The much-awaited Draft National Education Policy was released on 3 May 2019. The Policy has triggered a public debate over India’s education system. In June 2019, CADIndia, through a series of pieces, will look at how education was constitutionally imagined in Indian history. In this post, we focus on the period that preceded the formal constitution-making process, specifically, the Historical Constitutions (HCs).

Strikingly, no British authored HCs mentioned anything about a right to education or the provisioning of education in any substantive way. This is expected as British constitutional documents like the Government of India Acts of 1919 and 1935 weren’t really interested in rights, let alone the right to education; these documents primarily aimed to protect British interests in India, while providing nominal self-government to Indians.

On the other hand, a majority of Indian authored HCs mention a right to education or some type of constitutional provision on education. The first such document was the Constitution of India Bill 1895 that provided for free education in government schools and compulsory primary education in the empire. Along with this document, we can group two other: the Karachi Resolution 1931 and the Constitution of Free India 1944. The common thread between these documents in that the right to education provision was a simple constitutional declaration along with a mention of cost and the intended target group.  

The next category of HCs includes the Commonwealth of India, 1925 and the Nehru Report 1928. These documents in addition to a simple declaration of a right to education contained more details. The 1925 Bill states:

All persons in the Commonwealth of India have the right to free elementary education, and such right shall be enforceable so soon as due arrangements shall have been made by the competent authority.

Here, we get some detail about the enforcement and the practicality of the right. Further, the clause seems to be ambiguous about a judicially enforced right. The 1928 Report pretty much copied the relevant provision of the 1925 Bill, but adds a significant further detail:

Provided that adequate provisions shall be made by the State for imparting public instruction in primary schools to the children of members of minorities of considerable strength in the population through the medium of their own language and in such script as in vogue among them.

This seems to be first time, that a constitutional provision on education takes into account minority interests.

The third category of Indian constitutional documents, like the previous one, also considers minority interests in education but focusses on one particular minority group. The Poona Pact 1933, Political Demands of Scheduled Caste 1944 and States and Minorities 1945, in constitutionalised state and central budget allocations for the education of Depressed Classes. Also, these provisions did not restrict their scope to only primary education.

In the next post in this series, we look at the evolution of key constitutional provisions related to education in the Committee and plenary debate stages of the Constituent Assembly.