The granite reading of a rainbow


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THE shades of blue and purple which colour the cover page of The National Curriculum Framework For School Education (2000) ought not to be misread for the mood which accompany its reading. It is a purely symbolic arbitrary relation. But reading the document in a social context does capture an interplanetary voyage – from the granite social reality of the marginalized to the rainbow terrain of rarefied policy documents in education.

Behind the snowy haze of the glazed cover of the discussion document, it is not easy to locate resemblances in the faces of children. Which margin of society do they represent – the denuded hill society of Uttar Pradesh? Or migrants from a sanctuarized forest? Displaced migrants of a mega development project? But such probing seems premature at this stage of reading.

The discussion document is a good illustration of the genre of policy writing on education. The texts never explicitly provide a description of what the actors do in schools. Even when the text points to what they ought to be doing, it is not clear as to what the state and status of the desired practice is at the actual site of a school. Yet the discussion document outlines the curricular concerns and issues addressed universally, independent of varied contexts. The vantage point casts the text in a position of authority over ordinary teachers and students, in formal and non-formal institutional settings. After all, the theory and practice of education in schools is, often enough, local editions of contextualised tailoring, a rule of thumb that does not know itself in a universal idiom.

The document weaves its authority through various fragments loosely put together. It begins with an ultimate reason of the Constitution of India, Chapter 4A. Before one figures out the why of particular selection of the fundamental duties of citizens (Article 51A), the tone of citation evokes the image of a school master carrying the ubiquitous pedagogic device – a slender yet sturdy cane plucked from neem, peepal or eucalyptus tree at the time of morning assembly. The field material of schools from the countryside provides us with interesting names of the device – samaj sudharak yantra (the instrument for social reform), tambeehul ghafileen (cautioning-the-inattentive device). These images erupt casually at the moment.



Not unlike the opening pages of the manual of some total institution, the document’s constitutional prescriptions are so flagrantly out of context that the ethical competence of the audience suddenly appears suspect. The reference to duties and the constituent fundamentals appear as distant to the learner’s psyche as a totem to the believer. Some of the conspicuous ones are the national flag, national anthem, integrity of India, national service, composite culture, protection of national environment and public property with a pledge to abjure violence so that the nation rises to higher levels of achievement (p. vii).

The above foundations are placed at a high distance from the addressees’ hurly burly everyday routine. They would scarcely comprehend the higher order transmissions from the context of their lives. The motifs of the guiding principles of the Constitution in the discussion document meant for the learners of the 21st century cannot be immediately discerned. These could only be passed down and taken in with absolute compliance.

The entire exercise of evolving a discussion document gives birth to both the expert framers of ethical standards and those lacking in proper frames. It is also important that the long process of both life and learning unconsciously reflect the curricular concerns of the experts. Usually, these are not couched in the formalistic or ritualistic idiom of authorities. Thereby, their recognition becomes difficult in official perception. What is true of laity is also true of the expert. Who then needs these high codes and their authorizations as support to the habitual and the routine. Indeed, their absence is hardly ever noticed except on ceremonial/ritual occasions.

This rare occurrence makes the codes a subject of limited utility for education and constitution of social beings. The rare use of the above codes, however, has another connotation. After all, knowledge experts as state functionaries periodically renew their lease of life through recreating the foundations that furnish frameworks for decent moral behaviour. And the birth and rebirth of experts also produce an expert-dependent populace that learns to hold its experience as unauthentic, and treat the sensory encounters with suspicion. Our education system has come to such a pass, thanks to the educational policies that always start afresh and display ignorance of both history and society.



With unbounded enthusiasm, policy documents in education usually invoke the spirits of ancestors only for building the foundation for authorization. The Education Commission Report (1964-66) looks for parallels to the experience-based education from the Soviet Union but forgets that an experiment in Basic Education in pre-independence India; the Nai Taleem was an innovation of epic proportions in recasting Indian society in the medium of education. The fact that the great experiment produced no ripple effect even in the 1960s speaks sufficiently about the dominant mindset of official theorists and visionaries in education.

The elan vital of most of the succeeding documents in educational policy has usually been a withholding of all references to antecedents (except for purposes of self-occultation) with a sleight of hand. What is really invoked and dispelled at the same time is the imperfect past, to pave the way for a new enchantment kit. The prophetic Aurobindo of 1910 is drawn upon by the document to extol the first principle in teaching that nothing can be taught, the teacher is not an instructor or taskmaster but a helper and a guide (p. 2).



Another ancestral spirit is Gandhi’s Buniyadi Taleem as a variant of indigenous response to the colonial system of education. But the document laments that the project failed (the elaborate explanation of failure is quietly presupposed) to emerge as a national alternative to the alien curriculum. The document cites few other policy texts until the national curriculum framework tradition of recent time.

The discussion document builds a perfect internal consistency and arranges every possible concern for a curriculum in a manner that all blanks and criticisms are weeded out of the document. The high and the low, the far and the near, the internal and the external, the personal and the global, each with respect to the learners and their contexts, are woven to form an integral whole ensuring non-falsifiability.

The rainbow terrain of the policy is characterized by a complete disjunction between its colourful face and the sources of its origin. What could be the possible sources? An intemperate Hindutva ideology asserting a certain brand of patriotism? An out of the hat brand new nationalism that prods people to firmly believe in generalized statements against all possible empirical evidence? A mentality that creates imaginary communities as its members, allies and enemies and prefers to conflate mythology and history? The mentality is made up of certain preference for prejudgment over scientific observations, dead over living labour, product over process, textual words over experience.

The discussion document, however, does not convey anything about its precursors and background sources of origin. The document builds up a case for education which makes a cohesive society, where an awareness is created for the inherent equality for all with a view of removing prejudices and complexes transmitted through the social environment and the accident of birth. Thus a curriculum is expected to take conscious note of the special requirements of the disadvantaged section of society. We shall deal with the issue of equality a little later.



The biological and social equality is followed by an ominous equality of members under the umbrella of ideology and culture. This has a reference to the notion of education for national identity, cultural heritage, indigenous knowledge, India’s contribution to mankind, value development and emotional literacy. While one does not disagree with the colours in the spectrum, the serious concern relates to the relationship between their origins and destiny. One is aware that Ram and Allah are sublime entities, but as situational logics they may have a potency to endanger life. The long passage between the state and the ordinary life of people, prescriptions and parables in education have the possibility to assume multifarious forms.

The hiatus between the offshoot and the root need not be a necessary feature of all reports on education. One may draw lessons from how the historical Zakir Husain Committee Report (1937) was prepared. All members of the committee were not persons of eminence or high profile state functionaries. The members were participants in a nationwide movement in education and had the benefit of reporting first-hand from institutions experimenting in alternative primary learning.

Zakir Husain, Aryanayakam, K.T. Shah, Vinoba Bhave, Kaka Kalelkar, Kishorlal Mashruwala, J.C. Kumarappa, S. Jaju and Asha Devi were scientists associated with their respective educational labs for years together before they assembled in 1937 at Wardha to draft an alternative policy document in education. The Zakir Husain Committee Report was a culmination of a long process of ordeals and endeavours before a perspective could be presented. The granite produced a rainbow.

The trouble with national curriculum frameworks (or the statist logic in education) is that they are liable to empower the state apparatuses governing schools and their natural collaborators – the authors, translators, book publishers and related contractors – hurriedly hand-picked to meet impossible deadlines in the execution of programmes and production of material. The intensive intervention of the state forms a major bypass in the actual provisioning of education. The sublime curricular concerns of the policy document remain hopelessly fixed in the rarefied air. Where statist logic predominates, educational endeavour representing the learner gets marginalized.



The extent to which the principle and practice can be disjunctive at the hands of an overly bureaucratized state machinery can be gathered from what happened in a village school in Mewat. A primary education programme (DPEP) found a bizarre concretization in the rural setting. The frequent teachers’ absence and apathy in school life was usually rationalized in terms of a child-centred approach (child-let-loose approach). The programme funded by the World Bank and administered by state officials produced a carnival in education (frequent picnicking of the school teachers in various orientation programmes and the conversion of the school into a playhouse). The most tangible outcome of the programme was a textbook entitled Hanstey Gatey Aisey Bani (Haryana Prathmik Shiksha Pariyojna Parishad, 1999) that embellishes the state department but adds little meaning to the lives of the learner. Such is the complex passage between the rainbow and the granite.



The high premium put on constitutional duties in the document can be partly corrected by incorporating guidelines to protect constitutional rights of ethnic and minority groups, backward castes and classes, and ensuring that policies that favour sectarian interests are not followed at the expense of the citizens. What also needs to be ensured is that the educational package enables a backward learner to participate in society as a responsible citizen. This would require education to encourage learners on the margins of society to develop autonomously and be able to participate in the exercise and control of power.

There is need for the policy to discuss education as a primary good and its provisioning as a constitutional right. But the constitutional status should also graduate to a democratic right which would require from an educational package a devolution of meaning, allowing local groups and communities to interpret the right to education as well as determine more particular selection of curricular themes within the imperatives and opportunities in their living contexts.

A malaise liable to beset an ameliorative policy is to treat unequals as equals. One reason why such an approach perpetuates inequality is because in a stratified society invoking equality with a common wand does not distinguish between equality of opportunity, treatment and outcomes. It is important that curricular concerns are not turned into a fetish. In the act of treating equally it is important to recognize the element of privilege and to discount the same when unequals are accessing equality and social justice.



To illustrate the point let me share an example from the Mandal Commission Report of the Backward Classes Commission, 1980 (1991). This is about two characters, Mohan and Lallu who are socially unequal (p. 28). Mohan comes from a fairly well-off middle class family and both his parents are well educated. He attends one of the better public schools in the city that provides a wide range of extracurricular activities. At home, he has a separate room to himself and is assisted in his studies by both parents. There is a television and a radio set in the house and his father also subscribes to a number of magazines.

In the choice of his studies and, finally, his career, he is continuously guided by his parents and teachers. Most of his friends are of similar background and he is fully aware of the nature of the highly competitive world in which he will have to carve a suitable place for himself. Some of his relations are influential people and he can bank on the right sort of recommendation or push at the right moment.

On the other hand, Lallu is a village boy and his backward class parents occupy a low social position in the village caste hierarchy. His father owns a four-acre plot of agricultural land. Both his parents are illiterate and his family of eight lives huddled in a two-room hut. Whereas a primary school is located in his village, for his high school he had to walk a distance of nearly three kilometres both ways.

Keen on pursuing higher studies, he persuaded his parents to send him to an uncle at the tehsil headquarters. He never received any guidance regarding the course of studies to be followed or the career to be chosen. Most of his friends did not study beyond middle school. He was never exposed to a stimulating cultural environment and he completed his college education without much encouragement from any quarter. Owing to his rural background he has a rustic appearance. Despite his college education, his pronunciation is poor, his manners awkward and he lacks self-confidence.

Assuming that Mohan and Lallu had the same level of intelligence at birth, it is obvious that owing to vast differences in social, cultural and environmental factors, the former would be well above the latter in any competition. Thus, it is important to calibrate native endowments and social and cultural privileges in disbursing social justice and equality.



In order that a policy document does not remain a mere spectacle but graduates from sublime prescriptions to actual provisioning of education, the granite reality of the learner needs to be carefully appropriated in order to bring about a congruence between the rhythms of learning and living. Where living is in crisis, learning becomes inaccessible.

When forests are denuded for timber, the working hours of a girl child are lengthened. It has been reported from a Himalayan village1 in Chamoli district of Uttar Pardesh how ecological degradation led to an increase in the burden of work as well as the total time required for its completion. Activities such as collecting grass and firewood, grazing animals, fetching water and caring for younger children in the family are invariably affected by the crisis in society and ecology. When this happens, the cost is usually paid by the girl child; she drops out of school.

The evidence from the village tell us that in the primary school the number of boys and girls enrolled is equal but beyond the middle school most girls drop out. A policy prescription would not only attend to the attitude towards girls’ education but the degrading circumstances that produce a heavy workload for women.



There are other complex situations that could hardly be captured by a pure curricular framework. One may cite the example of Birhors,2 a nomadic tribe of Chhota Nagpur belt, regarded as a vanishing tribe. Their decimation follows the relentless destruction of the forests on which they depend. A development process in the region takes no notice of their needs or unique character. The Birhors, though mainly hunter-gatherers, engage in rope making and woodwork as well.

When the forest was ‘reserved’ they could not cut wood or get rope fibres. Their finished goods fetched low prices, not even meeting the cost of production. When deforestation ravaged the few areas they had access to, hunting failed. In times of natural calamity or crisis, they are the worst hit. Not a single child in the Birhor colony goes to school. Female literacy is almost nil. The Birhor, want to send children to school but they cannot afford it. Malnutrition is visible on the faces of the children with high infant mortality rates.

The policy document should not only direct its attention to the backward sections of society but also formulate mechanisms to restrain those who normalize marginality. There is a need to spell out the legal duties of officials in public administration to ensure that a human habitat is protected against depletion of local resources such as water, grasslands and forests.



After all, a curriculum is what counts as valid knowledge in a given society. But such knowledge is not merely limited to course books in the syllabi. Children learn from alternative sites of knowledge as well. These may be constellation of expressions and interactions in and out of the school that produce their own knowledge forms in active competition with what school teaches within a broad curriculum framework. Children not merely listen to teachers talking about equality but they also see them practising inequality. The perpetual dissonance of codes and messages in the official learning sites cannot be glossed over as insignificant. A national curriculum cannot possibly leave the actual principles in the transaction of knowledge, as well as the ethos in the school, under-regulated. Regulation is for creating and maintaining learning sites hitherto abrogated by those who monopolize the definition of a situation.

One may again turn to the history of Nai Taleem to make a distinction between self-regulation and administrative regulation. The latter may be executed without ever entering the portals of a school. But this is not what is being presently emphasized. The illustrations may be drawn from the Basic Education Conferences in 1939 and 1941. At the first conference, Asha Devi (1940)3 described the Segaon village school as a speck of dust in the midst of an arid environment with lots of inter-caste prejudices. Even the cultural reserves were depleted. How did Nai Taleem intervene in the setting? The child was chosen as a starting point by focusing on her specific physical and social needs. During school hours, two essential needs were recognized, viz. the free supply of clean water and at least one wholesome meal. But the supply of food, in order to be self-supporting, was linked to work in agriculture and gardening. And to avoid monotony and fatigue taking over work, it was followed by play. Thus, the curriculum was designed around water, food, work and play. The four classrooms were the well, the kitchen, the workshop and the field.



At the second conference, Shiv Dayal Singh (1942)4 described a basic school in Champaran, Bihar. The school had the problem of irregular attendance that was largely due to the poverty of the parents. Children had to take out the cattle for grazing, collect fuel, look after younger siblings and take their fathers’ midday meals to the fields. The school tackled the problem by holding classes early in the morning, leaving the children free during the evenings for duties at home. The children who took cattle to graze were permitted to attend school along with their cattle. One or two boys looked after the cattle by turns, while others attended classes. Similar arrangements were made for children who had to look after their younger siblings at home.



Most modern educational institutions would write off such communities or settings as ‘ineducable’ or ‘unteachable’ and turn to channels of distance and non-formal education to deal with them. These are instances of how a broad framework enframes a local provisioning of education through creating alternative sites of learning and of readily recognizing one for purposes of a creative link between living and learning.

A policy document in education should be directed not only towards the dissemination of knowledge and producing learners. This would be too limiting. A true blending of the rainbow and the granite would be possible if educational policies and practices produce learners and political subjects5 at the same time. The creation of political subjects is not understood in terms of a textualized theme meant to be acquired as pure knowledge. Rather, it is a process that involves the creation of avenues and possibilities for participation within the life at school to experience and to learn how to be political in a context.

Without empowering learners and their village level organizations as constant watch-guards of educational dispensing, the rainbow and the granite will remain disjuncted. The policy frameworks should formulate mechanisms that help schools to play a more vital role in the creation of a public sphere of citizens who are able to exercise power over their own lives and specially over the conditions of the production and appropriation of relevant knowledge.




1. Anil Agarwal, et al., The State of India’s Environment, 5, CSE, Delhi, 1998, Part I, 267-280.

2. P. Sainath, Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 1996, pp. 154-157.

3. Hindustani Talimi Sangh (1940), One Step Forward: The Report of the First Conference on Basic National Education, Poona, October 1939, Sevagram, pp. 179-186.

4. Hindustani Talimi Sangh (1942), Two Years of Work: Report of the Second Basic Education Conference, Jamia Nagar, New Delhi, 1941, Sevagram, pp. 131-134.

5. Patricia White, Beyond Domination: An Essay in the Political Philosophy of Education, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1983, pp. 81-117.