Political parties across the spectrum get into a tangle over an innocuous cartoon in a school textbook
THE textbooks of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) are in the news again. This time, it is not history but political science textbooks that managed to get almost all Members of Parliament on their feet on an emotive issue and for reasons that defied logic. One day before the 60th anniversary of the Indian Parliament, parties cutting across political lines came together on the floor of the House to demand the withdrawal from a school textbook of a cartoon that allegedly lampooned Dr B.R. Ambedkar.
Drawn by the cartoonist Shankar Pillai in 1949 (copyright Children's Book Trust) and reproduced in the textbook, the cartoon showed Jawaharlal Nehru whipping a snail with Ambedkar on its back egging it on with a whip and a harness, watched by a motley group of people. In the cartoon the snail represents the Constitution.
The 25-page chapter titled “Constitution: Why and How” is the opening chapter of the class 11 book Indian Constitution at Work. The text below the cartoon informs the reader that the Constitution took three years to come into existence. It reads: “Cartoonist's impression of the snail's pace with which the Constitution was made. Making of the Constitution took almost three years. Is the cartoonist commenting on this fact? Why do you think, did the Constituent Assembly take so long to make the Constitution?”
The chapter points to the lengthy debates in the Constituent Assembly and the various points of view – of Nehru, Ambedkar, M.K. Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. It also lauds the fact that despite their disagreements, the element of public reasoning reigned supreme. It is precisely this element of public reasoning that has been so wanting in this entire controversy.
The issue is really not about how many cartoons there are in the textbook or in all the textbooks on political science. The cover pages of the textbooks for the ninth and tenth standards carry works of well-known cartoonists such as R.K. Laxman, Irfaan Khan, Mario Miranda, Harish Chandra Shukla and Yesudasan. Interestingly, the textbooks on political science for classes 9, 10, 11 and 12 contain between 60 and 80 cartoons each, taken from international sources such as Cagle Cartoons, reflecting contemporary and past events.
Instead of a reasoned debate, what followed was an outpouring of emotion by MPs who felt Shankar's cartoon denigrated Ambedkar, the father of the Indian Constitution. It is another matter that even the voices claiming to represent the offended sections are not a homogenous category. Clearly, this was a case of gross opportunism and overreaction by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) II government and by several well-meaning political parties, too, that would otherwise be wary of jumping on the bandwagon of “identity” politics.
Even as political parties clamoured for a ban on the book, with some even demanding filing of criminal cases against the two chief advisers appointed by the NCERT, Yogendra Yadav, Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, and Suhas Palshikar, Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Pune, Union Minister for Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal capitulated by offering an unconditional apology and promising to withdraw the book.
By evening, the two advisers had tendered their resignations. Some people protesting against the choice of the cartoon vandalised Palshikar's Pune office.
Palshikar told Frontline from Pune: “I would not say we resigned in protest. We resigned because we realised following the debate in the Rajya Sabha that our idea of textbooks was at variance with that of members of the House across party lines and that the government, too, was not much favourable to our imagination. So we thought it best to resign. On the issue of Dr Ambedkar's cartoon, we think all of us may have learnt a lesson that pedagogy and academic freedom are circumscribed by issues of sentiment and group identity. So, the withdrawal of that cartoon from the book was in a sense inevitable, though serious academic and pedagogic discussions can and should continue on that issue. Secondly, the withdrawal of the book – I am not sure what the government has exactly decided – could have been avoided if the government felt that the book was on the whole reasonably well written. Then the Lok Sabha debate expressed an overall indictment of the book for having cartoons purportedly lampooning and demeaning politicians and inferred that this aspect of the book was undemocratic. The text in the book/s amply discusses the value of democracy and the importance of politics as an important activity. I suppose the difference emerges on the key issue of what teaching of politics involves. These textbooks believe that, in the first place, politics needs to be introduced as a lively activity rather than through formal political institutions alone, and secondly that teaching of social sciences should inculcate the spirit of critical inquiry, curiosity and self-examination.”
The reactions from the political class have some academics bemused. Arjun Dev, who was Professor of History in the NCERT when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government attempted to purge the “Left” content from history writing, told Frontline that there was nothing in the ‘snail cartoon' that should hurt someone's feelings.
“There is nothing in the cartoon that is even mildly critical of the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution. And, in any case, presenting a critical assessment of historical personages has been and should remain permissible even in school textbooks as long as the ‘critical' part of the assessment is academic, and not malicious, and is acceptable on academic grounds and, conceptually, is broadly within the comprehension level of the student readers. It should, for example, not be impermissible in a textbook for senior students to mention that Ambedkar supported the demand for Pakistan or that he was initially not in favour of the Congress demand for a Constituent Assembly. It should be possible, and even important, to discuss the reasons for his adopting the positions that he did,” he said.
History as farce
Those who have been following the NCERT in recent years feel that what the present government has done is not very different from what its predecessor, the NDA, did. The problem then was with the content, now it is with both content and form. The books have been around for more than seven years, why the clamour now for reviewing them, and that too on grounds that defy simple logic?
Those who have been involved in the writing of the textbooks of political science feel that all pedagogical and other issues were discussed with the Textbook Development Committee, which included teachers and educationists. In addition, there was the National Monitoring Committee appointed by the Ministry for Human Resource Development, which advised the Advisory Group in Social Sciences. Even if there was anything amiss, it should have been resolved by a parliamentary debate and also through consultations with the very people that the government had authorised and the structures that it had set up to write the books.
Manish Jain, who was a schoolteacher for 10 years, was among the educationists and teachers who read the drafts and offered valuable suggestions. Now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi, Jain is justifiably upset. “As a teacher of civics, I saw how teaching of civics was completely dissociated from politics. The state has always been presented in a legal language, never meant to engage a child with the issues of rights. Reasoning and dialogue are critical to democratic citizenship. As a teacher of education, I know that a textbook can be read in different ways. A cartoon cannot be looked at in isolation. To argue that one should not use cartoons at all in textbooks is to lose a very important pedagogic device. Sixteen-year-olds engage with different kinds of texts. So, instead of a summary dismissal of the textbook and the cartoons, a discussion could have taken place,” said Jain.
Two people, Alex M. George and Pankaj Pushkar, were described as “super advisers” by the chief advisers for having helped in presenting the textbook in an interesting, communicative and accurate form. Frontline spoke to George, who has authored a book called Children's Perception of Sarkar.
George was among those who spent a considerable amount of time looking for the correct images that conveyed a sense of politics in an interesting manner. Many images were culled from international sources and used in the textbooks on world politics and also political science for classes 9 and 10. “The cartoons and images were related to the text. They were not just images to be used as fillers,” he said. All political science books included e-mail IDs in order to receive student feedback. “While a good proportion of the questions [feedback from students] were on how to go about cracking the exams and whether we knew what kind of questions would come, there were quite a number that appreciated the way the textbooks were written, and these were from children,” he said.
In fact, on April 3 itself, when the first murmurs arose over the cartoons in Mumbai, the chief advisers, Yadav and Palshikar, wrote to the HRD Ministry that the textbook Indian Constitution at Work was first published in 2006 and had received appreciation from various quarters, including scholars, educationists and students. The book was being taught without change from 2006. The purpose of the textbook was not only to give reliable information but also to encourage students to think and seek more information on their own. From this perspective, besides the text the book had included many additional elements, such as dialogues by two student characters, photographs, original documents (in facsimile), newspaper clippings, and cartoons.
The cartoon by Shankar was not commissioned for the textbook but published at the time when the Constituent Assembly was working. It does not criticise or comment upon Ambedkar. It depicted Ambedkar as the one who was in charge of constitution-making. Since the book included many cartoons from that era, it was only natural that those cartoons depicted many leaders of that time, including the makers of the Constitution. The text on pages 17 and 18 amply elaborated why the making of the Constitution took considerable time and what procedures were followed by the Assembly. It was also explained that deliberation and consensus were the key elements of constitution-making. In no way, they said, did the text or the cartoon denigrate or downplay the contribution of Ambedkar.
Since this textbook is in continuation of the class 10 textbook, it assumes that the student has some knowledge about the role and contribution of Ambedkar. In the class 10 textbook, on page 48, Ambedkar's role is explained, and a quotation from his speech is given for students to understand his approach better. The chief advisers also pointed out the textbook had gone through detailed scrutiny and was finally vetted by a monitoring committee co-chaired by Professors Mrinal Miri and G.P. Deshpande. The national monitoring committee included Professors Gopal Guru and Zoya Hasan of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
Said Palshikar: “Now a committee is appointed, but in the wake of the debate in Parliament, the autonomy of any such committee might be somewhat constricted. Also, the terms of reference for the committee implicitly assume that there is something wrong in the textbooks and needs to be replaced. This is another constraint on the committee. While I understand that the government was cornered on an issue of delicate nature and with emotional dimension, the response could have been a little more nuanced. The government – in both the Houses – went much beyond the practice of agreeing to make a proper investigation and that was something unfortunate and unwarranted. Also, the ruling coalition, and the Congress in particular, did not even try to mediate and negotiate with its own members; instead the ruling coalition took it upon itself to lead the protests over the books.”
The reactions against the textbook have naturally raised concerns over the shape textbooks will take in the future. He said: “Both the sentiments expressed by our MPs and the response by the government raise various issues: and more than the issue of academic freedom, the issue of procedures will now have a bearing in the future. As a supreme representative body, Parliament is indeed competent to take up issues of public interest; however, the episode is likely to deter textbook writers from doing their job fearlessly, writing textbooks that are fair, non-partisan and at the same time encouraging a critical approach to societal surroundings. This will make textbooks perhaps less innovative and engaging, and also, in the case of social science textbooks, the approach will be dominated by formal discussion of institutions rather than processes and working. This will be the real casualty in the current controversy.”
There are those who recall what happened in the NDA regime and the effort it took to correct those errors. Arjun Dev expressed concern that the government committee set up to review the political science books included an expert who wrote a textbook for the NCERT on the Indian Constitution during the NDA regime.
Palshikar pointed out that at one point there was criticism that the textbooks were hijacked by so-called leftists and pseudo secularists. “Then came the so-called saffronisation of textbooks, not only in the case of the NCERT but at the State-level also. History was the hot subject then. During the UPA-I period, under the able leadership of the architects of the NCF [National Curriculum Framework] and the then Director of the NCERT, textbook writing was not only pedagogically transformed, but attempts were made to make textbooks student-friendly and non-partisan without becoming insipid. That initiative is now in danger of being abandoned. This is the larger casualty of the current controversy.”
But there are larger issues that need to be dealt with dispassionately in the interests of pedagogy and education. Arjun Dev felt that it was a pity that much of the discussion that had taken place had, in fact, prevented a rational and objective discussion on the usefulness of this particular textbook as suitable educational material. He wondered whether the preponderance of cartoons in a textbook as ‘aids' really helped promote interest in the subject and make for a better critical comprehension.
“This particular textbook suffers from ‘overkill', with many cartoons making little sense in the absence of any reference to the context in which they were drawn. There are no dates anywhere, which would in some cases be of some use in even ‘understanding' a cartoon, even finding in it something ‘funny' or humorous. There is a cartoon on page 7 of the book in which Nehru has two faces, one facing a group of persons in dhotis and kurtas sitting on the ground shouting Vande Mataram and the other facing a group of ‘decently' clothed and ‘educated'-looking persons, most of them sitting properly in chairs playing musical instruments and singing Jana Gana Mana with a few standing behind them (the one standing resembles Maulana Azad and the one sitting, Ambedkar). The text tells the reader: ‘Here is Nehru trying to balance between different visions and ideologies. Can you identify what these different groups stand for?' Can you?” Arjun Dev asked.
A review of the National Curriculum Framework 2005 and the new syllabi, by experts and classroom teachers and through field studies, may be in order. But it cannot be done in the manner adopted by the present government.