Awakening the Dormant

by Kushal Sohal | on 15 August 2020

The Congress’ Educational Thought 

The Indian National Congress (INC) was founded in 1885. It is a broad church political organisation that claims to stand on a liberal social democratic platform. Though it has led multiple national governments since India’s independence from British rule in 1947, it fared incredibly poorly at the most recent General Elections – 2014 and 2019. It suffered a  comprehensive defeat at the hands of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Congress, however, remains the second-largest party in the Lok Sabha, though one without the numbers to be officially labelled ‘leader of the opposition’. The route back to power for the Congress is, perhaps, long and treacherous. As part of the rigorous introspection that is so necessary, it should review its educational narrative. Though many have pointed to its bureaucratic failings and policy inadequacies (See Sherman 2018), I believe that the Congress can find solace and vision by means of a reacquaintance with its very own history of progressive educational ideals. It can do better than merely competing with other political parties to offer the catchiest developmental rhetoric around inequities in access to educational opportunities. Should it wish to go further and honestly grapple with the flaws of a rote-learning system and develop a long-term strategy to counter social ills such as gendered discrimination or communal strife, Congress should focus its energies on the socio-emotional learning space. I believe its route to articulating a new vision and policy roadmap should involve an understanding of its own spiritually-humanist tradition of educational thought. In recalling that education is a craft that produces vulnerable moments and, in turn, critical thought and empathetic conversational experiences, today’s Congress would begin the process of developing policies that do more than pay mere lip service to its tradition of educational ideas: this includes civic duty and creative freedom. Though its 2019 manifesto offered a promising twenty-five-point educational plan, the socio-emotional question was not touched upon. Interestingly, on the birth anniversary of India’s First Education Minister A.K. Azad in November 2019, Priyanka Gandhi noted that ” Educational values instilled from the heart can spark a revolution in the society“. This suggests that the Congress is aware of its rich lineage of educational ideas, but that it is not realised suggests gaps in understanding. In this article, I offer a whistle-stop tour of the history of the Indian National Congress’ educational vision. It is a broadly spiritually humanist idea that calls for socio-emotional experiences and empathetic moments. What this suggests is that the Congress needs to become the Congress once again.


Early Ideas 

While British civil servant and founding member of the Congress A.O. Hume spoke of enlightenment and the need for a ‘moral and intellectual capacity’ that appreciates the blessings of ‘free and civilized government’, Dadabhai Naoroji, the ‘Grand Old Man of India’, later noted that his East India Association would increase its ‘influence’ with an increase in participation of  ‘educated natives’. Though different, both ideas suggest education is a political project – it is way of staking a claim to self-governance. Revolutionary Bal Tilak set up a New English medium school in 1880 and the Deccan Education Society in 1884. The aim was to improve the quality of higher education in Maharashtra. For Tilak, it was critical that young Indians became familiar with nationalist ideals – he championed an education that emphasised one’s own culture and the idea of community service. As a fellow member of the Deccan Education Society and as the founder of the Servants of India Society, Gopal Gokhale too called for an education that would build a sense of civic and patriotic duty. Bengali poet-philosopher Aurobindo Ghose noted that an education ‘proper to the Indian soul’ was holistic, involved the training of the senses, and was personalized: ‘the mind has to be consulted in its own growth.’ Lala Lajpat Rai claimed that formal education should be about guiding one through a personalised process of becoming a thinking human. Some of these early ideas found voice at the height of the freedom struggle.


1920s onwards 

M.K. Gandhi’s Nai Talim (Basic Education) programme championed the education of the head, heart, and hand – the total development of consciousness through swaraj (self-rule). For Gandhi, education by means of manual labour in the rural village would tend to self-sufficiency and discipline. As was the case for many thinkers of Indian education, the medium of instruction was critical – he too called for the ‘mother tongue’ to be used. Pashtun leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan created ‘Azad Schools’, the training ground in the non-violent ethics and political consciousness of the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God). For Ghaffar, the aim was to eradicate social evils, eliminate prejudices towards modern education, champion the importance of literature and, ultimately, provide a total education – a balance between intellectual and physical activities. Fellow social activist B.R. Ambedkar believed that education was critical to the liberation of Dalits from an oppressive Brahmanical social order. Bringing together Western and Eastern ideas, he noted that ‘it is the nobility of one’s thought that defines one’s educational level’. For Ambedkar, ‘without education’, one is simply ‘existing, not living’. This suggests he sees education as a precondition for universal human freedom; this is an idea that leading thinkers share in common.



India’s first Education Minister A.K. Azad is known for supporting the foundation of Jamia Milia Islamia University, establishing the first Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), and calling for UNESCO to take up the mantle of educating for ‘international understanding.’ Claiming that ‘narrow-mindedness’ is the greatest hindrance to global cooperation, he calls for an education on which humans ‘meet one another on a plane of friendship and equality.’ This, he believed, must include socio-emotional moments. One way these can be achieved is through the arts – the educator of the emotions. He understood this to be an ‘essential element’ in any ‘truly national education’. Independent India’s First Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru took a more material and social developmentalist approach to education. Yet, he too called for a spiritually humanist education to complement economic needs. Such principles are, perhaps, embodied in this quote: ‘a university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search for truth.’ Zakir Husain, co-founder of Jamia Milia Islamia and the third President of India, drew on both Gandhian and Tagorean ideas of education. Emphasising a partnership between ‘work’ and ‘service’, he called for the acquirement of knowledge through community experiences. Humayun Kabir too drew on such ideas – looking to Rabindranath Tagore’s idea of creative freedom and Gandhian notions of ‘learning through activity’ in order to claim that the human ‘social being’ is ‘active’ ‘by nature’. What is particularly interesting to note is the place of UNESCO in the imagination of Congress education-minded politicians, namely from Azad’s post-independence speeches through to M.C. Chagla’s leading of India’s delegation to UNESCO in 1965. Though his tenure was mostly concerned with the workability of the three-language policy and whether education should be a state or national subject, Chagla too called on UNESCO to make its objective the cultivation of the human mind towards ‘international understanding’. This suggests that there is an internationalist undercurrent to the Congress’ educational vision; that a civic education which mirrors its ideas of pluralistic secular-nationalism should be but a mere microcosm of something global and universal. Inspired by Tagore, statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, India’s representative to UNESCO (1946-52) and President of India (1962-67), also spoke of an education that both formed ‘free creative’ persons and was the route to building ‘bridges between cultures’. Radhakrishnan’s idea of five forms of experience – cognitive, psychic, aesthetic, ethical and religious – are also worth mentioning; its apparent crossover with his educational ideas suggests a value for socio-emotional learning. Ideas of internationalism and active experience appear as core ideas in the Congress’ vision of education post-independence. But, how have such ideals fared in practice since? In short, they have been largely non-existent.


Theory vs. Practice 

The post-independence Gandhian ‘Basic Education’ programme failed in practice, its uptake was incredibly sporadic. Since then, the Indian Government has produced multiple, grand ‘National Policies on Education’. Matters such as the medium of instruction, the need to increase literacy rates, expansions in scholarships, widening access to disadvantaged groups, and improving infrastructure in schools take centre stage in the Congress-led 1968, 1986, and 1991 policies.  Yet, the educational focus has largely been developmentalist. Though it is incredibly important to address such inequities, I would like to contend that this does not mean there should be a casting aside of the thought on the purpose of the educational endeavour itself. The two should coexist. This is not to say, however, that there have not been any such attempts, but that it is not as common place as it should be. One of the more recent examples would be the controversial ‘Continuous and Comprehensive Education’ (CCE) introduced by Kapil Sibal when he was India’s Minister of Human Resource Development (2009-2012). In an attempt to move away from ‘chalk and talk’ methods of teaching, the CCE called for a focus on projects and frequent examinations as opposed to rote-learning for end of year tests. Its ‘Know As You Grow’ caption symbolised an attempt to bring knowledge to life through real-world application. Yet, data suggests that it failed to change teaching practices in many instances and where reform did occur, student stress levels often increased. This is the Congress’ most recent attempt at educational reform at the national level. Among its many pledges, its 2019 General Election Manifesto called for ‘technology-enabled teaching methods’ and compulsory ‘vocational training’ from Classes IX to XII. While the Congress manifesto was largely promising on the educational front, its own tradition of internationalist and socio-emotional learning ideals remained glaringly absent. A little yoga and physical education does not compensate for critical thought in empathetic conversational spaces.


Finding Itself 

Ultimately, even if every school has great resources and there are no barriers in access to education, if the educational objective is only developmentalist and shallow ethically, then its potential is not being effectively mobilised. Though many educators are taking their own initiative, this alone will not bring about the reforms that are so necessary. By retracing its own steps, the Congress too can reckon with the purpose of education. If the recent arrival of Hindu-nationalism cannot persuade the Congress to at least reflect and act on its own ideals, then it offers little hope of being the much needed voice of humanist education at the national, political level.



Taylor C. Sherman (2018) Education in early postcolonial India: expansion, experimentation and planned self-help, History of Education, 47:4, 504-520.


Suggested Citation: Kushal Sohal. 2020. ‘Awakening the Dormant: The Congress’ Educational Thought‘, Think Pieces Series No. 8. Education.SouthAsia (