Though this is unfair, let me make the following characterization of a debate for simplicity. There is a normative debate in India between those who want the stress to be on `Indian culture’ in the school education of the country, and the liberals who want to focus to be on the ideals of secularism. My suggestion is that this debate or divergence should be informed by how different societies have evolved or responded, especially in the recent past.

There is a demand or an affinity towards connecting with what is imagined or perceived as one’s own roost, identity or what can be broadly called, culture in many societies. Such a tendency can be seen even in societies which have provided `education’ or popularized secular ideals for many decades. There is enough evidence of such a tendency (and I have, personally, seen this) in post-`socialist’ societies of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and China. This is visible in the US and also in North Western Europe. Hence, it would be unrealistic to expect the disappearance of non-secular ways of life through an educational process that focusses on secular ideals for a long period.

In all these societies, such a loosening of secular ideals and an increasing affinity towards `non-secular’ identities have happened when people face real or perceived `vulnerabilities’. These have both subjective and objective bases. The collapse of communism and the associated certainty in the social and economic security has contributed to the enhanced vulnerability in post-socialist societies. The adoption of a market economy has further heightened these fluctuations in the lives of the common people. All these have encouraged a major section of people to embrace non-secular identities. Globalization has threatened the social security and employment prospects in developed economies. The migration of people with different beliefs and sensibilities could create a real or perceived danger and that has encouraged the early settlers to search for their own identities in north-western Europe—a region which has witnessed an organic transformation towards modernity and the assimilation of secular ideals for the longest period in human history.

Let us also consider India. Though mass education is a recent development in India, its upper caste groups have been receiving education for decades if not centuries. Is there any evidence of a major section of them becoming increasingly secular? One group of educated Indians have migrated to developed countries, such as the USA. Have they become more attuned to the ideals of secularism or are they becoming more and more `rooted’ in what they imagine to be the Indian culture. I frequently use the example of Jews. I don’t think that there is any other social group which has undergone formal education as long as the Jews in this world have. However, the reality and the idea of `Israel’ and its political implications all over the world are based on a non-secular identity.

In my view, the yearning for, what I loosely call, a cultural identity which is different from an acquired secular ideal is somewhat universal. This is reflected and appreciated in many ways. For example, what would be the position of liberals towards the education of, say, indigenous people. They may argue for a (sometimes, unrealistic) `preservation’ of their `culture’. To a great extent, there is a demand for the preservation of the specific attributes of `culture’ as part of the political mobilization of the non-elites and marginalized even within India, and this cannot be neglected with the perspective of an inorganic normative ideal of secularism.

Having written this, my objective is not to argue for a preservation of the identities of culture through education or general discourse. Instead, societies should encourage a critical reflection of their own cultural identities rather than rejecting these. It may not be very difficult to accept that the caste and gender discrimination are part of the so-called Indian culture in whatever way we characterize it. I don’t think that the lower castes or women in India would be comfortable in assimilating a secular normative ideal immediately, but at least a section of them have reasons to question and change the discriminative norms in terms of caste or gender. In fact, this is the right way to encounter those who argue for the incorporation of those values of Indian culture in their unreflective forms, as there could be divisions even among them when issues of discrimination are brought up. For example, I think the Hindutva politics in India has evolved to include those beyond upper castes, and this is the time for a reflection, as well as transformation of a Hindu politics and culture which goes beyond caste discrimination. Though all issues of gender discrimination may not receive the immediate attention of the majoritarian politics in India, those related to the schooling of girls, dowry, non-participation of females in work outside home can be brought up as part of a reflective understanding, assimilation and transformation of the Indian culture. (If my knowledge is correct, there is a section in the RSS which wanted the entry of women into Sabarimala temple, and that is a much more workable push for transformation rather than the position of the liberal left). These entry points of discussion, reflection and transformation of Indian culture are much more useful in the educational process rather than the imagined assimilation of non-discriminative practices on the basis on an inorganic secular ideal.

In my view, the use of what is described in the global debates as inter-cultural education could be beneficial to the Indian society. This values the understanding and reflection on the `cultural traits’ of different groups. (There is a mistake in reckoning the inter-cultural education as the one valid only for indigenous people). It does not argue for an unreflective preservation of any culture. Moreover, it values openness—each one being open to the culture of others. There is a lot to learn from the cultural practices of each other in the Indian society without being hierarchical. In India, such learning is unidirectional. The lower castes want to emulate the cultural practices of the upper castes. On the other hand, the so-called upper castes can learn a lot from the gender relations of the tribal population. What about the learning between regions within India? There is a unidirectional learning here. The `Hindu’ identity of the Northern India has creeped into the south and the east and among tribal populations. What about a reverse process of learning?

There is very limited understanding of multiple religions among students in many parts of India, even though India is a multi-religious society. How many people in other parts of India know the life and social practices of its people in the north-east? Though colonialism has given us some knowledge of the practices of north-western Europe (and then it is easy for us to reject these on the ideological ground of anti-colonialism), Indians can learn a lot from other developing societies. The fact that societies such as ours can flourish without dowry and by allowing women to work can be part of an inter-cultural education. This would show that societies can understand and if possible adopt such cultural practices without embracing a normative secular ideal or rejecting a religious framework, and that would be much more comfortable to the majority of Indians given their current subjective and objective conditions.

Though it may seem trivial, let us take the example of open defecation. There is a clear understanding that its persistence in India is not merely due to economic reasons but that it has cultural roots. This is a case where a substantial section of Indians has changed their practice irrespective of what they have followed in the past. This is also an example of cultural change being good for the individual and society. Education should facilitate such a cultural change. However, this change will not happen on the basis of an inorganic inculcation of modernity. There have to be other organic ways of bringing about this change without rejecting the cultural roots which may have led to the persistence of open defecation in the past. India is yet to use such nuanced strategies to bring about viable changes in its social practices. I would argue that school education can be an important (but not the only) platform for bringing about a cultural change. There could be similar issues related to caste segregation in schools, non-education and early marriage of girls, dowry, resistance of mobility and employment of women, and so on.  Instead, we focus and waste a lot of time on macro debates on secularism verses religion in the content of school education.

The debates on what should be included in education in India should get out of the conventional battle between liberals and the traditionalists. The inclusion of a shallow and extraneous secularism in the content of education is not going to make much difference. It is also not important to be proud of what is imagined as Indian culture without much critical reflection.