The history of secular education in the subcontinent

We condemned colonial powers for inhuman treatment of populations that they ruled, for cultural and economic oppression: but how have post-colonial polities treated their own free citizens?

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When the British came (and they took almost 150 years before they had control over the entire subcontinent) the system of education was managed by local religious bodies and shrines. There was no state-managed education system. No state-run schools. There were schools managed by Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. And they taught the belief systems of their faiths, taught reading and writing (mostly Persian as it was the official language) beside mathematics, etc.

The British, just like the Romans before them, were fully cognizant of the “influence of language over national manners”. They, like Romans, inflexibly ensured in India the exclusive use of English language “in the administration of civil as well as military government”. After their conquest of Indian subcontinent, they put in place an entire system for embedding English language in India.

Read more: The Evolution of Civil Services in Pakistan

After 1857 Indians adopted the language of the conquerors at different rates. In those early days of formal subjugation, the differential in adoption rates could easily determine the future growth and prosperity of individuals, or otherwise. The early-adopters got preferred treatment as compared to non-enthusiastic “peasants”. Just like Europe, most of Indian aristocrats and businessmen quickly adopted the new language of power.

The Raj established schools and colleges to impart knowledge in English. British education was run across various faiths in India. So, by necessity it had to be “faith-neutral”. Hence, it was secular. Since education was a path to jobs, English education became a necessity. So, by compulsion those who wanted to be part of the public life had to follow the path of a secular education. It is no accident that most of the leadership of all communities in India were lawyers by training, because law provided the basis of rational arguments.

But it did not mean that the faith-based education had ceased to exist. It ran parallel to the secular system introduced by the Raj. Hindus had their R.S.S. which ran hundreds of schools to impart dogmatic education. Similarly, Muslims had their Deoband and Anjuman Himayat e Islam run schools. But since public life had no openings for faith-based educated people, they remained on the sidelines. Their opposition to the Congress and Muslim League, however, continued unabated.

The colonial and western system of education was condemned as it belittled, suppressed, and distorted real Indian history and culture

Nehru and his colleagues were educated in such colonial schools (or in the West itself). Whatever they had learnt during their liberal education in the West, they wanted to adopt and implement in India. From day one Nehru was clear that he and Congress were to step into shoes of the colonial state (which had kept India as a unit). Hence, in those days he and Congress at least espoused secularism as policy.

Even after creation of a separate Pakistan, whatever India was left was still hugely diverse. These western educated leaders of free India knew that non-factionalism was the only possible means to keep the residual-India knitted together. They knew that secularism was the only means of preventing giant and diverse sub-continent from further balkanization. Their adoption of secularism was result of colonial and western education of the Indian leadership, that did not come from faith-based education.

Read more: How Nehru was responsible for the partition of India

All political movements need money to spread their influence, to organize their cadres, and to strive for the achievement of their objectives. This was also true for those in pre-1947 India. While the membership paid their 2-annas of subscription to the party funds, it was the money from the seths and big landowners and chieftains that provided the oil to the political machines. Big business of the time supported Nehru and Gandhi. The prominent amongst the financiers were the business houses of Birla, Dalmia, and Tata. Congress machinery and its secularist policy became dominant due to their funding.

Seth Ghanshyam Das Birla (called G.D. Birla) was the most prominent financier of Congress as well the keeper of Gandhi. It was in his house in Delhi that the Mahatma was murdered. It is also ironic that while Gandhi preached against industrialization, he had no qualms in being the permanent “guest” of the biggest industrialist of India! Birla had interests in sugar industry, jute, cars, bicycles, chemicals, textiles, oil, insurance, banking, and many others. He was perhaps the biggest donor to Congress. But at the same time was providing finances to the R.S.S. for the building of Hindu temples across India, and carrying out its fascist activists. Like a shrewd business person he associated himself with the Congress, and let his elder brother support Hindu Mahasabha, the parent body of the R.S.S.

In Pakistan, since the final rallying call of the Muslim League was “Islam-in-danger” (incidentally no non-Muslim could become a member of the Muslim League till 1962) it was but natural for faith-based leaders to find a central role in public life

Seth Ram Krishna Dalmia was another mighty business magnate who had his hand in the political pie. Beside his other multifarious businesses, Dalmia also owned some of the most widely circulated newspapers in India, including The Times of India, and The Civil and Military Gazette, Lahore. Dalmia was close to Mr. Jinnah. His businesses in the areas that became Pakistan were badly hurt in the Partition. And the Congress couldn’t forget his association with the Muslim League. So, like all good businessmen, he switched his support to R.S.S.

After 1947, the faith-based education took time to find roots in the center of public life. But once the western educated founding fathers of India withered away, the religious identity became a point of rallying for fundamentalists. After seven centuries of Muslim empire (in most parts of India) and three centuries of British suzerainty (in whole of India), the post-independence Hindus gradually started to realize that destiny of India had at last come in their hands for the first time in more than a millennium.

The colonial and western system of education was condemned as it belittled, suppressed, and distorted real Indian history and culture. Hindu fundamentalists felt it was time to revive their true ancient culture and religion, long suppressed by other powers who ruled their land for a millennium.

Read more: Indo-Pak Partition; The Last Laugh of British Imperialism

Gradually faith-based educational system that was initially squeezed into the corners, started to gain ground and to produce a whole new generation. Also, it was easy to sway people who had remained on the sidelines of economic development to find solace in their faiths. This new generation educated in once peripheral faith-based systems, supported reversal of secularism and thus began growth of communitarianism and dogmatism in India.

There was slow resurgence of revivalist factions in political India also. The business elite of India also believed in such revivalism. More of the elite started to sponsor those political leaders who supported such bigotry and community-based identitariansim. Hence, there was slow decline of Congress and its politics (not that it was always free of factionalism) and the gradual rise of dogmatic BJP.

More big businesses now supported Modi and his bigoted policies. What we see now as the current support by big business to BJP, in fact is also the continuation of the support that it had enjoyed since long from some sections of the business elite, going back to Raj days. Hence, gradual decline of secularism that was once espoused by Indian leadership as a means of knitting the diverse sub-continent together.

Will the world forget shinning-India (tech-India) and in future only remember how elite of India took pride in drinking “exotic” animal products?

Unfortunately, we treaded on this route much earlier than India. We, in the land of the pious and the pure, travelled much faster on this dangerous course of sectarianism and obscurantism. In this race to the bottom we surely beat our neighbor by nearly half a century.

In Pakistan, since the final rallying call of the Muslim League was “Islam-in-danger” (incidentally no non-Muslim could become a member of the Muslim League till 1962) it was but natural for faith-based leaders to find a central role in public life. We jogged away from liberal western education towards our own mental caves of sectarianism produced by faith-based education system.

We did quick marches on this journey towards dogmatism under command of the queer-eyed one, who whole-heartedly sponsored mushroom growth of such dogmatic caves all over the country. These faith-based educational institutions proudly brought on world stage an entire generation whose only claim to fame was being best combatants for the cause of sectarianism with high level of ability to inflict misery on all others.

Read more: Is prejudice towards Muslims in India paving a way for a “Second Partition”?

India took longer time to follow this revivalist and factionalist road. May be because there was no one to make them do forced marches on this course, or may be because of their sheer size and magnitude, or because there was lesser foreign sponsorship of such reversionary systems of faith-based education and the dangerous politics that it breeds. But now that it has mobilized fully under Modi and is bent on following the route to caves of obscurantism, it has now surely caught up with us. With the current momentum it is surpassing us in self-destructive factionalism and identitarianism.

India used to proudly proclaim that it was world’s biggest secularist democracy and it stood against Pakistani style sectarianism and extremism. India has now descended to same depths it earlier used to condemn in Pakistan. It has become a most regressive and oppressive communal polity dominated by ethnonationalism; gone are even the old pretensions of secularism. India has reincarnated as center of frenzied and distorted identitarian discourse and politics. Today India is far worse than Pakistan ever was in its own nightmare times during the days of the queer-eyed one!

How will life in the future be in polities so parochial and so narrow: living with dead-surety about me being right and others being not only wrong but deserving not to live?

It is ironic that we have not allowed products of faith-based educational institutions to sit on the cabinet table or in commanders’ conferences or sit in robes and lord over us. Their role is still at most discreet project-based and they have no control directly over state apparatus.

India has gone the whole hog and handed over its nuclear button to those educated and inspired by such faith-based institutions! Modi and his Nazi-style teams are that first generation produced and inspired by the faith-based education system that mushroomed post-independence in India: they are fully home-grown products, completely unpolluted by western or colonial liberal faith-neutral education system.

Is this India’s gift to the world post freedom? Will the world forget shinning-India (tech-India) and in future only remember how elite of India took pride in drinking “exotic” animal products? All cave dwellers do queer things (and we have our own host of idiosyncrasies) but one thing is sure: the world is seen black and white from caves and only those deserve to live who are with the cavemen: others do not matter and deserve no life! The dangerous loss of humanity produced by such dogmatic and narrow world-view was thus described by the Bard (any minority may be addressing this today to Modi or to the other cavemen across the frontiers on both sides):

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” [Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice]

Read more: Op-ed: Fake news, economic disappointment drive people towards ‘saviors’

One wonders, if we both neighbors continue, on our trajectories, what will happen? Another population exodus from India? It is reported that some form of population transfer is already underway in Kashmir. Could it lead to more exodus towards other more firmer borders if Hindus want to make India another Spain for Muslims of India? Could such exodus create strategic excuses for even more drastic and more kinetic actions, and prompt the products of faith-based educational system to find some sort of “final solution”?

We condemned colonial powers for inhuman treatment of populations that they ruled, for cultural and economic oppression: but how have post-colonial polities treated their own free citizens? Should we now continue to blame divide-and-rule policies of the colonial state? Is this what our faith-based education systems post-independence have to show the whole wide world: two large populations, each armed to teeth, cursing their neighbours, and waiting to tear each other apart? How will life in the future be in polities so parochial and so narrow: living with dead-surety about me being right and others being not only wrong but deserving not to live?

Read more: ‘Kattar Hindu Ekta’: Persecution of Muslims has defaced ugly face of secular India

Is it that we had a “drift”, an “interlude”, during the Raj toward faith-neutral education and politics not centered on sects or communalism, but we now, on both sides of the border, have taken off that imposed yoke, and we are both going back to the beginning and planning to create more horrible futures for each other through faith-based dogmatic education systems? Are we going back to the future?

Asim Imdad Ali is currently a partner in an Islamabad-based law firm. He earlier served in Central Superior Services, at positions of increasing responsibility, in its prestigious DMG group (1992-2006), and later served as Head of legal and regulatory affairs in a major multinational company. He is LLB (gold) from Punjab University, LLM from Kings College London, and did Masters in Public Administration at Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University where he was an Edward S Mason Fellow. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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