Sunday, September 07, 2014

An Invitation to Think Asian

Traditionally, the modern Indian education, instituted and shaped by the British colonists, have developed around 'the temptation of the West', built primarily around the English language and the values and attitudes that come with it. Even the attempts at indigenous education have almost always been shaped by European revivalist formula, looking backwards to draw inspiration from an imaginary past, based on a fantastical idea of racial purity and exclusion of the others, expressed with a triumphalism devoid of content and context. And, this whole idea was to be played out within the bubble of a modern consumer economy - Levi's celebrating 'Khadi' is perhaps symptomatic - a doomed approach to fashion an identity devoid of commitment, values and connection. 

This affects education more than anything else perhaps. Uneasy with the identity question, Indian education has developed an escapism, resorting to blind technocracy rather than a search for answers. This has not just allowed the development of a disconnected elite, but also development of fundamentalist thinking on the fringes: There are two value choices of an Indian student, either to join the ranks of an elite class where nothing else other than self-interest matters, or to sink in to an identity based on everything modern, and construct an identity based on rejection rather than tolerance.

This is an old conundrum which some Indian thinkers grappled with at the turn of the nineteenth century and their answer was to look for a greater Asian identity. This was their way of escaping the European nation-state thinking, which, at its core, was based on exclusiveness rather than inclusiveness. For these thinkers, the idea of India was not to be based on any kind of 'purity' - racial, linguistic or religious - but rather than cohesiveness and inclusiveness of a disparate identities. They defined this conception of identity based on tolerance and harmony as deeply Asian, as a fundamentally antithetical concept to the European conception of identity. 

Such a notion may sound 'idealistic' contrasted against the 'practical' notion of identity based on race, language etc., but such judgements are based on convention - that I shall think of someone with a different skin colour to be different from me because I accord greater emphasis to skin colour than humanness - and an alternate conception is indeed possible. One of the reasons that an exclusionary concept of identity took hold in India, and the idea of Asian-ness and harmony became marginal, is indeed because of the colonial education system.

This is not just about India though. Across all of Asia, in the early part of twentieth century, nationalism, a concept of European origin, spread and made the 'pan-' identities less relevant. This system of thinking soon led to destructive wars, and a strange twist of irony, Pan-asianism was blamed for the war rather than imperialism and the nationalist conception of identity. And, in the national liberation thereafter, the nationalist system of thinking and organising, precisely the system of values that caused so much misery, became ascendant. This system of thinking was inherent both in the education systems of the newly liberated countries, and even those who opposed it - like the Hindu nationalists in India - accepted its fundamental premises. 

It did not matter that this caused enormous strain and conflicts, human miseries at an unimaginable scale, all to the profit of assorted arms makers and bankers. No one sought to revisit the Asian dream, as the masters of our mind told us this was responsible for the destruction wrought by the war: However, we continued to fight national wars and even the tribal ones, to establish purity and dominance of one kind over the others. And, even within our nations, we continued to battle to establish a 'true' identity though it was apparently not true because these needed to be established.

We have now come to a tipping point that these exclusionary ideas that dominated our thinking through the three hundred years of industrial expansion and western supremacy look less potent than ever. The idea of India is now open for debate, as it seemed that we have finally abrogated the founding concepts and started imagining anew. Geopolitical considerations are resulting in new alignments, and within them, lies both the possibility of a destructive conflict or a harmonious coexistence: Which path we choose is dependent on which values we are guided by. There has never been a better time to revisit the idea of Asia and that of tolerance, harmony and coexistence inherent into it.

Because this must start with education, the Indian educators should take up the project of thinking Asian, by revisiting those ideas of Asian values and cultures, reconnecting with greater Asia as well as imagining new identities based on harmony and connectedness. This is not about rejecting European ideas - in fact, this is an idea that rejects nothing - but about imagining a future by embracing diverse and being open to differences and possibilities. This is about not letting the past define the future, but rather recreating the future with a respect for the past and the nature that nurtures us. This is not about turning our back on human knowledge (as revivalists do) but rather finding our commonness in the heritage of human progress and civilisation. This is a lesson overlooked, and an invitation to rethink is long overdue.

 

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