Why Teachers' Day in India is a sham

It's not a marker of educational success and has rather become a weapon for exclusion of education and ethics.

 |  7-minute read |   06-09-2017
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On Teachers' Day this year, the Twitterati took to comparing teachers with wives, experiences, gods, and life itself. Some believed nature was the greatest teacher, while some stood beside idols of Ganapathi, capturing the deity and the disciple in selfies.

The sheer philistinism, or at times even dilettantism, of non-students, non-academics, or the non-reading public has naturally spilled over to academic institutions as well - the so-called central universities from Chennai, Kolkata, or New Delhi, where temporary faculty members are subject to ritual economic or political humiliation, throughout the rest of the year.

This, at a time when the University of Delhi is struggling to fill in 4,000 vacant academic posts, and universities across the countries have a shortage of more than 30 per cent of requisite academic staff. The Allahabad University and the Banaras Hindu University, for instance, have more than 50 per cent academic positions, still lying vacant.

Be that as it may, on this Teachers' Day, choreographers paid tribute to deceased choreographers, and actors and actresses thanked practically the whole universe. Understandably, those that learn from and thank almost everything, have indeed much to learn.

All this has been happening immediately against the background of Indian universities dropping up to one hundred notches in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, of the top 1,000 universities from 77 countries.

“Most of the country’s universities,” writes Ayesha Banerjee, “were knocked down from their previous positions with star performer Indian Institute of Science (IISc) slipping from the 201-250 band to 251-300… Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) Delhi, Kanpur and Madras came down to the 501–600 band from last year’s 401-500 rankings.”

Also, 800 engineering colleges are scheduled for progressive shutdown, as ordained by the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). This is due to 27 lakhs of seats lying vacant in engineering institutions throughout the country. The AICTE has approved the shutdown of 65 such colleges, this very year.

Why celebrate Teachers' Day?

Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan - with no offense to the philosophical and political leader - may be a difficult name to remember. He was, however, born on a day, in 1888, which has become rather convenient to celebrate. When he became the president of India, and his followers wanted to publicly celebrate his birthday, Radhakrishnan said, “Instead of celebrating my birthday, it would be my proud privilege if September 5 is observed as Teachers’ Day.”

Knighted in 1931, a professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford, the Chancellor of the University of Calcutta, and an Indian ambassador to the United Nations, Radhakrishnan would have achieved none of this had he been made to afford the costs of private education. He was born poor, education redeemed his economic state.

There are two chief hazards of honoring the doyen of Indian education, mindlessly, year after year.

One is, of course, the fact that this invincible gaiety of Radhakrishnan’s birthday celebrations totally masks where India stands as per global standards of higher education and education in general. Among the BRICS nations, India and China spend the least percentages of their GDPs on education. The annual percentage of the education budget was 4.4 in 1999. In 2017, it has fallen to 3.7.

To put things into perspective, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (USA) spend 5.8 per cent of their annual GDP into education. That is not just a difference of 2 per cent. The per capita incomes of USA and UK are over nine times and seven times that of India. This means that although private institutions are making a headway in India, the affordability of education is at least six times less, necessitating governmental intervention all the more. That public education in universities will be sustainably subsidised in future is a mythology of the present. 

The second is India’s alienation from its history. There is a consensual amnesia in Teachers' Day carnivals regarding a lawsuit of copyright infringement, that was slapped on Radhakrishnan, by Jadunath Sinha, in the late 1920s. Sinha accused Radhakrishnan of plagiarising from his doctoral thesis, “Indian Psychology of Perception,” (1925) in the latter’s second volume of Indian Philosophy (1927).

Sinha demanded damages of Rs 20,000 from Radhakrishnan, at the Calcutta High Court, who defended his case by filing a libel suit against the plaintiff, with a counter-demand of Rs 1,00,000. Due to the heavy personal costs risked by both the parties, and due to the intervention of Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the case was settled out of court. There was no official judgment.

To call Radhakrishnan a plagiarist, therefore, would be a great disservice to the professor and the profession. To not talk about that incident at all will ensure the speedy demise of both. That certainly is happening, today.


Politics over performance

University education in India today is highly politicised. Parliaments ruling our governments have safeguarded that, and worse. Those outside Parliament, such as honourable taxpayers, vice-chancellors, wards, and even students of other universities, have suggested economic or even military suppression of students, as in the strikes on student scholarships or inviting an army tank in the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

It may be asked for instance: why could not some left-minded students of the university themselves install a tank in the premises, or float such an idea, interpreting it not necessarily as a sign of war or bloodshed, but as an existential reality of the times and egotistical excesses that we live in? What face would then the vice chancellor of the university have been left with? And what party of army gangsters would have then dared march inside the campus?

But that creativity is being slowly and schematically swept away from University spaces by the loud rhetoric of majority invasions into these bastions of multiculturalism.

Recently, Ravish Kumar of NDTV mock-seriously recommended that the government should bring a circular issuing all news channels to stage Hindu-Muslim debates for at least two hours every day so that people may know when not to watch these.

Debates in classrooms on poverty, endangered lives and livelihoods, farmer suicides, linguistic authoritarianism, alternate sexuality (or even heterosexuality), have started becoming tabooed subjects. While every young voice claims to be an independent and original opinion, there is very little patience spared to acknowledge the originality of the other - the original tragedy of being silenced.

In addition to cultivating this newfound loathing for any form of questioning, or an alternate piece of knowledge - especially historical knowledge - we, the teachers, have also succeeded in making our students the most fearing people. The prime example of this came just four days before this Teachers' Day, when Anitha, the daughter a Dalit daily-wage labourer, from Tamil Nadu, committed suicide after scoring poorly in the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test.

Ironically, she had scored 1176 out of 1200 (98 per cent) in the school leaving examinations. But the fear that she could never become a doctor anymore forced her to take her life. Our educational systems, are breeding dread and hunger, as we bleed away quietly on the edge of celebratory birthday knives.

Teachers' Day celebrations are not a marker of the educational success of this country or even its most hardworking individuals. They are or have become, just another weapon for the exclusion of education and ethics.

Either economic elitism that grants some the access to private education, or the kind of elitism that students afford by scoring mind-numbingly high grades in school, enables them and their teachers to conflate tradition with mediocrity, and an undemocratic system of education.

But thanks to Radhakrishnan, we are still very proud of our philosophical and pedagogical heritage.

"Dil ke khush rakhne ko Ghalib ye khayaal, achha hai (To console your conscience, Ghalib, a delusion may often come handy)."

Also read: Why Indian schools are full of bullying stories


Arup K Chatterjee Arup K Chatterjee @chatterjeearupk

Author, 'The Purveyors of Destiny: A Cultural Biography of the Indian Railways,' Founder Editor-in-Chief, Coldnoon (International Journal of Travel Writing & Travelling Cultures), Assistant Professor, English Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University.

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