Recent demands from the “unified Indian political class” about expunging cartoons from NCERT texts, and its attack on the Indian intellectual class as being irresponsible, for including political cartoons in school textbooks, ironically enough bring back to memory aspects of a similar attack on leading Indian intellectuals and academics nearly a decade ago. While the issues were clearly defined around a ‘communal versus secular’ agenda in the earlier round, this time a single issue—inclusion of a political cartoon in the civics textbook by the late Shankar—has been the object of criticism from parliamentarians across party lines. But what I see as very similar and alarming for the prospects of an ‘open society’ is the display of crass political opportunism to ‘indoctrinate’ young minds using NCERT texts as sarkari farman, and, more damagingly, to portray the country’s intellectual class as shorn of caste and social sensitivity.
If anything, it were these very intellectuals who fought tooth-and-nail against attempts at communalising young minds through a so-called ‘revision’ exercise of the NCERT social science text books, led by its then director J.S. Rajput. Eminent historians, using a variety of approaches towards writing Indian history were labelled by Rajput as ‘relics of the Nehruvian past’, living in a world of illusions, and issuing fatwas from the high empire of intellectual hegemony (HT, May 9, 2002). The scholars under attack from Rajput and his political masters included historians of the stature of Romila Thapar, Sumit Sarkar, R.S. Sharma, Bipan Chandra, and Irfan Habib, among others.
The social science textbooks are being contested again, but this time it is the parliamentarians who lead the attack. What started as a protest by Dalit MPs on the inclusion of a single cartoon became a full-fledged demand to remove all political cartoons endorsed by parties as varied as the BJP, RJD, BSP, and the Left. From speeches made on the floor of the House and debates on TV, the critique which started as the expression of a feeling of ‘hurt’ on the portrayal of Babasaheb sitting astride a snail, with Nehru goading him from behind, is now being articulated as an attempt by Indian intellectuals to malign the political class as a whole. Shorn of both substance and procedure, the government’s capitulation to the demand is a reaffirmation of its weakness, and its inability to defend past UPA decisions—as shown by its implicit backing of the National Curriculum Framework development process in the past on which the new books are based.
The MPs’ case against the cartoons seem to have weak foundations; indeed, it’s shorn of reason on two grounds. First, there is no systematic evidence of classroom testing or feedback from learners. There are just anecdotes of a Vijay Bahadur Singh talking of a Ghaziabad school he visited or a Harsimrat Kaur Badal flinging photocopied pages on the floor of the Lok Sabha, citing them as evidence of how young minds were being taught to hate politicians. Second, the attacks on Suhas Palshikar and Yogendra Yadav, in Parliament and through incited violence, target them as individuals, whereas the texts were produced through a process of extensive consultation and review.
It can be nobody’s argument that any textbook prepared by scholars of any stature cannot be subject to review, or that a subaltern class cannot express its opinion on issues of exclusion or inclusion, including issues of portrayal. Indeed, criticism and debate forms the basis for engaging with ideas, for development of knowledge itself. But what shocks us is the lack of any systematic evidence on how any of these cartoons were “poisoning young minds”, or “making young people think negatively of politicians”.
If there is one obvious point, it’s that India’s political class is getting really cagey about receiving and responding to criticism. In reality, it is not Babasaheb who they wish should be revered as an infallible prophet through state diktat. Their real desire is for all politicians to be so revered.
Since training of young minds is no longer a task that politicians wish to delegate to the ‘professors of political science’, who they think do not have an idea of the social fabric of classrooms beyond urban Delhi, I have a suggestion for politicians—‘back to school’. They must use this opportunity to go back to classrooms, specially in remote, far-flung areas of India, where NCERT textbooks are the only instructional material both teachers and students have.
(The author is a research scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science)