be very large—lots of people may agree that the earth is cuboid, or that Krishna projected his virat-swaroop in Kaurava’s Raj Sabha, or that Muhammad met archangel Gabriel in the cave. Without appropriate support from criteria 3 and 4 mare agreement will not constitute objectivity of these claims. Yes, it will give strength to belief of the members of that believing community. But humans are perfectly capable of holding wrong beliefs very strongly or even fanatically. Thus, it seems these criteria act in conjunction with each other; and I think that the criteria 3 and 4 are more important.

This rough (to be improved upon someday) formulation forces us to forgo our hankering for absolute objectivity, but gives us something good enough to work with. We will also notice, if pursue the issue further, that limits of achievable objectivity in different human affairs might differ. In mathematics and science these limits may be very high; in social sciences we may have to live with relatively weaker objectivity; and in ethics and aesthetics the matters might be even more complicated. But in each area of human understanding we seem to be able to create workable notions of objectivity.

The fundamental basis of this kind of construction of objectivity is common reality we live in, high degree of similarity in our sense perceptions and high degree of similarity in our rational faculty.

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Slightly edited on 29th April 2021


[1] I know some will jump and accuse me of assuming universal human nature, and say that it is impossibility. I believe I have partially answered the possible challenge and rest could be dealt with when it comes. But yes, I do believe that there is such a thing as universal human nature.


पढ़ने-लिखने की कमजोरी का बुनियादी संकट

April 25, 2021

रोहित धनकर

शिक्षा की गुणवत्ता को लेकर चिंता जाहिर करते रहना अब हमारी राष्ट्रीय आदत बन गई है। और इस कोरोना-ग्रसित वर्ष में तो यह करेलन नीम चढ़ गई है। अब तो बच्चों को सीखने के जो अवसर—जैसे तैसे भी—विद्यालय उपलब्ध करवाते थे वे भी बंद हो गए हैं। पर यह छोटा आलेख इस बड़ी समस्या के एक छोटे बिन्दु से संबन्धित है, पूरी समस्या से नहीं। बिन्दु छोटा है पर बुनियादी भी है। शिक्षा की गुणवत्ता की सब से अधिक चर्चित समस्या विद्यालयों का पढ़ना-लिखना सब बच्चों के ठीक से न सिखापाना है। पढ़ना-लिखना अपने आप में शिक्षा का एक महत्व पूर्ण हिस्सा तो है ही, जो बौद्धिक विकास के असीमित रास्ते खोलता है; पर साथ ही किसी भी तरह की शिक्षा ग्रहण करने के लिए भी यह मूल शर्त है। इसी लिए राष्ट्रीय शिक्षा नीति 2020 बड़ी बेचैनी से कहती है कि “सीखने की बुनयादी आवश्यकताओं (अर्थात , मूलभूत स्तर पर पढ़ना, लिखना और अंकगणित) को हासिल करने पर ही हमारे विद्यार्थियों के लिए  बाकी नीति प्रासंगिक होगी।” अर्थात इन चीजों के ठीक से न सीखपाने से तो यह सारी नीति अधिकांश बच्चों को कुछ भी लाभ नहीं पहुंचा पाएगी। अतः इस शिक्षा नीति के अनुसार “शिक्षा प्रणाली की सर्वोच्च प्राथमिकता 2025 तक प्राथमिक विद्यालय में सार्वभौम मूलभूत साक्षरता और संख्या-ज्ञान प्राप्त करना होगा।” मोटे तौर पर मूलभूत पढ़ना-लिखना सिखाने के बारे में हमारी सहमति शिक्षा नीति से यहीं तक है। बाकी सुझाए गए अधिकतर तरीके शायद ही कारगर हों।

इस समस्या के बहुत से कारण हैं। पर यहाँ मैं सिर्फ एक कारण—विद्यालयों में सिखाने के तरीकों—की बात करना चाहूँगा। और इस पर सोचना आरंभ करने के लिए यह लंबा उद्धरण प्रस्तुत है: “बहुत से लोग वर्तमान समय में बहुत गंभीरता से पढ़ना सिखाने का  सर्वश्रेष्ठ तरीका ढूँढने में, उधार लाने में या ईजाद करने में लगे हैं। और बहुतसों ने तो यह सर्वश्रेष्ठ तरीका ईजाद कर भी  लियाहै, ढूंढ लिया है। साहित्य में और जीवन में भी हम बहुत बार यह प्रश्न पढ़ते-सुनते हैं: आप किस विधि से पढ़ाते हैं? मैं स्वीकार कारता हूँ (कुछ अपराध बोध के साथ) कि यह सवाल अधिकतर वे लोग पूछते हैं जो बहुत कम शिक्षित हैं और जो एक लंबे समय से बच्चों को पढ़ाने का काम एक धंधे की तरह से कर रहे हैं। या फिर वे लोग पूछते हैं जो अपने अध्ययन-कक्षों से सार्वजनिक शिक्षा के साथ सहानुभूति दिखाते हैं। ये लोग इस सामाजिक सरोकार में मदद करने के लिए लेख लिखने को भी तैयार हो जाते हैं और पढ़ना सिखाने के लिए सर्वश्रेष्ठ विधि पर लिखित पुस्तक छपवाने के लिए योगदान के लिए भी। या फिर वे पूछते हैं जो अपनी ही विधि को सर्वश्रेष्ठ मानते हैं और उसके लिए बहुत पक्षपाती हैं। या फिर, अंत में, वे लोग जिनका पढ़ाने से कोई संबंध कभी रहा ही नहीं। और आमजन वह दोहराते हैं जो बहुमत कहता है।” इसके बाद लेखक विधि की समस्या के अलावा कुछ चीजों का जिक्र करते हैं और आगे कहते हैं: “यह सामाजिक-व्यवहार (फेनोमेना) खतरनाक है, क्यों की यह हमारे सार्वजनीन शिक्षा पर बने अभी अपरिपक्व विचारों पर और धुंध चढ़ा देता है।”

यह बहुत जल्दी में किया गया काम चलाऊ सा अनुवाद है, पर बात साफ है। थोड़ा अनुमान लगाइये यह कब और किसने कौनसे देश में लिखा होगा? क्या सब बातों से पूर्ण सहमती ना होते हुए भी यह विधि को लेकर अपने देश में चल रही बहस की झलक नहीं देता? यह टोल्स्तोय ने 1862 में रूस में लिखा था। इसे लिखे 158 वर्ष बीत चुके हैं, हम आज भी सर्वश्रेष्ठ विधि ढूंढ रहे हैं। अब हम शोध-आधारित विधियाँ खोजते हैं। शिक्षा में शोध की अपनी अच्छाइयाँ, बुराइयाँ और सीमाएं हैं। उसे हम अभी यहीं छोड़ते हैं। पर क्या सर्वा-श्रेष्ठ और शोध आधारित विधि के बजाय हमें उदार-चयनशील और कर्म-सिद्ध तरीकों की भी बात नहीं करनी चाहिए? उदार-चयनशील (eclectic) से आशय है कई विधियों में से हमारे संदर्भ के लिए उपयुक्त चीजें लेकर एक सुसंगत व्यावहारिक योजना बनाना। और कर्म-सिद्ध से अर्थ है जमीनी स्तर पर काम करके ठीक से सिखाने में सफलता प्राप्त कर सकने वाला तरीका।

पढ़ना-लिखना सिखाने के एक ऐसे ही सफल तरीके को हम एक ऑनलाइन कोर्स के माध्यम से साझा कर रहे हैं। यह सर्वश्रेष्ठ का दावा नहीं हैं। यह शोध-आधारित होने का दावा भी नहीं है। बस कर्म-सिद्ध और उदार-चयनशील भर होने की बात है, कई सफल हो सकने वाले तरीकों में से एक की बात, ना कि एकमात्र और सर्वश्रेष्ठ की बात।

पढ़ना-लिखना सिखाने के एक ऐसे ही सफल तरीके को हम एक ऑनलाइन कोर्स के माध्यम से साझा कर रहे हैं। यह सर्वश्रेष्ठ का दावा नहीं हैं। यह शोध-आधारित होने का दावा भी नहीं है। बस कर्म-सिद्ध और उदार-चयनशील भर होने की बात है, कई सफल हो सकने वाले तरीकों में से एक की बात, ना कि एकमात्र और सर्वश्रेष्ठ की बात।

कोर्स के बारे में कुछ और जानकारी

25 अप्रैल 2021


Asymmetry and lack of information are the reasons Mr. Patwardhan

December 5, 2020

Rohit Dhankar

Mr. Anand Patwardhan’s article in The Indian Express is a well written informative article, which raises a very important question. This question has two parts:

  1. Why is Faisal Khan, a human rights activist, in prison for an act of peace?, and
  2. What explains Hindutva’s rage against Faisal?

Faisal Khan offered namaj to Allah in a temple in Mathura, the priest lodged a complaint and Faisal was arrested. Mr. Patwardhan’s article is raising these questions on the outcome of this incident. I will dispose off the first question first: why Faisal should be in jail for offering namaj in a temple? The direct and clear answer is he should not be. This is a motivated and unjust act, which is against the ethos of India, Indian constitution and Hindu-dharma.This is an act of injustice under public pressure, and possibly present day UP government’s unreasonable attitude to religious issues is also playing a part in it.

But the second question Mr. Patwardhan raises is more important and is not considered seriously by Indian intelligentsia. Even Mr. Patwardhan raises this question more as a rhetorical device to automatically indict what he calls ‘Hindutva’. He neither offers any analysis nor any insights into it. Though he offers a supposed to be ‘clue’ in Badshah Khan’s answer to why the original Khudai Khidmatgars suffered worst “massacres and persecutions” at the hands of the British. Badshah Khan’s answer, according to Mr. Patwardhan, being “because the British thought a non-violent Pashtun was more dangerous than a violent one”. Mr. Patwardhan wants to apply the same logic to the present situation.

This may have been true in the case of Badshah Khan and original Khudai Khidmatgars, but to offer it as an explanation of so-called “Hindutva’s rage” in Faisal’s case is less of a reasoned argument and more of emotional appeal to the respect and affection thinking Indians have for Badshah Khan. It works as a device to avoid thinking about present day communal problems in India. A full analysis of the issue will require perhaps several articles seriously analysing concepts like ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Brahmanism’, and their pernicious use in political discourse today.

Without getting into the longer discourse, however, I would like to hint at three very simple reasons worth exploring further.

First, there is a very serious asymmetry in Islamic and Hindu thinking on religious matters that reflects in behaviour of people. In the context of the issue being discusses, as far as religious thought goes, and the way most of the Hindus think there are no theological strictures against offering namaj in a temple. But one cannot offer an arati in a mosque. And that rejection of arati or pooja in a mosque is at the level of theology as well as the thinking of a common Muslim; thought I am not as certain regarding the thinking of a common Muslim as I am about the theological part of it.

I feel, at present may not have any strict proof, that if there were any possibility of offering an occasional pooja in a mosque most of Hindus will have no objection to offering an occasional namaj in a temple. In the presently surcharged communal atmosphere and due to this asymmetry, offering of namaj in a temple can very easily be interpreted as a kind of taking over, or at the least sharing unequally the temples, but keeping mosques exclusive. This exceptionalism is the problem.

This asymmetry runs deep. One would hardly find a human rights activist who is a Hindu and is particular to do his arti or pooja on prescribed times wherever he happens to be. And it would be even a rarer one who would like to express communal harmony though doing pooja in a mosque. There is no blame involved in these remarks, these are the ways of thinking and general spontaneous behaviours of Hindus and Muslims. And they have their right to their respective beliefs and thinking. When due to various reasons people become aware of these differences and start analysing the fundamental asymmetries become visible and naturally start bothering people.

Such asymmetries are one of the main reasons for worry of many Hindus caused by Hindu girls marrying Muslim boys. Without going into details, a Hindu (man or woman) may marry a non-Hindu without conversion as per her religious tradition, but a Muslim cannot. Also, due to punishment for apostasy a Muslim can not convert easily. Conversion is much easier for a Hindu for many reasons. This situation results an open-minded Hindu converting to Islam, and only rarely to a Muslim converting to Hindu-dharma.

Another problem cause by this asymmetry in openness in discourse on religion is the periodic eruption of communal problems for so-called insult to this or that religious figures. An article in OpIndia today quotes Saif Ali Khan saying  about an upcoming movie that “… we will make him [Ravana] humane, …, justify his abduction of Sita”. The Hindu mythology has aften been reinterpreted. Duryodhana is presented in positive light, Karna is justified in literature; and Mahabharata itself has enough room for this kind of interpretation. Similarly, in some not very well known attempts Mahishasur is portrayed in positive light and Durga is shown as marrying him to finally deceive and kill. Another example of is Aubrey Menen’s Ramayana that describes Sita herself going with Ravana in a bargain to save lives of Rishis who were being killed by Ravana’s soldiers. In this retelling of Ramayana Sita also admits sleeping with Ravana without being forced. The point I am making is that Hindu mythological texts—which are considered by large section of Hindus as holy scriptures—have a tradition of various retellings and interpretations. And in my view, this is a healthy tradition, Hindus should keep it alive.

But I am also certain that Saif Ali Khan’s remarks, and if the movie turns out to be as he claims, will raise controversy and anger.

Again, I think that the very significant part of this intolerance of such retellings is because of the asymmetry I mentioned above. Any comment, analysis and reinterpretation of Muhammad and Islamic thought generates huge anger and triggers riots and murders. Because of the past experiences of Rangila Rasul, The Satanic Verses and many other incidents no one explores hints available in Islamic history about Ayesha’s relationship with a camel driver or Muhammad’s killing of Jewish tribe. Thus, some Hindus feel that their religious figures could be reviled, but one can say anything of Islamic figures.

One can build an argument that, well, Hindu-dharma has that tradition of toleration to showing of their religious figures in ‘bad light’ but Islam does not. So, one should behave accordingly. The problem in this argument is that all religions are also political ideologies, identity building instruments and tools for attempted hegemony. These things have come on surface much more starkly in the current atmosphere. Thus, the tradition of openness can easily be used in loosening the faith of one people, and cannot be use for the same purpose for the other group. This makes the playing field unequal. It also reflects in numerous personal encounters of people, where egos flareup. Reflects in power of identity creation and generating unifying issues—right or wrong—and therefore in bid to political power. Thus, either all religions have to be equally open in these matters or equally closed. Asymmetry will not do. If we keep our constitution in mind and safeguard freedom of expression then the only logical course is equal openness, and not being cowed down by any threat of any group. Unfortunately our track record of this fair treatment is abysmally bad.

Two, people perhaps did not know the full story of Faisal Khan. If they knew, and were properly informed, about Faisal’s track record of harmony, it seems to me there would have been less public support to the people who want to punish him. However, here I am taking Mr. Patwardhan’s account of his work and intentions as accurate. (The problem is in the present atmosphere at least I am left with very little trust in whatever is published. This is because of the experience of people’s cherry picking and distortions in their writing. There are hardly any exceptions these days; be they right-wing, left-wing, liberal, non-liberal, or whatever. Without any prejudice to Mr. Patwardhan, I am reading his account of Faisal Khan in this general atmosphere. That is why the cautious comment that I am taking his account as accurate.) Lack of full information can be used for generating rage.

The third reason is complete blackout of any discussion of these asymmetrical issues. Anyone who mentions them is immediately dubbed as communal. In creating public harmony this is extremely important to understand the theological limits of all parties and working out a solution keeping that in mind.

The theological openness of Hindu-dharma is seen a vulnerability by many Hindus in the present day India. I know that there shall be an immediate reaction to my mention of ‘theological openness’ of Hindu-dharma here. But it can not be denied that as far as belief in the divine, ways of offering prayer and adherence to religious rituals is concerned, popular as well as philosophical Hindu-dharma is quite open. Accepting this does not mean closing one’s eyes from the caste problems, various other kinds of rigidities and objectionable elements in Hindu society. But this theological openness coupled with lack of knowledge of their own dharmas among Hindus and the theological-philosophical problem of non-availability of clear criteria for who is and is not a Hindu become vulnerabilities in the face of aggressive identity formation and proselytization. Many of these are internal problems of the Hindu society and Hindu-dharma. Part of the rage is also because of frustration with these problems of their own, being exploited by others.

What is interesting in India is that such problems of religious communities other than Hindus, even if they are because of their perception and not real, are discussed with adequate sensitivity. But when the issues of Hindus come, they are either outright dismissed or attributed to propaganda of Sangh Parivar or, worse still, blamed on some fundamental evil streak in the very idea of Hindu-dharma. A common Hindu in India is as good or bad, wise or ignorant, as anyone else. S/he certainly is more open as far as the religious views and commitments are concerned. Therefore, her perceived problems need understanding and then equally sympathetic attempts to dispel them, in case they be unreasonable. And need to be addressed in case they are reasonable. But the intelligentsia discourse, as said above, is unsympathetic to them. As a result, the pent-up anger.  An alternative discourse on social media is developing to address this issue. Which is often, through not always, unhealthy and unreasonable; but it appealing to people. I feel if the main stream intellectual discourse starts discussing these problem with fairness both anger will go away and the alternative discourse will become more healthy and better informed.

At the end: ff Mr. Patwardhan’s account of Faisal Khan is accurate, then we need more Faisal Khans who can offer namaj in temples. But we also need many open minded religious Hindus who are working for harmony and want to express that through poojas in Mosques.

********* 5th December 2020


Blasphemy: its uses and abuses

November 16, 2020

Rohit Dhankar

These days, again, deliberate blasphemy is becoming a hotly debated topic on social media.  This new wave of interest in blasphemy started after slaying of the French teacher Samuel Paty for showing Muhammad cartoons. This act of mindless bigotry invited President Emmanuel Macron’s tough stand against Islamic terrorism, which, in turn, provoked further Islamic violence in Europe and threatening protest in many parts of the Islamic world. Many Islamic clerics and Muslim politicians supported by large numbers of believers in Islam seem to hold the view that the only punishment for insulting Muhammad is beheading. The underlying message of this attitude is that ‘in expressing your views publicly and debating in your own countries you will have to behave according to standards dictated by us, or we will kill you’. A completely unjustifiable supremacist stand on part of Islam. This is a successfully practiced centuries old, though crude, method of controlling peoples thinking. Limiting discourse is a sure way of controlling thinking, as thoughts develop in conversation in societies.

This tendency, though most pronounced and most violently practiced in Islam, is by no means unique to Islam. All religions and all believers in religious precepts do have this tendency, even if not always practiced so violently. As a reaction another section of people is resorting to mindless blasphemy. I came across some examples on a twitter handle depicting Rama and Muhammad in a homosexual embrace and a similar depiction of Sita and Kali.

The twitter handle announces more ‘art’ like this, involving Hindu Goddess Kali and Muhammad. The person(s) seems to be mainly interested in Islamic religious figures and Hindu gods/goddesses. In my view this is precisely the kind of blasphemy that needs to be avoided and discouraged. By discouraging, however, I most certainly do not mean beheading, trolling, banning or any kind of forcible restriction. All I mean is expressing opinion against such art.

To my mind this expresses only filth of mind. Why do I say that?

When blasphemy is used as a tool against curbing of freedom of expression and action it serves a purpose of widening discourse and making an important point to protect freedom. But when it is indulged in only to test the limits of tolerance of real or pretending believers it creates undue reaction which will eventually harm the openness of discourse.

To use it as a tool against imposition of undue restrictions on freedom of expression one has to make relevant points through it. For example if one makes cartoons of Rama to bring out or critique issues in his preaching, behaviour; or preaching and behaviour of his followers, believers and pretending believers; then it serves a point in the ongoing ideological struggle and discourse. There can be many issues in Ramayana of this nature, depending upon one’s interpretation. One can take Shanbuk’s killing, Rama’s and Lakshamana’s behaviour with Shurpanakha, Sita’s agni-pariksha, Sita’s banishment to forest, and so on.

Similarly, with Muhammad. One can take his bigotry, issues of child marriage, behaviour with his wives and slave girls, his preachings on war-booty, claims of revelation, claims of angels fighting alongside Muslims, necessity of fighting in jihad and so on. This kind of blasphemy will serve the purpose of bringing out issues in Quran and Muhammad’s own behaviour.

But making caricatures of sexual indulgence and imagining other kinds of deliberately insulting caricatures serves no purpose. Of course, one can stretch the point that Quran pronounces horrendous punishment for homosexuality, and therefore, showing Muhammad in homosexual relations is a comment on his preaching on the issue. But in my view, it should be done only if there are any indications of Muhammad himself being inclined to homosexuality, if there is reliable evidence of such acts on his part. Simply because he was against homosexuality does not justify, to my mind, such caricatures. Also, if there is any evidence in mythology (any version of Ramayana) of Rama being inclined to homosexuality it may bring out a point in the discourse.

What I am trying to argue is that the blasphemy regarding religious figures and divinities (prophets, gods, sons and daughters of The God, etc.) should be around the historical or theological evidence. That will help in bringing out characteristics of those figures which arrest discourse and human freedom. And will weaken the arguments of their believers on the basis of authority of these figures. On the other hand mindless juvenile filth will discredit the attempts of useful and positive blasphemy, will create a reaction against it and destroy its power of pungent irony and deep cutting satire.

On the pain of repetition, I am not talking of banning blasphemy or killing for it. All I am arguing for is a thoughtful use that opens up minds and avoiding uses which will finally blunt the weapon itself.

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16th November 2020


A weak link in the elementary education chain

October 15, 2020

[Published in The Hindu https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-weak-link-in-the-elementary-education-chain/article32856519.ece?homepage=true 15th October 2020]

Rohit Dhankar

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For about three decades now, a large number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are intensively engaged in the task of improving elementary education in the country. A paper (https://bit.ly/3doEEI3) in the Economic & Political Weekly of May 2005, titled “How Large Is India’s Non-Profit Sector?”, estimates about three million paid workers in the voluntary sector through 1.2 million organisations. The paper estimates that 20.4% of this workforce (about six lakh workers) is engaged in education. According to a newspaper report, “India has 31 lakh NGOs, more than double the number of schools” (August 1, 2015), the number of NGOs in the country was more than 31 lakh — more than double the number estimated in the above mentioned paper. With these data, it should be a safe guess to estimate that there are now more than 12 lakh NGO workers engaged in education (even if there could be only 50% of them in school education, and the remainder involved in improving reach and quality). The lower end of the estimated number of NGO staff working for the improvement of quality and reach in elementary education must be over three lakh.

Scope of work

It is most probable that these workers are engaged in direct teaching in classrooms, demonstrating various activities and methods to teachers, conducting teacher workshops and so on. Most NGOs and large foundations believe that these people work as catalysts and influence the functioning of the system. For various reasons, they are supposed to be more effective than regular employees in the government system.

There is a lot of discussion around education and the Continuous Professional Development of Teachers (CPDT). These NGO workers have a significant part in the CPDT, for example, in annual in-service training and pedagogy improvement workshops. We should be asking ourselves whether these workers are adequately prepared for this difficult task. As an example, let us take quality improvement, which is currently the biggest concern in education.

Anyone who can successfully contribute to the improvement of educational quality must have some idea of what educational quality happens to be. A very common notion of what good quality school is in our society is based on a high score in the board examinations. Suppose the curriculum is irrelevant to the life of people (as it is often claimed), would it still indicate high quality? Further, suppose that high scoring is achieved by subjecting children to severe punishment and stress, would it still remain an indicator of high quality? If the response to last two questions is negative, then we can conclude that appropriateness of curriculum and pedagogy also need to be considered in defining quality of education. But how do we know what good or appropriate curriculum and pedagogy are? On what criteria can we decide that?

Key documents, framework

The four documents currently providing a framework of principles, guidelines and legal stipulations to deal with such questions are the National Curriculum Framework 2005 (NCF), The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE), the National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education 2009 (NCFTE) and the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020). Even if the NCF and NCFTE change in the near future, the new documents are likely to have much in common with the present ones. Therefore, it is worthwhile to assume that any worker engaged in education improvement should reasonably understand these and similar documents. Let us take an example from each one of these documents to see what is involved.

Regarding pedagogy, the RTE, in Section 29(e), recommends “learning through activities, discovery and exploration in a child friendly and child-centered manner”. To use this definition in school improvement, the NGO worker has to ask himself questions such as : What is discovery? How and what can children learn through discovery? Does discovery method have any limitations as a pedagogy? Further, the NCF recommends constructivist pedagogy. What is the constructivist method of learning? Is it the same as recommended by the NCF?

On curriculum, NEP 2020, paragraph 4.23 says “certain subjects, skills, and capacities should be learned by all students to become good, successful, innovative, adaptable, and productive human beings in today’s rapidly changing world. … these skills include: scientific temper and evidence-based thinking; creativity and innovativeness; sense of aesthetics and art; oral and written communication; health and nutrition; physical education, fitness, wellness, and sports; collaboration and teamwork; problem solving and logical reasoning; vocational exposure and skills; digital literacy, coding, and computational thinking; ethical and moral reasoning; knowledge and practice of human and Constitutional values; gender sensitivity; Fundamental Duties; citizenship skills and values”.

If we want to use this policy, we need to understand what paragraphs such as the above say. One has to note the complexity and profusion of terms used. What do all these words and phrases mean? Is the paragraph internally consistent? Is this paragraph consistent with the NCF? Do the NCF and NEP need to be consistent with each other?

The paragraph from NEP 2020 also highlights certain aims of education: namely, to make all children “good, successful, innovative, adaptable, and productive human beings in today’s rapidly changing world”. Are these aims consistent with each other? Do they have any relative weightage? What if some schools produce children who are highly successful, innovative, adaptable, productive, extremely competitive, and uncaring for others? Would we be happy to call them “good” and consider such an education to be high quality education?

The last example, the NCFTE (page 23), says that we need teachers who “[P]romote values of peace, democratic way of life, equality, justice, liberty, fraternity, secularism and zeal for social reconstruction”. Are these two quotes, one from NEP 2020 and the other from the NCFTE, compatible with each other? Are they emphasising the same values or have significant difference with each other?

Need for deep insights

It seems bringing about improvement in the quality of education is not a simple task that one can accomplish just by desire, hard work and interaction with teachers. It seems to require answers to a plethora of questions. Could it be that our attempts for over three decades have failed, at least partly, because most people working for improvement do not have reasonable answers to such questions?

Just reading these documents may be adequate for a layman not engaged in educational activities and teacher capacity building. But for someone engaged in CPDT, a study of these documents alone will neither answer the questions raised above nor give him/her any better insight into these documents. The positions taken in these and other such documents, as well as in decision making in education, are based on a vast repertoire of theoretical knowledge. A major part of this theoretical knowledge is drawn from the philosophy of education, political theories, sociology of education, psychology of learning and development, and a contextual understanding of the current needs of our society. Understanding an adequate part of all this and their implications for curriculum, pedagogy, and teacher development, therefore, becomes imperative to be effective in quality improvement or to contribute to good education.

An immediate task

If the argument outlined so far is even tentatively acceptable, then a strong programme for capacity building of NGO workers engaged in educational improvement becomes an urgent need.

However, NGOs do not seem to be paying adequate attention to this very important area. Nor are universities and teacher education colleges seem to be offering any short term and/or distance learning courses for this sector. If we want to implement NEP 2020 — presently leaving its merits and demerits aside — and really want to see improvement in the quality of education available to our children, we need to pay very close attention to capacity building of this vast workforce engaged in the field. Without adequate preparation, the assumption that the mere appointment of a person in an NGO and being placed in the field will automatically develop the capabilities of these workers is incorrect, and a case of sheer injustice to them, to the education system, and to children in schools.


Foundations of Education

October 6, 2020

FoE 2020 Online will start on 1st November 2020.

Last date for enrolment in the course is 20th October 2020.

For further details visit the online course page here.

Please share the information as widely as possible.

COURSE OVERVIEW

An increasing number of people are concerned about education and have intentions to contribute to making it ‘better’. However, either these people find themselves at a loss regarding what can they do or end up using the popularly appealing ideas to guide their actions, some of which might end up creating problems instead of solving them.

This course is created for the people who care to understand the conceptual basis behind their practices in education to make right choices for action. It is designed with the belief that any practitioner who wants to do worthwhile work in the field of education will need to have both an intuitive and a conscious sense of the larger socio-political reality within which education finds its place, of the value framework within which choices are made, and of ways of educating. It will help in articulating the intuitive and developing the conscious sense of all these aspects through a series of modules which will provoke people to inquire and think about fundamental issues in education.

Be it teaching-learning, curriculum development, material creation or teacher education; for the educational practice to be at all educational, it must be guided by a certain framework of principles. If there are no principles, there is effectively no ‘educational practice’; in such a scenario what we have is either a habituated routine or just random activity. This course is designed to acquaint the participants with the foundational ideas which will help them turn their activities into coherent educational practice.

Course Structure

The entire course comprises eight core modules and any two of the elective modules.

List of Core Modules:

  1. Introduction to Education (Starts on 1st Nov. 20)
  2. Philosophy of Education (Starts on 8th Nov. 20)
  3. Sociology of Education (Starts on 22nd Nov. 20)
  4. Perspectives on Learning (Starts on 29th Nov. 20)
  5. Human Understanding and Curriculum (Starts on 6th Dec. 20)
  6. Pedagogy and Assessment in Schools (Starts on 20th Dec. 20)
  7. Teacher Education (Starts on 27th Dec. 20)
  8. Action Research for Teachers (Starts on 3rd Jan. 21)

List of Elective Modules:

  1. Language 1 (Hindi, Primary)
  2. Language 2 (English Primary)
  3. Mathematics 1 (Primary)
  4. Environmental Studies (Primary)
  5. Language 3 (Hindi, Upper Primary)
  6. Language 4 (English, Upper Primary)
  7. Mathematics 2 (Upper Primary)
  8. General Science (Upper Primary)
  9. Social Studies (Upper Primary)
  10. History (Upper Primary)

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E-learning in India, a case of bad education

September 23, 2020

[In The Hindu, 23rd September 2020 ]

In poorly performing educational systems as in the country, online learning may not usher in a revolution

Rohit Dhankar

Equality of opportunity to all is one of the basic principles of our Constitution. From an educational point of view, John Dewey, American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, strongly argued that “[A]n environment in which some are limited will always in reaction create conditions that prevent the full development even of those who fancy they enjoy complete freedom for unhindered growth.” Another point he makes equally strongly is that for good education, one must lead the child’s current interests and abilities organically to logically organised human knowledge. This second point is an indicator of the quality of education.

The key issues

Our education system was never very efficient even in the best of times. The COVID-19 pandemic has rendered it extremely biased and faulty. The main thrust of providing learning opportunities while schools are shut is online teaching. There are several sets of guidelines and plans issues by the government, the The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) for this purpose. The Internet space is teaming with learning schemes, teaching videos, sites and portals for learning opportunities. The content of all government sites and schemes is primarily the NCERT-issued Alternative Academic Calendar (https://bit.ly/3kE5nCN), videos of teaching, digital editions of textbooks, and links to other such material.

There are three pertinent issues in this whole effort of online education and schemes that need serious consideration. One, an exacerbation of inequality; two, the pedagogical issues leading to bad quality education; and three, an unwarranted thrust on online education, post-COVID-19.

Exacerbation of inequality

It is worth repeating a truism that calamities, be they natural or man-made, affect the underprivileged the hardest; COVID-19 is no exception. The plight of millions of migrant labourers, many of who walked thousands of kilometres right in the beginning of the lockdown, proved the point adequately. A similar but less noticed deprivation is being visited to children of the same people, which may push the next generation in a direction of even greater comparative disadvantage.

In our society there is no large movement that may generate any hope of an improved situation in terms of equality and social justice. Therefore, any positive change that might come about will be a cumulative result of the development of capabilities and grit in individuals. The COVID-19 shutdown has affected this opportunity for the poor even harder than their counterparts from well-to-do sections of society. The government began plans for students with no online access only by the end of August. The plans themselves were the usual glib talk always served to the poor. These plans assume semi-literate or illiterate parents teaching children, community involvement, mobile pools, and so on. Anyone with an understanding of rural India will immediately note these to be imaginary. As a result, whatever online or digital education is available is for students with only online access. Thus, digital India may become even more unequal and divided than it already is.

Even if one takes it as an emergency measure (that ‘something is better than nothing’) and also accept ‘for some is better than for no one’ despite it being against the principle of equal opportunity, the quality of online teaching-learning leaves much to be desired. The NCERT declares in its Learning Enhancement Guidelines (https://bit.ly/3iWdxWD), or LEG that 60-70% students, teachers and parents consider learning satisfactory. However, its survey asks a single question on the feeling of students using the criteria of ‘joyful to burdensome’. The happiness or otherwise of the student while learning is, of course, important, but it says nothing about the quantum and depth of learning.

Listening to lectures on the mobile phone, copying from the board where the teacher is writing, frequent disconnections and/or having blurred video/audio can hardly and organically connect the child’s present understanding with the logically organised bodies of human knowledge.

No focus on concepts

If one sees videos of teaching mathematics, science, history, and the English language, one can hardly avoid noticing problems with them. In the science and mathematics videos, in particular, there are many misconceptions and ambiguities. The emphasis is more on ‘tricks’ to remember for success in an examination than laying the stress on conceptual understanding.

The government of Delhi also uses videos by the Khan Academy (“a nonprofit with a mission to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere”). Many American educators have questioned the quality of teaching and have pointed out inadequate or plainly wrong concepts, particularly in mathematics. To quote an article in The Washington Post, “Khan Academy: The revolution that isn’t” (July 23, 2012 – https://wapo.st/3mJU4dV) “teachers… are concerned that… the guy who’s delivered over 170 million lessons to students around the world… considers the precise explanation of mathematical concepts to be mere ‘nitpicking’.”

The secondary students are in a better position still because of their relative independence in learning and possible self-discipline. The beginners in the lower primary can get nothing at all from this mode of teaching. An example of assumptions in the NCERT’s planning in LEG can be instructive; it is glibly pronounced that “for a child in grade I, the learning outcome — associates words with pictures — can be easily taught with the use of resources available from or at home such as newspapers, food packets, things at home, TV programmes, nature, etc. All that will be needed is guidance to the parents.” Well, if it were all that simple, then why are our children not learning to read and write? Education does not happen in chance encounters with print. As Michael Joseph Oakeshott who also wrote on education would say, it requires well-connected, regular efforts that are incrementally building to help the child focus his attention and to provoke him to distinguish and to discriminate, and develop a habit of staying on task. And this requires help from someone who knows the child as well as understands the objective of education. Food packets and newspapers in the hands of even ‘guided’ semi-literate parents will be good enough to present a plan on paper, but will be completely useless for the child’s learning.

The thrust, post-COVID-19

IT has been presented as a harbinger of a revolution in education for more than three decades now. However, all reliable studies seem to indicate that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the classroom helps in already well functioning systems, and either has no benefits ornegative impact in poorly performing systems. That does not indicate much hope from IT in our education system.

The NCERT’s LEG states that “COVID-19 has created a situation which demands transformation in school education… the transaction mechanisms in school education may go through a drastic change. Therefore, even if the pandemic will get over, its traces will be there and school education needs to remodel itself….” It recommends that “alternative modes of education for the whole academic session including Internet-based, radio, podcast, community radio, IVRS, TV DTH Channels, etc.” should be developed. This transformation of schools in the current understanding of pedagogy, suitability of learning material and quality of learning provided through IT will further devastate the already inadequate system of school education in the country. Of course, IT can be used in a balanced manner where it can help; but it should not be seen as a silver bullet to remedy all ills in the education system.

Institutional environment

The importance of an institutional environment cannot be overemphasised when one thinks of online teaching. Even when the institutions function sub-optimally, students themselves create an environment that supports their growth morally, socially and intellectually in conversations and interactions with each other. The online mode of teaching completely forecloses this opportunity.

In conclusion, our democracy and public education system have, as usual, left the neediest in the lurch and are providing bad education to those who matter.