The current paradigm in Higher Education thinking is defined by three factors, the requirement of employable graduates, the need for an educated technocracy and the role of the State as the protector of public interests and keeper of standards. While the words used in the current discourse may be more specific - skills, for example, is the buzzword - I used the generic words to illustrate how little the discussion has really changed in the last 150 years or so. The point of the education system imposed by the Colonial Administration in India in the mid-nineteenth century was to create a class of natives who will be able to fill the administrative ranks, help the English run their far-flung empire by taking up overseas positions while allowing the colonial administration define the curriculum and methods of learning. Indian independence may have changed the ruling class, but the thinking, famously articulated for setting up the IITs in 1950s, was to create an elite class to lead an Indian economy whose commanding heights were taken up by the Government and Public Sector enterprises. The framework, state controlling all aspects of higher education, an education designed primarily for public services with elite institutions at the apex, tasked with creation of an elite technocracy.
One would wonder why the agenda of Higher Education never included the imperative to create a democratic society. While the Founding Fathers of Indian Republic, and particularly Nehru, were committed democrats, they helped form a patriarchal state where democracy was imposed from above. Consequently, Indian democracy became as good as its leaders, saved from extinction by the chaotic checks-and-balances of complex system and the coalition of interests imposing a collective lethargy to try anything new. Unlike the United States, where Higher Education for democracy became a stated agenda, and even more so after the abolition of slavery and the Civil War, it rarely featured in the discussion about Indian Higher Education.
Sixty years into the experimentation, Indian democracy is seriously endangered. This is not just because of the ascendancy of Hindu nationalism, which is a definite threat, but also because the coalition of interests of the middle classes is now more clearly defined than ever. This is the sort of coalition one needs to change political systems - or start a civil war - and such convergence of interest, based on material well-being at the expense of everything else, India lacked for a long time. Somewhere around 2010, there was a tipping point when Indians in general started losing pride in their democracy and wanted to become more like China, perhaps due to the failure of its government. Often, lack of sympathy, order and community engagement of Indian middle class surprise an observer. And, pure technocracy shows its limits in the businesses like Information Technology, where lack of capable leaders and imaginative professionals often limit how far these businesses could compete.
In a way, the unique challenges of Indian Democracy can indeed be the key questions for Indian Education. How do you make a vastly poor country proud of itself? How do you integrate a people with a multitude of language, faiths and caste affiliations into one modern identity? How does one preserve values which the people are comfortable with, but discard the superstition? Can one be proud of his heritage but be open to absorb the knowledge of the world? Would it be possible to transcend the traditional hierarchies and cultivate respect for other human beings? Can the traditional values of sitting still and exploring the inner self (which, by the way, all traditional societies, including the Europeans, shared) be superseded by an urge to see and understand the world?
And, besides these, there is the question of the State. It is easy to notice how Indians blame democracy for the failure of the state, and as a remedy, want to embrace greater statism like China. The limits of Indian democracy is really its dependence on the State. Instead of being one of the people, the Indian Republic, as conceived, was to be facilitated by technocrats. At the core, despite all the democratic instincts of the founders, this was anti-democratic. They may have followed this route being averse to chaos, and impressed by the orderliness of the Colonial Civil Service (which they maintained), but it was chaos in the end, and not orderliness, that saves the Indian democracy. The limits of such dependency on the state are fully exposed now, as Indians are painfully aware of various scandals and corruption that afflict the state sector. And, yet, the state is seen as the keeper of the standards - the only one in a society which refused to participate in its own well-being!
The history of every society has a definite breaking point, often painful for the contemporaries but a decisive turning point for those who follow, one which usually become visible with the passing of time. It would always be a speculation to say when that moment arrives. But we know one thing about these moments, that it is either brought on imaginatively or unleashed unsuspectingly - and its outcome, which is invariably painful but also full of promises, always depends on the intentionality of this change. Thereon rests the case of thinking afresh about Indian education, and indeed re-imagination of Indian democracy.