What is the idea of public education in India? To answer the question, it is imperative to first understand the very idea of the public. In India, the concept of the public is a deeply contentious subject because Indian society, by its nature, is oppressive and exclusionary. It is a society marked by segregation at birth, social discrimination and economic deprivation. This practice of exclusion and discrimination, a consequence of the entrenched caste system, persists widely even today, and any discussion of public education must accommodate the institutional injustices created by such a segregated society.
The ongoing students’ protests at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi are inseparable from both, the issues of caste discrimination in India, and how the privatisation of education and its resultant commercialisation would further alienate marginalised communities. Though it was triggered by the administration’s decision to stick by a fee-hike, the protest sought to protect something greater: the idea of a public university. To recognise the protest on these terms—of caste and commercialisation—it is crucial to revisit the roots of public education in India.
Historically, education and knowledge was the monopoly of twice-born communities, and particularly controlled by the Brahmins. In Brahminical philosophy, the structure of varnashrama dharma prescribes the rights and duties of different communities, based on the principles of graded inequalities ascribed to the various caste groups. This led to the systemic exclusion and denial of education to the Shudra community, which stands at the lowest level of the varna system; the Atishudras, comprising communities that fall outside the four-tier system; and women. The ancient Hindu code, Manusmriti, prescribes harsh penalties against anyone from these groups who defy the religious text to educate themselves or others.