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6. Industrial and technical institutions and the resignification of manual labour

It is now well-known that missionaries played a central role in the development of the elite Western-style educational institutions in India from which the postcolonial state’s founding fathers sprang. Far less well-attended is that missionaries instituted what was in fact a hierarchy of schools, with some intended for those they deemed unfit for English-medium, book-centred, “proper” schooling. While these “poor schools” or “industrial schools” were based on models first tried in the metropole they were intended in India to transform the meaning of manual labour, which, it was alleged, was devalued by traditional elites to the detriment of India’s economic growth. Research in this understudied area would inquire into the scale of these kinds of schooling and their relationships—financial and ideological—with both colonial and postcolonial governments. It would ask, moreover, whether, how, and with what effects new values were indeed attached to the particular skills inculcated in the poor. The colonial expansion of schooling was also intrinsically tied to the resignification of caste differences within the school through manipulating curriculum, school timings, pedagogy etc with the stated aim being that lower caste children not aspire to lives outside of manual labour.


Tailoring class, Nazareth Industrial School, undated, Tamilnadu

Arun Kumar
Working Lives and Schooling in Late Colonial India (1880s-1940s)

Inserted within the pages of contemporary accounts, yet mostly absent from the mainstream historiography are the histories of the schools for the poorer sections in colonial India. My thesis is an exercise to uncover the records of these ‘absent institutions’ of educational and labour histories. These didactic institutions (industrial, reformatory and factory schools, orphanages, children’s homes, workhouses, and railway workshops) were set up by Christian missionaries, ‘natives’, and colonial masters to educate poor children who were deemed unfit for book-centred, “proper” schooling. These schools were instituted with the objective of producing a modern, disciplined, and semi-skilled work force out of an unruly indolent class of low castes and untouchables, artisans and workers, beggars, vagrants, juvenile offenders, fakirs, gamblers, thieves, criminal tribes and poorest of the poor Europeans and Eurasians. Looking at the atypical nature of curriculum, school timings, and pedagogy etc. of some of the specific educational and reformatory institutions where children’s labour was exploited to manufacture goods with the aim to train them a life of manual labour, the project asks the question: is it historically appropriate to view these as normal ‘schools’? My thesis will also look at the issues of poor childhood, child labour, and reproduction of social hierarchies. While looking in and out of the British Empire, the thesis will also look at the flow of missionaries from Germany, Britain, and America into the territories of British India and examine the circulation, contestation, appropriation, and transformation of ideas to educate, train, regulate, order and reform both morally and physically the bodies of the poor children in the colonies. By looking at the everyday histories of schooling for the poor in India at the fin de siècle, his work unfolds the shared global vision of an education attempting to reform the figure of the ‘poor’ in nineteenth and twentieth century. To trace the network of clues, his research employs missionary and colonial writings, school records, vernacular literature, and oral testimonies.

Divya Kannan
Education of the Labouring Poor in Late Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Kerala

(Project completed)

The on-going research is an attempt to write a history of education of the labouring poor in Kerala. The study will analyse varying notions of poverty perpetuated through education by both state and non-state actors. Textbooks, agricultural and industrial education and technical education have been some of the avenues through which children of lower castes were brought face to face with changing societal notions and power structures. As part of the research, I am currently using records of the Basel Mission(currently known as Mission 21), London Missionary Society and Church Missionary Society, apart from various official sources.

An interesting approach would be to examine the textbooks published and used in government and mission schools for elementary education. Since the majority of children of the labouring classes did not complete high school in the early decades of the twentieth century, textbooks at the elementary level provide a glimpse of the debates involved in the shaping of a curriculum and pedagogy for them. This study aims to move beyond a mere chronological narrative and understand the social changes, if any, that were brought about by the spread of education and its role in identity-building. Three kinds of schooling institutions will be examined: industrial schools, boarding schools, and regular primary and secondary schools. Informal schooling with the help of newspapers, religious literature and social movements shall also be looked into. Pedagogy for the poor will also constitute a major research area.

Jahnavi Phalkey
Documenting Aakash – the android-based tablet computer project

"The poor and ordinary have been excluded. Aakash will end that digital divide." Kapil Sibal, Former Minister, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, 2011.

The optimism around technological solutions to the problem of poverty, including that of access to education, is found abundantly in nineteenth and twentieth century history. Some found reasons to be optimistic about vocational education and education in the industrial arts, others found them in alleviating conditions of living such that time could be made for classroom instruction. It is within this broad faith in education being able providing a pathway out of poverty, the ability of technological solutions to solve social problems, and the increased visibility of the software industry in India that the “Aakash tablet” project took birth. Aakash (Hindi - sky) is an android-based tablet computer that draws on the legacy of at least two projects – the inexpensive personal computer “simputer” produced by Bharat Electronics Ltd., (2002 - ) and the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project led by Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab (2006 - ).

At Aakash’s birth (2011), the Ministry of Human Resource and Development (HRD) announced a subsidized distribution policy mainly to college and university students all over India. Suggesting that this was going to be less expensive than printing textbooks, Aakash was going to ensure better access to educational material as well as to online instruction. As the fourth version of the tablet is proposed (2013), the tablet is now aimed at students in general with online course content available also for high-school children (Central Board of Secondary Education - CBSE - curriculum) and for university students. Furthermore, the Ministry of HRD claim, they “wish to develop a technically and financially sustainable model to ensure that Aakash reaches every household in the country and every Indian is empowered and connected to the 21st century world through ICT.”

The Aakash project has been seen as dying or dead by various observers but there is little by way of scholarly study available to understand its development, changing goals, and more so, its testing and use. This project will document and critical examine the ongoing development of Aakash - especially the content and ecology of school instruction that is proposed, pursued, and responded to by those involved in its promotion, making and use.

Neeladri Bhattacharya
‘For the simple folk’: textbooks, classrooms, and pedagogic practices

The general effort of the project is to understand how the poor experienced schooling in colonial India. It will seek to explore questions like the following: What textbooks were prescribed in schools for the poor? What textbooks were available? What could the rural and urban poor get to read, and what were they expected to read? To what extent did the ideas of the textbooks circulate within rural or urban society?

Beyond the school textbooks, the project will explore a wider corpus of didactic literature. It will ask: what was taught beyond the texts? How were the poor to be schooled in specific codes of behavior and ways of living? How were they to be told about notions of the ideal and the desirable, the moral and the ethical? Print literature relating to such questions in different languages will be collected and analyzed. But the project will also try and study how these texts – or the knowledge embodied in them – were transmitted to those who were not literate.

The project will also explore how workers were trained to work, artisans were schooled in their craft, and peasants were instructed about improved ways of cultivation. This would require investigation into official training projects as well as methods of instruction within the structure of artisanal families and workshops. The effort will be to understand questions such as the following. How were artisans and craftsmen taught within the workshop and master’s sheds? How was this ‘traditional’ learning transmitted over generations? How was this learning encoded into wisdoms – ideals and practices to be respected and absorbed, even as they were changed and modified?

Sunandan K.N.
Critical Mind and Labouring Body: Caste and Education Reforms in Kerala

(Project completed)

Exploring the various educational reform programs implemented in primary schools and high schools in Keralam in India in the last two decades, the project seeks to analyze the dichotomous concepts of mental and manual labour, theoretical and practical knowledge, and general and technical education which constituted the premise of these reform interventions. The broader objective of the project is to understand the role of caste practices in conceptions of body, skill and knowledge as constructed and disseminated in the practices of educational institutions in India. The work focuses on the crucial connection between the reproduction of the above concepts and caste as it is practiced in contemporary Keralam.

The critical scholarship has already mapped the failure of reform initiatives in challenging the continuing domination of patriarchal and casteist forces that operate in the domain of education. Most of these studies conceptualize the question of domination as problem of exclusion of the marginalized groups. This is expressed as the lack of representation of women and Dalits in the decision making bodies, lack of resources for these groups, their low enrolment and high drop-out rate in schools and in general as a problem of socio-economic exclusion. Naturally the suggestions were focused on educational programs which can become more inclusive and incorporative of marginal groups. While these explanations are valid and important, this works attempts to extend this criticism to basic concept of “school” itself, and as an extension, to the basic assumptions behind the present educational methodologies. The attempt in here is to shift the debate on the exclusions and dominations in education from the domain of institutional to the epistemological. I attempt to locate the Brahmanical and patriarchal domination not just in the institutional structures but in the very conception of education based on the division between mental and physical labour. The major objective of this project is to develop some preliminary concepts that would help us understand education not only as a project of developing ‘critical thinking but also as a project of creating ‘critical action.’


Sarada Balagopalan, “An Ideal School and the Schooled Ideal: Educational Experiences at the Margins” in P. Jeffrey et al (eds), Educational Regimes in Contemporary India, New Delhi 2005

Sarada Balagopalan, Inhabiting ‘Childhood’: Children, Labour and Schooling in Postcolonial India (Palgrave), forthcoming