It was entirely correct for the Lok Sabha to have intervened in the textbook row as it represents the people, and their right to an egalitarian society, better than any group of “experts”
Too many red herrings have entered into the debate over the removal of the cartoon from the class XI Political Science textbook of the NCERT. Let us, to start with, get these out of the way. First, the removal of the cartoon can scarcely be held to constitute a violation of “freedom of expression”. No censorship has been exercised on a genuinely creative work giving expression to an author's views and persona; only a cartoon has been removed from a textbook which some authors were commissioned to write by the state. Even though the authors assented to the commission voluntarily, a textbook, meant for public educational use and commissioned by the state cannot really be described as the site of its author's creative and “free expression”. So, the claim that “free expression” is being thwarted is untenable.
Sense of humour
Second, the issue has nothing to do with whether those objecting to the cartoon have a sense of humour or not. A cartoon in a textbook is not merely a source of hilarity. Like the text, it expresses something and even a person with the most highly developed sense of humour can quite legitimately object to what a cartoon depicts. In fact, saying that the objections to the cartoon betray the lack of a sense of humour, and hence, by inference, that the cartoon is there only for purposes of levity, goes against the argument of the defenders of the textbook that introducing cartoons is part of a new pedagogy that combines different forms of expression to convey ideas to students. One may argue that objecting to this particular cartoon is uncalled for, but that is a matter relating to the interpretation of the cartoon, which is the real bone of contention and has nothing to do with sense of humour.
The third red herring is the antiquity of the cartoon. Sensitivities change over time, as does audibility. Sixty years ago, the Dalit voice was far less audible than it is today. The fact that a cartoon insensitive — if it is insensitive that is — to Dalit feelings raised no protests 60 years ago is no reason for expecting it to raise no protests today, or even for any surprise that it is raising protests today.
Finally the academic distinction of the two Chief Advisers who were responsible for the textbooks and who have both resigned, is also not relevant to the issue of whether the cartoon is objectionable or not. It is of course highly relevant if mala fide intentions are attributed to the Chief Advisers, which indeed is being done by some and has led to the most reprehensible perpetration of vandalism in the office of one of them. Any such attribution, needless to say, has to be fought relentlessly and the fact that the authors are very distinguished academics is a point to be made in that fight. But the distinction of the academics does not per se justify the cartoons. Judgment about what may or may not hurt feelings can differ, and even the most distinguished academics may have a view that others may disagree with.
Need for procedure
Precisely for that reason, protests of this kind are bound to arise from time to time. What is required is a procedure in place for handling them, and not ex cathedra pronouncements of Ministers on the spur of the moment under political pressures of various kinds. For instance a committee of academics can be set up in each case to give an opinion and recommendation, not just a verdict but, if need be, an informed interpretation that helps to assuage feelings.
While I believe that the state should proceed this way, I must register serious disquiet at the suggestion, which is being frequently made in the media and even in academic circles, that the state, especially Parliament, should keep aloof from such matters altogether.
The argument is being advanced that school textbooks, or curricula, are matters which should be left to academics and that “politicians” or “the political class” should not be allowed to interfere in them. This is quite different from saying that academics must be normally entrusted with these tasks, that the state must leave these tasks to the academics as far as possible; it amounts to saying something more, namely that Parliament should have no jurisdiction in these matters, that classrooms must be insulated from the “political class”.
The problem with this argument is that if we wish to build an egalitarian society, free of caste and gender discrimination or discrimination against minorities, then classrooms are where we must begin; and leaving what is taught in classrooms exclusively to academics, among whom dominant social groups are far better represented, is precisely what must be avoided. We cannot pretend that academics are free of biases and prejudices, and are the sheer embodiments of pure reason. To say this is not to cast personal aspersions on those who hold the view that transactions in classrooms must be left exclusively to the judgment of academics; it is to suggest that they are wrong in their estimation of the consequences of what they are proposing.
This is quite apart from the fact that academics are accountable to nobody, and which ones among them get entrusted with the task of deciding what happens in the classrooms will in any case have to be determined by the state. Giving them exclusive control over such decisions therefore would amount to eliminating the accountability of the state itself, while introducing no compensating accountability of the academics, and hence in effect giving carte blanche to the so-called “political class” to act as it likes behind the façade of favoured and pliable academics.
Members of Parliament by contrast are accountable to the people, and the representation of the deprived social groups is far better among them than among the academics. Any attenuation of the jurisdiction of Parliament and its appropriation by any group of “experts” undermines the drive towards an egalitarian society. Parliament must consult “experts” but must not cede its jurisdiction to “experts”. The point is not just an empirical one: even if the composition of Parliament happened to be no different from that of the world of “experts”, the former, elected on the basis of one-person-one-vote and hence an embodiment of one aspect of the principle of equality, must not cede jurisdiction to the latter.
Indeed the blanket use of the term “political class” amounts to an implicit denigration of Parliament and hence by implication, of the centrality of the role of one-person-one-vote. Those elected on the basis of “one-person-one-vote” are seen merely as belonging to a particular group, the so-called “political class” which is no different from any other group, and if anything even worse: it has less “expertise” than the “experts”, it is on average less educated than the academics, it is shown on TV as being noisy and boorish, and allegedly has crooks, criminals and corrupt persons among its midst. What all this glosses over is the fundamental fact that those constituting Parliament are there because of a system, “one-person-one-vote”, which constitutes the negation of millennia of institutionalised inequality. Any denigration of Parliament, any curtailment of its powers and jurisdiction in favour of “experts”, amounts to a negation of this negation, a rolling back of this negation of institutionalised inequality.
Of course, a question may arise: if Parliament's jurisdiction is wide, then a fascist or authoritarian formation's acquisition of majority in it, hands over to such a formation control over social life on a platter. That certainly is true, which is why every action of Parliament must be scrutinised and contested, on the streets if necessary, even as its jurisdiction remains wide. An argument against restricting its jurisdiction does not amount to an argument for accepting passively the actions of Parliament. But restricting this jurisdiction for fear of fascism is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
No doubt, if Parliament is to claim its dignity, it must itself respect others, including in particular scholars, and rein in any propensity towards peremptoriness, and set its house in order in other ways too. But that, though important, is a separate issue.
The urban middle class in the country has for some time been displaying a disturbing degree of arrogance towards Parliament. This came to the fore inter alia during the Anna Hazare agitation. There were moments during that agitation when it claimed to represent “the people” and hence a status superior to Parliament. Such moments, when this or that group claims a status superior to that of Parliament in deciding on public matters, are alas appearing with greater frequency in our national life. It will be a pity if academics fall prey to this temptation to demand a curtailment of the jurisdiction of the only institution in the country which constitutes an expression of the principle of equality.
(Prabhat Patnaik held the Sukhamoy Chakravarty Chair at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)