Inaugural Address by Professor Amartya Sen at National Conference on Education in Kerala’s Development: Towards a New Agenda

Transcribed version of the Inaugural address by Prof. Amartya Sen on 27th December 2000.

Kerala’s experience in the field of education has been altogether remarkable. That does not mean that there are no problems to be addressed. There is a real interesting divide between how much emphasis to put on the fact that the world has still an enormous amount to learn from Kerala, and at the same time, on the other side to prevent complacency in Kerala in thinking that since the world has a lot to learn from Kerala, Kerala has nothing to learn from any one at all, any where. I think it is a thin line and it is the one which we have to traverse in a meeting of this kind. It is very important not to deny the value of what has been achieved and yet not to stop there either.

There are major lessons to be learned from Kerala’s history. Kerala, in many ways, has a unique history. It is hard to think of any other part of the world which has really been as remarkable in terms of cultural intercourse across the world. It is the one globalised culture in the world. I was asked the question, recently in the context of targeting of Christians by Hindu activists, how long will it take for India to get used to having Christians in the country? I had to point out that there were Christians in India 300 years before there was a single Christian in Britain. It is not a question of getting used to.

One has to not only have a plural society but also to value the plural importance of that society. If you think of Kerala’s history, Jews were here after the fall of Jerusalem. Even if we don’t accept the tradition that relates it to the St. Thomas, the apostle, there are records of Christian presence at least from the 4th Century, well before Islamic conquest of north India. Coming from middle east, across the passes, there were Arab traders, including Islamic Arab traders. Coming from a different, more urbane background and involved in trade and commerce, they were plying the coasts of Kerala long time ago. There is also the question we have to ask to give credit where it is due that what more present in the host society itself with its Hindu, Budhist or Jain components which had been the ancestral religions here which allows this to be possible with out there being any kind of a battle among them. This is the lesson to learn. I believe the educational experience of Kerala has immensely benefited from its culture of plurality. There is also a lesson to learn how an indigenous culture including Hindu, Budhist, Jain culture could benefit from being tolerant rather than targeting minorities which is one of the things that is increasingly dominating the political agenda in this country.

History is intimately connected with what we are discussing today and Kerala’s own history is extremely important for us.  The pursuit of knowledge is of objectivity, not compromise. By accepting that there are different perspectives, different points of view, then these perspectives themselves become subjects of objective investigation. There are two different counter elements in Kerala’s history.  One constructive; that includes tolerance, pluralism, the spectacular statement of Rani Gowri Parvathi Bhai and the Christian missionary activities. These are all constructive, positive, congenial moves. There is also a combative move. George Mathew referred to my fellow Bengali Vivekananda being rather less than grateful while visiting here in describing Kerala as a mad house of casteism. And the fact is that there was truth in that. Yet, as the analysis presented by V.K. Ramachandran in the collection of essays that John Dreze and I did called ‘Indian Development: Select Regional Perspectives’ shows that there was a dialectical contribution at precisely the high level of caste conflict in Kerala in making education a tool of changing the established order and it served as a path of political radicalization of Kerala. One of the interesting contrasts between the two states with which I feel closely associated viz. Bengal which I was born in and I belong to and Kerala with which so much of my professional work has been involved is that both have left wing governments. Without doing dishonour to the members of the Congress Party present here, that quite often, the Congress in Kerala sound to me as considerably to the left of many left parties in other parts of the country. And that is perhaps true about Bengal. But there is a radical difference between Bengal left movement and Kerala left movement. One of the features of that is the neglect of the educational perspective in traditional left wing forces. It is reduced now but is still present. I remember as a student activist in Presidency College, Calcutta, almost half a century ago being very disturbed by the fact that people who seem to be otherwise in agreement with what some of us were trying to presume has total disregard of education as an important thing. It may be interesting to hear from the members of the Communist Party that near formal education is not important. The peasants of India are really very wise and then there came a kind of combative statement saying that just because you are higher educated you think you are wiser. Don’t you? That of course is to make you feel ashamed. But in the context of left wing discussion, this is to make you ashamed in celebration of what Marx had called the “Idiocy’ of village life namely, that there is such a thing like the lack of illumination. If you are not able to read and write, if you are not able to read the document, if you don’t know what is in the newspapers, if you don’t know what others are telling you, then that is a real handicap. It took a long time for that to be established in Bengal. I don’t know what the reasons for it is because higher education has always been tremendously valued in Bengal and still is. But there was a kind of general disregard of elementary education which is the respect in which Kerala differ and it is possible that precisely the negative thing that Vivekananda refers to namely casteism in a dialectical way made its contribution to making education a major issue here. It was quite clear that the lower caste being not effectively allowed to have the benefit of education, was one of the ways of solidifying the inequality and inequalities were very great indeed. So in some ways, the presence of some combative elements had determined the agenda of radical politics in Kerala in a pro-education direction in which it hasn’t happened in Bengal. It is important to bear this in mind because it is this radical politics which ultimately made the total differentiation of Kerala with the rest of India. This is not to say that Kerala was already different even in the first half of the twentieth century. At the turn of century, in 1901, only three percent of Kerala women were educated. Even at the time of Kerala being formed, in 1950s, only 50 percent of the state was literate. Now that the state is close to universal literacy at least among the young, there is a real difference which one has to give credit to public policy and radical political commitment. In fact the combative history of Kerala is as important as the constructive genial history of which the Christian missionary movement, Rani Gowrie Parvati Bhai and others are a part.

Now, we will have to look upon the major issues of reach. I will call them educational reach, economic reach and cultural reach. The educational reach requires a kind of versatility of outlook to make sure whether you are reaching all the people in a way that you have reason to be committed to doing. In Kerala everyone gets school education. But the moment you look at that achievement, one of the implications of wide level of basic education requires to be sought out much more. The shame of illiteracy and lack of basic education all over India are two. One, they don’t get the basic education. Two- this is very important- the net that is spread in order to get people for higher education is inescapably limited because you can never do higher education without doing school education. If you turn this on the other side, that means, given the higher coverage of basic school education, you would expect a higher concentration in University education which you don’t find here. I have been reading some of the papers presented in the earlier workshops and this conference. It is quite clear that there are some debates pointing out whether higher education may be over expanded. I have often argued that in India, higher education is over expanded. It is particularly over expanded because our pyramid is so narrow at the base. But once you have a very wide base, the case for a much wider university education system is strong and you don’t see that in Kerala. That is, even in percentage comparison of cohorts, not to mention the ratio of university education to primary school intake, Kerala comes out quite low because it is really not able to make use of the expanded educational base.

I think the issue of reach has to be interpreted quite differently in Kerala. Kerala is not unique in this. I think there are other states, which are close to Kerala or half way through. Some were far away. There are some states which have flogged through from one end to the other. The best case of that is Himachal Pradesh which three decades ago was like its neighbours Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Bihar and Rajasthan where as it is very like Kerala now. In fact, in terms of enrollment from school education up to the age of 18, Himachal Pradesh is now distinctly ahead of Kerala. So it is not just the question of Kerala’s uniqueness. It is the question of our understanding of the educational reach problem having to be adequately sensitive to the detailed information that we have today of the coverage. Higher school coverage is an argument for higher university coverage and that is a point of great importance. Along with that there are other important issues of quality of education, management of education, which Dr. George and others have been discussing.

Given the educational background of Kerala, you would expect Kerala to be in the forefront of information technology where as the leadership has tended to go more to Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. To some extent, the same question could be raised in West Bengal too. Especially given the dependence of the IT on exactly the very same fields the West Bengal education is often been very good viz. Maths and Science. I think this issue in Kerala in the context of education is extremely important. There may be a crisis in tech stocks over last week. But that is not going to change the long term trend that the world is moving very firmly in the direction of information technology. I had the privilege to give the opening address at the Hitech conference at Zhenzen last month, on the invitation of the Chinese Government. Zhenzen is a remarkable part of China, had only a few hundred thousand people at the time of economic reforms. It has close to 4 Million. It was one of the poor states in China. It is one of the advanced states in terms of income. Perhaps, all this was due to fashion technology in which Chinese had done much better than India, mainly, at the low level. But what the Chinese were trying to do is just a constant recognition that there is a need to move in IT in a big way. China and Kerala have something in common namely very highly developed basic education, and compared with some other areas of India, the relatively back ward university education. Compared with every university educated person in China, India has six. In the past it looked as if it does not make much difference in the economy.  

The issue of heterodoxy is again becoming important. The twin danger that we face in the redefinition of the agenda that is going on in the Indian Central politics now raises questions both about pluralism and tolerance on the one side. Also it raises questions about the need for objectivity, not to mix myth with history. It is amazing to hear that a director of the Indian Council for Historical Research could say that he is absolutely informed that Rama, the avatar, was born precisely on the mosque that happened to be located there which has to be demolished and replaced by a temple. The confusion of mixing myth with history has to be resisted. Also the orthodoxy has to be resisted and the need for heterodoxy has to be very strongly asserted. Becoming orthodox, by confounding myth with history such that legal entitlements to sites and premises follow to particular sectarian groups on grounds that some epic has described it as such needs to be resisted.  So there are problems in Kerala to be addressed today. There are lessons to be learned from Kerala. That includes basic education. There is something to be learned from the persistent heterodoxy and pluralism of Kerala’s heritage. That on one hand made it possible to have a society in which Christians, Muslim, Jews and others could feel comfortable along with Hindus, Budhists and Jains. It has also made it possible to question orthodox statements which can be questioned by scientific reasoning either historical evidence or scientific reasoning in astronomy and mathematics and there is a real heritage here. So Kerala has lessons to offer not just on the importance of education but also on the importance of heterodoxy and the abiding value of having a pluralist society which seems to me is under real threat in India today.