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Krishna Kumar's Gandhian tips on education in Ahmedabad, a communally divided city

By Rajiv Shah
A few days back, when I met Prof Krishna Kumar in Ahmedabad, a prominent scholar on education, whom I have considered over the last two decades more as the main brain behind Prof Yash Pal’s well-known report "Learning without Burden" (1993), I just couldn’t resist recalling my interactions with him as a BA (honours) English student in Kirori Mal College in Delhi. Prof Kumar was in Ahmedabad to deliver a lecture on why our education system was failing to succeed. It was an Umashakar Joshi memorial lecture.
All that I knew of Umashankar Joshi was, he was a prominent Gujarati poet and that he was vice chancellor of the Gujarat University, but had a very vague idea that he was also a keen observer of education, too. Before Prof Kumar began his address, Svati Joshi, who had organized the lecture, told the Ahmedabad Management Association audience, that as a budding poet, during his youth, Umashankar Joshi organized protests in the city against making higher education the exclusive forte of Ahmedabad's mill owners. He was, in fact, a strong protagonist of public education.
In early 1970s, Krishna Kumar, still not a professor, was officially my tutorial teacher in the college. Those were the days when I began keenly participating in political activities, and was associated with the CPI-M's student wing, Students’ Federation of India (SFI). So involved was I that I would skip classes, because I seriously believed a revolution was round the corner, and the CPI-M-led dictatorship of the proletariat would rule the country soon! So what was the point in attending classes, studying literature of our former colonial rulers?
I wouldn’t attend classes, but for some strange reason, enjoyed interacting with Krishna Kumar. Then a die-leftist, I recall, I asked him what he thought Marx's view that religion was the opium of the masses. Prompt came his answer, which left a lasting impact on me: “Gandhi didn't utter anything different. He put it in very simple words, which everyone could understand: That to the hungry God is bread.”
He would also tell me why Premchand’s Hindi short stories should enjoy the same status in the literary world as those of Anton Chekhov; and that Gujarat’s Gandhian pedagogue Gijubhai Badheka’s experiments in teaching children in Bhavnagar were comparable to any of the top ones in the world, including Russia’s Anton Makarenko.
As part of my course, I was supposed to write tutorials, which I would, telling him frankly, I wasn’t sure of my language. He would go through every word, make very few corrections and return the tutorials for my perusal. “You write perfectly well. Only, make shorter sentences”, he would tell me persuasively. This was for the first time that I found someone pushing me to write.
My SFI days collapsed with the collapse of SFI in Delhi University. It was vertically split after a section decided to support an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad candidate in the Delhi University Students Union elections. As an MA student, though Krishna Kumar wasn’t my tutorial teacher any more, I kept taking his guidance, “unofficially” taking up assignments, like earlier. He gladly volunteered, which even today surprises me.
Gandhi's views on equality and justice had much in common with the French revolution slogans Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
I once told him my Hindi perhaps was better than English. So, he asked me to try my hand in Hindi. I remember having read a Hindi novel, and he asked me write a critique. I wrote, and to my utter surprise, he forwarded it to the weekly “Dinman”. Though it wasn’t published, Krishna Kumar – who would regularly contribute to “Dinman” and would also write short stories in Hindi focusing on children – told me, “You have written it very well. I had recommended it. But they have priorities. Perhaps they found you strongly critical. Doesn’t matter. You have done a good job.”
I almost lost touch of Krishna Kumar for nearly four long decades, during which period he went to Canada for higher studies, and served as head of the Central Institute of Education, Delhi University, and of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). I finally met him in Ahmedabad on December 7, 2019, where he gave a talk on “Shiksha safal kyon nahi hoti?” (Why education doesn’t succeed?), seeking to look at India’s education system in the context of Gandhian values, which, he believed, are based on four basic tenets: Equality, justice, truth and non-violence.
Talking of Gandhi and his thoughts in Ahmedabad, Mahatma Gandhi’s karmabhoomi after he returned from South Africa, was somewhat puzzling, Prof Kumar began. I don’t know how others in the audience reacted, but to me, it was necessary to remind people in Ahmedabad, a deeply divided city along communal lines, what Gandhi and his “ism” actually stood for. I immediately recalled a three article series I wrote in the Times of India in mid-1990s on what do those who consider themselves Gandhians think of Gandhi and his ism.
I visited Gujarat Vidyapeeth, the university founded by the Mahatma. It was shocking a experience. Gandhi had been reduced to a ritual. Ramlal Parikh then ruled the roost there, while Morarji Desai was its life-time chancellor. Entering his cabin, I found Parikh sitting on a comfortable khadi gadda. I straight went to questions: “What do you think, what does Gandhism mean to you?” Parikh explained, it meant non-violence in daily life, vegetarianism, and all that. “It keeps your body clean and pure”, he explained, giving certain “Gandhian” medical tips to me to keep myself healthy.
Recalling the communal flareup in the wake of the Babri outrage in December 1992, I asked the Vidyapeeth chief: “I see lot of violence in society here. There is a deep Hindu-Muslim divide. What do you have to say?” Parikh replied, “That’s a law-and-order problem. The government has to deal with it.” And what was the duty of those who ran an institute founded by the Mahatma, who the epitome of communal amity? He answered, “Gujarat Vidyapeeth can’t do anything about it.”
While Amrut Modi, who headed the Gandhi Ashram, didn’t differ much from Parikh, other Gandhians whom I met focused on Gandhi’s ideas of alternative sources of energy, village self-sufficiency, khadi and cleanliness – the latest fad of the current powers that be. None recalled that Gandhi had called manual scavenging a national shame.
Issues related with non-violence in public life, casteism or communalism, as if, didn’t exist in the Mahatma’s vocabulary. There were, of course, exceptions, but these were hardly in between. Not without reason, during the 2002 communal violence, the worst since Gujarat was formed in 1960, almost no Gandhians were traceable.
Gijubhai Badheka
The situation over the years, frankly, appears to have worsened. The 2002 Gujarat riots have deeply communalized the middle classes. Against this background, it was refreshing to listen to Prof Kumar, who said, education and politics cannot be seen separately. He kicked off by stating that Gandhi was greatly influenced by John Ruskin’s “Unto This Last”, which quotes a Bible story of labourers called to work by the owner of a vineyard. Summoned in a group of three, each after the lapse of an interval, the "last" eleventh hour group was paid the same amount as the first group, which had worked for the whole day.
The workers who had come in first protested as to why they were being paid the same as the eleventh hour ones, though they had worked for the whole day. The vineyard owner took refuge in the contract with them, stating, they had no right to grumble. The Bible leaves the parable here, said Prof Kumar, pointing out how Rukin picked up the story to provide a contemporary interpretation, looking at its socio-economic implications, discussing issues issues of equality and justice.
Noting that, ever since, the struggle for equality and justice were central to the Gandhi vision, Prof Kumar gave the example of how the powerful Indian elite during the British rule stood against equal opportunity to children. Thus, in 1911, Gopal Krishna Gokhale brought in a proposal in the Imperial Legislative Council that all boys should be provided with free education. “It didn’t talk of girls, yet it was radical. A princely ruler opposed it, saying, if all go to school, who would work for him? The proposal didn't succeed”, Prof Kumar said.
“This contradiction remains alive even today. The struggle for justice in education continues”, Prof Kumar continued, adding, “Justice eludes lower castes, women… About 40% of women are married away before they are 18. While education has failed to create a culture that overcomes these inequalities, women are fighting their battle alone, they are in an Abhimanyu type situation. The condition is equally bad rural areas, where unequal opportunities in education force those who acquire degrees to move out of villages.”
Pointing out that Gandhi's views on equality and justice had much in common with the French revolution slogans “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, Prof Kumar said, it was because of the Gandhi framework, which espoused caste equality, that the ideas of equality and justice became central of India's Constitution. He named Dr BR Ambedkar and Jyotiba Phule, whose ideas, he said, also went a long way to solidify these ideas of the Constitution.
Turning to Gandhi's truth and non-violence, especially the latter, that Prof Kumar said, what the Gandhi vision of non-violence did was to overcome the fear that existed among the people because of the cruelty inflicted upon them by the British. 
Turning towards how violence plays a central part from the very early childhood, he said, it could be seen in the manner in which parents seek to suppress the child questioning them. Reflecting on the importance of Gujarati pedagogue Gijubhai Badheka in this context, he said, violence plays a role in schools and colleges, where children are not allowed to think independently, and autonomy is suppressed.

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