Most Read

Josy Joseph’s Feast of Vultures

An award-winning journalist draws up on the stories of anonymous poor and famous Indians to weave together the challenges facing the nation.
Read More

Mahasweta : Life And Legacy

Mahasweta Devi's ideas and writing will continue to be the guiding principle for generations of writers, activists, academics and journalists.
Read More


G N Devy

Despite achievements of half a century of affirmative action in higher education, legacies of discrimination, marginalisation and denial are still enmeshed in Indian social composition.

Equality as a fundamental right is guaranteed in India’s Constitution. Accordingly, successive governments have tried to cope with educational and social inequalities. All of the approximately 350 state-funded universities and 16,000 colleges have been trying to provide education at a relatively low cost, not entirely unaffordable to students from the poorer classes. In several states, education to all female students is made almost cost-free. Yet, it cannot be said that the state has succeeded in providing access to higher education for the marginalised in India. The scale of the problem is huge, and the states’ resources inadequate. The reasons for the denial of access to quality education, however, cannot be ascribed merely to the enormous size of India’s population or lack of adequate resources. The deprivation caused by these factors is compounded by the long history of caste hatred and the socially divisive legacy of colonialism. It is not surprising, then, that the nation has to surpass its own great achievements over the last quarter century and continue in future the process of discovering for itself the challenges in defining denial and capturing nuances of marginalisation. These nuances often go unnoticed when a simple matrix of class and caste is employed to describe Indian society which is fragmented over two thousand castes, six hundred tribes and more than a thousand mother tongues.

The Adivasi Academy campus at Tejgadh near Baroda was founded by G N Devy and his fellow activists to create a unique educational environment for the study of tribal communities
Courtesy: Adivasi Academy, Tejgadh


The reorganisation of Indian states after Independence was carried out along linguistic lines. The languages that had scripts were counted. The ones that had not acquired scripts, and therefore did not have printed literature, did not get their own states. Schools and colleges were established only for the official languages. The ones without scripts, even if they had a great stock of wisdom carried forward orally, were not fortunate enough to get educational institutions for them.

The history of these marginalised communities during the last few decades is filled with stories of forced displacement, land alienation, eruption of violence and counter-violence. Going by any parameters of development, these communities always figure at the tail end. The situation of the communities that have been pastoral or nomadic has been even worse. Considering the immense odds against which these communities have had to survive, it is not short of a miracle that they have preserved their languages and continue to contribute to the astonishing linguistic diversity of the world. However, if the present situation persists, the languages of the marginalised stand the risk of extinction. Aphasia, a loss of speech, seems to be their fate.

It is a daunting task to determine which languages have come closest to the condition of aphasia, which ones are decidedly moving in that direction and which ones are merely going through the natural linguistic process of transmigration. It may not be inappropriate to say that the linguistic data available to us is not fully adequate for the purpose. In India, Sir George Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India (1903-1923)—material for which was collected in the last decade of the 19th century—had identified 179 languages and 544 dialects. The 1921 census reports showed 188 languages and 49 dialects. The 1961 census reports mentioned a total of 1652 ‘mother tongues,’ out of which 184 ‘mother tongues’ had more than 10,000 speakers, and of these 400 ‘mother tongues’ had not been mentioned in Grierson’s Survey, while 527 were listed as ‘unclassified’. Considering how complicated the census operations are in countries that have large migratory populations, and particularly how much the accuracy in census operations is dependent on literacy levels, it is not surprising that the data collected remains insufficiently definitive. What is surprising, however, is that as many as 310 languages, including all those 263 claimed by less than 5 speakers, and 47 others claimed by less than a 1000 speakers, had started becoming extinct within half a century since Grierson collected language data. In other words, a fifth part of India’s linguistic heritage was lost within just half a century. To appreciate the magnitude of this issue, consider the fact that at present apart from the main twenty-two languages included in the Schedule, there are nearly eighty languages with more than 10,000 speakers, and nearly 360 other languages with fewer than 10,000 speakers. Thus during the last fifty years, we seem to have lost another one third of our language diversity.

Language loss is experienced in India not just by the ‘minor’ languages and ‘unclassified dialects’, but also by ‘major’ languages that have long literary traditions and a rich heritage of imaginative and philosophical writings. In speech communities that claim major literary languages such as Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati, Kannada and Oriya as their ‘mother tongues’, the younger generations have little or no contact with the written heritage of those languages, while they are able to ‘speak’ the languages as ‘native speakers’. It may not be inappropriate to assume that people all over the world are paying a heavy cost for a globalised development in terms of their language heritage. This linguistic condition may be described as the condition of ‘partial language acquisition’ in which a fully literate person, with a relatively high degree of education, is able to read, write and speak a language other than her or his mother tongue, but is able to only speak but not write the language she or he claims as the mother tongue.

On the eve of Independence, a serious debate arose regarding the place of the English in Indian administration. It was decided to continue the use of English for a period of ten years until, as hoped, it would be replaced by Hindi. An official “Schedule of Languages” was included in the Constitution, listing 14 languages (in order of the number of speakers): Hindi, Telugu, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Assamese, and Sanskrit. There have been three amendments to this Schedule during the last 55 years, resulting in the addition of Sindhi, Konkani, Manipuri, Nepali/Gorkhali, Maithili, Santali, Bodo and Dogri.

The Bhasha Van or forest of languages at the Adivasi Academy has hundreds of trees, each representing an Indian language, reminding us of our rich cultural and linguistic roots
Courtesy: Adivasi Academy, Tejgadh

English, nonetheless, continues to be not just the language of the judiciary and administration but also the main medium of instruction in higher education. At present, English is moving into secondary and primary education, replacing Indian languages. Beyond this, it has also been a passport to lucrative careers. Students whose mother tongues are marginalised must battle with the language disadvantage while competing with “linguistically affluent” students.

When a speech community comes to believe that education in the other language alone is the way ahead, it decides to adapt to the new language situation. It would be pertinent therefore to consider if there is something inherent in the dominant development discourse in the contemporary world that requires diminishing of the world’s language heritage, a kind of a ‘phonocide.’ The communities that are already marginalised within their local or national context, the ones that are already a minority within their cultural contexts, the ones that have already been dispossessed of their ability to voice their concerns, are obviously placed at the frontline of the ‘phonocide.’

The issue of inequality arising out of the location of a person within a regional or national language in the Indian context is not quite analogous to the language tension in bilingual or multilingual countries such as Canada or Spain. The remoteness from formal higher education, and therefore from economic opportunities, is acute in the innumerable linguistic hinterlands in India. The speakers of these languages have first to learn another dominant language, as well as Hindi and English, if they desire to pursue a college-level course.

Between the collective consciousness of a given community, and the language it uses to articulate the consciousness, is situated what is described as the “world view” of that community. Preservation of a language involves, therefore, respecting the world-view of the given speech-community. In such a situation, the community will have only two options: it can either reject the utopia that asserts that it is the human right to exploit the natural resources and turn them into exclusively commercial commodities, or it can reject its own world view and step out of the language system that binds it with the ecologically sensitive world view.


Though cultivation of higher knowledge has always remained a part of Indian culture, and even if Indian thinkers in ancient and medieval times have made significant contribution to the fields of mathematics, material sciences, medicine, astronomy, architecture, arts, philosophy and literature, it was not until the colonial times that public institutions of higher learning meant for cultivation of knowledge came to be established in India. The three universities established by the colonial government in 1857 were primarily meant as regulatory bodies supervising the conduct of high school examinations. During the first five or six decades of their existence, the courses offered by them remained restricted solely to what was then known as ‘liberal arts’.

It was only in the early years of the twentieth century that a few ‘nationalist’ centers of learning were founded and it was after First World War that a few technology schools were opened in India. Thus through the entire period of High Colonialism, from Macaulay’s Minutes of 1835 to the emergence of nationalism, the main objective of higher education in India was to imbibe colonial learning. Colonialism was not only an economic enterprise, though that was at its heart. Forms of knowledge too were profoundly influenced during the colonial experience. That is why it was often described as a ‘mission to civilize India’. The influence was on both sides engaged in the encounter. Colonialism encourages the dominating culture to perceive itself in a larger than life self-image, thus turning relatively minor thinkers, poets, and scientists as having universal relevance. On the other hand, even the valuable thinking and reflection generated by the colonised culture, in its past or present, comes to be seen as diminutive and minor. Gradually, the colonised culture learns to internalise the cultural imagery and induces a cultural amnesia in its self-perception.

The cultural amnesia affects the colonised culture’s reading of its own history, turning it into an episodic narrative of decline rather than a causally linked story of evolution. The institutions of higher learning, together with other intellectual expressions such as the law, literature and forms of social exchange, work towards inducing this kind of cultural amnesia. The courses offered in Indian universities when India gained independence, without exception carried the burden of cultural amnesia internalised during the colonial period.

Though the infrastructure of higher education has witnessed an exponential growth during the last six decades in particular during the last twenty years, we still have not got over the amnesia affecting the course contents.
I hasten to add that I am not proposing here that we should return to some arcane and obscure scientific theories drawn from ancient or medieval Indian past, or promote forms of knowledge cultivated in our past in any anachronistic manner. What I am pointing to is the need to reconcile the ecological, sociological and intellectual requirements of Indian society with the forms of knowledge cultivated in public institutions of higher learning. Unless we learn to make this the most essential feature of all our higher educational transactions, we are not likely to produce any first rate research and really world class models of learning. On the other hand, if we do not accomplish this, we may continue to be merely vendors of knowledge developed elsewhere for meeting the social and cultural challenges in those cultures.

A classroom at the Adivasi Academy, which is an institute for the study of tribal history, folklore, cultural geography, social dynamics, economy, development studies, medicine, music, arts and theatre
Courtesy: Adivasi Academy, Tejgadh


I have so far argued that in India higher education has managed to lose touch with languages spoken by Indian communities and, therefore, it is not able to fully access the idiom through which life is perceived outside our campuses. I have also argued that amnesiac cultures have a difficult date with intellectual activity. The loss of language and the loss of cultural memory are probably subtler factors in denial of access to higher learning. The more easily noticeable factors need to be located in the social structures and in discriminations embedded in them.

In discussions of affirmative action or social equality, two important factors distinguish India from most other countries. The first of these is the caste system, which presents a radically different dynamic from agents of marginalisation and inequality in other societies. The second is the enormous backlog resulting from at least two thousand years of social discrimination. For twenty centuries, women in India were not allowed to cast their eyes on sacred books or manuscripts, and more than two thirds of India’s population – men as well as women – were not allowed to go in the proximity of Brahmins, or those engaged in the generation of knowledge. The marginalised, by the very logic of the term, are presumably smaller in number than the more dominant social groups. In India, however, the ‘marginalised’ far outnumber the dominant sectors of the society. The ‘mainstream’ in Indian society is an aggregate of its margins rather than being a well-defined ‘other’ and adversary of those margins. Typically, among every 100 Indians, 6 belong to ‘Denotified’ or criminalised communities, 8 are tribals, 21 can be classified as religious minority, 22 form the dalit oppressed groups, and 38 persons represent the aggregate of linguistic minorities.

A simple addition of these figures, however, leads to the absurd conclusion that only five per cent of Indians constitute the dominant ‘mainstream’. The intertwining of the patterns of domination and victimisation of various marginal groups by other marginal groups is typical of Indian society. Layering, not segmentation, is the principle that explains these complexities more adequately. Age-old tensions between one caste and another, between castes and tribes, between one tribe and other tribes, as well as frequent migrations of linguistic, racial, or religious groups create social sedimentations of these ‘marginal layers’. Thus, a dominant social group in one part of India can easily count for marginal in another part, or a group empowered at one time can easily slide back to the status of marginality soon afterwards.

One major cause of marginalisation throughout the country has been forced migration arising out of man-made or natural disasters. The refugees from Bangladesh, the riot-hit Sikhs, the people of Kashmir affected by social strife, small tribal communities in the north-east at the receiving end of inter-tribal conflicts, projects-affected people uprooted and forced to migrate, families of small land-holding farmers vulnerable to crop failures and market fluctuations and victims of natural disasters such as quakes, floods and cyclones have to face rather abruptly the situation of denial of access to quality education. The internal displacement due to man-made disasters, habitat uprooting caused by natural disasters and inconsistencies in patterns of livelihood and food security, all render the map of disadvantage in India infinitely complex. Feudal attitudes and repressive moral codes that result in gender discrimination cut across urban and rural areas, as well as across linguistic, religious, caste and tribal boundaries. Moreover, the social categories such as the disadvantaged castes (about 1200), almost all of the Adivasi communities (about 650), the ‘Denotified’ and nomadic groups (about 190), whose numbers and populations are by no count small, and whose relations with one another do not fit into the definition of a homogenous ‘class’ add considerably to the perplexing complexity involved in mapping denial in our country. Add to this infinitely complicated social wave, the religious minority groups. Organizing a reasonably defined hierarchy of disadvantage, or creating a code for measuring lack of access, is thus a daunting task, in a country saddled with legacies of fractured histories, divided society, incomparable linguistic, religious, ethnic and regional diversity, and an ever bursting population that has crossed the mark of a billion.

The statement of this complexity does not, however, imply that we stop worrying about the marginalised sections at the present juncture of our march towards becoming a knowledge society. If we consider how badly these groups have lacked resources and opportunities, or how little they have benefited by the impressive infrastructure of higher education in the country, it will need no further convincing that these groups must be made the central focus of growth in higher education in India.

I need not speak about the DNTs and Adivasis whose representation in colleges and universities has not crossed a single digit percentage in correspondence with their population size. But think of the Muslim community in India. According to the 2001 Census, Muslims constitute 16.4% of the population, or a total of 174 million, but their representation in various professions is dismal. In 2001, in public sector industries and public institutions there were only 4.9% Muslims, in Central Administrative Services, 3.2%, and in the teaching profession only 6.5%.

These statistics belie the claim of a democratic state that provides equal access to social goods and services. The corresponding figures for Adivasis are much worse, and those for the Denotified and nomadic communities are so pathetic that any self-respecting Indian should hang one’s head in shame.

Cutting across lines of caste, tribe, religion, or gender, a person born in an Indian village is likely to be deprived of any reasonably decent education – this includes nearly fifty present of India’s population, living in 650,000 villages. The modern Indian education system has its roots in colonial history, and in colonial production systems in which Indian villages were low-priority economic entities. Leaving aside some Agricultural Universities, fewer than 10 of India’s (approximately) 350 universities are in rural locations. The dramatically adverse ratio between India’s rural population and the institutions of higher education relegates the entire rural population to the category of ‘educationally disadvantaged’.

During the last fifty-seven years, the Constitution was amended a number of times in order to improve people’s access to the means of empowerment. These amendments have resulted in creation of powerful statutory bodies, with semi-judicial and supervisory authority, such as the National Women’s Commission, National Scheduled Castes Commission, National Scheduled Tribes Commission, the National Human Rights Commission and the National Minorities Commission. One would have hoped that the Constitutional guarantees and the protection mechanisms accomplish the goals for which they were created. It seems however that one must yet continue to hope.

In democracies all over the world, electoral politics inevitably envelopes public institutions, and the social or ethical imperatives quickly get subsumed within the political dynamics. The policy of reservations for marginalised sections in institutions of higher education in India has faced this hazard far too often in the recent past. There have been violent demonstrations and inter-group clashes round the question of positive discrimination for the marginalised. Even if there has been no civil war in India on the question of the quota system in education and employment, the intensity of popular sentiment on both sides of the social divide continues to keep Indian society in a perpetual war-like mood on this issue. The number of ‘seats’ in the ‘quota’ system in institutions of medicine and engineering continues to be at the heart of the acrimonious debate.
There have been numerous instances of state-wide or national strikes by the entire medical fraternity just to oppose an increase in the ‘quota’ by even one or two seats at the super specialisation level. Against this, there have also been instances of misuse of the constitutional guarantee by political parties by raising the protection given to the marginalised classes to an unrealistic level causing harm to the interests of meritorious students. The fact is that after half a century of independence, Indian society continues to be deeply divided over the question of affirmative action in education; and it is virtually impossible to arrive at definitions of denial that will satisfy all social classes in India.

The author, pictured here at the Adivasi Academy, is striving to create a new approach of academic activism
Courtesy: Binu Alex


During the first half of the twentieth century, the infrastructure of higher education grew slowly. When India became a Republic, the government began to build universities, colleges, national research laboratories, and other research institutions. The second half of the twentieth century saw unprecedented growth in technical and higher education, from three central universities in 1951 to 18 in 2005; and from 24 to 205 state-run universities. Other institutions were also established during this period, including 95 degree granting accredited institutions, 18 officially designated ‘Institutes of National Importance’, and seven privately funded universities, bringing the number of universities from 27 in 1951 to 343 in 2005. Over the last five decades, then, on average six new universities were commissioned every year; and the growth has been sharper in recent years, according to data from the Indian government’s Department of Secondary and Higher Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development. During just two funding years, 2003-4 and 2004-5, the number of degree-granting colleges rose from 15,343 to 17,625.

The University Grants Commission was created as a single authority to coordinate and promote non-technical higher education in the country. Similarly, several other Research Councils were created for promoting research in various disciplines such as Medicine, Engineering, Sciences, and Social Science. The figures for student population receiving instruction in institutes of higher education show that educational institutions increased their absorption capacity between 1986 (59,82,709 students) and 2004 (100,09,137 students) to accommodate nearly five million more students. During the same period, the number of institutions offering technical Diploma, Degree, and post-graduate courses moved from 962 to 38,800, a remarkably steep increase. The budgetary allocations for higher education are made primarily by the Higher Education Department of the Human Resources Development Ministry. In addition there are special purpose allocations in the nature of affirmative action from the budgets of various other ministries, such as the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Additional funds are made available by various state governments, since education is included in the ‘concurrent list’ of constitutional obligations.

Do these provisions benefit every young woman or man aspiring to seek degree level or graduate education in India? More pertinently, are these infrastructure and funding provisions adequate to meeting the huge backlog of social justice needs? The answers to these questions are not heartening. For example, the disparity between educated girls and educated boys has been increasing at an alarming rate. The statistics for 2001-2002 show that nearly five million fewer girls received higher education than boys in the same age bracket. The gap in some states is substantial, as is evident from the examples of Karnataka (11 females: 48 males) and Orissa (11 females: 74 males). This is generally the story, though there are a few states in which the number of females receiving education is substantially higher than the number of males: in Pondicherry, for example, the ratio of females to males is 13 to 10, and in Chandigarh, 40 to 27. The enrolment of students of both genders has increased by seven million over the last sixty years, but the percentage of girls to boys has moved up from one-tenth to merely two-tenths of this newly educated class. In other words, there are nearly a few million girls less than there should have been in college enrolment, for a variety of cultural, social and economic reasons.

A similar disparity exists between students from rural areas who can avail themselves of higher education and those in the urban areas. The picture of higher education varies from state to state, with economically poorer states having a lower percentage of students enrolled in higher education. Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have not done as well in the area of higher education as some other smaller states, or the Union Territories such as Goa and Chandigarh. The more recently created tribal states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand show a far bleaker picture. The percentage of students who manage to obtain bachelor’s degrees in relation to the overall population of the same age group has remained confined to a single digit. The proportion of students from disadvantaged social classes enrolling for degree programmes is, predictably, much smaller; and the proportion of such students to students from other classes does not conform to the ideas of affirmative action conceptualised in India’s Constitution and educational policy.

Over the last quarter of a century it has been the lot of regional universities meant for distance education and continuing education and the Indira Gandhi National Open University to grapple with the legacies of multi-layered denials in the Indian society. The achievements of these have been impressive, particularly in that they have accomplished so much in an area and in a manner that have been unprecedented in our history.

But the challenge is vast in its scope as well as in its complexity. It is a wide-spread feeling, and to an extent a genuine concern, that quality of learning and research suffers in the process of providing the marginalised access to higher education on what are seen as considerations that are extraneous to academic activity. One needs to revisit this argument for a careful scrutiny. It is of course true that students coming from villages will fare poorly if the medium of instruction is kept confined to the English language alone. It is similarly true that an Adivasi student, who has not even handled simple gadgets at home, will feel completely lost if asked to face an online computerised session of instruction. It is the same if some urban students were to be asked to appear for a viva examination standing knee deep in mud in a farm. These superficial descriptions of difficulties posed and faced, however, tell us nothing about how knowledge is produced, transmitted and acquired. I would like to have a slightly different take on this issue.

Historians of ideas tell us that ideas, and indeed even paradigms, constituting what comes to be recognised as knowledge often undergo radical changes. If the change is merely topical or minor in significance, it acquires at the most the label of ‘a new theory’. If the shift is really profound, it takes the form of an ‘epistemic slide’. In history, one notices such radical epistemic shifts taking place once in a few centuries. And when an epistemic shift occurs, all theories resting upon the established episteme start undergoing corresponding changes. We know, for instance, that Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and other Greek philosophers were profound thinkers; but when their idea of the universe as a box-shaped space gave way to the Ptolemic notion of the universe as a moral symmetry, the sciences and philosophy produced by the ancient Greek philosophers were replaced by other sciences and philosophies. Later, Galileo and Copernicus made these ‘new sciences’ look like idiotic conceits. This has happened in Indian tradition of knowledge as well.

Behind all the major epistemic shifts lies a new vision of the cosmos, in its dimensions of Space and Time or matter and energy, or in terms of its geometry or calculus. Today, faced with the impending spectre of climate change and irreversible environmental depletion, the life of earth has started looking decidedly finite with the end of the species and all forms of life close in sight. Consequently, in the field of learning and sciences a major epistemic shift has been taking place. The French Canadian philosopher Lyotard described, in his Report on Knowledge, this paradigm shift with the phrase ‘The Post-modern condition.’ According to him, for us there is no possibility of a single universal knowledge, rather, we have to learn to live with many ‘knowledges’, each of which is no longer an analogy to the ‘phenomenal world’ but rather a ‘paralogy’, ‘a narrative’ of our perceptions of that world.

In our country, the communities that we have so far seen as ‘marginal’ communities, the Adivasis and the DNTs, the coastal people and the hill people, have with them as yet the collective memories of coping with the environment and sustaining it. They still have with them, stored in those languages that our developmental logic is unwittingly destroying, paralogies of the universe which can be of immense help in averting the feared end in sight. Of course, if we continue to insist that they must learn what we have to teach to them, they will not fare well. But, is it not likely that we try to learn from them?

Is it not possible that the entire society is seen as a vast university, every community in it an open treasury of knowledge, as if they were collectively a vast reference library, and the institution of learning a co-curator, a co-supervisor of that knowledge ? It is possible that if we think along those lines, howsoever impractical that may appear to one’s mind shaped within the institutional confines and disciplinary boundaries, we will perhaps manage to tune in with the emergent knowledge paradigm on our own terms. This will help us not only to get beyond the amnesia induced by colonialism in our thought, but also to provide solutions to ecological disasters that the disciplines developed over the last few centuries have posed before the world.

In other words, the question of ‘inclusion of the excluded’ should no longer be seen as a question of ‘grudgingly giving something because it is politically correct’ but rather as an opportunity before us for shaping new fields of knowledge, novel pedagogies, and genuinely relevant curricula.

G N Devy is a linguist, literary scholar, cultural activist, and institution builder for the cause of India’s adivasis or indigenous peoples who are 8.2 per cent of the country’s 1.21 billion population, according to the 2011 national census. The former professor of English made his mark with After Amnesia, a critical work on the distortion in Indian memory caused by colonialism, which won him the Sahitya Akademi award in 1993.

(Reproduced with permission from the author, this was a lecture delivered by him as part of a national consultation on ‘Education among Adivasis/Tribals’ held at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, IISc Campus, Bangalore on September 26, 2010.)

Add comment

Security code