At the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s annual conclave which ended this weekend, its highest decision-making body – the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha – passed a resolution calling for affordable, accessible, quality education for all. This is just one of a handful of the organisation’s resolutions, and perhaps the only one that talks about education without some reference to teaching Sanskrit, rewriting history, or moral and spiritual values.

The RSS has a deep interest in education. In 1977, it set up the Vidya Bharati Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan, which now runs around 12,000 schools across the country.

The RSS’ primary interest has not been education in general but “religion and culture”, and its schools exemplify this approach. The majority of its schools are run-of-the-mill urban private schools, affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education. They have additional classes in Hindu “sanskriti gyan” and RSS-administered exams on the subject. Their model, like much else in their school system, is Christian missionary schools that have catechism or religious studies classes for Christian students.

The schools charge fees and cater to the lower middle class, but are not for the poor. Although the RSS advocates education in the mother tongue or state language, a large number of its schools are formally English-medium.

Equal opportunity

Given this background, the focus of this year’s resolution, which in some measure speaks of universal access to quality education, is new. To the RSS’ long-standing goals of “value-based, nationalistic” education, the resolution also adds “employment-oriented and skill-based” education, which the Union government has set as its goals for education.

The resolution specifies that such education should be “in an atmosphere of equal opportunity”. The RSS appears to be re-jigging its position on caste-based reservations, so what it means by “equal opportunity” must await any change in its declared opposition to existing affirmative action policies.

According to the rather disjointed resolution, growing economic disparities are a consequence of the absence of quality education and the absence of quality education is a consequence of inadequate government funding and the low priority given to education in government policy. It also states that the absence of public funds and the low policy priority have created the conditions for businesses with a profit motive to enter the education sector. This has put quality education beyond the reach of the poor. The resolution calls upon the Centre and state governments to “allocate adequate resources and formulate appropriate policies”.

While the reasoning is a little confused, the resolution is right to reiterate the well-established link between growing economic disparities and the lack of access to education. The dismal state of education is certainly a consequence of the low policy priority given to mass education. Coming just days after the presentation of a Budget which employed sleight of hand to suggest increased allocations when there were none, the resolution suggests a disconnect between the RSS’ policy priorities and those of the government.

Two focus areas

The resolution specifies two areas of focus for policymakers. One is to “curb the rising commercialisation of the education sector”, and the second is to “ensure proper training, appropriate salaries and strengthen the dutifulness of the teachers to enhance their standard both in state-run and private schools”.

Both for-profit education and teacher education are major issues of concern for those involved in any manner with education policy. The government has shown no inclination to change the rules that permit for-profit education businesses to thrive, and its guideline themes for the new education policy also do not adequately deal with teacher education. It remains to be seen where either fits into the draft policy document that was to have been submitted to government at the end of last month.

Without defining how it sees the role of the non-government sector in not-for-profit education, the resolution also calls on society at large to play its role saying, “Traditionally our society has played a vital role in providing affordable quality education to the common man.” This is a grandiose assertion, given that even today the vast majority of people in India are educated in state-funded schools (and universities).

However, the drafters of the resolution may have quite a narrow definition of affordable quality education for the common man. The resolution exhorts “all the social, religious organizations, corporates, educationists and eminent people” to take responsibility “especially in the rural, tribal and undeveloped areas…”

The RSS has several decades of experience running schools in poor and tribal areas. These are mostly one-teacher schools that offer only very rudimentary informal education and place emphasis on what the RSS calls “sanskars” or values.

It is this absence of clear definitions in the resolution that raises questions about its purpose and its value. What for instance does the RSS mean by “quality” and “equal opportunity”? The resolution which talks of education as the responsibility of government and society also leaves us wondering whether the RSS believes that it is the State’s responsibility to provide the affordable, accessible, quality education or merely to fund it.