Please Sir, may I take a newspaper into my class?
At last, the real anxieties lurking behind what has come to be called the “Ambedkar cartoon” controversy are out in the open. It is hideously clear by now that MPs “uniting across parties” are acting as one only to protect themselves from public scrutiny, debate and criticism. It turns out, as some of us suspected all along, that the “sentiments” that have been “hurt” this time are the easily bruised egos of our elected representatives.
(By the way, you may have noticed that “MPs unite across party lines” is not a headline you will ever see after a massacre, a natural calamity, brazen public acts of sexual violence against women and so on. Oh no. Such unity is reserved only for utterly self-serving and anti-democratic interpretations of “Parliamentary privilege”).*
Artist: Abu Abraham
Declared HRD minister Kapil Sibal – “Much before the issue came to parliament, I had already taken action. I called for the NCERT text books and I looked at other cartoons. I realised that there were many other cartoons that were not in good taste and disparaging in nature. They were not sending the right message to our children in classrooms”.
With these words, he finally turned our suspicion to certainty that it was not in fact, the honour of Babasaheb Ambedkar that was at stake in this anomalously named controversy.
What has become completely invisible in public debate over this controversy is the background of these text-books, the fact that it was not only Expert Committees and Chairpersons and Advisors to state bodies that were involved, but hundreds of teachers, educationists and academicians who were part of the collective process of drafting these books across disciplines. This process was begun after the debacle of the Hindu Right’s illiterate and politically motivated revision of NCERT text-books. After the NDA lost the elections, the NCERT under Dr Krishna Kumar, began a widely based process of drafting first, the National Curriculum Framework 2005 which evolved out of an uncommonly democratic process, involving about three hundred people all over the country – teachers, academics and educational activists – over a period of seven months. Then came the new text-books.
The NCF 2005, while stating its commitment to secularism baldly and uncompromisingly, took a more complicated position on education and on pedagogy than the older guard of left-secular pedagogists, who at the time, were only focused on “de-saffronization”. The debate at that time was whether to simply go back to the old text-books, or to use the opportunity to redesign school text-books altogether, creatively encouraging analytical thought, debate and engagement with the world in which learners actually live. New text-books were then designed for History (co-ordinated by Neeladri Bhattacharya), for Social and Political Life (co-ordinated by Sarada Balagopalan ) and Political Science (co-ordinated by Yogendra Yadav), among other disciplines. Scholars like Hari Vasudevan, Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar, Gopal Guru, Suhas Palshikar, individuals from innovative educationist groups such as Ekalavya and Nirantar, and a long list of other socially progressive, committed people were involved in the collective process of writing and putting together these books. (I too was involved, as one of the hundreds of others, in this process).
In Political Science books in particular, the idea of introducing political cartoons as an aid to class discussion emerged in just such a collective forum, and as you will see by now from the united voice of MPs across party lines, the real anger in parliament is about the use of political satire as such. The decision has already been taken to withdraw all the Political Science text-books and to reissue them sans cartoons within a month.
What politicians would ideally like to do is ban cartoons in newspapers of course, but the next best solution is to ban them in classrooms of 16 to 18 year-olds. Some of them are already old enough to vote and to legally have consensual sex; women among them, consensually or not, are old enough to be legally married off by their parents. Most of them, if they are not from the small privileged sections of India, are already taking on family responsibilities.
These are the “children” who must be protected from political debate?
What about cartoons in newspapers? What if a particularly anti-national and seditious teacher brings newspapers (with cartoons!) into a political science class ? Off with her head?
(Shekhar Kapur quoted today in Times of India: “Facebook, Twitter, blogs and now cartoons. What else will politicos ban? Voting against them?”)
Cartoons can be inoffensively funny, they can viciously attack marginalized groups or they can courageously “speak truth to power”. Each cartoon needs to be addressed in its specific context to determine its effect. So first let me offer my own reading of the “Ambedkar cartoon”, over-read though it has already been, just for the record, before I proceed.
Bear in mind that there are four books that cover the Political Science option in Classes 11 and 12 – Class 11 has Political Theory and Indian Constitution, Class 12 has Contemporary World Politics and Politics in India since Independence. The issue of historical and contemporary discrimination on the basis of caste comes up at different points through the relevant books, as also do other forms of discrimination (class, gender, race). There is also in these books a very strong theoretical (and also India-specific) defence of affirmative action in general and of reservations in particular.
Bear in mind also, that the people involved in designing these new text-books were concerned precisely with bringing politics into the Political Science classroom, a space that has hitherto been severely depoliticized through a stultifyingly mind-numbing subject called Civics, and a bare study of institutions. All students ever learnt about social divisions in those classes was the bland assertion that the Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, gender and religion.
The specific cartoon then: Nehru’s whip is held over the snail, at a distance from Dr Ambedkar, who himself holds a whip too, a fact little remarked upon. The real target of both whips is the snail of the Constitutent Assembly, which both Nehru and Ambedkar are seen as trying to hasten.
The cartoon is reproduced in Aditya’s earlier post on this, here on kafila, and also the comment that the text-book makes about it, basically addressing the issue of what constitution-making implies in a divided society. Dr Ambedkar was not a “Dalit” in that cartoon, he was the Chairperson of the Drafting Committee.
Moreover, as Rohini Hensman put it in the FeministsIndia elist: “There was an attempt to encourage students to develop an opinion instead of getting readymade answers.’ ‘Developing an opinion’ is impossible unless contradictory points of view are presented, and cartoons are one way of doing this. Students could well conclude that Shankar was wrong to suggest that it was taking too long to draft the constitution, but they would have come to this conclusion through their own reasoning process.”
I have been mystified by some critics of the cartoon who insist it is not funny, or that Shankar was a mediocre cartoonist. First of all, “cartoon” is a generic term – not all cartoons have to be “funny”, it is simply a way of commenting on current events through pictorial representations. There is even a term for it – “editorial cartoon”. Cartoons may be satirical, or may merely produce a certain insight by focusing on one aspect of a debate or controversy; they may be good, bad or mediocre – and not everyone would agree into which of these categories to put a particular cartoon. The cartoons used in the text-books were selected for their ability to illustrate some particular point that was being made, and because they introduce students to political satire.
Of course, all these text-books, any text-book or anything that we produce, for that matter, can come up for criticism; and text-books in particular, for regular revision. Rethinking and revision should be an essential part of all text-book writing. What many of us fear however, is the return of a thoroughly sanitized and depolitcized “Civics” and “Indian Government” as a replacement for text-books that have opened up politics for young people in schools.
Bringing politics into the classroom is an exercise fraught with danger as any teacher will tell you who has spent his or her life doing it. Rocking the boat with counter perspectives to power is one of the ways in which many of us may even define teaching as an activity. When my students read in a standard postgraduate course on Political Thought, Ambedkar and Kancha Ilaiah alongside Kant and Rawls, I hope to set up there a dynamic that radically subverts mainstream political theory and thought. When Aditya Nigam and I write on politics in India since 1989, and as anti-capitalists ourselves insert the voice of Chandrabhan Prasad advocating Dalit capitalism, we hope to complicate the orthodoxies of the Left, of which we consider ourselves a part.
When that very CBP (whom I consider a friend and from whom I have learnt more than I can say here) or Kancha Ilaiah, whose work I admire and respect – when these intellectuals so crucial to the shaping of the contemporary public sphere in India – dismiss the possibility of any informed reading of these text-books, I feel utterly immobilized. I had the honour recently of speaking with Kancha Ilaiah at a JNU mess meeting on serving beef and pork on campus, organized by the New Materialists, and I applauded with the packed hall when he said – “Why don’t Indian academics study Dr Ambedkar as an economist? Why do they only see him as a Dalit leader?”
In that text-book on the Constitution, of which the cartoon was a very small part, Dr Ambedkar is acknowledged, not (only) as a Dalit leader, but as one of the key architects of modern India. Isn’t this something to be applauded, not derided?
Dalit intellectuals have unwittingly, I believe, played into the strategy initiated by MPs and politicians, both Dalit and non-Dalit – that of stifling democratic critique of the political classes. It is now clear that any real or perceived attack on Dr Ambedkar’s honour is being used a smokescreen to protect politicians as such from criticism.
As teachers, social theorists and as people with a stake in protecting democratic freedoms, we must resist the move to overturn the revolution in school text-books inaugurated by NCF 2005.
But of course, whatever the outcome of this present mess, eventually I know that any teacher and student worth their salt will teach and learn what they have to by any means possible – by subversion, counter-questioning and working their way around and outside “prescribed texts”.
So prescribe away, Sibal saab!
*The sole exception to this is the Women’s Reservations Bill, and I don’t want to go into the question here, of why the WRB has not been passed for close to two decades despite such apparent unity, but it’s worth pondering upon.