Gandhian legacy

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  • Published 31.01.11

To many during the freedom struggle in India, Gandhi’s call to students to quit schools and colleges had seemed a rather irresponsible gesture. His trenchant critique of the education system prevailing during colonial rule often met with dissatisfaction, even hostility. He was asked to explain why he, who was himself a product of western education, sought to deprive the young in India of its benefits. To this question put to him at a meeting held in Cuttack in 1921 Gandhi had famously responded that truly great Indians like Chaitanya or Sankara did not need western education to make their precious contribution to human civilisation and that he himself would have been better equipped to serve humanity without the ‘benefits’ of Western education. Gandhi’s remarks drew flak from his eminent contemporaries, including Tagore.

In hindsight, it becomes clear that while Gandhi’s anti-colonial political strategies enjoyed widespread popularity and acquired a huge mass base, his critique of the education system put in place by the British found few ardent enthusiasts. His attempts to find alternatives to the system aroused feelings of ambivalence, even open hostility. It was as if Indians, politically opposed to British rule, were in many ways culturally complicit with it. No wonder then that Gandhi’s experiments with basic education found few takers after Independence and schools offering basic education could not survive for long in the face of growing official apathy and the hostility of an emergent urban elite. Institutions devoted to translating Gandhi’s ideas on education now survive as islands encompassed by private as well as state-sponsored educational institutions catering to the rising expectations of a consumerist, competitive urban middle class, which provides increasingly attractive role models to the millions living in rural India.

However, it would be a mistake to suppose that the Gandhian critique of the education system has lost its relevance and can at best be considered interesting only from an academic point of view. While the unwillingness or inability of modern India to translate Gandhi’s educational vision into viable institutional practices is well known, what has not been adequately documented is its transforming impact on the lives of many remarkable individuals in India. In their limited, but inspiring way, many continued to carry forward Gandhi’s experiments with education and strove to discover ways of democratising knowledge in a world where education seeks to deepen social, economic and cultural divides and reinforce existing hierarchies.

In the context of Orissa, Gandhi’s critique of the education system of colonial India inspired quite a few individuals to engage in a lifelong experiment with modes of acquiring and disseminating knowledge outside existing institutions of learning. Three such individuals come immediately to the mind: Binode Kanungo (1912-1990), Manmohan Choudhury (1905-2003) and Chittaranjan Das (1923-2011). One can go on adding to the list but the three just mentioned embody in memorable ways Gandhi’s vision of education as a living human enterprise, as a means of regenerating society.

Binode Kanungo left school as a young boy to take part in the freedom movement. But he never gave up the quest for learning.

In fact, in his autobiography A Drop-out Teaches Himself, he describes prison as a place of learning. Committed to democratising knowledge, he sought to disseminate it through the language ordinary people use in the course of living their daily lives. The result of his perseverance was a multi-volume encyclopaedia in Oriya, a large number of books on science and contemporary history. Kanungo brilliantly succeeded in demonstrating that modern Indian languages can serve as effective vehicles of modern knowledge.

Like Kanungo, Manmohan Choudhury received little formal education and was largely self-educated. He too participated in the freedom struggle as a child and went to jail. All his life - he died at the age of ninety-eight - he acquired and disseminated knowledge outside the framework of formal, institutionalised education. He wrote highly acclaimed books in Oriya on beekeeping, Gandhian philosophy, economics and nuclear physics, which are readily accessible by ordinary readers. His autobiography has achieved the status of a modern classic and he has translated his mother’s famous autobiography into English.

A younger contemporary of Kanungo and Choudhury, Chittaranjan Das gave up college studies to join the Quit India Movement. Like them, he too was jailed during the freedom struggle. However, unlike Kanungo and Choudhury, he acquired some experience of working within the ambit of institutionalised education. After the experiment of running a jungle school in Champatimunda in Angul failed, Das joined the faculty of Agra University and taught there for a few years. After leaving this institution, he lived the life of a roving intellectual, not affiliated to any institution, a life devoted entirely to writing, discussion, debate and dialogue.

Although a polyglot — he knew Danish, French, Swedish, and Finnish among other languages — he chose to express his ideas through Oriya, which he shaped into a powerful instrument of analysis of issues, of interrogating fossilised ideas and practices and provoking people, especially the young, to question received assumptions and values. In a culture fostering conformity and respect for tradition and authority, he was the voice of an intrepid rebel who urged a merciless scrutiny of our values and institutions. Creativity, he believed, would be possible only in a climate of questioning.

The shaping influence of Gandhi and Tagore — he spent a few years studying in Santiniketan after release from jail — led Das to make his writing serve as a window to the world. In fact, Window to the World is the title of the book by Das which received the Sahitya Akademi award. He was keenly alert to the dangers of nationalist self-assertion quickly degenerating into xenophobic provincialism.

This accounts for Das’s faith in translation as a means of overcoming one’s narrowness by carrying on a dialogue with other cultures, other ways of seeing and interpreting the world. Das’s translations from French, Danish, Bangla, English have made Oriyas, members of what Susan Sontag calls a “Community of Literature”. The passing away of Chittaranjan Das a couple of weeks ago, provides us with a fitting occasion to take a fresh look at the significance, if not the success of, Gandhi’s critique of the modern education system.

The body of writings left behind by Kanungo, Chowdhury and Das will aid us in this task of reminding ourselves of a rich, but neglected legacy of the freedom struggle.