The omission of secular principles in the draft
NEP 2019 impoverishes the learning experience of all Indians
The draft National Education Policy (NEP) 2019
found itself drawn into a high-profile controversy soon after the ministry of
human resources development posted it online for soliciting feedback late last
month. The point of contention: the NEP's recommendation that Hindi be mandated
as one of the three languages of study in school. The opposition in south
India, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu, was so strong that the NEP
committee swiftly withdrew the linguistic policy mandate at issue.
A careful scrutiny of the 484-page NEP 2019
reveals an issue deserving of wider, more heated opposition. The words "secular" or "secularism" are not found anywhere in it. The NEP 2019
is expected to reset the government funding policy on education, the structure
of school education, the curricular design for school and higher education, the
nature of teacher training and recruitment, among others. A clear, unequivocal
commitment to secular education however is vital to see as anchor for these
ambitious reform proposals.
The missing word
The absence of the word "secular" in the
NEP 2019 becomes all the more pronounced when the National Policy on Education
(NPE) 1986, which laid down the policy framework which guides the Indian
education system at present, the National Curricular Framework (NCF) 2005,
which formed the basis of the revision of the National Council Of Educational
Research And Training (NCERT) textbooks, and the National Curricular Framework
for Teacher Education (NCFTF) 2009 are brought into view.
The NPE 1986 categorically states: "All
educational programmes will be carried on in strict conformity with secular
values." Among the "social values within which we locate our educational
aims", the NCF 2005 affirms, "the first is a commitment to democracy and
the values of equality, justice, freedom, concern for others' well-being, secularism,
respect for human dignity and rights."
In another instance, it notes: "Seeking guidance
from the Constitutional vision of India as a secular, egalitarian and
pluralistic society, founded on the values of social justice and equality,
certain broad aims of education have been identified in this document."
The NCFTE 2009 declares that the country needs
teachers who "promote values of peace, democratic way of life, equality,
justice, liberty, fraternity, secularism and zeal for social
Against this policy tradition of honouring
secularism as a core Indian value for designing Indian education, the omission
of the words "secular" and "secularism" in the NEP 2019 is odd.
Indeed, the NEP's frequent affirmation of its aim of inculcating constitutional
values in education makes it doubly odd.
Consider the definitive claim that the NEP makes
and the non-mention of secularism in the long list of constitutional values it
lets us glimpse: "The process and the content of education at all levels will
also aim to develop Constitutional values in all students, and the capacities
for their practice. This goal will inform the curriculum as well as the overall
culture and environment of every school. Some of these Constitutional values
are: democratic outlook and commitment to liberty and freedom; equality,
justice, and fairness; embracing diversity, plurality, and inclusion;
humaneness and fraternal spirit; social responsibility and the spirit of
service; ethics of integrity and honesty; scientific temper and commitment to
rational and public dialogue; peace; social action through Constitutional
means; unity and integrity of the nation, and a true rootedness and pride in
India with a forward-looking spirit to continuously improve as a nation."
On another occasion, while discussing the need
to use inspiring texts in the classroom, the NEP 2019 states: "Excerpts from
the Indian Constitution will also be considered essential reading for students,
for the values of Equality, Liberty, and Fraternity that it espouses."
The non-invocation of secularism is also seen in
the few other instances where it similarly affirms the centrality of the
constitutional values for education followed by a glimpse of what those values
The absence of an explicit commitment to secular
ideals simply does not guarantee that the other ideals of pluralism and
diversity that the NEP 2019 abides by will be realized.
Defining secular education
Could the NEP 2019 be practicing secularism
without invoking it explicitly?
The model of a secular education of course can
be imagined in varying ways. It could mean either an avoidance of religious
instruction in government schools or making available equal space for texts
from the various religious traditions in the country. Led by the former understanding,
the Indian government hasn't allowed for religious instruction in its schools.
The NEP 2019 proposals for incorporating "ethical and moral principles and values" in school education, and the
examples of those values that it offers, however, clarify that it makes
explicit space for using religious texts in the classroom. This constitutes a
departure from the existing model of secular education in the country and
violates constitutional guarantee that states that "no religious instruction is
to be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of state
funds (Article 28 (1))".
While religious instruction is kept out of
government schools, the practice of secular education in India has not meant an
absence of "religious" texts in the classroom.
For instance, the language and literature
textbooks make space for devotional poems. The poetry of bhakti saints like
Basava, Tulsidas, Kabir, Mirabhai and Soordas, and Sufi poets and saints like
Malik Muhammad Jayasi and Shishunala Sharif , or Christian hymns like Lead
Kindly Light by John Henry Newman are features of Indian textbooks. The scope
and success of how school curricula have managed the secular imperative of
ensuring representation to diverse faiths might be debated, but the evidence is
clear to see.
What kind of evidence does the NEP 2019 extend
vis-a-vis the practice of secular education? In a section titled Incorporation
of basic ethical and moral reasoning throughout the school curriculum, it
declares that "traditional Indian values of seva, ahimsa, swacchata, satya,
nishkam karma, tolerance, honest hard work, respect for women, respect for
elders, respect for all people and their inherent capabilities regardless of
background, respect for environment, etc. will be inculcated in students."
The moral dichotomy
The sheer multiplicity of moral tradition in the
country makes it tough to shortlist traditional Indian values for the
classroom. The difficulty is amplified by the fact that these values often have
varying interpretations across religious traditions or even are in conflict
with each other.
To take an instance from the pool of values
cited from the NEP 2019 above: the Jain value of ahimsa, which extends the
scope of human abstinence from violence to the animal world, is not shared by
Buddhists or Sikhs or Christians or Muslims or tribal communities or a majority
of the Hindus. And, there is no forgetting, of course, the competing visions of
morally desirable values within each of these religious faiths.
The point is not that the task of identifying
traditional values is impossible, but to suggest that such a task, especially
in a secular and democratic country like India, involves a struggle and demands
great philosophical care and an in-built openness to ongoing revisions in the
light of new knowledge and discussions. The pronouncements on moral and ethical
instruction in the NEP exhibit neither of these.
The traditional Indian values listed above are a
mix of generic values expressed in English like respect towards women and the
elderly and specific values expressed in Sanskrit such as seva, satya and
ahimsa. The lexical register of the latter make symbolic place for the
Buddhist, Hindu and Jain religious traditions, but not for the Islamic and
Christian streams of Indian tradition.
The exclusion of Christian and Islamic
traditions of India is consistent whenever moral instruction is discussed in
the NEP. Noting that "a one-year course on ethical and moral reasoning will be
required for all students sometime in Grades 6-8," the NEP offers a
glimpse of the course contents: "Subjects such as seva, swacchata,
non-violence, respect and safety for women, cheating (sic), helpfulness,
tolerance, equality, fraternity, etc. will again be discussed in this
This list of putative Hindu and generic values
offers no guarantee that a sincere eclecticism in relation to the Indian faith
traditions will guide the choice of texts for discussing them. Making space for
the Islamic value of charity (zakat) and the Christian value of compassion, for
instance, in that list would have been more reassuring.
In a section titled Inspiring lessons from the
literature and people of India, the NEP states: "Children will have the
opportunity to read and learn from the original stories of the Panchatantra,
Jataka, Hitopadesha, and other fun fables and inspiring tales from the Indian
A care for crafting a secular curriculum would
have surely meant the inclusion of texts like Aesop's Fables and Arabian Nights
among the fun fables and tales from the Indian tradition.
Accommodating diverse faith traditions in the
moral curricula ensures that students from certain religious backgrounds are
not alienated in the classroom.
The encounter with the moral imagination of
diverse faiths enriches the humanism of all students too.
A delicate task
Since different regions inhabit distinct moral
traditions, forming a moral curriculum will perforce be a decentralized
exercise. Just as the Jnaneshwari, the Thirukkural and the Vachanas of the Lingayats
occupy an exalted position in the moral worlds of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and
Karnataka, other moral texts will matter for other regions of India. The value
instruction that NEP 2019 seeks to introduce in the classroom will need
Controversy upon controversy seen across India
serve to remind us that secular ideals also matter for devising the curriculum
for just about every subject taught in schools and colleges: history, social
studies, civics, geography, and science. If state governments can sneak in
spurious claims about science in ancient India and revalue and devalue
historical figures for communal reasons in school and college curricula despite
the existing constitutional mandate for secular education, the absence of explicit
secular guidelines in NEP 2019 will offer a free hand for partisan politics in
A care towards a responsible engagement with
Indian tradition, a care for the constitutional guarantee that the state shall
not discriminate against Indian citizens on grounds of religion, and, indeed, a
care for a maximally democratic classroom experience, entail serious revisions
in the NEP 2019.
Role of gender and caste
Rajeev Bhargava, the political theorist, has
drawn attention to the multidimensional nature of Indian secularism. Besides
calibrating the relations of the government with different faiths, he notes,
India's secularism is integrally linked to the struggle for gender and caste
equality within religious communities. Reflecting this layered character of the
country's secular commitment, perhaps, the NCF 2005 categorically asks that
classroom teaching ought "to be sensitive to gender, caste, class and global
The NEP 2019 invokes the value of gender
equality in general and not specifically in relation to the religious
subordination of women. And, it offers a severely limited relevance to the
issue of caste, which surfaces as an obstacle for school enrolment, as a source
of discrimination in classroom seating, as a basis for proposing that more
teachers from lower castes ought to be trained and recruited, as grounds for
crafting non-alienating curricula in areas with a large presence of lower
castes. There are no curricular recommendations for sensitizing students to
caste prejudice in India.
A categorical statement like "in order to
achieve gender equality in education, the Policy aims to integrate gender as a
cross cutting priority for all aspects of policy implementation", is not
available in the case of caste or, for that matter, religious equality in the
In contemporary India, which has seen a sharp
rise in caste and religious violence, the curricula and pedagogic methods in
Indian classrooms clearly have a paramount role to play in undoing caste and
religious prejudice in society. The challenge is to find fresh and creative
ways of making young minds grasp these difficult social realities. A
seriousness in this regard ought to be integral to the NEP 2019.
The omission of secularism as a guiding ideal in
the draft of NEP 2019 opens up a variety of risks and vulnerabilities for many
religious, caste and tribal communities in the country.
It prevents a satisfying realization of their
citizenship experience. It impoverishes the learning experience of all. It
harms Indian culture.
Chandan Gowda is professor of sociology at Azim
Premji University, Bengaluru.