Monday, February 21, 2011

On lok vidya

A look at the idea of lok vidya

Naresh Kumar Sharma

Lok Vidya is a synthetic term (as are many other terms having “lok” as a prefix). Gyan and vidya are terms more commonly encountered when we talk of knowledge, whereas lok vidya has been encountered only occasionally in the past. It has been suggested that lok vidya resides among the ordinary people, who again call their knowledge, values etc anything but lok vidya. Hence it is a term trying to convey a new idea. This idea has been with us for well over a decade now – since a time somewhere between the 2nd and the 3rd Congresses of S & T of India (CTSTIs) held at Chennai (then Madras) and Varanasi respectively. The 3rd Congress was also named Lok Vidya Mahadhiveshan. Even while returning from Varanasi to south India, many of friends were grappling with the introduction of this new term “lok vidya” – what it is; what more does it signify compared to traditional S&T ? etc. And that question has remained etched in my mind. When we are pondering over a new initiative, it may be worthwhile to look at the idea at some length. It would be useful to keep the context of emergence of this idea in view.

The CTSTIs came after quite intensive debates, discussions, studies by the PPST group regarding the nature, legitimacy and state of knowledge of Indian society, with particular focus on the knowledge of S&T. These congresses were not only a large scale effort to bring this understanding in to the public domain but also to relate it to the practitioners of this knowledge themselves. The effort brought to the fore the richness of various aspects of “traditional” S&T including practices of various arts, crafts, techniques, technologies etc from past and those in practice today as well as various aspects of theoretical knowledge.

It must be understood that traditional S&T is equally a synthetic phrase, as much as traditional society is. Neither any society calls itself traditional society nor do practitioners of “traditional S&T” call it so. A living and thriving society may talk of its traditions, but that is an altogether different issue. Likewise, possessors and practitioners of a knowledge system may talk about their own traditions, including some specific traditional designs, forms etc. without calling their knowledge itself as traditional knowledge. The phrase also sometimes creates confusion whether one is talking only about the past knowledge. It also had connotations of a certain kind of rigidity and non-adaptability – for example in use of computers in design for handloom industry.

Lok vidya provides a better expression as denoting and connoting knowledge of people of our society. It requires us to look at various aspects of that knowledge, their inter-relationships, its relation to structure of society and its institutions, values of the people etc. In this sense, it largely refers to indigenous knowledge and values. Lok vidya cannot be enumeration or collation of various kinds of knowledge dispersed among the ordinary people, but it consists of a connected whole of knowledge and values of people of any particular area – including large areas such as the country as a whole for some aspects.

It had already fallen into a state of disarray over a century ago and has not yet recovered from that disarray. We see a connection between the state of lives of ordinary people and the state of lok vidya in society. We still need to make efforts to understand the reasons for such state of disarray. As of now, we do not have a good idea of: what enthronement of lok vidya means? how it can come about? How it will change the condition of the people (i.e. what is the mechanism of such change in the condition of the people)? What will be the nature and content of that change? And why the people cannot take their own destiny in their hands? We do have some indications and descriptions on these aspects, but we find much less in terms of analysis to enhance our understanding. Indeed, we know very little about the way people understand each other and our means of analysis are often alien to modes of thinking and understanding of those very ordinary people.

The question of knowledge residing among the ordinary people in relation to organized knowledge has arisen often enough and must be a serious object of our understanding. Today it appears as a question of relation between university knowledge and knowledge in society. In any living and thriving society, this will appear an odd question indeed. A distortion in state of affairs of a society as well as falling in a disarray of its knowledge system makes such an understanding a false one. In a well organized, living, functional and prosperous society, lok vidya cannot be just the knowledge dispersed among its ordinary people. It gets organized and taken to higher levels of understanding and interaction between knowledge among people and organized, abstract, as well as codified knowledge in the repositories created for such purpose must be a perpetual state of affairs. It is hard to imagine that Nalanda and Takshashila or later universities were seen in an adversarial relation with the people of their times. It is also needs to be understood that all the knowledge that gets so organized, abstracted and/or codified does become elite and such institutions are almost always elite (though not necessarily elitist). The important question is: do they continue to serve the purpose of their society?

The disarray and disorientation of knowledge and values of society today is such that the connection and continuity between the knowledge in society and in the university is largely conspicuous by its absence and in a large measure, our universities are themselves quite dysfunctional. Both are damaging to the well-being of society. Enthronement of lok vidya would necessarily require not only re-establishment of healthy and a living relation between knowledge dispersed among the ordinary people and the organized knowledge and sharing of values inherent in the society but also valuing and encouragement of excellence in society.

It may be instructive to recall the comparative picture of Great Britain and India on the eve of colonial rule as well as on the eve of India’s independence, in terms of state of agriculture, irrigation systems, industry, S&T, knowledge about various aspects of everyday practical affairs, education, income levels, condition of labour etc. We are led to inescapable inference that India was enslaved when it fared better on almost all these counts compare to Britain and it attained its freedom, when it fared worse – far worse indeed – on all these counts compared to Britain. How can we make sense of it all? This is where importance of Dharampal’s contribution and Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj lies. Gandhi does not present any great analysis in his “Why was India Lost?”, but certainly important insights which also are relevant for understanding how was India regained.

That task was big, but in some sense easier part. Gandhi laid great stress in building inner strength of the people. Political freedom was only the first step. The main task still remains unfinished. Gandhi treated the constructive programme as training of the satyagrahi-s for the freedom struggle. There is a greater need for character building today. The universities need to be changed, as they are failing in this squarely. It will not be meaningful to talk of lok vidya without bringing in discussion of values relevant for our society as well.

It is in this context that we can try to understand whether lok vidya jan andolan will take us forward. However conceptualized, jan andolan must involve people at large, whether they do andolan through newer electronic means or on the streets. Dharampal’s work tells us something about how such changes came about. In particular, we see the causes for decline of education, S&T, irrigation, agriculture, industry etc in changes brought about in the institutions. In the absence of institutional changes, even large societal upheavals can come to a naught. We do not learn a lot, however from Dharampal’s work, how those institutions could be subverted by the foreign power? There are institutions that help realize certain values, including character building of its children.

I expect that we shall get some clarity on how lok vidya jan andolan can take us forward in realizing some of these goals.

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