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Politics of Knowledge Production in India’s New Education Policy (2021)

Poster for Camp HSS, a camp that introduces the world of Humanities and Social Sciences to schoolchildren (Photo courtesy of Nishaant Choksi)

Politics of Knowledge Production in India’s New Education Policy (2021)

Nishaant Choksi (IIT-Gandhinagar)

Jaison Manjaly (IIT-Gandhinagar)

The Indian higher education system – one of the largest, most stratified, and most intellectually diverse systems in the world – is on the cusp of a transition. The pressures of neoliberalization and India’s entry into the global economy have resulted in an increased privatization of the system and an emphasis on internationalization. While seeking to globalize the system and address inefficiencies, these reforms are still shackled by the “captive mind” discussed by Syed Hussein Alatas. Even after decades of critical questioning of intellectual imperialism by scholars within India, imperialism has continued to find a back door through the hierarchical and exclusionary system of caste which pervades the system.

Hussein Alatas examines extensively the case of India in his article, published in 2000, “Intellectual Imperialism: Definition, Traits, and Problems.” Citing the eminent Indian historian Romila Thapar, he outlines two major correlates of the “captive mind,” which Indian scholars inherited from British imperial rule. The first is “mimicry,” where colonial categories (such as “Hindu-Muslim”) have been unproblematically imported to both literally and figuratively partition the subcontinent’s history and society. The other is the “exaggerated emphasis of spirituality in Indian culture,” which sought to project a fantasized “utopia’” of a homogenized ancient India based in Brahminical Sanskrit-language texts in order for scholars to contend with the “humiliation” of being conquered by a foreign power.[1] The tendency to mimic the Western present and idealize the “Indian” past, however, is not simply about colonization or humiliation. As later scholars such as Guru[2] and Patel[3] suggest, these tendencies reinforce the control of upper castes (savarna) on the production and dissemination of knowledge.

The democratic space of the university was envisioned in the Indian Constitution and original report of the University Educational Commission of 1948. A watershed moment that had potential to drastically alter this institution was the implementation of the Mandal Commission report in 1990, which gave special reservations to a range of “socially and educationally backward” castes in higher education institutes and government employment. This significantly altered the makeup of universities, tilting the student body more in favor of the marginalized and allowing for a more diverse faculty body. However, at the same time, countervailing forces of privatization and internationalization prevailed upon the higher education ecosystem, curtailing any significant transformation of the politics of knowledge production. The previous setting up of a two-tiered system, which involved the establishment of the “elite” technical institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (ITTs), contributed to this countervailing tendency. While universities underwent specific transformations due to the changes during the period of the nationalist movement and the democratic struggles afterwards, the IITs were set up after independence to specifically mimic Western institutions, such as elite technical institutes in the United States, Britain, Germany, and Russia. They resisted the implementation of reservations, and thus “missed the opportunity to align their goals with the project of Indian democracy.”[4]

Spaces then for “elite” research such as the IITs and other “institutions of eminence” were free from democratic pressures and subject heavily to the “captive mind” mentality. Such institutions became leaders in setting the research agenda while the public university system became trapped in an underfunded, bureaucratic morass. The solution to this situation in the latest National Education Policy (NEP) has not been to continue the emphasis on inclusivity, which formed the basis of previous education policy, but instead to focus on quality enhancement, internationalization, and “Indian values.”[5] For instance, as many have argued, the latest policy collects all the socially marginalized sections into the concept of Socially-Economic and Disadvantaged Groups (SEDGs). This very technocratic term does not acknowledge the presence and persistence of “caste” as a barrier to knowledge access, nor does it seek to address the discrimination students from marginalized castes face on campuses.

The next way the “captive mind” is re-inscribed in 21st-century education policy is through the section on “internationalization.” The captive mind complex, which involves mimicry of the Western future with an idealization of the indigenous past, is very much present in the policy’s stated objective of “internationalization at home.” Indigenous subjects to be developed range from Indology to Yoga, Ayurveda to Indian languages, all of which will supposedly facilitate India’s return to the stage as a “viswa Guru” (world teacher, in Sanskrit). Meanwhile, other subjects (e.g., humanities and social sciences) should be “internationally relevant” (NEP, p. 39). Most of the aforementioned indigenous subjects idealize some aspect of India’s past without charting the relevant transformations in the present or the critiques of such knowledge systems that developed in a highly caste-demarcated milieu.

In place of evolving a framework, we continually appeal to the colonial past and take solace in the captive discourse. This is because (1) no original thinking is required; (2) we can continue to blame the West for all our problems; (3) we can continue to harp on the glorious past and claim that colonization destroyed it; and, finally, (4) there is no requirement of admitting to the epistemic inequality and atrocities committed in the name of education in India. This maintains the status quo and keeps our research practices in a subordinate position to the West while also remaining inadequate for the needs of our society. However, the current pandemic has perhaps opened up new avenues that bypass the existing structures, allowing for different dynamics to unfold. For example, online programs at IIT-Gandhinagar reached several hundred schoolchildren across the country with the aim of opening up discussions for what is possible beyond established curricula. Another way would be to develop interdisciplinary research agendas that track the memories, experiences, and agendas of exclusion beyond the traditional humanities and social science domains. Efforts at IIT-Gandhinagar to introduce “caste” as a research topic in cognitive science, for example, could have spillover effects in other fields and serve as a benchmark for international collaboration.  


[1] Alatas, S. H. (2000). Intellectual imperialism: Definition, traits, and problems. Asian Journal of Social Science, 28(1), 23-45.

[2] Guru, G. (2002). How egalitarian are the social sciences in India? Economic and Political Weekly, 5003-5009.

[3] Patel, S. (Ed.). (2016). Doing sociology in India: Genealogies, locations, and practices. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

[4] Mehta, M. G., & Sharan, R. (2016). IITs and the Project of Indian Democracy. Economic and Political Weekly, 51(11), 12-14.

[5] National Education Policy, 2020. Government of India.

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