Challenges include students’ accessibility to smartphones/tabs/laptops, availability of digital connectivity, electricity supply, and capability of teachers in using technology for teaching.

A girl student attending online class on a laptopImage for representation | PTI
Voices Digital divide Thursday, August 26, 2021 - 15:30

Two social processes can be observed at play in the country and its society today. This writer is no sociologist, much less theoretician, but certainly we can make sense of the events and developments around us especially in the background of how this society of ours has developed over the last several centuries. These processes are: one, the making or rather unmaking of a community and creating a people with minimum rights; two, the exclusion of a large number of the unprivileged in the name of development and technological inclusivity.

The traditionally ruling castes have plenty of experience in subjugating a vast section of people and exploiting them to serve their economic and social interests. By creating several graded categories of people through castes, privileging a few and ‘unprivileging’ the rest through denial of avenues for development such as education, these castes have created a monopoly over power and pelf in the name of ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’. Basically, this meant that a section of the people was condemned as undeserving of respect and well-being, unworthy of education, their genius and creativity throttled, their lives counting for nothing.

The ingenuity of our ancestors in introducing ‘societal colonisation’, or internal colonisation, that is a small section of the people using and exploiting the vast majority by dividing them (into upper, middle, low and untouchable castes) and ruling them has stood the test of time, the caste system having survived for several hundred years now. It is wrong to attribute the Divide-and-Rule strategy to the colonial rulers. This was the masterstroke of the exploitative mindset of our ancestors who did not have to cross seas or mountains or fight wars to find a people to subjugate, exploit, use and rule over. They created a class of people, from their very own society, that would slave for them. In return, they were granted one privilege: they could live. Even this was conditional: they were not to cross the boundary laid down. If they did, then they lost the right to life. Thus, they lived precariously, on the edge, not knowing when the masters would unilaterally withdraw that privilege of life. They were thus grateful to the kind masters who allowed them to live.

Re-creation of past

This phenomenon has been activated once again, as the traditional chains of colonisation have begun to weaken and the former slaves beginning to assert their rights in the new era of assertion by the excluded people. A new group of people has been identified for colonisation, Muslims and other minorities like Christians. Muslims being the largest minority community also have a history of violence and conquest, which has been useful in creating a picture of the people as invaders, aggressive, ruthless, devious, anti-Hindu. This narrative has been around for very long but mostly it was at a subterranean level. The Christians on the other hand have escaped this characterisation perhaps either for lack of history to distort or their record of social service in such sectors as medicare and education.

The Muslims therefore are now being demonised, their livelihoods destroyed, their properties taken over. They are being pushed out of the mainstream as pariahs, to the margins of society as flotsam and jetsam. They are being told you either live on our terms or you won’t live; accept the status of a non-citizen or lose all you have. Their new companions are hatred, distrust, violence, abuse, discrimination, exploitation. Choice is not theirs anymore. Bow or you will be broken.

Denial of education

The other social process that is beginning to assume contours, becoming clearer by the day is the slowing down of the spread of education in the country by adopting the practice of putting the cart before the horse. When this is done, neither will the cart move forward nor the horse will be of any use. The situation will result in stagnation, without any productive activity. Our government today is doing this in the name of modernisation knowing fully well that it will yield only stagnation, not development, of the poor, the rural people, and the excluded. This process started with privatisation of education at all levels, and the government’s withdrawal from its welfare role especially in the areas of public education and health.

The Modi government has made a grand beginning to tackle the challenge of education in COVID-19 times. It has set up the Indian National Commission for Cooperation with UNESCO to promote digital education “with equity”. The Ministry of Human Resource Development and its associated institutions are supposed to be doing their bit by promoting digital education through online educational platforms and through TV and radio. Several online resources have been developed with high-sounding Sanskritised names such as Diksha, Swayam, Nishtha and so on.

The focus on the new system of learning, the thrust on technology-driven education, that is online classes, is misplaced given the many challenges it faces. This is with relation to government-run/state-supported schools, not the private ones that cater to the better off sections of the people. These challenges are accessibility of students/parents to smartphones/tabs/laptops, availability of digital connectivity, electricity supply, and importantly, capability of teachers in using technology and deploying it to teach.

This technology-driven education is marred by the usual factors that have kept India under-developed: the rich-poor divide; rural-urban divide, or the gender divide. These factors are neither new nor unknown, yet our policy-makers and the Modi government are promoting technology-driven education through various schemes without putting in place the necessary infrastructure, expertise, and manpower. The cart before the horse phenomenon.

The experiments to continue with online classes for schools even after a level of normalcy has been reached with regard to the COVID-19 situation and the delay in reopening the regular schools point to a lack of understanding or worse, a planned strategy to limit scope for development for the underprivileged.

Given the Hindutva ideology that guides the Modi government, it will not be unfair to assume that one more opportunity has presented itself to the government to restrict educational opportunities for the poor in the name of adopting technology-driven education. The poor will be once again locked out of improving their lot, to move forward in terms of improving their security and stability. The poor remain poor; the illiterate will remain illiterate; those who had little access to education and had nurtured hopes of a better future will find their access receding. The spread of education will be thwarted effectively. Inequality will remain. The disadvantaged will remain alienated. Society will remain divided. The majority will remain enslaved. The small minority of the privileged people will revel in their hegemony as they have done for several hundreds of years.

Dr Akhileshwari Ramagoud is a journalist and academic.

Views expressed are the author's own.

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.