Letter to Mariyam

Dear Mariyam,

Wake up. There is still time.

For the last seventy years in India, a systematic rot is festering and all Indians are part of it. The things you get to see today, this totalitarianism, this state sponsored fascism, the Hindu Nazis going after Muslims (today, tomorrow it will be some other community), these things do not and did not arise overnight with the emergence of any single leader or even a group of leaders, or even a political party. Take no solace that in 1987, BJP had only two seats in India’s parliament. You can still turn back the genie in the bottle if you care to look deeper and recognise where in the system is the rot.

The rot I allude to is a lack of critical examination of life and society. In a country where most people are shut out of the previlege of education, the few that do get to go to the schools and beyond, that Indian education system has systematically failed her students to develop that critical thinking muscles and this is the outcome. India’s higher education is a borrowed system from their British colonial masters; with an emphasis on STEM, the system regularly churns excellent technologically competent engineers, doctors, line managers, people who are excellent in obeying orders BUT equally, the system is hopeless at developing people and students who can resist, who can diagnose what is wrong with the system, who can critically examine what and why they are doing what they are doing. With the result, India today has the world’s highest concentration of people with Dunning-Kruger effect that rots and eats its way into the public life. Ask yourself, look around the morass of uncritical mass produced literates.

Yet this was not the case say 400 years ago before the advent of the British. Starting with the Buddhists and ending with the Mughal empire in the North and dissolution of indigenous system of education in the South, India’s traditional education system was based on dialogues and critical thinking and cross-examinations, and our chancery as a model of learning was in sync with how education was advanced in Europe. Since the advent of the British and their emphasis on breeding a group of Indians who would be ‘clerks’ for the company (read Macaulay’s minutes), things started changing. Our ‘intellectual gymnasia’ started changing into ‘factories of coolies of the mental labour for the Raj’.

The fight for political independence was led by those who were educated outside of the Indian system (example: Mohandas Gandhi was a lawyer in Pretoria, and the Nehrus (father and son) were educated in Britain). The puzzling question was why didn’t we continue with the critical education post independence? If it were liberal education that laid the foundation of Modern India till the time of freedom, you’d expect that to continue post independence but for reasons beyond my comprehension, we dispensed with both best traditions of European and ancient Indian education and settled for a heavily STEM focused education system that led to emergence of excellent engineers, doctors, managers, and such. The critical skill building was dispensed with and dissent was killed in our educational systems, and instead, we were taught too soon to accept the status quo. Rebellion was dealt with an iron hand whenever they arose.

As Martha Nussbaum recently argued in an essay, this lack of critical examination, this disregard and lack of liberal spirituality to examine critically the present and learn from the present, neglect of the humanities as an academic discipline in India led to an intellectual vacuum that was soon filled with people who were technically competent but they had sinister designs in their mind. Look around the modern day leaders: you will either see illiterates (Modi is an illiterate and lies about his educational qualifications), or STEM qualified (Maya Kodnani, who was responsible for genocide of Muslims in Gujarat, is a doctor), but you will not find humanists and philosophers in the rank and file of politicians and ministers in India. What this void suggests is a lack of critical reading of history and disregard for traditions. Ergo, if you assess that just because in your mohalla a few people came to celebrate Eid in your house, everything was just great, you subscribe to a confirmation bias that many Indians of your and my age were/are fooled about, that things were OK till the arrival of nasty communal politics of BJP.

Think again. The political leaders of this world in a democratic society cannot and do not emerge without a permissive society that breeds these monsters. The single factor that has time and again seem to breed such monsters is a blind and deaf society where people lost their senses to care for each other and bury their heads in the sand. That blindness and deafness is the end product of an education system that does not allow you to think and be rebels.

That inability to think in terms of larger picture has hurt Indians big time. In 1992, when the Babri Masjid was destroyed, it was more than destruction of a Masjid, it was a deeper destruction of a tradition, a tehjeeb, it was destruction of the heart and soul of “India” in the first place.That singular fact remained an elephant in the room. In 2002, when a mass massacre of Muslims occurred in the state of Gujarat, no one raised the question that it was ‘Indians’ whose lives were lost. This ‘otherness’, this division, is not just deplorable, it is the criminal negligence of a society that does not know how to think in terms of the larger picture.

I perhaps failed to understand the point of your article. But if you wrote this to tickle the conscience of people who voted for BJP, then know that blaming a political party here and a party there is not the answer. The hour calls for a bigger introspection. Stand before a mirror and ask yourself, what exactly are you endorsing. Show a mirror to the people and hold it right in the front.

The rot and the fester has a deeper origin. Can you face it?

Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Also in: https://refind.com/arinbasu

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