Save the classroom from the political class

When an emotional issue erupts in the public domain, argument becomes difficult and secondary to decision-making. That is what happened over the controversy regarding the inclusion of a cartoon depicting Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in a class XI textbook. One self-proclaimed inheritor and interpreter of Dr. Ambedkar's legacy ensured the debate could not even enter the realm of reason by comparing him to the Prophet. Such persons have done immense harm to the Ambedkar legacy of critique — remember that he not only sought to critique and demolish Hinduism or Gandhi's ideas; he even sought to critique and recreate Buddhism when he chose to embrace the Buddha. But now the controversy has become wider in its scope. When the Parliament of the country, almost in one voice, reprimands the inclusion of cartoons in political science textbooks, is there any scope for reason? Thus, in either case, argument is the casualty.

One could, of course, say that a “duly constituted” committee has been now appointed to look into the matter and that, of course, there is no reason to think that eminent colleagues sitting on that committee will not hear the case out rationally. However, the core issue remains: MPs across party lines have expressed their displeasure over the inclusion of cartoons and indicated their pedagogic inclination by expressing concerns over “vitiating young minds”.

Issues to be argued

Initially, when the controversy broke, concerns were expressed that this has something to do with freedom of expression. But many political leaders have pointed out that they are not opposed to cartoons being published in the media. This has made the debate more focused now. Besides the purported denigration of Dr. Ambedkar, five other issues have now emerged and need to be argued, debated and resolved both in the academic realm and the public realm more generally.

The first issue is about “impressionable” minds. Magnanimously, some of the participants in this debate have assured us that cartoons are fine for researchers and postgraduates, just not for young minds, please. This reminds one of the recent move to legislate that sex is not to be allowed till a certain age. No sex and textbook cartoons please, we are under 18. And that takes us to one of the larger issues: an authoritarian parental mindset that typically characterises our relations with younger generations and to collective life generally. With the explosion of information and media, issues transcend boundaries of age and this needs to be taken into account when arguing for a protective approach towards dissemination of ideas and knowledge.

But then, why should we be doing this through these textbooks? And there we come across the second issue: as one Honourable MP put it in a TV debate, ‘ yeh sarkari kitab hai' (this is a government textbook). There is a danger of conflating government with autonomous state institutions. That is exactly what one wants to guard against. In India, we have adopted a complex structure whereby school textbooks are formally under government jurisdiction, but with a caveat: the government, as such, does not write textbooks or decide what should or should not go into the textbooks. The government only ensures a certain procedure — creation of a body responsible for the task (NCERT in this case); selection of the right persons at the top (the director's appointment is made by the government); and then leaves the rest to those persons and institutions. Saying that the books are sarkari goes against the democratic principle of delegating work and assigning autonomous responsibilities with internal monitoring mechanisms. The perception that these are sarkari books is exactly what the post-National Curriculum Framework textbooks sought to dispel. That achievement of the NCF is now endangered. Are we saying that institutions have autonomy only so far as that autonomy does not become real?

The third issue that has come up is about the role of cartoons generally. Yes, cartoons — whether in textbooks or in print media — make us laugh, chuckle, and feel a little cheerful. But that is surely not the core function of a cartoon. It would be a gross misunderstanding, therefore, if we said — as some are now saying — that cartoons poke ‘fun' and hence they are for purposes of cheap criticism — ‘mazaak'. Much more than, and along with, poking fun, cartoons are a powerful art form for locating ironies and bringing forth the inconsistencies of our collective selves. This core value of the art form is not at all appreciated in the ongoing debate.


Moving on towards the textbook issue again, a fourth point that deserves attention is the pedagogy of textbook writing. The authors and advisors of the now-controversial textbooks do not claim any expertise on this. But they surely had the inputs of experts from the field of education and teaching. Besides, the NCF and its pedagogic approach was the guiding principle for the teams that prepared those textbooks. Not information but inquisitiveness is what the textbooks want to inculcate. They do not satisfy curiosity but fan more curiosity. They do not dish out opinions as “official wisdom” but help students become their own leading lights on the path of knowledge and understanding.

Whether cartoons fit in with the pedagogy based on this approach can very well be debated and it could also be argued that they are not the only means whereby these objectives could be achieved. However, the argument about impressionable age and the idea of giving a sarkari version of everything would not stop only at throwing out cartoons: depictions of drought could be objected to; pictorial presentations of domestic violence or communal carnage could be objected to; pictures of destruction caused by war can be objected to — all these unquestionably make a powerful impression on the viewer, young or whatever. The issue is: do we want students to have the benefit of all these strategies of dissemination and inquiry? The current series of post-NCF textbooks believes that these are necessary tools if the objective is to encourage creative thinking, imagination and, above all, the spirit of inquiry and critique.

Finally, another argument in the current debate seems to be this: the books are anti-democratic and show politicians in a poor light. As an aside, is it not somewhat odd and anti-democratic that a democratic society should have a separate “political class” rather than an engaged and active citizenry? But we shall leave it at that. Political science can be and was being taught mainly as formal institutions and rules and procedures such as “what are the powers of the President of India” and “how many members are there in the Rajya Sabha” and so on. Besides being information oriented, this approach is also the least encouraging in terms of producing an active citizen. The current (now nearly abandoned) textbooks did not only wish to make political science “interesting” but also wanted to make political science engage seriously with the political (and hence they have to pay the price for doing that).

Politics is about creating and running institutions; politics is about power and about power being used for various collective purposes; politics is not a sanitised anthem of democracy but a shrill and not so sweet mix of different sounds. This politics produces governance — and sometimes may even fail to produce governance. Politics is ‘good' and ‘bad' — unlike the romantic movie, there are men and women in politics rather than sanitised heroes and heroines and villains and side villains. Is this not a robust and democratic depiction of politics?

Committee welcome

It can be nobody's claim that this approach towards teaching politics is the only correct approach or that the textbooks have correctly followed this approach. It is for the larger academic community now to go beyond issues of an emotive nature and engage with the questions that the controversy has thrown up. While the context in which the inquiry committee has come into being may be somewhat sad, it is a welcome situation that the working of the committee will allow academics and the teaching/studying community to come forward on these issues.

(Suhas Palshikar was till recently the chief advisor to NCERT (Political Science) and teaches at the University of Pune, Pune. Email: suhaspalshikar@gmail.com)

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 2:43:02 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/save-the-classroom-from-the-political-class/article3422931.ece

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