A great past can’t fix a lousy present PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 21 December 2019 00:00
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Good to be proud of India’s Hindu past & achievements, but that doesn’t help if the erstwhile ‘bird of gold’ is floundering today


A little over 15 years ago, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government had got several school history books rewritten, historian Meenakshi Jain was invited to defend her book on medieval India at Barkha Dutt’s We the People (disclosure: Jain is my sister) along with several others who opposed the rewriting. Jain defended her work, and pointed to the huge inaccuracies in what Satish Chandra—the author she replaced—as well as others had been writing.

It is not clear if the audience or her fellow-panelists were convinced, but Shyama Chona, the then principal of Delhi Public School’s flagship RK Puram branch, had a different take. It is important to read the right history, she said, but it was one of the five or six subjects her children had to study, so could we just finalise the history books and move on?

Put another way, the BJP could argue its history-rewriting project corrected inaccuracies that played down the glory of the Hindu rulers while glossing over the injustices of Muslim ones. Correcting history books to give students a pride in their past is critical, but when is the last time you heard any BJP leader worry—with even a fraction of the passion—about the poor quality of the physics or the maths being taught in schools?

Most mocked PM Narendra Modi when, five years ago, he told a gathering of doctors that Lord Ganesha’s head transplant proved India had the capability to conduct complicated plastic surgery; but, how do you explain Columbia University’s Irving Medical Centre talking of the ancient Indian text Sushruta Samhita (bit.ly/35LRMCw) containing detailed instructions for performing complex surgical procedures, including three types of skin grafts and reconstruction of the nose?

It is important to feel proud of your past, but if you have achieved so little yourself, it must fill you with shame. If India’s ancestors knew so much, it is galling that just one or two Indian universities are in the world’s top 500. For several years now, the government has been talking about education reforms to free up universities from the UGC/AICTE yoke, but precious little has happened so far; indeed, the IIMs and IITs have been told to start implementing caste-based reservations in the faculty.

The number of those enrolled in college as a share of the population in that age group — Gross Enrolment Ratio, or GER—has risen from 20.8 in 2012 to 26.3 in 2019; that is good news, but the government’s 2035 target is 50 while a recent report by Mohandas Pai and Nisha Holla for Ficci projects the likely GER at just 38.1 in 2030 in a business-as-usual scenario. While the good news is that, for the first time in India’s history, female GER has outstripped that for men, there are huge problem areas. At 9.7, the Muslim GER indicates the community will continue to do badly; ditto for populous states like Bihar (GER 13.6) and West Bengal (GER 19.3).

Amazingly, as Pai/Holla point out, just 22% of all colleges are government-owned; 64% are private and don’t get government aid. For the GER to rise to 50, there has to be a dramatic step-up in government spending; this means government finances have to be less strained and money can’t be squandered on wasteful subsidies—the centre’s FY20 higher education budget was just `38,317 crore while that for subsidies was `301,694 crore!

While there is no quantitative data on the quality of education, anecdotal evidence suggests it is poor. Fixing this requires a massive increase in funding and a lot more freedom for colleges to set their own curriculum, to build up corpuses from alumni and other donors; the current system, however, is designed to choke this. Ironically, the government’s famed Institutions of Eminence (IoE) scheme is primarily about giving universities autonomy; but shouldn’t that be a given anyway? And it says a lot for how the government functions that the IoE list has universities, like the Jio one, that haven’t even been built!


Unsurprisingly, given India’s glorious tradition of knowledge, India was also once a very rich country—sone ki chidiya (bird of gold) wasn’t just urban legend. In 1500, as Surjit Bhalla points out, using data from Angus Deaton etc, India had around 25% of the global population and 21% of global GDP; by 1980, the population share was 15.6% and income share a mere 2.7% and, by 2010, this was 17.7% and 6.6% respectively (see graphic for China’s dramatically better performance). As an Indian, whether a bhakt (those who swear by PM Modi) or a kam-bhakt (less of a devotee), you would think the government’s focus then would be to rid the country of the shackles that have brought the economy to its knees.

Yet, at a time when the economy is showing no signs of reversing direction—and this doesn’t mean rising from a 4.5% level to a 5% one due to more government expenditure—the government remains focused almost solely on the Citizenship Act and the National Register of Citizens that, as we’re seeing, is snowballing into a real problem. In such a situation, it is difficult to see how the PM is going to focus on the economy or how investors’ faith in the government will get restored.

At a time when there is no plan for dealing with the lakhs of illegal Bangladeshi Hindus who snuck into Assam—since the home minister has assured the Assamese issue will be taken care of, are they to be shifted to Bihar?—the government wants to give refuge to Hindus from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh; what happens if these run into millions? And, what of the illegal Muslim immigrants in Assam and other parts of the country; will they be kept in detention camps? While this goes well with the narrative of a home for all Hindus, in the larger land that was once India, surely Hindu glory would be that much greater if present-day India was economically strong, and socially cohesive?

Postscript: It is, though, unfair to blame just the BJP; even Manmohan Singh asked the Vajpayee government to give citizenship to Hindus and other persecuted minorities from Bangladesh/Pakistan; and, when in power, the UPA also tried to implement its own version of the NRC! It is just that no automatic citizenship for Hindus was contemplated and, in keeping with the UPA’s lackadaisical functioning, the project never really took off, and was overtaken, eventually, by Aadhaar, which was about identity, not citizenship.


Last Updated ( Monday, 23 December 2019 04:33 )

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