Pawan Gupta

SIDH, Hazelwood, Landour Cantt., Mussoorie, U.P. 248179 INDIA

I wonder if it is still possible to learn from people? Learning requires active listening, a basic understanding- empathy and a certain mind set. Learning is through interpretation. It is subjective. It is greatly affected by the language (of interpretation) and mind set (of the learner). The ‘clearing’ from where traditional knowledge grew and nurtured itself has long been replaced by the ‘scientific’ paradigm among those who are educated and are concerned about ‘learning from the people’. Therefore is it possible to learn from a mind set which has undergone total transformation in the last few hundred years? This paper is an attempt to explore the impediments which prevent us not only from ‘learning from the people’ but also from our history. Unless we can clearly understand the processes, forces and prejudices which inhibit us from learning, and recognize the strengths of a pluralistic society in India, we will at best perform only cosmetic rituals, of ‘learning from people’.

Learning is not an event but a process, and there are several factors at play in this very interesting process.



The elite in India have, by and large, believed that-

These beliefs have been basically propagated by two major sections of our society - the scientists (including the social scientists) and the developmentalists. They have been passing the final judgment on Indian culture. They define what is good in the culture and what is not. According to them ‘what is good in our civilization is what is good or acceptable to modern science’; and ‘what is defective in the Indic civilization is what impedes or is unacceptable to modern science’.

This leaves absolutely no scope for any assessment and evaluation of scientists by non- scientists, particularly those rooted in the ‘little cultures’ of India. According to Ashish Nandy, "the inequality between scientist and the laity is endorsed by the philosophy of science which allows the laity to criticize modern science only in terms of its use value, that is, its social and political deployment and not in terms of the social and philosophical goals and assumptions built into the heart of the culture and the text of modern science". The strength of modern science is that it is almost impossible to criticize science effectively. If any criticism of science is to be heard seriously by the elite (the educated with a ‘scientific’ temper) then the criticism must be ‘in terms specified by the dominant philosophy of modern science’. A built in trap. This is the hegemony of science. The paradigm of western science has destroyed the very foundations of its criticism.

And this is where the problem - which relates to the theme of this workshop- lies. The scientific paradigm will accept only those initiatives which can be ‘scientifically’ explained. What lies outside, is bound to be rejected or at best accepted with a condescending attitude. And what we can learn from the people lies mostly outside the ‘scientific’ arena. People have been doing certain things for thousands of years, much before Francis Bacon the father of modern science was even born. They have learnt from experience, not from science.


One can draw a parallel here between Science and Development. Harry Truman, the American President, in his inauguration speech before the congress in 1949, used the phrase ‘underdeveloped countries’ for the first time. As Ivan Illich says, the word ‘development’ took on a different meaning from that day. "Countries of the south were put in one single category: underdeveloped. The new world view was announced : all the peoples of the earth were to move along the same track and aspire to only one goal: development." Greater production was the key to prosperity and peace.

The Indian developmentalists are now having to face the obvious fact that this development vision can not be universalized. The earth just does not have enough resources for the entire world to attain the consumption levels of the ‘developed’ west. This is an impossible dream. But the developmentalists have a vested interest in creating an illusion of spectacular development through occasional dramatic demonstrations of technological capability in small areas. ‘This model includes a clearly delimited space for ‘dissent’. While some questions may be allowed about the social consequences of technology - about modern agronomy, large dams, hydel projects, new diary technology, modern health care systems, etc. - no questions can be raised about the nature of technology itself.’

And here lies the crux of the matter. Unless we can seriously start questioning the ‘scientific’ and its counterpart, the ‘developmental’ paradigm itself, we can not make any serious effort to learn from the people. Most of these initiatives lie outside this paradigm. The reality today is that for a local initiative to be acceptable or taken seriously, it needs the approval of ‘science’ otherwise it faces rejection. The present interest of West in Buddhism is a case in the point. Buddhism is considered ‘scientific’ and hence acceptable. One forgets that Buddhism is much older than modern science.


Today the world is crumbling around us slowly but some of us are getting dazzled by the technological innovations and refusing to recognize it. We seem to have mastered the technique of what Joseph Heller in his novel Catch 22 calls, "protective rationalization, which turns vice into virtue, falsehood into truth, impotence into objectivity (or is it post modernism), opportunism into wisdom" etc. etc.. We have a captive mind which is coerced into conformity. We have been made to forget. Our vision is blinkered. It is extremely difficult to "learn from the people".

Modernization, development, scientific temperament, objectivity, and all such notions - we need to be careful of. All such ideas have a much deeper significance than meets the eye. They are well protected - by the very idea of objectivism. This is the trap of liberal totalitarianism of the west.

Unless we make a serious effort to understand the underlying (hidden) assumptions behind the western scientific paradigm we will not be able to ‘learn’. Today in order to ‘learn’, we require to unlearn first. Otherwise we will always be playing on their terms and as per the rules set by them and in their arena. This is a losing battle. These rules will disallow us any serious ‘learning from our people’. Only the West will learn, repackage it, give it new interpretations and then sell it back to us. These could be ideas or products. Participation, sustainability, child labour, feminism, human rights, parliamentary democracy at one level and Haldi and Neem at another level. All repackaged, modified versions, but with a major difference. They are without soul. But it is not apparent. The blinkers of scientific paradigm hides this fact, makes us oblivious to its absence, sometimes to the extent that we do not even realize its importance. Just like a human being without a conscience can be dangerous, these powerful ideas could and are being effectively used against us. It will keep up the illusion that we can achieve prosperity (of the west) and peace by following the development model of the west.



Now I would like to draw upon our history to give few examples which are contrary to the majority view among the educated classes in our country. Our education system has propagated false notions about our society. This has led to a general belief that our rural people have been steeped for thousands of years in superstitions and ritualism; they were leading a life of abject poverty which was caused by extreme form of social discrimination (casteism) and exploitative socio-political systems. This needs to be re-examined. Our thinking gets coloured by different interpretations of history. History is subjective, conditioned by the interest and the vision of the (colonial) historian. Shades of gray could be interpreted as black or white or another shade of gray, according to the perception or intention of the (colonial) historians. We need to understand the traditional systems which existed in India prior to 1830s; the methods employed to destroy those systems and then examine how we can now, relearn.

Gandhiji’s statement in October 1931 at Chatham House, London caused a lot of furor when he said, " I say without my figures being challenged successfully, that today India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, and so is Burma, because the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and left the root exposed and the beautiful tree perished. The village schools were not good enough for the British administrator, so he came out with his programme - every school must have so much paraphernalia, building and so forth. Well there were no such schools at all. There are statistics left by a British administrator which show that in places where they have carried out a survey, ancient schools have gone by the board, because there was no recognition for these schools, and the schools established after the European pattern were too expensive for the people."

From the research work of Indian scholars in recent years, we now learn, with almost a sense of disbelief, that a large part of the country did have a sustainable system, as late as early 19th century, which was systematically destroyed over the next 50 years or so. The findings substantiate what Gandhiji said in London, though he did/could not at that time respond with figures and statistics to the furor his remarks caused in the London press at that time.

I draw upon the works of Sri Dharampal (The Beautiful Tree, Biblia Impex ; Science and Technology in 18th century India and Angrezo se pahle ka Bharat, Nai Azadi Prakashan, Allahbad) extensively to demonstrate this. Sri Dharmpal, a noted Gandhian and historian, did extensive research in India and abroad and draws mainly from British records of 18th and early 19th century. He draws heavily from the reports and writings of English officers (not historians) e.g., Thomas Munro, John Bright, William Adams, William Digby, Dr. G. W. Leitner etc..

Why did the "beautiful tree" wither away? The answer needs to be explored if we are serious in our mission of learning from the people. Dharampalji speaks of "the sophisticated fiscal arrangements of the pre-British Indian polity, through which substantial proportions of revenue had long been assigned for the performance of a multiplicity of public purposes which made such education possible. It was the collapse of this arrangement through a total centralization of revenue as well as political structure that led to educational as well as decay in the economy, social life etc."

If this inference is at all valid, a re-examination of the currently held intellectual and political assumptions with regard to the nature of pre-British Indian society becomes imperative." This is essential if we are to learn from the people and understand their systems.

We also must understand that before the early 19th century, when the system started collapsing, we had more or less uniform standard in education throughout the country. Here we need to distinguish between disparity in standards (which is on a vertical plane, more to do with affordability) and diversity (differences on a horizontal plane; differences arising out of the need of a particular region or community). There was very little disparity but there was diversity. Different textbooks and sometimes different subjects were taught in different regions of the country. The kind of disparity in the education system which appeared in the country after 1835, when schools based on the English pattern were first established on a large scale, was nonexistent till then. Prior to this, private tuitions for children, especially girls, was popular with the affluent classes, but there was not much disparity between one school and another. Glaring disparities started only when the British, at the invitation of social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, started opening English medium schools and gave them state recognition. This clever move automatically derecognised the indigenous system without officially having to do so, and so created disparities within the education system. This was a big blow to the indigenous system.

Establishment of double standards (or rather multiple standards) in the education system ensured that the sustainable system at the village level withered away. Where multiple standards exist, the education programmes for the rural poor are perceived (both by them as well as others) at the bottom of the education pyramid. Thus they lose confidence and the will to sustain their own indigenous systems. In fact over the years their confidence in anything indigenous has been completely eroded.

The situation today is that the rural community aspires for the same elite system which is coveted by the urban middle classes. The dominant group in the village community, by and large, has the same aspirations for their children as those of the urban middle classes. They want their children to be taught English, at least as a subject, if not as a medium of instruction. They want the same expensive system with similar subjects, paraphernalia and style of teaching as is prevalent in urban centres. There is no will left among the village community to make the education programme sustainable.


‘The Economist’ in its October’ 94 issue had an interesting and revealing statistics. In 1750 India and China had 73% share in the worlds’ total manufacturing output. By 1830 this was down to 60% while the share of the top 20 nations (the ‘developed countries, as of now) went upto 30%. In 1913 India and China’s share in the world was down to just 8% while the 20 top ‘developed’ countries of the west commanded 80% of the share. We have been made to believe this reversal of fortune happened only because of the industrial revolution. What is hardly spoken is the fact of resource exploitation that went along with it; the systematic destruction of indigenous industry, the elimination by various strategies of the craftsmen community (mostly Sudras).

According to the Edinburgh Review (1803-1804) an ordinary unskilled laborer in the Allahabad - Varanasi area got more wages than his counterpart in Britain. It goes on to observe that "the tools of agriculture were of high sophistication. But so also seem to be the various agricultural practices, including selection of seeds use, their preservation, the manuring of land, the cropping patterns and the methods of irrigation. This review compares the agricultural production in the Allahabad - Varanasi region with that of lands in Britain. It was found that that the Indian production of wheat was about 1-1/2 to 3 times that in Britain. Recent ongoing research pertaining to the district of Chengalpattu in Tamilnadu seems to suggest that the average production of Paddy in this district around 1770 was about 3-4 tons per hectare and the best lands in the district produced 6 tons per hectare or more. It may be mentioned here that the high yields of Paddy production in the world today are around 6 tons per hectare. The wages of agricultural laborer in Chengalpattu in 1780-1795 was Rs.7.50 (at 1975 prices) while the wages in 1975 in this area had reduced to Rs.2.50".

In 1806 a survey was conducted by the British in Bellary and Cuddapah districts. The entire population was divided into three classes: high income, medium income and low income. There were 2,59,568 people in the high income bracket; 3,72,887 in the medium income and 2,18,684 in the low income. The consumption pattern was also studied in detail. 24 items were selected in the consumption list. Per capita consumption of the high income group was 17Rs, 3 annas and 4 paise; that of the medium income 9Rs, 2 annas and 4 paise and that of the low income was 7 Rs and 7 annas a ratio of 69:37:30. These figures point towards a more or less equitable society. In such a society, traditional knowledge systems thrive.

The indigenous systems were systematically destroyed. The society was divided and huge disparities created deliberately. A case in point: Tipu Sultans soldiers used to get Rs.10-15 per month. The ordinary laborer would get Rs4/- p.m. The Commander-in-Chief of the Chitra Durg got Rs.200/- per month (the highest salary in the region). After the British defeated Tipu, the English collector was given Rs. 1500/- per month. This and a number of other details all point to the fact that disparity in Indian society increased tremendously during the British period.

If we need to learn from the people, we need to inspire them and give them confidence in their own abilities. Today they have lost faith in their own ability because they all covet the same systems, as desired by (and available to a large extent to) the urban middle class; a system which is alien to them. They realize that on their own they can never create and manage such systems which is extremely demoralizing for them.

Disparity is on a vertical plane, it promotes competition, rivalry and disharmony. While diversity is on a horizontal plane, it promotes coexistence, agreement and harmony. Disparity universalizes aspirations and promotes monoculture. In an inequitable society everyone aspires for the same goals. This is detrimental to traditional systems of knowledge because they can only thrive in a conducive, non-competitive environment, where there are no hierarchies. Thus diversity can only be maintained in an equitable society.

Multiplicity in standards (as opposed to diversity), and disparity go hand in hand. They both support each other. As in a consumerist society where everyone runs after the riches, because of the myth that everybody can be rich. But as John Ruskin said, " the force of the guinea you have in your own pocket depends wholly on the default of a guinea in your neighbor’s pocket." Disparity (in education or for that matter in any other sector), sustains itself on this myth that the expensive urban middle class (English oriented education) systems are attainable/ desirable for all. It is coveted by all communities. it saps their confidence in their own systems thus restraining them from giving total commitment to indigenous systems. Disparity has been increasing in the Indian society for the last 200 years. This has already obliterated many traditional systems and many more are facing serious threats.

Hence we can not have sustainability or bring back the indigenous knowledge systems unless there is more equality in the society at large. As long as glaring disparities remain in society it will be impossible to expect those perceived to be at the bottom of the pyramid of social hierarchy to be convinced of the desirability of their indigenous systems. People will only contribute in making programmes sustainable when they are convinced that they are getting the best and not when they are compelled to accept a system, because there appears to be no other alternative.

Having systematically eroded indigenous systems, not only in the area of education but in politics, agricultural practices, science and technology and most important our confidence in anything indigenous, we need to unlearn a lot before we can learn. But where do we begin? Today the blame lies at our own doorstep. The biggest hurdle is our urban elite whose colonized minds need to do some unlearning.

I will finish this paper with a folktale from South India. One dark night, an old woman was searching intently for something in the street. A passerby asked her, " Have you lost something?" She said, "Yes. I have lost some keys. I have been looking for them all evening." "Where did you lose them?" " I don’t know. May be inside the house." " Then why are you looking for them here?" " Because it’s dark in there. I don’t have oil in my lamps. I can see much better here under the street lights", she said. We need to remember this tale when we are trying to learn from people. Perhaps it is time to move inwards and bring lamps into the dark rooms of our house to look for our keys.


1. Dharampal, The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the 18th Century, Keerthi Publishing House Pvt. Ltd., and AVP Printers & Publishers Pvt. Ltd. , Coimbatore, 1995

2. Ed. Ashis Nandy, Science, Hegemony and Violence: A Requiem for Modernity, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992.

3. Dharampal, Europe and the Non- European World since 1492, Ecological Development: Alternative Development Strategies, INTACH 1992.

4. Dharampal, Angrezon se pahle ka Bharat, Nai Azadi Prakashan, Allahabad, 1996.

5. Wolfgang Sachs, The Archaeology of Development Idea,

6. Ramanujan A.K., Who needs Folklore, The Eye, New Delhi 1993.