With the tricolour up in the Fort and the Presidency just out of colonialism, education was deemed very important for all classes of society. However in Madras, out of the 1.2 million students who had enrolled in Class one only a third even reached fifth class.
Congress argued that dropout children mostly went on to continue their family professions and proposed reforms to streamline the education system. Rajaji’s idea of the Madras Scheme of Elementary Education in 1953 was dubbed by its critics as Kula Kalvi Thittam (Hereditary Education Policy) and was a controversial education reform which was aborted.
Among the major changes the scheme proposed was the reduction of school hours from five hours to three per day and the introduction of two shifts in elementary schools.
Every school could function in two sessions, catering to two groups of students. Rajaji said that this would better the student-teacher ratio and assured there would be no dilution of the previous syllabus and no reduction in duration for subjects like Language, Elementary Mathematics, History, Geography, Civics, and Moral Instruction.
The scheme proposed that in one session, regular teaching would be done and during the second, students would be sent home to learn the livelihoods of their parents. Boys would learn pottery or leather working or farming and girls would be of assistance to their mothers in the kitchen and housework.
The government constituted a committee of experts for reviewing the scheme under the chairmanship of Prof RV Parulekar, Director of Indian Institute of Education Bombay.
However, all hell broke loose within the political spectrum both outside the congress and within. It was faulted of being a bid to prolong the caste hierarchy as Hindu professions were mostly caste-based.
Periyar denounced the scheme asking — “Is this educational scheme not a reconstruction and fortification of varnashrama?” The argument of the Dravidian leaders was that there were disproportionately too many Brahmins in white-collar jobs in government and education.
In contrast, there were more farmers and low-wage workers among non-Brahmin castes. They reiterated that Rajaji was trying to perpetuate Brahmin supremacy.
The fledgling DMK finding its feet in the political field found an opportunity to serve as an opposition party. Anna argued that only a full-day education would uplift the lives of the masses and decided to campaign against the new system and assigned EVK Sampath to head the agitations against the caste-based education scheme.
Sampath along with a group of volunteers held demonstrations in front of Chief Minister Rajaji’s house not allowing him to come out. Demonstrations continued for 15 days and on most days, there were lathi-charges and arrests.
In the Madras State legislative assembly, two amendments were brought against the scheme. One wanted an expert committee of members to study it while another wanted the scheme to be scrapped.
When the scrapping amendment was put to vote it surprised Congress that many of its members had also opposed Rajaji. The votes were split as a 138-138 tie. Speaker Siva Shanmugam broke the tie by voting against the amendment to save the government.
The month of June 1953 saw aggressive propaganda efforts by both proponents and opponents of the scheme. Rajaji gave a speech to the washermen at the Adyar riverbank. In it, he referred to kuladharma, the social obligation of each clan or caste. He gave speeches and made broadcasts in All India Radio explaining his position.
The Dravidar Kazhagam organised a conference in Erode protesting the scheme’s introduction. The teachers’ unions also opposed the move as they were not consulted before implementation. They also resented the increase in working hours without any increase in pay. In 15 days, as many as 20 processions were attempted by the DMK in the capital.
Rajaji’s refusal to budge on the education scheme issue divided the ruling party. Forty Congress Legislative Assembly members sent a memorandum to Nehru objecting to Rajaji’s unilateral demeanour. Later that year, Congress lost the by-election for the Kangayam constituency by a narrow margin. This spurred the Congress legislators into open revolt and Rajaji tried a last-minute compromise — he would quit if the scheme was kept.
But the writing on the wall was clear for Rajaji. With mounting opposition to him within the Congress Party itself, he resigned his Chief Minister position, paving way for K Kamaraj to become the Chief Minister.
Kamaraj did some lateral thinking and recognising the role of primary education in building a new nation and in tackling massive illiteracy, scrapped the scheme.
Kamaraj’s government took up large-scale revamping of the educational facilities, which involved opening 12,000 new schools. Efforts were taken to open a school in every village with a population of over 300.
Kamaraj is known as kalvi vallal (loosely translated as a benevolent educator) because he made school education completely free. Rajaji never held a post thereafter and in a way, it was curtains for his career.
—The author is a historian