NCERT TEXTBOOK CARTOON: The petition against the Ambedkar-Nehru cartoon, published in The Hindu ("Humour is by no means exempt from prejudice", June 8, 2012), makes for sad reading.

The petition against the Ambedkar-Nehru cartoon, published in The Hindu (“Humour is by no means exempt from prejudice”, June 8, 2012), makes for sad reading. Sad, because it bears the signatures of some of our best scholars, universally admired for their rigorous scholarship, who nevertheless chose to sign a petition short on facts.

The petition asks the NCERT's Textbooks Review Committee to “reconsider the Ambedkar cartoon (and possibly other such insensitive material)”and urges “Kapil Sibal, the Union HRD Minister, to desist from seeking any major overhaul of the basic NCF [National Curriculum Framework] on which the textbooks are based.” Perhaps the petitioners are not aware that the particular cartoon is now beyond the purview of the committee. A decision to remove it had already been taken by the Minister himself, and a commitment made to this effect on May 11 by Mr. Sibal on the floor of the Rajya Sabha. It was after this that the parliamentarians intensified their attack and targeted other cartoons in all the textbooks. It was in response to this outrage that the government announced the formation of a review committee to be chaired by Prof. S.K. Thorat to find out if there is any “educationally inappropriate” material in the textbooks. In fact, one expected the petitioners to criticise the manner in which the cartoon was removed even before the setting up of a review committee, disregarding all established procedures. Without such a critique, without making a strong demand for making NCERT academically autonomous, so as to enable it to deal with such issues through its own autonomous, established procedures, how do the signatories expect the Minister to honour their urge not to overhaul the NCF 2005? If he can delete the cartoon without any consultations and go unchallenged, what prevents him from ordering an overhaul of the NCF?

It should be clear by now that the second part of the demand to reconsider “possibly other such insensitive material” is the only substantive thing left with the petition. That too, without doing any homework, without citing examples! What could “other such insensitive material” be? One example has already been pointed out by Vaiko and the MDMK and DMK: A cartoon supposedly ridiculing the anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu, deemed to be insensitive from the point of view of Tamil pride. In this case too, a reading of the chapter in which this cartoon is located will demonstrate that the anti-Hindi agitation has been seriously discussed in the context of Periyar and his politics. But who cares to read the textbooks themselves? A section in Rajasthan has expressed its hurt over the inadequate representation of Rana Pratap and would possibly use this opportunity to petition the committee with its own set of complaints. The right wing Hindu educational machine is in motion round the clock, scrutinising the textbooks and curriculum to find sensitive spots. Ask the NCERT, which has to deal with continuous petitions from this section. However, with this storm, the NCERT has been made so vulnerable that it would be impossible for it to face any charge of “insensitivity to sentiments” with academic self-assurance.

While talking about “possibly other such insensitive material”, it would be educative to recall a similar debate which took place six years ago, in August 2006, in the same Rajya Sabha. Portions from Prem Chand and Om Prakash Valmiki were read as violating Dalit and constitutional sensitivity. Then followed hurt to girls, Hindus and nationalists by poets Dhumil and Pash, novelist Pandey Bechan Sharma ‘Ugra', painter M.F. Husain and dramatist Jagadish Chadra Mathur. All political parties were united in demanding action against those guilty of putting these passages in the textbooks. The result was the formation of a review committee. Despite a well-argued defence of the textbooks and rejection of the objections against them by the committee, which had Yash Pal, U.R. Ananthamurthy, Krishna Sobti and Nirmala Deshpande as members, most of those texts were replaced. What is the lesson then?

We know from a long history of such interventions — although up to now, only from right wing forces of different sorts — that once “sensitivities” are made benchmarks, democratic processes of debate and dialogue are the first casualties.

Another surprising point made by the petitioners is that many sections of society were not privy to the content of the textbook and it is only now that they are being debated. The textbook has been taught in schools for the past six years across India, adopted by more than 17 States, in different Indian languages, available in public domain through different media. Students and teachers have been discussing and debating them all along. It is a different matter that they did not have the privilege of the attention of our colleagues, who have discovered them only now, via the debate in Parliament.

The petitioners are unhappy with the inadequate representation of the role of Dr. Ambedkar in the textbook and ask the Thorat committee to make necessary amends in the text. It seems over-obsession with the cartoon did not allow them to appreciate that this is not a stand-alone book. The NCF that the petitioners ostensibly want to defend has set some curricular goals, and the syllabus for different stages of schooling is designed to achieve these goals. Textbooks, like other pedagogical devices and strategies, are geared towards this end. Thus, all students, not only the ones who are studying Political Science as an optional subject in Class XII, are expected to develop an understanding of the issues of diversity, discrimination, identity, equality, fight for self-respect and empathy. They engage with these ideas and concepts not only in the Political Science periods but across subject areas. This is the unique feature of this NCF. At every level then, students compulsorily come across Dr. Ambedkar in different chapters and subjects, and by the time they reach Class XI and choose to study Political Science, they are well aware of the significance of Dr. Ambedkar not only for the Constitution making process, but also for Dalits and other struggling classes and identities. Much before encountering the now deleted cartoon, they have established a good visual familiarity with him with the help of photographs and sketches. They have gained a conceptual confidence to engage with the textbooks, questioning and critiquing them. The textbooks do not present themselves as The Text. At the very least, this is what the NCF aspires to. But to understand this, one will have to patiently engage with the curricular process and look at all its stages at a relaxed pace. Getting fixated on one cartoon in one textbook does not help.

It is also disappointing that the physical assault on Prof. Suhas Palshikar has been described as an “aberrant act”. It has been suggested that over-discussion of this minor incident is a design to divert attention from the “atrocity” of the Shankar cartoon. Counter-posing this with his being defended by Dalit students leaves one with a deep sense of disquiet. We have seen similar assaults on the Head of the Department of History in Delhi University by some overzealous Hindu youth distressed by the Ramanujan essay. It was similarly underplayed by interested parties arguing that it was more important to discuss the hurt caused to Hindus, than this “minor” and “aberrant” assault.

(Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University and was associated with the Teaching Of Indian Languages Focus Group of the NCF, 2005)

K. Satyanarayana and Anoop Kumar respond

[Editor's Note: With this article, all correspondence in print on this subject is now closed. We will, however, carry pieces that make a substantive new point about the cartoons and textbooks controversy in the Opinion section of www.thehindu.com]

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