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We have been watching with deep dismay the events as they have unfolded on the floor of the Indian Parliament and outside. Uproar against an individual cartoon has now snowballed into a wide-ranging attack against the new NCERT textbooks. The office of one of the Advisors of the Political Science textbooks has been ransacked, the Political Science textbooks have been withdrawn from circulation, and the Government has resolved to conduct an inquiry into the role of those who sanctioned the inclusion of the offending material in the textbooks. Clearly what is at stake here is not just the life of cartoons on the pages of school textbooks.
But the fear of cartoons is not unimportant. It tells us a lot about the democracies we now inhabit.Jawaharlal Nehru told Shankar Pillai ‘Don’t spare me Shankar’. B.R. Ambedkar saw the cartoon that is now being seen as ‘offensive’. He had no problem with it. Nehru and Ambedkar, and great democrats like them, were aware of what cartoons mean. They were aware that creative cartoonists like Shankar or Laxman can encourage us to question what is taken for granted, reveal the ambiguities and contradictions of individuals, persuade us to see things in a new light. India has a long creative tradition of satire and irony. The productive power of laughter has been used not only in movements for social justice, but in children’s literature as well. If we celebrate this tradition, we celebrate democracy. Only in non-democratic countries is there a fear of cartoons.
The cartoons used in the new NCERT textbooks, have a pedagogic function. They are being used along with a range of other material – paintings, posters, sketches, maps, storyboards, and extracts from original sources – to engage student minds, help them think critically, make them recognize that visuals too can help us understand the past and the present. Questions that accompany the visuals and sources help that process of critical engagement with the text. These are pedagogic strategies used in the finest school texts all over the world to nurture children’s minds, and sharpen their interpretive skills
When we suspect the capacity of children to think critically and make judgements, we demean them. If we think 16-year olds are naïve, impressionable minds who have to be insulated from the world, protected from the conflicts and tensions within society, we patronize them. We cannot deny them access to information that circulates through newspapers, internet, radio, television and cinema. What the present textbooks seek to do is to deepen their capacity to engage with this information that children are exposed to in everyday life. If we fear critical thought, instead of nurturing it, we only reveal the fragility of our democratic thinking.
What has been profoundly disturbing is the way the Ministry of Human Resource Development has chosen to act. The new NCERT textbooks were produced through a prolonged process of democratic discussion. A whole range of committees and sub-committees were set up to oversee different stages of the process. The National Curriculum Framework 2005 was drafted after an intense collective discussion that involved over 300 people – academics, educationists, teachers – from all over the country. The textbooks that were subsequently written were again the products of collective efforts. Each textbook was written by a team; each chapter was discussed, debated and revised. A special Monitoring Committee of reputed academics then reviewed the textbooks. Suddenly the legitimacy of all earlier action has been called under question; all decisions of duly constituted bodies have been nullified. The abrupt decision to withdraw all the Political Science textbooks, and institute an inquiry to decide who was responsible for the inclusion of material that is now being judged ‘offensive’ ought to alarm all those who believe in the right to critical thinking, and respect the sanctity of democratic processes.
Each generation has to produce textbooks that mark a major shift from those that have existed earlier, and each generation has to think of new and creative ways of writing these texts. Textbooks therefore have to be debated and revised – a process that ought to consider the feedback from students and teachers. But this has to be through an academic, collective, democratic and inclusive process. Any direct government intervention will inevitably corrode the processes of democratic functioning.
We hope that reason will ultimately prevail, that the gains of the new National Curriculum Framework 2005 will not be destroyed in this rush to sooth ruffled feelings, that the new textbooks will not be censored and mutilated, that interventionist policing of educational enterprises will be avoided. It is sad that students this year are being denied the right to read these textbooks even before the newly constituted review committee has met.
Dr Sarada Balagopalan, CSDS
Professor Neeladri Bhattacharya, CHS, JNU
Professor Janaki Nair, CHS, JNU
Professor Kumkum Roy, CHS, JNU
Professor Hari Vasudevan, Calcutta University