People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 49

December 14, 2008





THE government of Kerala organised an international seminar on ‘Democratic and Secular Education’ at Thiruvananthapuram on December 4-6, 2008. The objective of the seminar was to critically interrogate the role of democratic and secular education in responding to the challenges of globalisation. The schedule of the seminar had been fixed well ahead of the global financial meltdown and the terrorist strike on Mumbai. But these intervening events added a new dimension to the relevance of the issues flagged up for discussion, so much so that the response to the seminar exceeded the expectations of the organisers by a large margin. Held at Kerala University campus, Thiruvananthapuram, the organisers of the seminar had planned to register only 1500 participants. But the quantum of registration had to be increased several times and to be closed finally once it crossed 3000, as it was physically impossible to accommodate more at the venue of the seminar.

Three special lectures, five thematic sessions and twenty-two parallel sessions were held as part of the seminar, which was inaugurated by chief minister V S Achuthanandan. About 150 scholars from within and outside the country including Richard Mathew Stallman, president, Free Software Foundation, USA, Michael Apple, of University of Wisconsin, USA, XIA Liping, vice-chair, Chinese Foreign Affairs University, Beijing, Rima D Apple, University of Wisconsin, USA, J P Ross, University of Helsinki, Madeline Arnot, University of Cambridge,Cameron McCarthy, University of Illinois, John Harris, Gibson University, Canada, Prabhath Patnaik, member of the United Nations Committee on global financial crisis, Krishna Kumar, director NCERT and Jayati Ghosh of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi participated in the three day deliberations.


The seminar projected the agenda of “quality education for all”, as the key to inclusive development in a knowledge driven world. The concept of “quality” was defined within the parameters of democratic and secular values, as something that is inclusive of all classes, castes, regions and gender. The seminar defined inclusive development as sustainable development, which focuses on the periphery than the centre, the rural countryside rather than the urban enclaves, on the marginalised than the elite and the local instead of the global. It underlined the continued relevance of the celebrated Kerala Model of Development, with its emphasis on distributive justice and stressed the need for sustaining and improving it for making it more relevant to the contemporary times. The seminar adopted a declaration outlining its major recommendations. A declaration on secular and democratic education was also adopted in the seminar.

The seminar noted with concern the continuing influence of the colonial past and caste structure on India’s democratic and secular practices during the last sixty years of independence, the divisive experience of which has been accentuated by the projects of privatisation, commercialisation, liberalisation and globalisation, imposed upon the country by the ruling elite during the last two decades. The economic gains that the country claims today has brought into sharp focus the increasing divide in segments of society across classes, castes, regions and gender, sustained by the rhetoric of inclusion and the practice of exclusion, along with the cooption of the unintended beneficiaries of the new order through trickle-down effect.

Any attempt to craft a truly liberating vision and programme of action should begin with a recognition of the unreality of the myth of modernity and progress and an appreciation of the fact that sustainable development is inclusive development which focuses on the periphery than the centre, the rural countryside rather than the urban enclaves, on the marginalised than the elite and the local instead of the global.

In this context Kerala’s experience of development during the last fifty years stands out from the experience of the rest of the country, which is generally recognised as a very positive development. Most of the participants in the seminar have not only noted this silver lining in the cloud, but also expressed serious concern about the growing influence of middle class interest that tend to undermine the achievement of Kerala’s intermittent experiments with inclusive development, by responding to the possibilities and limitations imposed by its status as a State within the Indian Union. The participants of the seminar have underlined the need to preserve and strengthen the positive features of Kerala’s unique experience on account of its increased relevance in the contemporary world.

The roots of Kerala’s unique experience in development have to be traced to the ideas of egalitarianism, generated and nurtured by the social reform movements that swept across the state in the early part of the twentieth century and the progressive political movements that coalesced with the movement for freedom from the British rule. This in turn brought into existence a people friendly government in 1957, which set an agenda of democratic governance and outlined a complementary programme of action, an important component of which was the empowerment of the people through universalisation of basic education. This has been implemented over the next fifty years, the cumulative impact of which has laid the foundations of inclusive development. The emergence of knowledge as an important component of economic growth has thrown open new opportunities and challenges for the state against this background.


The participants of the seminar have analysed the nature and extent of these opportunities and challenges in great detail. The opportunity is to share the fruits of development by sharing knowledge; by extending the facilities for quality education for all at all levels through greater public investment and greater social control over private investment. The challenge is to resist the temptation to permit the monopolisation and commercialisation of knowledge through knowledge delivering supermarkets which could adversely impact both on equity and quality, by denying opportunities to the poor and by marginalising the study of mother tongues and basic disciplines that have no immediate market value.

A large number of participants have suggested that the project of democratisation of knowledge would necessarily involve democratisation and decentralisation of academic governance structures and curriculum transactions, within a framework of autonomy coupled with accountability. This would imply radical changes in the existing system of pedagogy in which the teacher plays an instrumentalist role of delivering knowledge to the client student. This relationship between the teacher and the student will have to be replaced by a more co-operative, collaborative and creative relationship among partners who would engage in a joint exploration of knowledge, undertaken in an atmosphere of mutual trust and love. This could lead to the development of a learner inspired curriculum that would take care of the differential needs of the learner, including that of the differently-abled, in a spirit of celebration of differences, within a system of shared common values, helping to transform the teachers and the students into organic intellectuals of the people.

The realisation of the ambitious project outlined above is not easy, as has been repeatedly pointed out by the participants. It involves the development of a broad consensus within the state on a long-term programme of sustainable education, which, among other things, would require a rethinking on narrow minded vote bank politics and a redefinition of the role of the media. It would also require a re-drawing of the contours of centre-state relationship in accordance with the ethos of federalism. This would imply greater consultation between the centre and the states, especially in the allocation of funds. The needs of Kerala which face second and third generation problems in education are unique in so far as they pertain more to qualitative improvement than quantitative development at school level education and improvement of access, equity and excellence at higher levels. This has to be properly addressed. The judiciary will also have to play a more positive role than at present in protecting and strengthening the constitutional ethos and democratic aspirations of the people in respect of education.

This does not mean that the implementation of the reforms has to begin only after all the above conditions have been fulfilled. A good number of participants have indeed made concrete suggestions, the implementation of which would involve a combination of creative interventions and combative struggles on the part of the state government and society as a whole under the leadership of democratic and secular forces. The government needs to implement a people friendly agenda worked out within the limits of the powers and resources available at its disposal. It should also give leadership to people’s struggles for the transformation of a formal democracy into a genuine democracy with a pro-people agenda. It should lead the campaign for defining secularism both as freedom of religion and as freedom from religion.

The primary responsibility for imparting education at all levels should rest with the government. The government should step up its expenditure on education, setting apart at least 30 per cent of the state budget for the sector and take concrete measures to improve the quality of public funded education through updating the curriculum and modernising infrastructure, both human and physical. It should enforce greater social control on private initiatives in education through regulatory steps, by redefining educational activity undertaken by private agencies as complementary to state activity.

The government must promote the use of IT as an educational tool, especially the use of free software and encourage the convergence of face to face and distance modes of learning, with a view to addressing the question of digital divide in education. It must, however, be ensured that such technologies are not used to replace the role of the teacher or to trivialise the notion of knowledge as “cut and paste information”, but used only as a tool for authentic creation of knowledge. Steps should also be taken to improve the facilities for adult and continuing education in order to promote the concept of life long learning.

The seminar was quite critical of the public-private-partnership model of development proposed by the Planning Commission as part of XI Plan. It proposed an alternate model for public-private-partnership that would promote the use of private assets for public purposes rather than private appropriation of public assets. The central government should be prevailed upon to enact a central legislation empowering the states to regulate private unaided institutions in higher and technical education and to define minority rights in education in accordance with the constitutional principles of equality and secularism so as to effectively intervene against the misuse of minority rights by dominant minorities within religious and linguistic minority communities.

The government should prevail upon the central government for the establishment of centrally funded research level institutions, which could have a catalytic effect on improving the quality of education in the state. The government should insist that the Right to Education bill be passed in the next session of the parliament, after broadening its scope to include also children between the ages of zero to six and fourteen to eighteen and to make it obligatory on the central government to bear the entire additional expenses involved on this account.

The government has to take positive steps to protect and strengthen the democratic rights of all participants in education, including students, teachers and parents, managements and society at large and ensure at the same time that they also contribute their share towards the building up of the social enterprise of education on a collaborative rather than competitive platform.

The government should also initiate steps to revise the regulatory framework relating to the governance of educational institutions, in such a way as would combine autonomy with accountability in order to enable them to fulfill their educational objectives and social obligations. The long term project of establishing a transformative education system which could usher in a truly inclusive society, which is inclusive of all classes and creeds and gender and ensure sustainable development should also be initiated by the present government, by taking the first steps towards introducing the neighborhood school system and establishment of collaborative learning clusters at the collegiate level.

The seminar calls upon all participants to carry this positive message of the South to the North, to the West and to the East and to all corners of the global village, with a view to transforming its existing relationship of hegemony and exclusion into a new wholesome relationship of harmony and inclusion.