By: Shomesh Srivastava
“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” –Martin Luther King Jr.
Two incidents relating to syllabus cut made by Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and the Assam Higher Secondary Education Council (hereinafter ‘AHSEC’) have raised two primary constitutional questions about the rights of the students and autonomy of these institutions.
While the CBSE has decided to drop topics like citizenship, federalism, secularism, etc. while reducing the syllabus for Classes 9 to 12 due to Covid-19 pandemic, the AHSEC has decided to drop key units and sub-units on India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s contribution to nation-building, his foreign policy, democracy, and other units from the higher secondary’s 1st and 2nd years’ History and Political Science courses. Topics on famines, the suspension of five-year plans, political succession after Nehru, the politics of ‘Garibi Hatao’, the Navnirman movement in Gujarat, the Punjab crisis and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 also stand to be dropped. Sections dealing with the implementation of the Mandal commission report, the United Front and NDA governments, the 2004 elections which brought the UPA government to power, the Ayodhya dispute and the 2002 Gujarat riots will also be removed for the upcoming academic year. The topics relating to the Bill of Rights, how laws are passed and the constitutional means to prevent defections, judicial activism, federalism, diversity and special provisions are also removed. Due to textual limitations, each removed topic cannot be separately analysed but the readers are advised to peruse over the list of topics for a better understanding of the contention here.
If we look at the list of topics then it is apparent that the trimming of the syllabus has not been done on a random and impartial basis but has been well thought in order to promote a particular political ideology and interest, thus, violating student’s right to education recognised under Article 21A of the constitution. Some academicians, politicians and members of student organisation are accusing the state government of ‘saffronisation’, ‘brainwashing’ and ‘coercing’ young minds towards the agenda pushed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha (RSS).
RIGHT TO EDUCATION AS ENVISAGED
Post 86th Amendment of the Constitution, much of the debates, discussions, and cases have been around increasing the accessibility of education on a primary level, providing requisite infrastructure, meals, and teaching staff to the children. Heavily focusing on the lack of these basic facilities didn’t give us much opportunity to think upon issues like, “the right of the students to quality education” and “what should comprise quality education.”
In a very recent case titled Ram Sharan Maurya v State of Uttar Pradesh the Hon’ble Supreme Court said that right to education guaranteed under Article 21A of the constitution would envisage “quality” education being imparted to the children, this, in a way, expanded the scope of the right to education.
The term ‘quality’ being a little broad needs meaning in the context of education. To answer that question we will be referring to Mohini Jain v State of Karnataka, a landmark judgement that first highlighted the importance and purpose of education. It made three serious observations:
The fundamental rights including the right to freedom of speech and expression and other rights under article 19 cannot be appreciated and fully enjoyed unless a citizen is fully educated and fully conscious of his individualistic dignity.
The “right to education”, therefore, is concomitant to the fundamental rights enshrined under Part III of the Constitution. The State is under a constitutional mandate to provide educational institutions at all levels for the benefit of the citizens. The educational institutions must function to the best advantage of the citizens.
Right to life is the compendious expression for all those rights which the Court must enforce because they are basic to the dignified enjoyment of life. It extends to the full range of conduct which the individual is free to pursue. The right to education flows directly from right to life. The right to life under Article 21 and the dignity of an individual cannot be assured unless it is accompanied by the right to education. The State Government is under an obligation to make endeavour to provide educational facilities at all levels to its citizens.
Among these three, the first point talking about individualistic dignity is most important for this essay. In order to understand the individuality aspect of education, we will refer to a renowned philosopher John Stuart Mill.
EDUCATION, INDIVIDUALITY AND DEMOCRACY
A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the dominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, an aristocracy, or a majority of the existing generation; in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by a natural tendency to one over the body.
Mill’s statement very well highlights two concerns i.e. political cleansing of ideas through education and imposition of an ‘ideological discipline’. The situation at hand can be termed as a classic example of a paternalistic act that goes against the principles of individuality, an intrinsic part of libertarian principles. After a due reading of Mill’s work on liberty, we will be able to infer how individuality can be affected through education. Mill says that individuality asserts itself when people are allowed to explore complete truths. According to him, mankind is not infallible and most of them are only aware of the half-truths. In order to know the complete truth, opinions, writings, literature, texts etc. should be put forward for any kind of criticism. When an individual will be able to freely critique an opinion, explore alternative truths, compare different opinions and acts, recognise all the sides of truth, then they will be able to assert their individuality in the fullest sense.
Mohini Jain’s view requires that the right to education should enable an individual to attain individualistic dignity that will play a crucial role in helping him to exercise his/her rights under the constitution. If we combine the views expressed by Mill and the courts in Mohini Jain and Ram Sharan Maurya, then we can get an idea of how Indian courts look at right to education. Mill lays great emphasis on half-truths in his works; for instance, removing the chapters discussing the contribution of a former Prime Minister of India, and political history of India will impede students from comparing the performance of the present government to that of prior governments. This will not only keep them oblivious of the political history of the country but will have serious effects on their voting preferences. Under the cloak of reducing the burden of students the Board has apparently tried to use education as a means to promote a particular ideology and stop students from knowing the complete truths.
In addition to this, the US case of Ambach v. Norwick opined that,
“…the teacher has an opportunity to influence the attitudes of the students toward government, the political process, and the citizen’s social responsibility and this influence is crucial to good health of the democracy”.
According to John Dewey, “The public schools are perceived as a kind of ‘assimilative force’ by which diverse and conflicting elements in our society are brought on a broad but common ground.”
Thus, it can be inferred that education not only plays an important role in the development of individuality but also has a great effect on the democratic fibre of the country.
THE RIGHTS OF THE STUDENTS AND AUTONOMY
The act of the boards in India is not the first of its kind. Developed democracies like the US also had some instances like this. In 1982 the Board of Education of the Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26, New York, took a decision to remove some of the books from the school’s library by categorizing them as anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy. They contended that it is their moral obligation to protect the children from this moral danger. The decision of the Board was challenged in the case of Board of Education v. Pico in the United States Supreme Court on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment rights of the students.
The US courts have for long recognised the non-interventionist approach and at the same time upheld the “basic constitutional rights” of an individual by drawing a judicious balance between the two. The Court began with the reasoning given in Amback by recognising the importance of education and then tried to explain the limitations on the local school boards in actions that are not in accordance with the First Amendment.
When Mohini Jain explained the importance of education in the context of rights under Article 19 then it concurred with the US case of Tinker v Des Moines School District that upheld the free speech rights of the students, the most important part of Article 19, against the school board’s decision. The court went on to say that
“…. although the none of the case laws define the limits of the these board’s power to prescribe the curriculum and academic materials there is a general proposition that the schools cannot be the enclaves of totalitarianism and students cannot be regarded as the closed-circuit recipients of what only the state chooses to communicate. There is an inherent right to receive information and ideas.”
Looking at these cases we can see that while giving school boards a great discretion to prescribe a curriculum that helps students inculcate community, social, political, and democratic values, the courts have also put these boards under good judicial scrutiny.
Discretionary powers and autonomy have been vested with these education boards and councils in India on similar lines of reasoning. However, recent actions by these authorities have confronted us with two contradictory questions: are these boards and councils really autonomous or have they become too autonomous? For the first case, we have the judgement of Suresh Chandra Sharma v Chairman, UPSEB in which the court held that the authority endowed with power should be free from political interference. In the second case, we have the judgement of EP Royappa v State of Tamil Nadu when the court said “from a positivistic point of view, equality is antithetic to arbitrariness”.
The state uses many methods to impart education; by the establishment of education boards, schools, affiliating authorities etc. This gives the state a vast discretion, autonomy, and power in the matters relating to setting standards of education, prescribing the curriculum, recruiting faculties and administrative board members. However, without any concrete system of answerability to an independent authority, these institutions can exercise their mandate in an arbitrary manner, which goes against the reasoning of EP Royappa.
The institutions, which have been vested with the power and duty to discharge a public function of imparting education, have arbitrarily exercised their discretion. This arbitrary exercise will violate the rights of the students and deny them a quality, unbiased, and neutral education. The Indian as well US position in this regard is certain that the discretion should not be exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner, and it can be inferred that if a democratic school board is motivated by a party affiliation then it would violate the rights of students. The judicial scrutiny should look into some of the decisive factors; intent, and criteria of selections of topics, diversity among the board members etc. If all of these were in conformity with the educational suitability, appropriateness, good taste, and relevance then the syllabus trimming should be upheld. Any other extraneous political considerations would seriously violate the purpose of education and education will be used as a weapon to manipulate young minds.
 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1st Edn, Penguin Classics 2006)
 John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education ( 1st Edn, Cambridge University Press 2017)
(Shomesh is currently a law undergraduate at National Law University, Odisha. He may be contacted via mail at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Cite as: Shomesh Srivastava, ‘A Politicised Right to Education’ (The RMLNLU Law Review Blog, 13 January 2021) <https://atomic-temporary-94482995.wpcomstaging.com/2021/01/13/a-politicised-right-to-education/ > date of access.