Nationalist Education, Gandhi and the Nai Taleem

There seems to be a revival of nationalist education in the country, but this one is quite different from the one proposed by the architects of our nation

Before the advent of the British Raj, there existed a sound system of education¬†in India¬†about which very little¬†came to be¬†known and appreciated, until 1983, when¬†Dharampal¬†conducted in-depth research and wrote ‚ÄėThe Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century‚Äô.¬†Before that, in¬†the 19th¬†century,¬†reformists like¬†Rajaram Mohan Roy¬†and his predecessors¬†pushed for English education¬†as a way¬†to bring enlightenment. They were¬†influenced¬†by the Macaulay system of education that intended¬†to¬†replace the indigenous systems¬†in¬†the country. But a¬†conflict remained.¬†As the Report of the University Education Committee¬†(1949)¬†chaired by¬†Dr.¬†S. Radhakrishnan noted,¬†two contradictory impulses had¬†attracted¬†Indian intellectuals¬†to the question of education¬†at the time¬†‚Äst¬†one was a jealous¬†desire to profit by the example of the West;¬†the other was the no-less jealous¬†pride in Indian genius and tradition wholly distinct from those of the West.¬†The reformers behind these institutions intended to inculcate nationalist feelings in the populace and reclaim indigenous culture.¬†

 Thus, two types of nationalist institutions were founded. The first type was provided financial support from the government, such as Aligarh Muslim College, New Era English School (Poona), and D.A.V. College (Lahore), and the second was independent of government support, like College of Engineering and Technology at Jadavpur (Calcutta), Santiniketan (Calcutta), Prem Vidyalaya (Vrundavan), and Gurukul Kangri (Haridwar).  

For Gandhi education was both, a political weapon, and an instrument to build the society of his vision. His tryst with education began when he had to educate his two sons and a nephew in South Africa. He took upon educating them at home, in their mother tongue. Later, he experimented this system in Phoenix Ashram and Tolstoy Farm with the children of inmates. Agriculture, horticulture, working on a printing press, carpentry and leather work were some of the vocations which had become an integral part of his education system. In 1909 he wrote his treatise, Hind Swaraj, where he stated that the real goal of education was to build persons of character. After returning to India he became acutely aware about what the Macaulay system of education was doing. On various occasions he pointed out in public that the students in the prevalent education system aimed at government services; that the boys abandoned their hereditary occupations, and forsook their mother tongue.  

Gandhi wanted to introduce an education system that would draw from the past system in India so that the Indian youth became equipped to lead simple and noble lives where everyone contributed to production through hand skills. Agriculture and clothing were priority areas for him in which each child and youth had to be trained and educated. By introducing a new education system he also aimed to prepare youth for fighting for Swaraj. His experiments began earnestly in Sabarmati Ashram from June 1917 onwards. On 20 October 1917, Gandhi read his Presidential address in the Second Gujarat Educational Conference held at Broach (now Bharuch). He argued cogently and at length for the common mother tongue, Hindustani, to be constituted as the national language, and for building character and education through skill development in agriculture, cloth making and crafts. He also added music and physical training as must in the curricula. He concluded by saying that in education lay the key to Swaraj. Swaraj for him was political freedom for the country and also education for self-control or regulation. It would lead to Gram Swaraj which implied decentralised polity, economy, social equality and harmony beginning at village level. Thus he was very clear from the beginning that education for him was a political instrument to bring change via non-cooperation and running nationalist educational institutions. His philosophy of education was to educate heart, hand and head, and in that order, to build a non-violent and harmonious society based on the quest for Truth.   

In the Belgaum session of Congress in 1924 a resolution relating to nationalist educational institutions was passed. Any educational institution that did not teach in an Indian language; did not encourage communal harmony and removal of untouchability; did not have regular courses in carding, spinning, physical exercise, and self-defence training; students above twelve and teachers did not spin at least half an hour every day, and did not wear Khadi, was not to be qualified as nationalist. Until 1947, the nationalist institutions followed the Belgaum resolution in spirit. However, after India gained freedom, Gurukul Kangri, Jamia Millia Islamia, Viswa Bharati University, Bihar Vidyapith and to a large extent Gujarat Vidyapith joined the mainstream system. A visit to the websites of these institutions would reveal this. Gujarat Vidyapith has been able to retain some features of a nationalist institution following Gandhi’s thought even today, but that is too little, and in a way, only symbolic.   

It took years for Gandhi after founding the Gujarat Vidyapith to formulate his ideas on education and introduce it to the nation. In 1937 in a national conference on Education held in Bajaj’s Marwari School at Wardha he introduced his scheme: 

  • The focus of the nationalist educationists should be on primary education. The secondary and college level education would also be solved sequentially. 
  • The emphasis was not on the occupations, but on education through manual training. 
  • The remedy lay in imparting the art and science of a craft through practical training, thereby imparting education. Correlation ‚Äď anubandh ‚Äď was the key. Teaching of takli-spinning, for instance, presupposed imparting of knowledge of various varieties of cotton, different soils in different provinces of India, the history of the ruin of the handicraft, its political reasons which would include the history of the British rule in India, knowledge of arithmetic, and so on.  
  • Self-supporting schools would be a test of its efficiency. The children ought to, at the end of seven years, be able to pay for their instruction and be earning units. 

Gandhi‚Äôs idea of¬†education was¬†named as¬†Nai¬†or¬†Buniyadi¬†Taleem¬†‚Äď new or basic education.¬†¬†¬†

Well-known education scholar Krishna Kumar has aptly said that it would be wrong to interpret Gandhi’s response to colonial education as some kind of xenophobia. It would be equally wrong to see it as a symptom of a subtle revivalist dogma. Gandhi’s thought about making crafts and production an integral part of education was also to bring social revolution. The crafts were done by low castes and it was anathema to the upper caste people to get into it. It was productive hand work that stood against mindless mechanisation in the era of modernity and industrial revolution. Further, Gandhi’s text of basic education was not a fad or a stand-alone it was well in the tradition of radical thinkers on education such as Robert Owen, Leo Tolstoy and John Dewey.  

The Hindustani¬†Talimi¬†Sangh,¬†formed after the 1937 Wardha Convention,¬†had revised the syllabus for grades¬†I¬†to¬†V¬†in 1947,¬†after Independence. In Gandhi‚Äôs thought perspective¬†Nai¬†Taleem¬†was¬†a¬†philosophy and pedagogy to move towards¬†the vision of building¬†a¬†largely rural and self-reliant,¬†non-violent¬†society. The nationalist fervour,¬†which for most meant getting India free of¬†the¬†British,¬†ebbed with¬†the¬†country‚Äôs freedom in 1947. Nehru disagreed with Gandhi‚Äôs vision of¬†the¬†new India. He was for modernising the country with industrialisation and urbanisation. The values and tenets for nationalism changed and the idea of¬†the¬†modern nation state¬†started¬†evolving. Even the Radhakrishnan Committee had apprehensions about¬†Nai¬†Taleem. It saw two dangers.¬†One was that it would become conventional, worldly and self-seeking, losing its strong consecration to fundamental human needs and values. The other danger was that it would fix as a rigid orthodoxy the position Gandhi¬†took under the particular circumstances of his time, and would not grow and progress in his spirit of “experimenting with truth”.¬†¬†

Thus, in free India, the education system introduced by the British was continued as an instrument to build a modern nation and Nai Taleem lost its place even as pedagogy. Today, after seventy years, India is faced with serious crisis in education. The primary school education is unable to equip the children with the three Rs ‚Äď read, write and arithematic. Secondary and higher education is largely incapable of skilling the learners to make them employable in modern industries.  

Efforts are being made by the government¬†to skill the youth outside the formal education system.¬†The¬†‚ÄėSkill India‚Äô programme has yielded limited results because it is not an integral part of¬†the larger¬†education system. The ‚ÄėWork and Education Report‚Äô prepared for the National Curriculum Development Project 2005 argued that basic education tenets should place productive manual work at the centre of school curriculum itself. Participation in productive work under conditions approximating to real life situations is pedagogically linked to learning,¬†and simultaneously becomes the medium of knowledge acquisition,¬†while¬†developing values and skills. Engagement with work will promote multi-dimensional attributes¬†in the cognitive, affective and psycho-motor domains in a holistic manner i.e. by integrating ‚Äėhead, hand and heart‚Äô. But these recommendations were largely ignored.¬†¬†¬†

Interestingly though, the nationalist fervour has caught up again. Governments are introducing content and elements of nationalism in the school syllabi. But there is a fundamental difference between the idea of nationalism today and the one before Independence. The dominant idea of nationalism today is for building a Hindu Rashtra. Gandhi‚Äôs idea of nationalism was to strive for Swaraj. Importantly, Swaraj also implied self-rule, besides fighting for political freedom of the country. Gandhi‚Äôs Swaraj, through self-rule, was to help build a nation that would provide space for diversity and plurality. The individual was at the centre irrespective of other identities such as caste, sect, religion, etc. The purpose of education for Gandhi was to help every individual to gain his/her swaraj. The way to gain it was educating heart, hand and head.  

Interestingly, UNESCO‚Äôs Commission‚Äôs (1972) Report¬†‚ÄėLearning: The Treasure¬†Within‚Äô¬†echoes Gandhi‚Äôs thought on education ‚Äď Head, Hand and Heart. Education should be based on¬†the¬†following four pillars:¬†

  • Learning to Know  
  • Learning to Do 
  • Learning to Live Together, Learning to Live with Others   
  • Learning to Be       

So, is it time we relearnt from Gandhi?  

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1 thought on “Nationalist Education, Gandhi and the Nai Taleem

  1. Some thoughts on the article:

    1. Nai Taleem failed to get traction among the upper-caste and upper-class sections of society even during the freedom movement. One reason I can think of is, in general, nobody was ready to leave his/her caste markers. Even the devoted followers of Gandhi did not really believe that caste is a problem. They may have been benevolent towards lower castes but never questioned the superiority of their own castes. Even those of the upper-castes who studied under Nai Taleem never questioned the caste system.

    2. Nai Taleem was doomed to fail right from the beginning because it demanded highly creative pedagogy which required marrying productive work with theoretical knowledge. People entrusted with the job lacked such pedagogic vision and practice. So, it was symbolic right from the very beginning. (I was just thinking what Narayanbhai recollected about Gandhi’s comment on Aryanayakam’s school.)

    3. For me, Macaulay’s system of education is highly problematic not because it replaced Indian education system, but rather it failed to challenge the hierarchy of castes and classes in India. In that sense, it perpetuated the caste system. It was the higher castes and classes who benefited most out of Macaulayan system of education. All the social reformers including Rammohan Roy failed to understand the western ‘modernity’ could not have been transplanted on Indian soil in any smooth manner. Modernity took its own turn in India. In the end, we find that India remained untouched by ‘modernity’ while it became submerged in the process of modernization. So, consumerism multiplied but emancipatory project of ‘modernity’ never took off or rather scuttled by high-caste leaders (Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Madan Mohan Malaviya, K.M. Munchi among others).

    4. It seems that even in its modern avatar, fragments of Nai Taleem practices are used in an atmosphere which has no bearing on lived reality. For instance, most of the ‘international’ schools in India have classes on carpentry or pottery. But do they really take into account the social reality of people who practices those professions. I doubt.

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