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Updated: July 14, 2012 00:09 IST

Hardly unanimous, Mr. Thorat

Shahid Amin
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Gandhi in Cartoons, Navjivan Trust
Gandhi in Cartoons, Navjivan Trust

By excising dissenting views from its report, the cartoon committee has acted worse than colonial era panels

The debate over the cartoons used in NCERT textbooks as aids to learning have thrown up a range of issues. The discussion has crystallised around a set of oppositions: motivated political correctness of our elected representatives vs. the necessity of preemptory parliamentary intervention on educational material appropriate for schools; institutional autonomy vs. political responsibility of a state presiding over a diverse and fraught society; the hubris of ‘experts’ vs. the right of others to feel hurt, in this case on solid rational grounds; the smugness of elite and upper caste votaries of a new pedagogy vs. the claims of those at the receiving end of Hindu society (and history) to articulate unfamiliar adversarial intellectual positions; the celebration of the enabling learning curve of the ‘average’ schoolchild vs. the violence inflicted precisely by such homogenisations on the radically different life experiences of children from disadvantaged groups; the blindness of India’s ‘left liberals’ ensconced in their stockades vs. the insights of Dalit writers and academics.

Volley of criticisms

The report of the Cartoon Committee, as it has come to be called, has brought forth a volley of criticisms and disclosures, along with a certain amount of fire-fighting by its chairman. In view of the start of the school session in July, the committee was given just one month to come up with its recommendations. Some amount of sloppiness is bound to creep into a hurriedly drafted report. What sense can one make, critics say, of the suggestion: “The quotation” [from the great Urdu poet] “Faiz” may be given in Urdu, and then it should be translated in three languages (Hindi, English and Urdu)”? Or, for that matter, the stentorian but weak-kneed sentence: “The word “Dalit” should be replaced by SC or it should be verified from legal sources.” What sort of political correctness is this which consigns a powerful ascriptive term of social identity to the waiting room of the Law Ministry, awaiting the nod of a Joint Secretary before it is allowed entry into Class XI? Critics have also berated the recommendation to delete a large number of cartoons from school books on ambiguous and spurious grounds.

The committee, and especially its chairman, have drawn a good deal of flak for dealing with the views of the 13 subject experts consulted in a cavalier and patronising manner: “It is necessary to mention,” the report says, “that the views given by 13 experts were used by the committee as resource material after due consideration” (emphasis added). Many of these experts have cried foul at the absence (expunging?) of their considered notes — even names — from the main body of the report. The chairman’s explanation given to a newspaper that ‘most [experts] did not want to be named’ seems a bit unconvincing.

The most glaring omission is the excision of a note of dissent by one member of the committee on rather curious procedural grounds, arrived at in total disregard of the accepted practice in such matters. And this takes us to the way in which evidence tendered and contrarian views expressed were accommodated in the committees and commissions set up during the colonial period. Take the famous Hunter Commission set up in October 1919 to investigate the Punjab Disturbances, the imposition of Martial Law and the notorious Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April of that year. Headed by a Scottish Judge, Lord Hunter, it comprised a Judge of the Calcutta High Court, a Major General, a British merchant, and three Indian lawyers, Sir Chinman Lal Setalvad, Pt. Jagat Narayan and Sultan Ahmad Khan. Though all the members were critical of the actions of General Dyer, the “butcher of Amritsar” was grilled most severely by Sir Chinman Lal, the distinguished legal luminary and Vice Chancellor of Bombay University. We know this from the proceedings of the Committee. The Hunter Commission which split down the middle on racial lines also produced six volumes of written and oral evidence that were tendered before it: unlike the Cartoon Committee of today, it did not “digest” this evidence in the process of producing an end product — a “unanimously arrived” report. And germane to the present controversy, the Minority Report of its three Indian members, differing from the majority of its British members in condemning the imposition and the severity of the Martial Law in Punjab, was published simultaneously along with the main report.

Had Lord Hunter followed the minimalist approach of Prof. Thorat and his committee members, our understanding of the ruthless ways of the Raj would have been the poorer for it. To quote Gandhi on the dissenting report of the Indian members of the Hunter Commission: “The minority report stands out like an oasis in a desert. The Indian members deserve the congratulation of their countrymen for having dared to do their duty in the face of heavy odds.” Needless to say, in the structure of its power relations colonial India was radically different from the parliamentary India of today. What needs stressing is that a minority view can be productive of knowledge; unanimity, howsoever arrived at, and in the service of the most lofty of ideals can easily tip over into the land of intellectual sterility, where conformity rules and unreason thrives.

Or take again the Education Commission of 1882 which circulated a list of 70 questions for the benefit of the witnesses that appeared before it, and produced several volumes of evidence, indispensable for understanding the spread, limitations and possibilities of indigenous and western schooling. It is in these volumes that one encounters Jyotibha Phule’s condemnation of the casteist nature of our schools and the plea for compulsory primary education, or the views of Syed Ahmad Khan and Bhartendu Harishchandra, the literary luminary of Banaras, on the changing role of Urdu and Hindi in north Indian society.

Colonial rule was a dispensation that, inter alia, ruled by record; a racial autocracy from which Indians were excluded, it needed to document the sentiments of the “natives” and keep a vigilant eye on their activities. The collection, collation and publication of things and views “Indian” — this colonial knowledge economy — was an integral part of the exercise of colonial power. Parliamentary India is very different: the distance between the ruler and the ruled is sought to be bridged by universal franchise and electoral democracy. Of course the need of the state to know its population inside out has generated novel and technicist modes of information recording — witness the Aadhar scheme.

Only official report

Still, the developmentalist aspect of the Indian state has meant that its problem-solving enquiries largely yield policy recommendations; statistics, charts and histograms replace the evidences tendered and the voices heard or raised during the course of an enquiry. Official reports now literally digest what comes up before them. The evidence volumes of yore no longer get printed or digitised and put on the web: the official report takes over the entire space.

Thus the lavishly documented Sachar Committee report on the state of Indian Muslims not only held back community-wise prison statistics. Instead of making “the public representations” submitted to it public, it suggested that the evidentiary material submitted to it may be placed in a well-known research library to be “accessed by the Government and the people” in that order, “whenever required”.

With the Cartoon Committee we seem to have reached the absurd — some would say disingenuous — point where in the interest of presenting a “unanimous view,” the Thorat Committee has decided “not to append” to the main body of its report the note of dissent of one of its own members. The reasons are put down in a long para 2.1.4 called “Decision Making Process”, a first of sorts for a committee of enquiry.

The NCERT has sought to make amends by deciding to place before the National Monitoring Board the “unanimous” report of the Thorat Committee together with the Note of Dissent and the submissions by the 13 experts. This to enable it properly to take a final call. Dare one say that things would have been different in the bad old Raj!

(Shahid Amin is Professor of History, Delhi University, and Rajni Kothari Chair, Centre for Studies in Developing Societies, Delhi)

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I have read so many articles in Hindu but without the shadow of the
doubt this one is unfathomable. It seems Shahid Amin is trying to
impress the readers by his rhetorical writings rather than trying to
give them a clear view of what really he's trying to convey!!

from:  Ankit Trivedi
Posted on: Jul 15, 2012 at 21:23 IST

Rebuffing Thorat, the two cartoons identified by NCERT for deleting should also be relooked. Like engineering drawings, cartoons and caricatures are a language. If some people cannot understand the language it would be safe to teach them the language rather than condemning some part of used vocabulary. Cartoons on Ambedker-Nehru and Hindi Agitation display climate prevailing then.

from:  RP Mehrotra
Posted on: Jul 15, 2012 at 09:47 IST

As Shri. Ravi Rajagopalan puts " between the two, you get a perfect sense of humourless society we are becomig". True, but any cartoon's relevance is for the particular event and its timing. It has no permanance. Therefore it is as much regrettable for publishingt it in text books now as it is for our political persons to make a hue and cry about this. There is a Tamil saying "Verum vaya melravanukku aval kedachappola." This is what has happened.

from:  S.R.Nagarajan
Posted on: Jul 15, 2012 at 06:22 IST

Really good article.
Seems more and more bureaucrats are seizing to use their common sense and are trying not to anger their political masters.
Most of the time we assume that hands of these bureaucrats are tied by the politicians but we tend to forget the lack of will power among these people. For, inspite of all the corruption in our country we still have people like Mr. Vinod Rai (CAG), Mr D.Subbarao (RBI Governor), who are using their powere for the service of the nation. And other bureaucrats would do well to take a leaf from their book.

from:  Shailendra Rai
Posted on: Jul 14, 2012 at 15:32 IST

Prof.Shahid Amin's criticism of the Cartoon Committee's deliberations and decisions made depressing but hardly surprising reading.The author cites the instance of the Hunter Commission to investigate the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 1919 and the Education Commission of 1882 and draws parallel between the Colonial rule that ruled by record and the Parliamentary India that has become smug from the fact that we are a electoral democracy and there is no need to add value to that democracy.The Thorat Committee,by any stretch of imagination,cannot be compared to an independent committee.This is just a departmental enquiry committee and it is too much to expect the committee not to toe the official line and decree.Suppose the Thorat Committee had shown some independence and published the entire report,the ministry would have digested the report by consigning it to the dustbin.

from:  Chidambaram Kudiarasu
Posted on: Jul 14, 2012 at 12:14 IST

Shahid Amin definitely needs to update his history of British India as well as how that
history has affected independent India. For him to suggest a great difference
between the former and the latter is, in fact, laughable--given that even the current controversy itself demonstrates otherwise. In this regard, for him to suggest that the word "Dalit" is merely "a powerful ascriptive term of social identity" is remarkably uninformed--for nothing should prevent most of India from ascribing that term to itself for political gain (as has been done by many a group who have already done that). To the extent that the Indian government uses the category "Scheduled Castes" to provide benefits to those who successfully ascribe that term to themselves (and do so to get those benefits), it is pertinent that the governmental term be used for the sake of any clarity whatsoever regarding their identity.

from:  Akansha
Posted on: Jul 14, 2012 at 11:43 IST

Why this issue is taking to much concentration, it is just a cartoon and there are several issues are pending in court, in parliament, in every gov. and no-gov. office. It is ridiculous.

from:  Ruchi Singh
Posted on: Jul 14, 2012 at 10:25 IST

I think the above article gives a clear analogy of the old times and
the new ones thereby establishing how the voice of the common or for
that reason public opinion is not really influencing the decision
making procedures in some issues. In the world's so called "largest
democracy" we still have protocols as well as established forums and
rules to govern the decision making process in matters such as the
cartoon in ncert controversy.As much as it may hurt the sentiments of
some of those who read it, the voice of the public also deserves to be
heard. The comparison to the hunter commission and also the references
to those of the Syed Ahmad stand out to show that during the imperial
rule over india the common man had no say However now being a rising
superpower we need to understand that the reports should also manage
to include dissents and well as disagreements of not only those in the
commitee but also the so called mango people.It is essential to
development. Loved the article!Kudos

from:  Augustine Chatterjee
Posted on: Jul 14, 2012 at 02:19 IST

The people who are trying to cover-up these cartoons, have achieved what the Indian education system has been trying to do for decades - initiate critical thinking. The fake controversy on the NCERT textbooks have brought the spotlight on these excellent products, surprisingly from a government backed body. The Thorat panel found the Huffaker cartoon objectionable - the one with a Porcine man whose pockets are stiffed with several elephants indicating the US congress, presidency, judiciary and media - as it depicts organizations as animals. The pig represents the greedy businessman, who controls the Republican party, which controls all the arms of government and the media. US politicians would not have found offense in this picture; they accept the elephant as a symbol for the GOP and the donkey for the Democrats. If this is not an attempt to scuttle critical thinking, what is? My suggestion for readers is to find a internet bookstore and buy these amazing political science text books

from:  vishwas
Posted on: Jul 13, 2012 at 18:46 IST

I am glad this Mr Sumedh took to his laptop to write his comment. Take this viewpoint from someone like Mr Sumedh who I assume is not a university professor (but otherwise perfectly respectable and a fully paid up member of society) and the approach to cartoons from some one as distinguished as Prof Thorat. Between the two, you get a perfect sense of humourless society we are becoming. A nation of people who believe we should kow-tow first and ask questions later. And have no sense of the basic fairplay that characterised even British Rule, which is the point the writer was making Mr Sumedh. Head for the exits!

from:  Ravi Rajagopalan
Posted on: Jul 13, 2012 at 16:24 IST

Any person who has seen this cartoon can make out the meaning it wants
to convey contrary to what experts say about it.Primary meaning of
this cartoon is to insult person Like Dr B R Ambedkar.Why are we
concentrating more on such unproductive issues ?If Cartoonists really
want to convey their ideas and want students to learn then there are
so many good ways to convey the same idea.
One should not take advantage of privileges and liberty given by constitution . We should respect feelings of society .If we justify
this cartoon today then tomorrow some one will justify painting
portraying BHARAT MATA in nude by MF hussain.

NB:: I found above article boring and difficult to understand.

from:  sumedh
Posted on: Jul 13, 2012 at 13:41 IST

I am not getting what you are trying to say as the context used doesn't seem appropriate.
I think you need to read again about the issue and explain it in an appropriate manner.

from:  Rahul Kapoor
Posted on: Jul 13, 2012 at 11:18 IST

It appears that Mr. Thorat is a typical bureaucrat who only wants to please his political bosses.

from:  krishna
Posted on: Jul 13, 2012 at 02:12 IST
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