As the country prepares for the 3rd Wave and starts counting its losses wrought by the 2nd wave of COVID-19, the already overburdened education system is also facing many challenges. To tackle these unprecedented problems, it is evident that educational institutions have already intensified the use of the internet. They have started taking online classes, examinations and even organising e-convocations. As the meme of Comedian Dave Chappelle rightly says, ‘Modern Problems Require Modern Solutions’. Sadly, the ‘modern solution’ that the education system have come up is full of discrimination and hence biased. This statement holds specifically true for North Eastern states.
The then Minister of state (in-charge) communications in 2018 replying to a question in the House of the people stated that till September 2018,the seven North Eastern states have only 6.09 million internet users while Assam has 10.25 million users. It also says that almost 65 percent of the population of these states are yet to have internet connectivity. This data clearly suggests that states, including Assam, have a majority of the population living without internet connectivity. This population includes a large number of students who are presently enrolled in various public universities of the states. When these universities are trying to turn their physical classrooms to virtual classrooms, what they are really doing is turning their back to the students who don’t have the privilege of having proper internet connectivity. The Gauhati University, one of the prominent universities of the North East India has recently through a notification has informed all its students that they’ll be holding online examinations due to COVID-19 surge. Students all over Assam were raising issues regarding the semester examinations as they were rightly worried about the grim situation. It is not scientific to hold a physical examination in the time where the pandemic is at its peak. But it will be equally unreasonable to hold examinations online in lieu of offline examinations.
The Constitution of India bars the State from making decisions which are arbitrary and without any valid classification. Having equal opportunity to appear in examinations is a fundamental right of students and has been guaranteed by Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. It is utterly unjust to expect a large section of internet deprived students to give online examinations in a country where the preamble to its Constitution solemnly resolves giving equality of status and opportunity. The law is settled on the point that if there is any differentiation, that classification has to be founded on intelligible differentia having a reasonable nexus to the object sought. It does allow reasonable classification but forbids class legislation. Under Article 14, unequals cannot be treated equally. Students who don’t have access to the internet cannot be grouped together with others who have the privilege of having proper internet connectivity. As public universities are ‘State’ under Article 12, they cannot discriminate against its students by forcing them to appear only in online examinations. In the Maneka Gandhi case, Bhagwati, J, observed inter alia, that ‘Article 14 strikes at arbitrariness in State action and ensures fairness and equality of treatment.’ Organizing online examinations by public universities will amount to ‘state action’ which must ensure equality of opportunity. Hence organising only online mode of examination will be violative of Article 14, therefore unconstitutional. As per the website of Gauhati University there are more than 300 colleges affiliated to it. That means the future of thousands of students are under the direct control of the University. The Universities must not take arbitrary decisions which leads to discrimination. In India structural injustices viz. Class, Gender, religion etc. have already played vital roles in deciding who’ll get how much education. It is anyway unequal. We cannot make it worse. The State must ensure equality of opportunity and treatment to all, failing which will lead to more and more discrimination.
Exacerbating the problem, In its 547th meeting, the University Grants Commission (UGC) discussed having a ‘blended mode of teaching and learning’. As per news reports, they have come up with an idea of teaching 40 percent of the syllabus in online mode and the remaining in offline mode. Pushing their Neo-liberal agenda forward, the UGC has again disappointed a large section of students. How can a statutory body that is solely responsible for regulating the higher education of India come up with such an idea for students of a country which has more than half of its population without internet connectivity? The Modi regime is anyway not known for upholding constitutional morality. With these steps it is intensifying its anti people policies which will certainly help pushing education towards privatization. Gone are the days when education used to be a basic human right. It is high time to resist the digital divide.