The cartoon ban will ensure a return to the lifeless textbooks of yesteryear, taking away the very tools that have enabled Dalit assertion today

There have been three different approaches to the latest cartoon controversy. One focuses on the Dalit assertion that has acquired a larger resonance and forged a swift political consensus on this issue. The other two are on education, but have opposing views on what schools, schoolchildren and textbooks are and ought to be. While the latter two are so sharply divergent that they seem to be natural enemies, the Dalit perspective looks like it could ally with either of the other two. A correct assessment of long-term trajectories will shape the future that will be shared, willy-nilly, by all three. But first the differences.

Empathetic standpoint

If we understand the controversy as an enactment or endorsement of Dalit assertion, then it does not matter that the cartoon in question is 63 years old, that there were no protests when it was first published, or that alternative interpretations exist. An empathetic standpoint would appreciate why Dalits need to symbolically assert what they have long been denied — full membership in the nation. It would also explain why this assertion must sometimes take a pre-emptory form — because veto power indicates full membership, and the dominant and upper caste-class sections of Indian society have often treated themselves to precisely such veto-like assertions. If today the Dalit community is exercising its veto through a presumptive ban on the offending cartoon and is using “community sentiment” to trump rival arguments or bypass debate, it does have a strong entitlement to do so. Compared to its negligible costs, banning a cartoon that seems to be both offensive to many and pedagogically superfluous will yield far greater benefits in terms of the socially desirable goal of Dalit assertion.

Of the two perspectives that focus on education, the one articulated by the class of politicians is loud and clear. From this standpoint, textbooks that include cartoons in their alleged efforts to provoke critical thought are not only “poisoning impressionable minds” but also “endangering democracy” itself. By co-opting the Dalit position and leveraging it into a comprehensive attack on an entire range of textbooks, this perspective seeks to equate power with democracy and schooling with conformity. Schoolchildren must be taught to respect politicians, revere our great leaders, love the motherland, ignore cartoonists and avoid the media. And if some teachers and their textbooks are subverting this agenda, they must be taught a lesson — hence the attempt to re-educate Prof. Suhas Palshikar by re-decorating his office.

The third perspective is represented by the writers and well-wishers of the textbooks under attack, and it is currently neither loud nor very clear because it is struggling with questions that lack ready answers: how to sustain a critical and engaged pedagogy within an educational system that is controlled by the very status quo that both attracts critique and cannot tolerate it? How to prevent the system from defaulting to craven conformity whenever it annoys those in power? Is it necessary or even possible to make a distinction between different kinds of opposition when the underlying attitudes and effects seem identical? If the months and years of collective labour invested in dozens of textbooks by hundreds of teachers can be erased in a matter of days by a few opinionated and powerful persons, who will ever engage with school education again?

Pre-emptive bans

The larger horizon within which all three perspectives are located is defined by the fact that, in the heat of the current moment, it is difficult to distinguish genuine allies from illusory ones. On the face of it, Dalit groups and the motley class of politicians seem to be marching in step. An alliance inaugurated by the quick support given to the initial Dalit protests against the Shankar cartoon seems to have been cemented by the fact that no political party has condemned the vandalism by the Republican Panthers Party of India activists in Pune University. But Dalit organisations and their well-wishers would do well to think ahead. It is the prospect of pre-emptive bans that is uniting Dalit and non-Dalit politicians today. Tomorrow, these bans will ensure a return to the sanctimonious textbooks of yesterday, because a text made lifeless by cloying piety is the best protection against outbreaks of competitive offence-taking. Texts that engage none will offend none and inspire none.

Subaltern perspective

But do such texts serve the long-term interests of all our children, both Dalit and non-Dalit? The answer is found in the very conditions of a possibility of Dalit assertion. Critical pedagogy helped create space for subaltern perspectives and the Dalit standpoint in particular. It ensured that, at least in the limited sphere of school textbooks, Ambedkar is belatedly receiving the kind of attention he has long deserved. But this was made possible only through a protracted, now-open-now-hidden, war of attrition with the followers of the Nehrus and Gandhijis of yesteryear who were as quick to demand deference for their idols then as Ambedkar's followers are today. Consider, for example, the following sentence printed five centimetres from the offending cartoon with which it shares a page: “Ambedkar had been a bitter critic of the Congress and Gandhi, accusing them of not doing enough for the upliftment of Scheduled Castes.” Readers above the age of 35 should ask themselves if they can recall a similar sentence or sentiment from their high school textbooks.

Is it not reasonable, then, to expect that a Dalit standpoint would be not just sympathetic but actively committed to a critical pedagogy? And as it reaps the hard-won harvests of its past struggles, is it unfair or presumptuous to hope that the Dalit sensibility will not pull up the ladders that have enabled its ascent, but will facilitate the rise of future subalterns? The answers to these questions will decide whether our children, too, will be schooled in sanctimony as we once were.

(Satish Deshpande teaches at Delhi University and was an adviser for the Sociology textbooks of the NCERT. E-mail: sdeshpande7@gmail.com)

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