Government faces trust deficit over introduction of IKS

India’s higher education regulator, the University Grants Commission (UGC), last month released draft guidelines for the incorporation of Indian Knowledge Systems (IKS) into undergraduate and postgraduate higher education courses in a move seen as epistemic decolonisation by some and nationalistic propaganda by others.

IKS refers to ancient knowledge or culture which continues to be passed down informally today.

The latest policy, outlined in a 13 April document, stressed the promotion of Indian languages, arts and culture, and proposed the development of courses with traditional knowledge content in a range of subjects across natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, engineering, medicine, agriculture, community knowledge systems, fine arts, performing arts and vocational skills.

The UGC suggested all undergraduate and postgraduate students should be encouraged to take courses in IKS amounting to at least 5% of their total required credits. In addition, at least 50% of IKS credits should be related to the student’s major discipline.

For example, students enrolled in undergraduate medicine programmes will study ancient Indian systems of medicine, including Ayurveda (North Indian traditional medicine), Yoga, Unani medicine with roots in Arabic-Persian systems, homeopathy, and Siddha (traditional medicine originating in Southern India) in their first year.

India’s National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 recommended the integration of IKS into the curriculum at all levels of education.

However, higher education teachers may not have expertise in IKS and the UGC acknowledged in a recent statement that, although they are experts in their respective fields, university academics may require “additional familiarisation” with IKS.

Government motives under suspicion

While some stakeholders regard the move as decolonisation of the curriculum – and long overdue – other academics said they were suspicious of the government’s motives, given its constant attempts to impose a Hindu nationalist ideology in the country, including on education.

Labour historian Maya John, who is a member of the Delhi University Academic Council, said while the IKS was being framed as a decolonisation of the curriculum, the way ‘Indian Knowledge System’ is defined in recent documents “obliterates the multiplicity and diversity of knowledge systems and replaces them with a uniform form of reference”.

She told University World News that “[f]rom the historian’s point of view, it becomes more problematic because it seems that IKS is restricted to the ancient period [of history] and eternalises its existence, as well as posits this knowledge as supposedly unique; thereby creating a narrow and parochial mindset among students.”

Here, she referred to an emphasis by some education officials on ancient Hindu texts such as the Sanskrit Vedas and Puranas, which are collections of ancient literary legends, lore, oral history and Hindu philosophy.

She pointed to a need to recognise a plurality of knowledge systems that existed in the Indian subcontinent, and described these knowledge systems as “always evolving with interaction with sister civilisations”.

A senior faculty member at the Delhi University, who requested anonymity, said IKS encompasses the entire treasure trove of knowledge in various fields that materialised methodically over generations from primeval times onwards in India.

She said bringing IKS into the higher education curriculum aimed to reconnect, re-order and reclaim knowledge and teaching methodologies that have been forgotten, hidden or marginalised.

Undermining genuine decolonisation

Suvrat Raju, a physicist at the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bengaluru (Bangalore), said it was extremely important to decolonise the curriculum in India.

“In the context of science, it is important to challenge Eurocentric narratives that have persistently falsified the history and also the practice of science,” he told University World News.

However, referring to the governing ideology of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he said: “On the other hand, it is important that the RSS/Hindutva position on this must be resisted.”

The BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been accused of focusing on a ‘Hinduised’ version (Hindutva) of history and culture as espoused by Hindu nationalist group Rashriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) from which the BJP draws many of its members, which Raju said was leading to other distortions.

“In fact, by promoting absurd narratives, the RSS/Hindutva perspective does disservice to the genuine task of decolonisation,” Raju said.

The RSS and some BJP members have in the past gone to considerable lengths to assert the supremacy of Hindu knowledge in history, often making absurd, unproven and unscientific claims and pseudo-scientific assertions to support this ideology.

Some of the people interviewed for this story said they did not want to cast aspersions on IKS but could not trust the BJP government’s intentions behind implementing it. They said the UGC’s move was bound to be viewed with scepticism given the government’s attempts at ‘saffronisation’ of education – saffron is a colour closely associated with Hinduism.

Rewriting history books

Last month India’s National Council of Educational Research and Training, an autonomous body that oversees the development of the national school curriculum and textbooks, caused a major controversy after it altered school and college textbooks to reduce the content on 16th-19th century Mughal history in an apparent bid to downplay the Muslim rulers’ influence on culture and art in India.

In 2021, the UGC released a revamped formal undergraduate history curriculum with a reduced focus on Mughal and other Muslim rulers. The new syllabus gives greater importance to Vedic and Hindu religious literature and pre-historical texts. After an outcry by prominent historians, the UGC said the syllabus was “non-binding”.

A research scholar at Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh said the BJP agenda was to praise Hindu contributions to Indian history while rejecting other contributions.

“They have been trying to restructure history,” he said. “The incorporation of IKS in the curriculum is no doubt a different matter and not directly related to reconstruction of history, but if you connect this with other things that have been happening like school history textbook changes, then the government's motive appears suspicious.

“Do they really want only to incorporate IKS in the curriculum, or do they have some other motive? Nothing can be said with certainty at the moment,” he added.