Education under Modi: Coercive exclusion of books, films, clothes, cultural activities perceived as inimical to 'faith'

Karen Gabriel
By Karen Gabriel and P K Vijayan*Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been reported as having stated, in an interview to Time magazine, that 'You don't need dictatorship in India, democracy is in our DNA'. Modi says, 'It is not just as per our Constitution that we are a democratic country, it is in our DNA.... I firmly believe that for us, democracy and belief in democratic values are a matter of faith.'
He apparently also goes on to remark that acceptance of all religions was 'in our blood':
“All religions and all communities have the same rights and it is my responsibility to ensure their complete and total protection. My Government will not tolerate or accept any discrimination based on caste, creed and religion. So there is no place for imaginary apprehensions with regards to the rights of the minorities in India” (Indian Express, 8 May 2015).
What stands out in these observations is the use of the word 'faith'. This term has two broad referential fields: one, in which it means complete confidence in a person, power, institution, programme, etc; two, in which it means the institution or programme itself (but interestingly, not a power or a person - a point on which we shall say more shortly).
In the first sense, it refers to a subjective disposition in an individual with regard to something external, while in the second it denotes an objective entity - the external thing itself, in which the individual reposes faith. Thus, one can have faith in Jesus, Allah or Bhagwan, but these figures cannot themselves be referred to as faiths - unlike Christianity, Islam or Hinduism.
The transference through which the former (faith experienced as subjective disposition) becomes the latter (faith as referring to an institution or programme), suggests, firstly, that the latter is the collective manifestation of the former - i.e., faith as referring to a subjective disposition is manifested in practices that come to be regularized and institutionalized as they become collectively performed - perhaps in the very process of becoming a collective performance.
The individual manifestation of faith in the individual's performance of it - e.g., prayers, rituals, the maintenance of specific schedules of celebration and/or mourning, the observance of specific rules and regulations integral to the philosophy, cosmology, and theology of that particular faith - are not decided by the individual but by the collective - i.e., by the 'faith'.
This in turn suggests - and this is the second point - that what appears to be a transference from individual to collective (or the objective, collective manifestation of the disposition experienced by the individual subjectively), is in fact the other way around: it is the inculcation of faith as confidence in a person, power, institution, programme, etc., through the individual subject's participation in the performances of that disposition as prescribed by the 'faith'.
In other words, it is only when the individual participates in the performances of the faith thats/he can make possible the subjective experience of it. Thus, the external institution of 'faith' is not the 'objective correlative', so to speak, of the internal experience of 'faith'; rather, the latter functions more like the subjective correlative, so to speak, of the former.
Modi may or may not have been fully aware of these nuances of the term 'faith’, when he made the observations noted above. But the reference to democracy being in the DNA, because it is a 'matter of faith' for instance, suggests his awareness of the subjective disposition that the term refers to; while his reference to the Constitution clearly denotes his awareness of such an entity, as an objective guarantor of democracy.
But the crucial point here is that he makes no reference to the possibility of 'faith' in the latter - indeed, the latter is regarded as secondary to the real guarantor of democracy, which is the 'faith in democracy' that is in 'our DNA', in our subjective disposition. In other words, the Constitution is not the objective correlative of our 'faith in democracy' - it is not, in fact, the institutionalized version of the 'faith in democracy' (that is in 'our DNA'), that one might expect it to be.
So, what then is the 'actual' objective correlative of this putative 'faith in democracy' that is in 'our DNA', and where is it to be found? To put it more precisely, what is the institutional 'faith', of which our 'faith in democracy' is the putative subjective correlative, if it is not the Constitution? In order to answer this question, we need to first address another question that, elephant-like, is waiting patiently in the middle of the room: why, in the first place, has 'democracy and belief in democratic values' become 'a matter of faith' - indeed, when and how, too?
To answer the 'when' question first, it would be fair to say that the transformation of 'democracy' into 'a matter of faith' began with the permeation of the discourses of 'faith' into those of democracy - in other words, with the growth of the discourses of Hindu communalism and Hindu nationalism within the rituals, protocols and practices of democracy, the foremost of which being the elections to the legislative assemblies.
This began when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) first became politically powerful at the Centre, in the late 1980s, grew through the nineties and then came to power to form a government for the first time in 1998. It is around this time that the discourse of 'faith' as a politically central discourse also became evident – in, for instance, the remark by Ashok Singhal, leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) that, 'The birthplace of Lord Ram is a matter of faith and it cannot be determined in a court of law.'
This is echoed almost verbatim about a decade later by Praveen Togadia, also a VHP leader: 'The Ram temple is not a legal or archaeological dispute - it is a matter of faith with Hindus.' Modi's observation, a little more than another decade later, has uncanny echoes of both his predecessors. The similarities are significant: all three observations downplay the primacy of the law and the Constitution, in the face of 'faith'.
All three indicate the way in which the language and claims of 'faith' have leached into the polity, so persistently and thoroughly that, by the time we come to the third decade of Hindu nationalist presence in the political space, we find that the language of 'faith' has - like some malevolent spirit - possessed and now inhabits the language of democracy.
This answers the 'how' question'. The answer to the 'why' question, however, lies in the difference between Modi's comment and the first two - a crucial one: what is at stake with Modi is not the existence of a particular temple - the alleged Ram mandir at Ayodhya - but democracy itself, and in that sense, the nation itself. For Modi, it is not just a historical or religious monument that must be comprehended through faith, but the nation itself.
But the contours of the Indian nation, as it exists now, are determined substantially by and through the comprehension of it as a democracy - hence the need to articulate democracy itself in the language of faith. This rather extended discussion of the nature of faith and its relation to democracy, is by way of a preamble to understanding how important the field of education is to the Hindu nationalist agenda in general, and to Modi's agendas in particular.
In order to render 'democracy' a matter of 'faith', it is first necessary to overcome, or at least reconcile, the somewhat contradictory, even conflicting, meanings the terms have in relation to each other. Arguably, all contemporary understandings of 'democracy' have evolved out of the history of secularization that characterized the formation of nation-states in Europe - understandings that were then to spread, largely through European imperialism and colonialism, to the rest of the world.
However, the concomitant process of secularization has not always obtained in the colonies, and in regions that were not colonized, many of which retained the power of their religious institutions in the formation of the state (many of the Middle- Eastern states, for instance). One could even argue that, apart from dictatorships, the two most prevalent state forms of the contemporary world have been democracies and theocracies: however multifariously each may be understood, they have emerged as - almost always - mutually contradictory: it seems that there cannot be a such a thing as a theocratic democracy.
But it is this mythical beast that the Modi government appears to want to incarnate. And central to the realization of this agenda is the education system. The education system is vital for this process, because it is through the education system that the meanings of democracy can be changed.
Just as every faith, in its institutionalized form, works by inculcating its philosophical, theological and cosmological perspectives into its subjects, specifically through the rituals and practices that it prescribes and proscribes, the nation-state too requires its subjects to believe in it, through participation in the rituals and practices that are its manifestations in the everyday. The education system is a crucial domain for the inculcation of such rituals and practices of the nation.
The conception of the nation determines the kind of education into it, that is imparted through the education system - and in generally secular polities, the emphasis in the education system is more on inculcating - or interpellating, as Althusser would have it -the subject as citizen, than on the subject as nationalist. This was the politics that obtained till the last decade of the twentieth century; indeed, the term 'saffronization' gained traction in public discourse only around the turn of the century, perhaps when the process it refers to began to become evident.
That is, as the nationalist politics of Hindutva began to gain ground, the education system too began to come under pressure to interpellate the subject as nationalist, rather than as secular citizen - hence the initiation of all the processes of saffronization. However, till the last general elections, the education field remained a highly contested terrain: although the NDA regime had managed to bring in some changes, these were mainly by way of appointing Hindutva ideologues and fellow-travelers in some key institutions of higher education and research.
The difference, since the last elections when Modi became Prime Minister, is that now there are no recalcitrant alliance partners to worry about. Because the BJP has enough parliamentary seats to survive on its own if necessary, there has been a sudden upsurge in saffronization activities - in both quantum and variety. The removal of Parvin Sinclair as head of the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), on specious and unsubstantiated charges of financial mismanagement, even before Modi took office, marked the beginning of this much more intensive round of saffronization.
A key figure in this entire process - indeed, beginning with the removal of Sinclair - is Dinanath Batra - a retired school teacher, and founder of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti and the Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas. Batra, through almost his entire professional career and after, has been devoted to the saffronization agenda. Batra and his organizations have come into their own since Modi came to power.
They have not confined themselves to ensuring the change of key administrative heads in institutions of learning and research: they have insistently, steadily and with increasing success, pushed for
(a) the complete overhaul of curricula and syllabi, from primary schools to universities, to reflect a more explicitly 'Hindu' worldview - which not only includes the purveying of ridiculous claims as historical truths, but the denial of actual historical facts as false and motivated;
(b) the introduction of passages from Hindu religious and quasi-religious texts like the Ramayan and the Mahabharat as compulsory reading in moral education;
(c) the demand to ban any academic material, at any level, that is perceived to be anti-Hindu and/or anti-national;
(d) the introduction of practices like Saraswati puja and Surya namaskar as compulsory rituals in schools;
(e) the enforcement of Sanskrit learning and the removal of English as a medium of education.
Apart from these initiatives, saffronization is also being pursued by other Hindu-right outfits (like the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, for instance) in other ways, as for example, through opposing alleged love-jihad' programmes on school and college campuses; through banning, censoring and otherwise regulating cultural activities that they object to on campuses; the regulation of dress codes on campus; and the mobilization of public opinion against perceived slights to the Hindu community.
There are also other methods and agents of saffronization that are at work, as for instance the strong-arm methods of the VHP in attacking Christian schools, or harassing its administrators; or in the pressure put by school administrators on students and parents to conform to Hindutva perceptions and agendas.
There are several points that emerge out of the pattern of these methods and strategies employed by the Hindu right: firstly, in the emphasis on introducing Hindu texts in the guise of 'moral education', the framework of the new morality is explicitly rooted in a 'faith', and articulated in a lexicon of 'value education' rather than in any putative trans-religious notion of 'conscience' (as was the case in more secular times).
Thus, the following passage may be found in the University Education Commission (1948-1949) Report (also known as the Radhakrishnan Commission Report):
“The fundamental principles of our constitution call for spiritual training. There is no State religion. The State must not be partial to any one religion.... Each one is at liberty to approach the unseen as it suits this capacity and inclination.... The individual is a soul and the purpose of education is to awaken the pupil to this fact, enable him to find the spirit within and mould his life and action in the light and power of the inner spirit” (Radhakrishana Commission, 1963 [1948]: 261-2).
In contrast, the very 'Preface' to the CBSE's 2012 handbook on value education has the following passage: 
“India is a land of diversity - social, cultural, religious, racial, linguistic and geographical. The main hallmark of this nation is unity which absorbs all the diversities. A common values system helps to create an identity that bonds people together. We have since time immemorial emphasized on traditional values like spirituality, strong family ties, deference to elders, recourse to nature, artistic expression, respecting even the tools of one's trade, joyousness, hospitality and peaceful co-existence epitomised in Vasudev Kutumbakam (a Sanskrit phrase that means that the whole world isonesinglefamily)” (CBSE2012: v).
While there is nothing overtly religious in these remarks, the invocation of themes like national unity, traditional values, and of course, the idea of 'Vasudev Kutumbakam', are all indicative of an externalization of the moral framework into the discursive trends of one dominant 'faith', viz. 'Hinduism': the injunctions of this 'value education' are then not assessed and applied by the individual subject, in response to his/her conscience, but by the 'faith' and its agents and institutions. What is particularly significant - and deeply disturbing - about this change is that, because of the externalization, this 'value education' framework also becomes particularly susceptible to physical enforcement from outside, as it were.
Secondly, this process is also bolstered by changing the syllabi and curricula, to bring in the alternative 'histories' written by the Hindu-right, so that the individual in the education system ceases to identify himself or herself as a citizen in relation to a state, but rather as the subject of a community, to which s/he is always subordinate -which precedes and succeeds the subject -and, in a Hindu-right governed country, for all practical purposes, is therefore the State.
That is, the overhauling of curricula and syllabi will ensure that the 'values' imbibed in 'value education' find their affirmation, not just in the community's enforcement of them, but in the narratives and concepts that are constructed as the knowledges of them, and that in turn are ratified as the official discourse of the nation by the State. The subject of the new education policies is thus constantly reassured that s/he is integrally part of a collective that is defined by the values of the 'faith', and that in turn is - or promises to become - synchronous with the State that the subject is a citizen of.
Thirdly, this in turn is reinforced in the introduction of rituals and practices like Surya Namaskar and Saraswati puja. Such practices aim to inculcate the sense of the community of the 'faith', not just ideationally, in the comprehension of its values and histories, but somatically and corporeally, in inducing the subject to participate actively in the performance of the community - indeed, to become the community through the performance of it. This in turn is reinforced through the coercive exclusion of certain kinds of books, films, clothes, cultural activities, etc. that are perceived as inimical to the 'faith'.
While there is no doubt that the morality of 'conscience' is as much of an ideological effect as the morality of 'faith', the latter is rigorously enforced from the outside, while the former remains dependent on the extent to which the ideological effect 'takes' in the individual subject, for it in turn to be effective - a discussion for another paper. With these coercive measures no doubt serving to intimidate not only those thus excluded, but also those sought to be included.
In sum, the saffronization agenda consists of several strategies that are a combination of coercion and inculcation; these are the constituent - if unacknowledged - elements of the new education policy that is coming into place under the Modi regime. The new dispensation however, has several crucial issues to deal with. A major factor here is that, although the Modi government ostensibly came in with full majority, it actually had only about 30% of the vote share.
This means that the vast majority of the country actually voted against Modi and his party. Arguably, even amongst the supporters of Hindutva and Moditva, there is probably no consensus on the extent to which the 'faith' can be taken for granted among the 30% that did vote for the BJP; there is therefore a desperate need to consolidate this constituency.
In the case of the remaining 70%, that did not vote for the BJP and Modi, there is clearly an equally desperate need to convert them to the 'faith' (and the 'ghar vapsi' programme was very much a part of this agenda). This is the constituency that will be targeted by the saffronization agenda. An important aspect of this process is that, with full majority, the Modi government is now increasingly able to bring changes at the policy and decision making levels. 
Regardless of any possible resistance to them at the ground level then, these policies can be enforced top-down, under law, thereby facilitating the process of inculcation once they are in place at the ground level. Yet, given the sheer scale of implementation involved, it is clear that coercion alone is unlikely to work. Rather, an incremental balance of coercion and cooption is what is required - and the evidence of the first year of the Modi regime suggests that such an investment-banking approach is exactly what is being undertaken.
This is a vital investment against another possible development: Modi and the BJP arguably came to power by peddling dreams of 'development', many of them so unrealistic that, one year down the line, there is a discernible growth in bitterness at the failure of these dreams, and a concomitant fall in the euphoria with which they swept to power. It has already become clear that, although Modi and the BJP may have come to power on the 'development' plank, there is noway in which it can sustain.
The agenda then is not so much to defend the failure of this plank, but to utilize the opportunity given by the first- past-the-post electoral system, to sow, spread and cultivate an ideological field that can serve as the basis for future electoral campaigns - campaigns that would not then need the fig-leaf of 'development', but would proudly announce, 'Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain!' and have a resonance across the country.
Article from this book
In this sense, the biggest hurdle for the Modi government is that the particular understanding of 'democracy' that it wants to purvey - as referred to above - is not, in fact, as yet in the DNA of the nation (much as he would like to believe it is). It still needs to be inculcated. Which means that there is still hope for a more genuine understanding of 'democracy' to be pressed into contestation - as indeed, it must be, without delay.