The war between Tamil Nadu’s DMK government and the BJP government at the Centre on education issues is intensifying. On several issues including NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test), a central exam for admission into medical colleges; CUET (Common University Entrance Test) for admission into all Central government universities; three-languages learning in K-12 education and several provisions of the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 tabled in Parliament on July 29, 2020, the Central and state governments are at loggerheads.
However, addressing the 34th convocation of the Avinashilingam Institute for Home Science and Higher Education for Women in Coimbatore on January 21, Dharmendra Pradhan, Union education minister, expressed hope that the DMK government will cooperate with the Centre in implementing NEP 2020. “Though education is in the concurrent list of the Constitution and the state has the right to enact legislation, the Centre expects Tamil Nadu to accept NEP 2020,” he said.
But this expectation is unlikely to be met. Last year on April 5, 2022, almost two years after NEP 2020 was approved by Parliament, the DMK government constituted a 13-member committee chaired by D. Murugesan, a former chief justice of the Delhi high court, to formulate a State Education Policy (SEP) exclusively for Tamil Nadu. The Seventh Schedule of the Constitution of India lists 52 subjects on which both the Central and state governments can enact legislation. Education is one of them. Therefore, the DMK government, now in the third year in office, believes it is entitled to enact its own SEP.
According to academics and political pundits in Chennai, although DMK supremo and chief minister M.K. Stalin has cited several differences with the Centre which prompted the state government to constitute the Murugesan Committee, the roots of the latest Centre-state stand-off can be traced to the old issue of adamant opposition to Hindi being declared the national language of India. Tamil Nadu’s opposition to the three-language policy which obliges all school children to learn Hindi, English and the state language, goes all the way back to the pre-independence era.
In 1937, the first regional Congress government elected under the government of India Act, 1935 and headed by stalwart C.R. Rajagopalachari, (aka Rajaji), issued a government order making Hindi language learning compulsory in state government schools. This prompted the rise of the Self Respect Movement founded by Periyar E.V. Ramasamy Naicker and the Justice Party which apprehended “Hindi imperialism”. In 1965, when Hindi was approved by Parliament as the national language, violent riots broke out in Tamil Nadu. Shortly thereafter, the Congress government in Delhi declared English as the associate national language and language of the upper judiciary and Centre-state and inter-state communication. But with NEP 2020 reiterating the three language formula — which makes Hindi learning compulsory for all school children — old antagonism has been revived.
“After having several rounds of meetings with stakeholders including teachers and experts in the field of education, and holding public hearings we are almost ready with the SEP draft. It will be uploaded on the state government website by April for public feedback before the final policy is unveiled,” says former director of matriculation schools A. Karuppaswamy, member-secretary of the Murugesan Committee.
Even as a battle royale is likely in the Supreme Court to ascertain whether Tamil Nadu’s SEP 2023 will be adjudged “repugnant” to NEP 2020 and that the latter should prevail, academics fear that the future of 12.7 million children enrolled in Tamil Nadu’s 52,300 government, government-aided and matriculation schools may be jeopardised by the Centre-state NEP-SEP row.
“Currently, there are schools that teach three languages and even foreign languages like Japanese. Fifteen years ago, a DMK government had decreed that Tamil should be the sole language of instruction in all schools statewide. But that proposal drew a storm of protest and had to be dropped. This time round the Murugesan Committee would be well-advised to reiterate a Supreme Court judgement of 2014 which ruled that parents have the right to choose the medium of instruction for their children,” says advocate M.J. John Arokia Prabhu, vice president of Tamil Nadu Private Schools Association, who also heads the legal team of the Delhi-based National Independent Schools Alliance (NISA).
With Central government ministers repeatedly demanding that Hindi — the language of the majority of citizens — should be declared the national language, and all political parties in Tamil Nadu averse to this proposal arousing sub-nationalist sentiments in the state, the apex court’s Solomon-like judgement empowering parents to make language learning choices is the best solution.