India is possibly the only developing nation that has inculcated scientific temper in its Constitution, yet the situation on the ground suggests otherwise. Recently, the National Council of Educational Research and Training [“NCERT”] came under fire for the removal of a chapter on evolution as part of its “rationalisation exercise.” For the most part, the cause of such a hasty, seemingly irrational decision was largely attributed to the political parties in power. Although the subject of such criticism is fully valid, the object of such criticism seems misplaced at times. It fails to locate the blame on the educational policies that enable such decisions because it seems more of a structural problem that has troubled India’s education policy since the 1970s, independent of the political party in power. This part of the blog seeks to locate the root cause of this issue by situating it in the context of India’s approach to school curriculum development by examining judicial decisions and early Parliamentary debates surrounding education policy.
“Centralisation” of Education: From State List to the Concurrent List
At present, the curriculum for schools is created by two different bodies: State boards and NCERT. However, this does not dilute the gravity of arbitrary modifications in the NCERT curriculum because the NCERT-recommended curriculum is adopted unchanged by many Indian states hence, a substantial portion of the Indian populace reads the NCERT-written textbooks. NCERT, however, did not previously hold that level of significance because up until 1976, education was under the State list; but, with the passage of the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution, it was moved to the Concurrent List. The Committee led by S. Swaran Singh, proposed for the change. It is significant to note that there have been previous concerns expressed over this because this was implemented during the 21-month Emergency period without a thorough debate in Parliament, and it is said to have disrupted the federal system intended by the Constitution’s founders.
The political and economic climate in India in the 1970s is very different from what it is today, even if we overlook the entire federal component of the problem. It would have made sense to propose centralisation back then because the Center had more resources at its disposal, especially in the financial sense. At that time, many States lacked the necessary resources, infrastructure, or machinery to develop or successfully implement a standard education policy or a comprehensive curriculum. As a result, the Committee of Members of Parliament on Higher Education, led by Shri P.N. Sapru, noted that in order to get beyond these restrictions, giving the Union Government legal authority over education would be necessary.
The debates surrounding this decision make it clear that it was necessary given the historical context; the States recognised the greater interest in education and the need for financial support from the Centre. Even then, the Center’s involvement was limited to very specific issues, the majority of which were of a financial nature. The then education minister Maulana Azad, emphasised the need for cooperative efforts from the central government and the states and how the Centre should aid the States in implementing these policies. Similarly, Sr. K.L. Shrimali, an educationist and Minister of Education proposed a working alliance between the Centre and state governments, with the Centre taking on more responsibility for funding and carrying out federal policies while leaving administrative control to the states.
The decision only faced a few outspoken critics because it was made very clear that the Centre’s engagement is restricted and was driven by financial need. One of them was Dr. V.K.R.V. Rao, a renowned economist and former Union Minister of Education, who cited a number of objections like the potential loss of State initiative in obtaining funds for educational programmes, the infringement on state rights, and the significance of preserving active state participation in social development initiatives.
All of his objections are valid even today, but the most important criticism in this regard is the fact that times have changed and the States are more capable than they were before. The fact that this decision was a rushed one that happened during the emergency period is also not to be ignored.
Textbooks and the Court
Judicial interference in academic curriculum happens very rarely and hence case laws on this are very sparse. This is because Courts are generally averse to engaging in policy matters, recognising that educational decisions require a nuanced understanding of pedagogy and the diverse needs of students. However, the judiciary’s intervention becomes crucial when constitutional principles and rights are at stake. However, the Supreme Court has laid out contradictory jurisprudence whenever it has dealt with the issue.
For example, in the case of State of Tamil Nadu & Ors. v. Shyam Sundar & Ors. , the Supreme Court stressed the value of a unified system and rejected arguments that it infringes on children’s freedom to select their own educational system. The argument hinges on Article 21A, the Right to Education, which emphasises quality and equitable education. The Supreme Court examined whether uniformity in curriculum served the spirit of this right or impinged upon students’ fundamental freedom of choice. It recognised that while uniformity could enhance quality and equity, it should not compromise individual liberty. The legal arguments revolved around Article 21A, Article 19(1)(a) [the right to freedom of speech and expression], and Article 14 [the right to equality]. The Supreme Court ultimately balanced these rights by upholding the curriculum while suggesting revisions to contentious content.
However, in the case of Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay v. Union of India , the Supreme Court dismissed a plea to implement a uniform education system having common syllabus and common curriculum. the petitioner’s plea for a uniform education system with a common syllabus and curriculum. The primary legal argument revolved around Article 21A and the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. The Supreme Court considered Article 14 (equality before law) and Article 21A while reflecting on the need to balance standardised education with the diverse learning needs of students across various institutions. The court endorsed the existing system while allowing teachers the flexibility to augment prescribed textbooks with additional knowledge.
Another aspect of the issue that requires consideration is decentralisation in the procedural aspect of formulating a curriculum. The most significant case in this regard is Aruna Roy v. Union of India (2002), where the Petitioners challenged the addition of Sanskrit to the NCERT curriculum on the basis of Article 28 concerning religious education and also based on the fact that NCERT did not consult the Central Advisory Board on Education [“CABE”] while doing this. The key legal argument rested on the powers vested in NCERT by its Memorandum of Association. The court had to ascertain whether NCERT’s autonomy extended to curriculum decisions, thereby minimising external interference. It concluded that NCERT’s autonomy, as defined in its mandate, granted it the authority to formulate curricula without the need for additional approvals. The lack of decentralisation in the procedural aspects of formulating school curriculum highlighted here is what I will turn to in the second part of the blog.
In recent times, the state of Kerala has drawn attention for its distinct approach to school curriculum. The Kerala Government’s decision to deviate from the nationally prescribed curriculum has sparked discussions about the balance of power between federal and state authorities in shaping education policies. It adds credence to the argument that regional diversity and socio-cultural factors should be considered when framing curricula. The Kerala experiment is a reminder that education policies cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach, and localised customisation could better address the needs of specific regions.
Decentralisation promotes involvement and accountability among those involved in education, enabling them to customise the curriculum to meet their particular needs. Some say decentralisation may result in differences in educational quality, but these worries can be alleviated with the right regulation and oversight. State governments can share their best practices and build a collaborative framework to guarantee the quality and uniformity of education while allowing for flexibility and personalisation. However, this may not be a feasible option without proper political mobilisation, but is deserving of more debate. A more attainable goal would be to decentralise the bureaucratic framework in place. This aspect of the issue will be discussed in the second part.
Fathima Rena Abdulla is a third-year law student at the National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi.
[Ed note: This article has been co-edited and coordinated by Eeshan Sonak, Archita Satish and Nupur Barman from our student editorial team.]