Forward to pre-colonial past
With India's parliamentary elections expected in April, the real prospect of victory by the Hindu nationalistic Bharatiya Janata Party has led to fears of a radical overhaul of an education system now largely based on the British model.
In the years in which the BJP has cemented its political power in various states, elite English-medium schools in big cities have been eager to assert their "Indianness", conscious that they could be a target for forced change if they do not.
Convent schools which were clearly identifiable by their neat knee-length skirts and blouses have abandoned these colonial-style uniforms for the more Indian salwar kameez or baggy trousers and long shirt - not always with parental approval. Hindi and other local languages are being taught more often.
Beyond these outward trappings more fundamental changes may be in the offing and educationists are beginning to look more closely at the schools set up since the 1950s by the grass-roots nationalist movement, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or National Volunteer League), for clues. Many of the top BJP leaders have their ideological roots in the RSS.
Beginning in 1953, the so-called Shishu Mandir schools were set up by the RSS from private donations and evolved a new syllabus.
"These were in keeping with the culture so that it could inculcate into the children a sense of national pride," said K C Sudarshan, the RSS general secretary. These have now grown to more than 5,000 institutions, employing 38,000 teachers and educating well over a million children.
The schools are organised under the banner of Vidhya Bharathi (national education) administered by the RSS. Vidhya Bharathi trains teachers, develops curricula, publishes textbooks and conducts research. Every state has its own Vidhya Bharathi committee which guides and manages the schools within the state. Essentially, however, the schools are allowed to run themselves making them more responsive to the local population than government-run schools.
The RSS has in the past been a secretive, shadowy organisation. For decades it was never openly admitted that the RSS was behind the Vidhya Bharathi schools. Only in 1994, as the BJP was gaining in popularity, did the RSS begin to publicise its work, including its education programme. That it was behind such a large number of schools came as a major surprise to the government.
The schools must follow the syllabus laid down by the Indian government but RSS-run institutions also teach Sanskrit, yoga, moral education and Indian music and advocate a more holistic approach to child development.
The RSS plans more schools, particularly in villages and other deprived areas. It believes that during the colonial era a self-help system of village education was replaced with a highly-centralised system to create an urbanised administrative elite.
"Under the pre-colonial system teachers taught the higher grades and the higher grades in turn taught the lower grades. But after the British came the villages went right back to the dark ages," said Mr Sudarshan. The RSS is promoting these so-called "one-teacher schools" based on the pre-colonial model particularly in remote tribal areas and slums where government facilities do not exist and where state-employed teachers are reluctant to work.
A number of other semi-religious and philanthropic foundations have set up schools emphasising Indian culture and philosophy, subjects not very prominent in the government's secular syllabus. The RSS is already seeking a dialogue with the larger foundations such as Ramakrishna Mission in Southern India. Such an alliance is likely to be the vanguard of any changes sought by the BJP in the country's education system as a whole.
"The RSS can provide some of the guidelines. Private institutions are doing good work and all can be brought together and a policy on a new system can be evolved," said Mr Sudarshan.
But he is realistic about conducting any wholesale reform of the education system: "We cannot replace the old system overnight because the resources required would be too great."
A rapidly-growing population means any government will barely be able to keep up with demand for new schools without undertaking major reforms. None the less many educationists believe the school curriculum will evolve into something more like that of the RSS schools.