Decolonial Praxis, Education and COVID-19: Perspectives from India

An Interview with Sayan Dey

by Hadje Cresencio Sadje

Background: Since the global outbreak of COVID-19 on December 2019, there have been 271.963.258 confirmed cases, including 5.331.019 deaths, reported to World Health Organisation (WHO, 2021). To address the ongoing challenges of the global pandemic, various governments and non-governmental organisations agreed to continue and strengthen cooperation to address the devastating ripple effects of the COVID-19 (Amaya, 2021). Despite these efforts, the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic have posed unprecedented challenges, especially to the poorest, most vulnerable, and marginalized groups. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected racial, ethnic minority, and marginalized groups (Tai et. Al, 2020). According to recent studies, the poorest, most vulnerable, and marginalized groups are left far behind (IFRC, 2021; Economic Policy Institute, 2020).

Moreover, the state of education is one of the visible evidences of this disproportionate impact of COVID-19 (World Bank, 2021; OECD, 2021). According to the World Bank report, ‘At the peak of the pandemic, 45 countries in the Europe and Central Asia region closed their schools, affecting 185 million students. Given the abruptness of the situation, teachers and administrations were unprepared for this transition and were forced to build emergency remote learning systems almost immediately’ (2021). In response, the Global Education Coalition launched by UNESCO created a platform to address equality, educational disruption, and to protect the right to education during this unprecedented disruption and beyond (UNESCO, 2020). Critics, however, universal fulfillment of these rights are to far from the ground.

Today, scholars, especially decolonial thinkers and activists argue that the hidden legacies of the European coloniality provides privilege to society’s elite and unfair advantage to marginalized groups. Decolonial scholars argue that even before COVID-19 pandemic, the education system, pedagogy, and curriculum, are often based on an Eurocentric epistemological foundation. Since the allocation of opportunity in contemporary society that is becoming ever more dependent on knowledge and education, this Eurocentric pedagogy, knowledge, and curriculum given to students is very detrimental for their self-development as non-Western students. As an American pedagogical theorist and teacher educator Gloria Ladson-Billings contends that these curricula “legitimize white, upper-class males as the standard knowledge students need to know” (1998). The outcome of this Eurocentric education is problematic and it becomes a source of great anxiety and concern nowadays. To explore this further, I invited one of the emerging Indian decolonial scholars Dr. Sayan Dey to a conversation. The interview focuses on his decolonial project and the case of India’s educational system.

Hadje: Perhaps we might begin with your academic interest. How did you come up with your academic endeavor in decolonial thought?

Sayan Dey: First of all thank you so much for creating a platform for this crucial conversation and for making me a part of it. I think, fundamentally, this is a very important question to begin with. In order to address this question, I have go back to my childhood and revisit the agencies and the procedures through which my habitual patterns of thinking and learning where shaped. I was born to a family where the diverse systems of knowledge that have been imbibed from the foremothers and forefathers are valued more than the institution-based classroom knowledge. But, the diverse, non-linear, spontaneous and intergenerational forms of knowlege systems that I was introduced to at my home were always in conflict with the predetermined, ‘disciplined’ and compartmentalized knowledge systems of the educational institutions. To elaborate further, the knowledge that I gained at home about different aspects always appeared emotionally and contextually very relatable to me, but the same thing did not happen in school. At home I learned about science, culture, society, literature, mathematics and many more beyond the book-centric approaches. But, at my school I observed that instead of allowing us to understand the different disciplines of knowledge in our own individualistic and collaborative manner, we were verbally dictated, psychologically coerced and emotionally sterilized within certain definite patterns of thinking and doing. Anyone, whosoever challenged such violent establishments were immediately silenced. In this way, since my childhood days the epistemological and ontological diversity that I experienced at my home was fractured in my school and imprisoned within specific boxes of knowledge disciplines.

With the passage of time, I realized that amongst several factors one of the major factors behind my inability to relate to the teachings of the school was the lack of contexts. A large number of texts that were taught to us were hardly related to our social, cultural and other existential contexts. When we asked our school tutors that in spite of lack of contextuality why some texts were taught to us, we were silenced by the ‘logic of universal value’ of certain texts. Later on, as I started engaging with different theoretical and philosophical dimensions, I realized that this logic of universal valuability is blindly and celebratorily derived from the Eurocentric colonial/modern templates of knowledge production. Such templates of knowledge production, on the one side, distort, distill and dehumanize the spontaneous diversity of the non-European native indigenous modes of knowledges as incompetent and invalid, and on the other side, promote the Eurocentric patterns of knowledges as an unquestionable ‘god’s eye view’ framework. It is the same ‘god’s eye view’ frameworks of knowledge production that were worshiped and acknowledged in my school. We were forced to accept certain specific pedagogical patterns and were forced to appreciate certain knowledge paradigms only because they have been sanctioned and validated by the Eurocentric academic systems. But, I hardly faced this challenge of learning at my home. I always appreciate how my grandparents and parents introduced me to different dimensions of knowledges that are connected to my existential surroundings. For instance, I was introduced to flowers through hibiscus, rose and bougainvillea, which were nurtured in my house garden. But, in my school the books talked about the beautiful European countrysides blooming with lavender, cherry blossoms and wild orchids. The hibiscus, rose and bougainvillea appealed to me more than lavender, cherry blossoms and wild orchids, because I could relate to them in a much more practical way. But, my school consistently made efforts to uproot me from such contextual experiences and reduce me into an intellectually castrated being. It is these experiences of epistemological fragmentation and ontological rejections that have provoked me to engage with decolonial thoughts in my daily engagements of teaching, research and activism.

With respect to decolonial thoughts, my teaching, research and activism specifically engage with the the praxis of everyday decoloniality about which I will talk about in the third question. My habitual engagements with decolonial praxis in the forms of community networking and scholarship building consistently enables me to collaborate and co-create cobwebs of resistance against the misdirected, deceptive and redundant projects of colonialism/Eurocentrism that are carried out within the educational institutions in India even today.

Hadje: You have been an active grassroots educator. Why are you so critical about the education system in India?

Sayan Dey: Yes, indeed I am highly critical about the education system of contemporary India. Partly, I have talked about it with respect to my experiences in the previous question. Here, I would like to broadly critique the impact of the colonial/Euromodern education system in contemporary India as the influence of the ‘Macaulyan hangover.’ In order to analyze the ongoing influence of the Euromodern education systems in contemporary India, it is very crucial to understand the intent and the impact of the “1835 Minute on Education” as conceived by Thomas Babington Macaulay. The  Minute on Education was a colonial imaginary project of the British colonizers in India that identified the traditional patterns of teaching and learning in native languages as inferior to the English language. This imaginary project of the British colonizers were underlined with epistemological and ontological insecurities. As the British expanded their colonial empire in India, they realized that the linguistic diversity of the native indigenous communities stands as a major challenge in their way. As a result, in order to systematically and epistemologically disrupt this diversity the colonizers resorted to the invention of fictional narratives like the native indigenous languages cannot teach science, mathematics and literature; the knowledge systems that exist in the native Indian languages do not have any global value; without learning the English language the Indians can never gain global valuability and many more. These fictional narratives have been so firmly embedded by the British colonizers within the habitual existential pysche of the native Indians that it continue to dominate the Indian education system even today.

Today, in many homes and educational institutions in India the practice of conversing in mother tongue is highly discouraged. It is regarded as a non-modern and a backdated cultural practice. As a school student and later on as a school tutor, I have seen how parents express their pride about the fact their children cannot converse in mother tongue and can only converse in English. As a tutor, I have closely observed how during parents-teachers meeting many parents would express their concern about their children’s inability to converse in English. At that time, most of the tutors suggested the parents to encourage their children to learn English exclusively through television programs, radio programs and YouTube videos that have been conceptualized and created in Europe, so that the children are able to learn ‘correct’ and ‘standard’ English. This is what I argue as the influence of ‘Macaulyan hangover.’ It is due to this hangover that parameters of speaking English in a correct and standard manner are still certified and prescribed by the colonial/Euromodern West. It is because of this hangover that the culture of teaching, learning and conversing in native indigenous languages are considered a shameful act. These habitual practices of social, cultural and linguistic decapitations make me so critical about the education system in contemporary India. Before I proceed further with my arguments, I would like to clarify that my criticism of the Indian education system is not directed towards the practice of teaching and learning in English, but it is specifically directed towards two aspects – the celebration of the British and American styles of speaking in English as the only authentic ways and the cultural erasure of  learning and conversing in native indigenous languages in daily life. These aspects have pushed the Indian education system into complex, confused and contradictory spaces of knowledge production. Externally, the educational institutions, through architectural styles, syllabus structures, academic disciplines, and the geographical diversity of the tutors exhibit socio-cultural multidimensionality and native indigenous values. But, internally, through Euromodern pedagogical practices, the blind acknowledgement of theoretical and philosophical propositions by the European and European-bred authors, and the denial of the scholarship of the native indigenous authors in India, the educational institutions uphold their fetishism towards colonial/Euromodern education systems. Several efforts are being made to dismantle these colonial/Euromodern fetishisms, but a collective pan-Indian effort is still missing.

Hadje: What does decoloniality mean to the education system in India?

Sayan Dey: My critique of the Indian education system in the previous question already reveals its functional complexity. As a result, it is needless to say that the process of decolonizing the education system in India is also a complex and incomplete process. A singular overarching decolonial approach will not help. It is necessary to carve out strategies of decolonization by identifying and addressing the problems within respective contexts. At the very outset, the habitual practice of acknowledging the colonial/Euromodern systems of teaching and learning, and denying the native indigenous pedagogical practices needs to be interrogated. Several initiatives are being undertaken to decentralize and de-monopolize the Euromodern patterns of the mainstream education system of contemporary India and build tangential networks of collective and co-creative methodologies of teaching, learning, sharing and caring. One such initiative is to shift from the colonial/Euromodern pedagogical practices of ego-centrism towards native indigenous practices of eco-centrism. The colonial/Euromodern education system is underpinned with the ego-centric practice of pushing the knowledge systems within the violent binaries of authentic knowledge/inauthentic knowledge, good knowledge/bad knowledge, high knowledge/low knowledge, decent knowledge/indecent knowledge, etc. On the one side, such binaries brainwash the learners to adhere to certain hierarchical patterns of knowledge production without questioning them and on the other side sterilize their individual capabilities of thinking and performing. In order to disentangle from the dictatorial colonial/Euromodern patterns of teaching and learning, several mainstream educational institutions and alternate educational institutions in India are building eco-centric curricula, which enable the students to go beyond degree-centered learning and engage with diverse knowledge systems from their individual racial, cultural, social, economic, gendered, communal, geographical and topographical contexts. Let us take the example of the Swaraj University in Rajasthan. In this university, the processes of teaching and learning do not take place within the usual four-walled classrooms and no formal degrees are required to take admission. The campus is located in the middle of forests and agricultural fields, and the students follow self-designed curricular and pedagogical patterns. The process of teaching and learning takes place within the natural environment. The students do not need to pay any form of fees and are taught in the guru-shishya parampara (the indigenous traditional practice of one-on-one mentorship) system. The students in the university are referred to as Khojis (seekers of knowledge).

The institution offers a two year program during which the khojis collectively indulge in building ecologically sustainable systems of knowledges. The program consists of skill workshops, internships, community building projects, interaction with visiting scholars and designing self-study packages. The skill workshops train the khojis in communication, yoga, farming, film-making, sewing, cooking, farming, web-designing, blogging, writings of proposals and business plans, marketing, working English, documentation, financing, etc. The khojis utilize their skills training by developing several ecologically sustainable projects with the local communities. The eco-centric skills training and community building projects allow the khojis to create self-study packages in the forms of websites, books, films, etc. In order to further understand the contextual values of their training and learning the khojis travel together both locally and nationally. Such a collective traveling experience makes them realize about the different socio-cultural patterns of teaching and learning that different communities practice across the country.

After the completion of the two year program the khojis are not awarded grades and degree certificates. Many khojis after completing the program continue to collaborate with the university and the local communities for constructing roads, reviving forest lands, building irrigation channels, constructing water pumps, planting trees, preparing natural fertilizers, etc. Many individuals, who have already received their degrees from mainstream educational institutions and work in different organizations, also join the two year program to disengage from the habitual mechanical patterns of capitalistic existence and to imbibe the practices of ecological sustainability as a part of their daily life. Instead of depending on the textbook-based information, the Swaraj University teaches science, mathematics, literature, languages, sociology and other academic disciplines in a non-linear, spontaneous, diverse and experiential manner through the natural environment.

Besides the Swaraj University, there are several other educational institutions in India who have developed such alternate pedagogical and curricular frameworks to demolish the colonial/Euromodern education systems. But, as already mentioned there is a lack of collective pan-Indian effort and most of these decolonial initiatives have remained geographically confined within certain localities to date.

Hadje: As we all know, India is facing a tremendous impact of COVID-19 today. What do you think are the necessary steps that the Indian educational system need to do in order to start or create change?

Sayan Dey: In continuation to my response to the previous question, the dire need of the hour is to convert the local initiatives like the Swaraj University into unassimilated, collaborative and pan-Indian projects of decolonization. Since the inception of COVID-19 in India, a collective effort to build long term alternate futures of education has remained ignored. There has been innumerable discussions and plannings about how digital modes of education can be adopted as a new normal way of teaching and learning in the post-COVID-19 era. But, it is important to realize that with the prevalent issues of digital divides, economic divides, socio-cultural divides, racial divides, communal divides, geographical divides and topographical divides, a complete digitization of the education system in India can never be a long term solution to tackle the challenges that the education system is experiencing during COVID-19. So, the pan-Indian call of shifting towards digital modes of education is nothing more than a patchwork solution, which would only be accessible to a minor group of sociology-economically privileged population. Instead of such patchwork solutions, what is necessary is to collectively build long term possibilities of ecologically sustainable counter-resistances in the future. The project of re-structuring the education system in India to develop ecologically sustainable futures needs to be treated as an urgent project. It necessary to conceptualize an education system during and after COVID-19, which will not only effectively counter-resist such crises in the future, but also will weave epistemologies and ontologies of affections so that such forms of pandemics do not evolve again.

Apart from developing alternate educational institutions like the Swaraj University, it is also necessary to interrogate the curricular and pedagogical patterns of the mainstream education institutions. With the vision of building ecologically sustainable futures, the mainstream education systems should deviate from the practices of ‘rote learning’ and ‘one-size-fits-all’ curricular and pedagogical structures, and should create economies of care and share through co-teaching and co-learning with/from the surrounding natural environment. Besides the educational institutions, it is also necessary to practice ecological sustainability as a usual and spontaneous part of habitual existence. In other words, the practice of ecological sustainability should be made an integral part of the upbringing of children at home. We are all aware of the fact that apart from pre-planned technical learning, the children also learn a lot from their elders by observing them. Therefore, the elders at home should consciously and collectively weave ecosystems of knowledges at home that upholds the values of co-creation, co-participation, care and share. Usually, in many households in India the children are treated as ‘incapable and dependent entities.’ They are only expected to abide by what the elders in the family dictates and not to have any perspective of their own. Such redundant and ignorant practices of upbringing should be diminished.

Since a child’s birth, it is the responsibility of the parents and other elders of the family to curate a diverse and inclusive existential environment at home so that the child, rather than being a passive non-participatory being, can function as an active participant. Instead of book-centered and degree-centered learning, the elders at home should encourage their children to learn from the surrounding environment through behavioral exchanges, body languages, cultural practices, food habits, fashion ethics, etc. Instead of grades and certificates, experiential and performative learning should be given utmost importance. Instead of functioning as market regulators, the individuals should learn to perform collective social well-being. With the rise of the pandemic, the already existing social, cultural, communal, religious, economic, racial, geographical and topographical conflicts in India have aggravated further. So, any discussion about transforming the education system in India during and after the pandemic of COVID-19 should venture beyond the technical and infrastructural aspects and engage with changing the pedagogical patterns. It is also important to understand that discussions on changing the education system should not only be limited within the educational institutions like schools, colleges, etc., but also the family institutions should nurture and self-design possibilities of teaching, learning and knowledge building in a non-mechanical and practical manner. It is only through collaborative and co-creative performances of ecological sustainability and social well-being that long term initiatives can be mapped to counter the rise of such pandemics in the future.

Hadje: Thank you very much Dr. Sayan!

Sayan Dey: You’re always welcome!

Hadje Cresencio Sadje is an associate member of the SOAS Center for Palestine Studies, University of London, UK. Mr. Sadje obtained his MA in Crosscultural Theology at the Protestant Theological University, The Netherlands, and MA in Ecumenical Studies (specializing in Sociology of Religion) at the University of Bonn. He is a visiting Ph.D. research fellow at the University of Vienna, Austria, a student ambassador at the Paris Institute of Critical Thinking, and a visiting lecturer at the Divinity School Silliman University Philippines. Currently, he is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Hamburg, Germany and teaches at Barcelona Applied Social Sciences Spain and the Foundation Academy in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Mr. Sadje’s research interests include pentecostalism, decoloniality, sociology of religion,  and political/public theologies.

Dr. Sayan Dey ( grew up in Kolkata, West Bengal. He completed B.A. (English), M.A. (English) and PhD (English) from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi and is currently working as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He is also the Senior Advisor of Quality Education Group, Center for Regional Research and Sustainability Studies (CRRSS), India. He has published two books: Decolonial Existence and Urban Sensibility: A Study on Mahesh Elkunchwar (Manipal Universal Press, 2019) and Different Spaces, Different Voices: A Rendezvous with Decoloniality (Wordit CDE, 2019). He is currently working on the books History, Myth and Postcolonial Consciousness: Theory and Praxis (Routledge, forthcoming) and Green Academia: Towards Eco-friendly Education Systems (Routledge, forthcoming). His areas of research interests are: history, archaeology, everyday decoloniality, sociology, food humanities, race studies and critical diversity studies. He can be reached at