A petition submitted to Prof. Sukhadeo Thorat, Chairperson, NCERT Textbooks Review Committee, by leading Dalit and non-Dalit writers, scholars and activists.

When NCERT's Class XI Political Science textbook, Indian Constitution at Work, came to the attention of some Dalit activists, they objected to the manner in which the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, had been depicted riding a snail representing the Constitution, with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wielding a whip behind him and an entire crowd smiling and watching the spectacle. Six weeks later, the issue was raised in Parliament and a chorus of MPs cutting across party lines sought the withdrawal of the cartoon, and some even of the NCERT textbooks. Many sections of the public had not been privy to the contents of the textbooks in the past six years. It is only now that these textbooks are being debated.

We, the undersigned, are dismayed by the two polarised sets of reactions that have emerged. Firstly, many members who were part of the textbook advisory committee for the senior secondary level, including Chairman of the committee Prof. Hari Vasudevan, and Chief Advisors Suhas Palshikar and Yogendra Yadav, have since protested against the demand for reconsidering the use of this insensitive cartoon. Subsequently, many members who have been part of various textbook development committees have argued that the textbooks should remain unchanged; and have been silent about the violence of the cartoons. This is a rather untenable position. We find it insulting when some intellectuals suggest that people protesting the cartoon fail to understand the “productive power of laughter” or that there's a “fear of cartoons”. The textbooks, however good they are and even if they mark a radical departure from past efforts, cannot be above criticism, discussion and improvement. This logic, in fact, goes against the stated aim of these textbooks: to engage sceptically and critically with what one reads. Indeed, each of the new NCERT textbooks solicits feedback, criticism and suggestions. The textbook writers may have tried their best to overcome their caste bias, but none of us is exempt from the baggage of caste, gender or other interests. As the feminist movement has so clearly shown, humour is by no means exempt from prejudice. Cartoons and jokes can be vicious about minorities. Hate speech often masquerades as humour. Jokes and cartoons need to be subjected to critical scrutiny.

Secondly, we do share the fear that in the name of handling the contentious cartoon on Dr. Ambedkar, the UPA government might attempt to remove many cartoons and other visual/textual material from the textbooks. Crucially, these textbooks feature several posters from the women's movement, the Dalit movement and the environmental movement. Also to be commended is the inclusion of a wide range of literary texts by Dalit writers. However, the textbook writers must realise that they have not done a favour to Dalits by such inclusion, which was long overdue. There's a lot that is good about these textbooks — a result of the pressures that the women's movement, the Dalit movement, environmental and farmers movements, anti-SEZ mobilisations exerted —that may be lost if the final say about what may or may not appear in a textbook is to be with the state.

These textbooks have been drafted collectively by a wide range of social scientists, including some academicians who happen to be Dalit, and in consultation with activists, NGO representatives and educationists working at the field level. However, it is not as if these textbooks are completely error-proof. Besides the offensive cartoon, the text in the Class XI textbook does not ever properly introduce Dr. Ambedkar. The text does not inform the students that a Drafting Committee chaired by Dr. Ambedkar drafted the Constitution. In the absence of a proper discussion of Dr. Ambedkar's role in the Constituent Assembly, the violence of the cartoon is all the more palpable. We urge the Thorat Committee to make the necessary changes in the text as well.

We wish to express dismay over the adamantine attitude of some of our academic friends who seem to treat the cartoon as sacrosanct. The implication that “dalit intellectuals have unwittingly played into the strategies of politicians” is indefensible to say the least. The lack of understanding expressed by the “intellectual classes” towards the Dalit viewpoint has been saddening. The Dalit question has always been historically deflected and postponed in this manner. When Dr. Ambedkar and the early Dalit movements raised the question of caste, the nationalist movement said the anti-colonial struggle was more important; when the issue of caste was raised in the feminist or Left movements, it was considered divisive; when Adivasis raised the question of representation in the leadership of dam evictees' movements, the stopping of the dam was made paramount.

We wish to bring to your attention that many Dalit activists and scholars, including some young Dalit students in the University of Pune, not only condemned the act of vandalism at the office of Prof. Palshikar, but even guarded his office from further attacks. This went unreported in the media.

We are also deeply saddened that because of this one aberrant act, the otherwise democratic and rational engagement with this issue that Dalits and some non-Dalit intellectuals opposed to the cartoon have engaged in — through news media, blogs, Facebook, and the Internet — has been portrayed as emotional and infantile. The Dalit movement has been one of the most democratic movements in this country. And for Dalits a whip is a vulgar reminder of everything feudal and casteist about this society. As the dalitbahujan feminist blog Savari says: “The whip is inseparable from violence against slaves, dalits, women, animals and children. Almost all histories of protest against injustice, be it feminism, anti-slavery, anti-caste or anti-apartheid movements have protested and continue to protest the symbolic violence in imagery that uses instruments of violence such as the whip, noose or chains.” That the advocates of critical pedagogy do not see this as such is regrettable.

It is time we realised that there is a permeable boundary between the symbolic violence of such a cartoon and the tolerance of such cartoons by academics on the one hand, and atrocities like Bathani Tola, Melavalavu, Chunduru or Khairlanji on the other. Quite often the iconicity of Dr. Ambedkar has been used by Dalits to assert their democratic rights. And the struggle against the cartoon is indeed a democratic struggle — even if the mainstream and alternative media have portrayed it as otherwise.

At this stage, we petition the Thorat Committee set up to examine the textbooks to reconsider the Ambedkar cartoon (and possibly other such insensitive material). While we demand that the NCERT take into account the wide range of criticisms and feedback the textbooks have elicited, we also urge Kapil Sibal, the Union HRD Minister, to desist from seeking any major overhaul of the basic NCF framework of the textbooks.

We also think this is the occasion to seek fair representation of Dalits and other social minorities in NCERT's various committees, as well as in the Senates and Syndicates of Central and State Universities; and to introspect on why Dalits and Adivasis, despite constitutional provisions for 22.5 per cent reservation, occupy less than three per cent of faculty positions .

Omprakash Valmiki, Namdeo Dhasal, Bama, Siddalingaiah, Urmila Pawar, G. Kalyan Rao, Imayam, Ravikumar, K. Satyanarayana, Susie Tharu, S. Anand, M.R. Renukumar, Rekha Raj, Ajay Navaria, Rajni Tilak, Gogu Shyamala, P. Sivakami, Paul Divakar, Sharmila Rege, Raj Kumar, N. Sukumar, Sanal Mohan, Ajay Skaria, Radhika Menon, Meena Kandasamy, V. Geetha, S. Japhet, Uma Chakravarti and Bharat Patankar.

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