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)