Prabhat Patnaik's argument that academics are 'accountable to nobody' and can be made accountable only through increasing parliamentary jurisdiction over them is baffling

The thrust of Prabhat Patnaik's argument (“Parliament's say extends to the classroom,” The Hindu, May 22, 2012) is clear. It is to declare illegitimate the arguments against government action on the recent textbook controversy. What is this hullabaloo about, Patnaik seems to be saying: what is under threat is not the status of critical pedagogy in the textbooks but the jurisdiction of the Parliament.

The larger argument within Patnaik's polemic is disquieting. It has implications for our understanding of issues of academic autonomy, academic responsibility, and the jurisdiction of the state.

The question of autonomy

There is a problem with Patnaik's founding assumption. These textbooks, he suggests, are state textbooks written by authors commissioned by the state. Produced for public use they cannot be the site of the authors' creative and free expression. So the very claim that freedom of expression is being thwarted is illegitimate.

What such an argument does not recognise is that the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) is a semi-autonomous body with its own structures through which decisions are made. The books were not commissioned by the state, nor were the authors chosen by the state. The textbooks were produced through an unusually democratic and collaborative process. But such semi-autonomous spaces inevitably have a fragile existence. They are neither fully controlled by the state, nor entirely independent of it. The only way to sustain this relative autonomy is to persistently resist the incorporating drive of the state, its effort to discipline, dictate and control.

Has not the democratic movement within universities struggled over years to expand the spaces of autonomy? Located within universities funded by the state, we resist efforts by any government to dictate our curricula, our syllabus, and our courses. We set up institutional structures — executive councils, academic councils, boards of study, departmental bodies to discuss and debate issues. There are established procedures of review and revisions. When that is violated, we protest. Precisely for the same reason we need to protest against any arbitrary action by the government in relation to NCERT textbooks, when that happens. And, as Patnaik is aware, we have done that many times over in the past in relation to the earlier generation of textbooks. I do not remember Patnaik raising any such argument against those protests.

Contrary to what Patnaik suggests, this is no longer a debate on one cartoon. Over 150 cartoons have been listed as offensive. All political parties have come together to protect themselves and their heroes from possible critique, identifying cartoons that may be seen as subversive. Critical pedagogy in the classroom itself is being seen as threatening.

The notion of accountability

Patnaik's argument that academics are “accountable to nobody” and they can be made accountable only through increasing parliamentary jurisdiction over academics is baffling.

How can we possibly say intellectuals are accountable to nobody? Is there only one notion of accountability? Is the vote the only way to ensure accountability? In intellectual life, accountability in the widest sense operates through the notion of responsibility. This responsibility is imposed on intellectuals in many different ways. The questions we pose, the languages we use, the stereotypes we operate with, are persistently subjected to critique within public debates, within social and intellectual movements. Over the years, feminist critiques have made us aware of the founding assumptions of masculinist thought, Dalit intellectuals have shown how prevailing analytic frames are imbued with unacceptable casteist assumptions; and others have demonstrated how dominant discourses marginalise subordinate groups. One way for intellectuals to be responsible is to be sensitive to these critiques, and develop new ways of understanding the world. In this process, our ideas become accountable to intellectual and political publics, are judged and debated within these publics. A second way of being responsible is to see how we transform these sensibilities into public goods.

The formulation of the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005 and the writing of the NCERT textbooks was an instance of the discharge of this responsibility. The many hundreds of academics, educationists and social activists who came together were not chosen by the state to perform a job. They came together out of a certain commitment to bring about a change they saw as necessary. The focus groups that were set up debated precisely the issues that social and intellectual critiques within society have thrown up, and they subjected existing disciplinary knowledges and pedagogic practices to a trenchant critique. It is no accident that they emphasised powerfully the need for curriculum changes and textbook production that were sensitive to issues of gender and caste, ethnicity and region, economic inequality and social disparity. Does this mean that the textbooks cannot be critiqued, that they are somehow free of all problematic assumptions? Certainly not. Critique and debate there must be. And intellectuals have to participate in these dialogues, listen to voices that critique and question, and reflect back on the categories through which they conceive the world. But the capacity to listen, and be sensitive, has to be nurtured through a process of dialogue and debate within the public sphere, not just on the floors of Parliament.

And changes in textbooks have to be through due process, within institutional structures, not through ad hoc changes every time a controversy breaks out, and as Patnaik also says, not through ex cathedra pronouncements of ministers on the spur of the moment. There are already instituted processes of revision and review within institutions like the NCERT, and these need to be respected. We can think of making such processes more effective through democratic and inclusive discussions.

The jurisdiction of the state

Patnaik critiques the liberal notion of intellectuals but affirms the liberal idea of Parliament in an unproblematic way. Parliament appears in his argument as the only site of democracy and accountability; it alone can ensure our march towards egalitarian society, and it alone can uphold the ideas of justice and equity. Any effort to limit this jurisdiction, he warns, will undermine our drive towards egalitarian society.

This is an uncritical celebration of Parliament. True, as Patnaik says, academics are not pure embodiments of reason, free of prejudices and biases. Nor are Members of Parliament. They too have their prejudices, interests and ideologies, their party affiliations and political visions. When we see the floor of Parliament as the only locus of democracy, we undervalue the way movements within society, and the debates within the public sphere constitute the democracies we inhabit; and we under-rate too the different institutional structures of democracy that function in different spaces, with all their limitations. Did not the makers of the Indian Constitution think of a strong judiciary precisely to check the legislature and the executive from overstepping their jurisdiction?

In the context of the writing of textbooks, what does Patnaik really mean when he says: “Parliament must consult ‘experts' but must not concede its jurisdiction to experts”? If academics are only there to be “consulted” then who does the writing? In any case, is the nature of the jurisdiction of Parliament over such processes so clearly defined? Operating within locations (universities and institutions like the NCERT) that are semi-autonomous, we have to struggle to expand the spaces of our autonomy even as we recognise the limits of that autonomy. We do not have to give over our right to critique government action, and uncritically accept all its interventions, by assuming that this is the only way to defend democracy.

I understand Patnaik's concern with the wider public disenchantment with Parliament and the generalised attack on politicians. Democratic institutions certainly need to be strengthened. But is this to be done through an uncritical affirmation of parliamentary jurisdiction over all intellectual life?

(The author is a professor at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and the Chief Adviser of the NCERT history textbooks.)

Prabhat Patnaik responds

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