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.
Evidently, public education has institutionally been a monopoly of the Brahmin and upper-caste communities. Their exclusive domain over the right to knowledge has been considered a matter of prestige, power and economic position. This underwent a dramatic change—at least notionally if not in practice—with Independence and the adoption of the Constitution. The right to education for all was enshrined in the Constitution as one of the Directive Principles of State Policy—guidelines for state and central legislatures to take into account while framing laws—and was later interpreted as part of the fundamental right to life by the Supreme Court. Two people in particular played a critical role in transforming the vision of public education in India—Jotirao Phule and BR Ambedkar.
Phule and Ambedkar, both of whom had benefitted under Christian missionary schools in British India, brought the idea of education outside the Brahmin monopoly. The Christian schools provided basic education that was open to all, including the marginalised communities, which in turn enabled people such as Ambedkar, Jotirao and Savitribhai Phule to establish pioneering movements for education. Jotirao’s intervention on education in the nineteenth century opened the doors of access to knowledge to the women and oppressed castes of Maharashtra. His philosophy of education was a revolutionary weapon for the marginalised communities to fight the oppression and inequality perpetuated by Brahminism. In Shetkaryaca Asud, a critique of the British-Brahmin alliance in the bureaucracy, published in 1881, Jotirao famously wrote: “Without education, wisdom was lost; without wisdom, morals were lost; without morals, development was lost; without development, wealth was lost; without wealth, the Shudra were ruined; so much happened through lack of education.”