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Updated: Nov 30, 2020



This talk was presented on December 5, 2017 as part of The Idea of India – Bangalore chapter, hosted by and at Vidyashilp Academy.


Thank you for reaching out and inviting me for this conference. I had heard about the Kolkata conference from my teacher Krishna Kumar, and my colleague Manish Jain, both of whom were very enthusiastic about the kinds of issues that had been raised and the kinds of ideas they were able to present and discuss with teachers and educators. I am especially pleased that this is a small group and that this session can be a conversation. I hope we will be able to connect with each other’s ideas.


I will present to you some thoughts that I’ve been preoccupied with for more than a decade, from the time when I was engaged in studying the Baiga tribal community, the most formative, transformative, field experiences that I have ever had and one to which I keep returning as I mull over the idea of an Indian identity. I keep returning to that experience—of living among Indians who are culturally so distinct and different from the rest of us mainstream Indians who are integrated into the all-too-familiar hierarchical caste system. My talk today is based on the need for culture in human formation and what schools need to do about it.


Many years ago, when I was preparing to study learning within the Baiga tribal community, I read the MPhil dissertation of my friend Amrita Patwardhan, who was researching the educational experiences of adivasi children displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam construction in Maharashtra and Gujarat. Amrita noted that, other than in those schools run by the Narmada Bachao Andolan, there was a cultural disconnect as far as tribal children are concerned—most schools seemed to have no reflection of their culture and in fact even seemed to be distanced from it. I think we can all immediately relate to this finding—it is consistent with our common knowledge that tribal culture is not a part of mainstream education. What marks tribals in our mind is the distinctiveness of their culture, from their external appearance and exotic dressing even in contemporary times, to their ways of life, such as the centrality of communal dancing, the simplicity of their lifestyle conducted in close relationship with nature. They seem to merit distinctive treatment, not because they are poor, which most of them are, but because their culture is distinctive and in danger of being lost if they are assimilated into modernity through schooling. Our intuition tells us that the difference is more than material and appearance, that the difference lies in the realm of the symbolic world that they inhabit and which gives rise to their distinctive way of life. It is this symbolic world which is culture, manifesting in material ways such as the lack of possessions, being self-reliant with regard to meeting their daily needs except for cloth and iron. But, more importantly, in giving meaning to life and giving rise to a distinctive way of life.


This culture provides the Baiga with their framework of values such as wanting less, making do with less, valuing independence from an early age, a particular aesthetic taste and a sense of beauty. And even in relationships, such as child-rearing being a community activity, negotiating encounters with new ideas and sources of power through hybridity and hybridization as a way of assimilation and the ability to bracket out community when they cannot so hybridize. It makes them predisposed to wait for others on occasion, and to accept a wide variation in norms of practice. I remember an occasion when a gathering had to start its proceedings at twelve, which is when the sun is overhead, but the whole community just waited and waited and waited for one particular musician to come, who came when he was ready. And then when the group started playing together I was astounded by the cacophony of sounds, but they had completely different norms of perfection. For me, these are the elements that define their culture and way of life and give it such a distinctive character. And creates the predispositions they have through which they negotiate the world. It also includes ways in which they value themselves and others. It is the basis of motivation and of attaching significance to events.


These are the resources that accrue through culture, and why culture as world-making is so essentially constitutive of human formation. It is not only true of the Baiga but of all human formation—that we need culture in order to be fully human. Because these are the kind of resources that it gives us. Mostly we don’t notice it because we’re like fish in water—we don’t see the water we’re swimming in. But when we have the opportunity to observe another culture, we become much more aware of what it is that makes life possible. Acquiring that is what it means to have and grow in a culture and grow into a culture. All humans have and need culture, but it is the particularities of culture that carry its distinctive constitutive character and that account for specificities of tastes, values and practices. Why, for example, obedience may be valued in one culture but independence in another; why the movements of Bharatnatyam appeal in one culture while in another it is the movements of Yakshagana.


Returning to Amrita’s dissertation on the education of children in the Narmada Valley, what was unexpected was her subsequent reflection that the mainstream government schools seemed to be culturally barren. It was not that they seemed to reflect the culture of the majority group of that area—they seemed to lack culture entirely. The schools educated for literacy, numeracy, official curricular knowledge of science and history, any element of culture that was present was vestigial, incidental, sometimes purely decorative (for an annual performance) or as part of a hidden curriculum followed by particular teachers. As though they were present privately and unofficially, as token attempts at recognizing the value of local cultural practices in order to celebrate cultural diversity as an integral and constitutive part of Indian society. Grounding in culture, that is community culture that grounds and roots people, was not an official aim of education nor a part of official curriculum.


By now, you must be thinking of the counterfactual from your experience that go against this claim that I’ve made—that mainstream schools are culturally barren, that they do not provide grounding culture. I’m sure you know of several schools that propagate Hindu, Islamic or Christian culture as their stated mandate. There are, after all, various forms of nationalism and regionalism that pervade schools that follow the state curriculum. So is that not a grounding that is state-mandated? Aren’t we concerned about the Right’s tendency of wanting to ground all Indians in a state-mandated Hindu culture?


I believe that grounding in culture as a need for human formation has by and large been set aside as an aim of education in India. Recognition of culture, and diversity of culture, has been well documented as an aim in education, even in our National Curriculum Framework. However, by and large, we have followed a model in which being rooted in one’s community culture is part of the private realm, to be addressed in the home and the community. Grounding in culture is seen as primarily the work of home socialization and acculturation and not as the work of the school. School is expected to keep its focus on epistemic educational aims—literacy, numeracy, learning of science, history and geography, and the development of skills and capabilities, including physical skills—and the formation of a public culture.


The National Curriculum Framework 2005, for example, extensively discusses the need to recognize local and indigenous cultures as repositories of knowledge that can serve as a resource in education. But this is primarily an epistemic focus. In other words, it looks at cultural resources as resources of knowledge formation and not as resources for grounding in culture. In its aim of education, it calls on the need to develop in all students the ability for cultural change, to critically reengage and reinterpret the past. But this is also part of the public-culture formation that it advocates, the ability to look at one’s own culture and reengage with and reinterpret it.


There is the learning of epistemic and public values, such as autonomy, collaboration and learning, respecting equality and difference, listening to other people’s point of view, requiring evidence for truth claims, being able to ask and receive explanations, negotiate differences and achieve consensus. These values underline the practices of modern knowledge and modern democracy, and are associated with living in a pluralistic or multicultural context. The idea of unity in diversity is an important part of the idea of India, and its public culture. So I’m in no way denying the centrality and importance of this. However the curriculum remains silent about the role of the school in forming identity with reference to the specific constitutive culture of diversity, relegating culture to the realm of the private, even when one is being grounded in this common public culture and its associated national identity. The forms of nationalism and regionalism, the forms of majoritarian Hinduism that pervade the state and school systems are contesting views regarding the formation of the public culture.


Nationalism and regionalism can be understood as attempts to consolidate the state’s power over the individual at the level of the nation or the region. According to majoritarian Hindutva, the so-called culture of the majority is assumed to be the definition of public culture. However the distinctions that I’m proposing between identity constituting culture (which I’m referring to as community culture) and public culture (which is also identity forming, but of a national identity)—these are not distinctions that have official constitutional recognitions except where minorities are concerned. Only minority groups identified at the regional level are explicitly accorded cultural rights. The categories of minority language, minority religion and the culture of tribal people have been accepted as the basis for recognizing constitutive cultural rights and identity. The rest of Indian society seems to have been aggregated into a single whole. And here, culture in its identity constituting sense, seems to cease to matter.


The idea of public culture alone seems to be all that needs to matter, sufficient for the formation of society, and for human formation. Arguably, in order to achieve consensus on the characteristics that will define our public culture, the Indian constitution makers must have deliberately chosen to remain silent. Or as Krishna Kumar puts it, mask many of the identity-forming, humanity-forming aspects of culture which reside in the realm of family and community, including contentious matters such as the status and rights of women and children which very likely are in conflict with constitution’s own liberal framework. All of these matters on which people were and are deeply invested, and wish to maintain control over or at least a status quo at the level of community. However public culture on its own is quite insufficient for human and social formation. It’s more akin to a set of moral values and principles governing social relationships, interactions and social justice.


Human-forming cultures are specific cultures. And humans become human within specific cultures, belonging to and identifying a particular culture. For example, all of us speak languages. But we speak specific languages, either Bengali or Tulu or Telugu. This is not to say that a common public culture is not important. After all, it characterizes how we relate to each other as individuals or as members of particular cultural groups in the public arena, and it is therefore necessary for society, especially a liberal and multicultural society, to form and function. We need a public culture. The constitutional silence on the matter of non-minority culture, or rather cultures, may have been politically necessary and seems to have been a strategically wise choice to enable the Indian state to form as a pluralistic democracy. To the extent that the constitution is a sociolegal document, arguably it did not need to engage with this matter any more than it did. But as the Indian state has adopted a reformist and modernizing agenda for Indian society, and is not merely overseeing social relationships but actually forging and directing change in the Indian society, it is therefore also forging this change in all these pluralistic constitutive cultures. And therefore its silence on the matter of the non-minority community cultures has problematic effects. At an obvious superficial level, it allows the following view to gain ground: that because it has something to say about protecting minority cultures, the state and the constitution don’t care equally about the majority cultures about which it is not talking. And in fact seems to disregard entirely.


We will be justified in regarding this view as populist motivated political rhetoric that would not hold ground if we examine facts or had a mature understanding of why a liberal democracy with a majority group needs to have special legal protections for minorities. But it is one of the problems. And we find this increasingly in populist rhetoric that the fact that majority cultures are not spoken about means that the state doesn’t care about them or wishes to extinguish them.


However, a more substantive problem arising out of the silence with regard to culture is in the aim and curriculum of compulsory schooling which follows from the Right to Education. The Right to Education in the Indian constitution has been read into the right to life. The right to a life with dignity. This enjoins on education the task of fully forming humans and giving them the enabling capabilities to live life with dignity. A conservative and minimal reading of this right could be that education should not do anything that takes away from a human life its dignity. And to that extent, recognition of and respect of a person’s culture, community culture, constitutive culture, is essential and necessary. A more ambitious reading of the right to education could be that if culture is essential in human formation, then grounding a person in his or her culture is an essential task of education. This need not be read negatively as an uncritical grounding in a person’s community culture, which could include unconstitutional values and practices of illiberal and restrictive identities. But it would require that, even as individuals access the cultural achievements of humanity, and grow into a new national culture, they are enabled to be fully human by being rooted in their own culture. This is no simple task. And it has its own problems. Gandhi, for example, had wanted the village community and its life to provide the core human-forming culture. Ambedkar on the other hand rejected any proposal that would lead Dalits to be rooted in a hierarchical oppressive culture of village communities while we waited for the oppressors to become enlightened. And what will constitute community? And whose culture would be recognized and accorded this human-forming function? Will it be the caste groups? Will it be occupational groups? Linguistic groups? Geographic communities?


Perhaps it does not matter which of these it is as long as these are authentic communities with traditions and values composed of a range of ages, generations and knowledgeable members, with a distinctive and recognizable form. With an attendant world view and world-forming features, dynamic and evolving as living culture should be, integrated through activities and interdependencies, involved with or affecting intergenerational cultural change. It’s useful to remind ourselves that living cultures are not static. They’re not like some purist broth that you get for some nutrition. They are evolving and dynamic and changing all the time, and they’re responding. And the members of this culture define and reshape the culture. It’s not only that culture forms you, but, equally, you form culture. So it’s that kind of living culture that I’m referring to. This world requires that education be spread and shared between school and such cultural communities. And that the right to education will have to extend beyond compulsory schooling to include grounding in one’s own cultural community as a necessary aim for education.


Going back to the tribal world: including the life world of the tribal in the world of the school is non-trivial. The two are epistemologically different and engender different epistemic cultures—epistemic meaning, knowledge-related cultures. Aboriginal people in Australia, seeking to ground children in their own culture while accessing modern schools, have tried to solve this problem of incompatibility by creating what they call a two-way school, or a split school, as the only feasible solution. Children spend half the day in the school and half the day in the community. And they continue like two parallel worlds. And that seems to be the only way in which they can give children equal access to both the modernizing cultural experiences of the school and the rooting cultural experiences of community. If education and grounding culture is to be a part of the curriculum of compulsory education for all Indian children, then the institutional form of the school will need to be revisited and restructured to make it compatible with participation in cultural and community activities on the one hand and participation in school on the other.

Shanta Sinha however has always been suspicious of any suggestion that the school calendar should be revised so that it coincides with the agricultural calendar, so children can have holidays when there is harvesting going on. She says that this carries the danger of propagating child labour. It’s a valid concern. Perhaps community culture itself will have to be revisited and reengaged with and reoriented as suggested in the NCF. It’s not as if community culture is ready to take on this human-forming function either.


Equally, there’s a concern among educationalists about the practices of culture which will maximally be able to support this human-forming function that we a