The uproar over what is being referred to as the 'Ambedkar cartoon' in the class XI textbook prepared by NCERT first began over a month ago, that is to say, almost six years after the books have been in circulation, been taught and received high praise for their lively style and a critical pedagogical approach (more on this below). It was a political party – one of the factions of the Republican Party of India – that decided to kick up a ruckus over 'the issue' – that is, the 'affront' to Dr Ambedkar that the cartoon in question supposedly constitutes, and the resultant 'hurt sentiments' that it has caused. Very soon everyone began to fall in line, and practically every member of our august Parliament was vying with one other to prove that they were indeed more hurt than their colleagues. One of them, Shri Ram Vilas Paswan has even demanded that the NCERT itself should be dissolved!
Good old Jurgen Habermas – and good old Habermasians - have always invested a lot in forums like the parliament, that are to them the hallowed institutions of 'rational-critical discourse' where through reasoned argument people convince each other. That is how the voice of Reason ultimately prevails in democracies. I have always been suspicious of this claim and have thought that Habermas' empirical work on the decline ('structural transformation') of the public sphere was more insightful than his normative fantasies. Long long ago, his empirical work on the transformation of the public sphere showed that it was the rise of political parties that had actually destroyed all possibilities of 'rational-critical discourse', where organized passion in the service of immediate political interests carried the day.
But believe it or not, the text book and the cartoon that is now in the eye of the storm, isnormatively speaking a Habermasian tract. In other words, it invests too much in this fantasy of rational communication. The text below the cartoon (reproduced above) says:
" Cartoonist's impression of the snail's pace with which the Constitution was made. Making of the constitution took almost three years . Is the cartoonist commenting on this fact? Why do you think the Constituent Assembly took so long to make the Constitution?"And much as I personally disagree with this romantic representation of what went on inside the Constituent Assembly, here is what the textbook it self has to say, perhaps as its own answer to the question posed in the text below the cartoon:
"Each member deliberated upon the Constitution with the interests of the whole nation in mind. There were often disagreements amongst members but few of these disagreements could be traced to members protecting their own interests…The Constitution drew its authority from the fact that members of the Constituent Assembly engaged in what one might call public reason. The members of the Assembly placed a great emphasis on discussion and reasoned argument…The very act of giving reasons to others makes you move away from simply a narrow consideration of your own interest because you have to give reasons to others to make them go along with your view point. The voluminous debates in the Constituent Assembly, where each clause of the Constitution was subjected to scrutiny and debate, is a tribute to public reason at its best." (pages 17-18)
One of the reasons for the delay was perhaps, in the view of the text, this emphasis on deliberation. It is this textbook, by the way, that perhaps for the first time, gave Ambedkar the place in the history of modern India that he deserves, a fact lost today in the cacophony that marks Parliament, as the cartoons inhabiting it strut about making speeches outdoing one another in idiocy.
What is worse, of course, is that now Ambedkar has become the excuse for all manner of politicians to claim that it is not just him but all politicians who are being denigrated by the use of cartoons in the textbooks. Apparently a 40 member body of parliamentarians is now seized of the matter and has taken up the task of cleansing the textbooks. According to a report in The Indian Express, a letter by Saroj Yadav, head of the Department of Education in Social Sciences (where??) has written to one of the supervisors of the NCERT textbooks, that the forum of MPs felt "the cartoons show disrespect to politicians and depict them in a very poor way. " Apparently the esteemed members held that "depicting politicians in a poor light in textbooks for children of impressionable age erodes their faith in democracy and in politicians (the tautulogy is in the original letter as cited in the TOI report) in general."
So it is not really the multi-crore scams that politicians are involved in, the loot of the mineral and other resources that they make possible, the fixing of ministers, the cash for votes in parliament, MP's watching porn on their laptops while parliament is in session – it's not any of this that really erodes people's faith in democracy. The real culprit is the depiction of this in cartoons!
We need to go back to the cartoons – each one of those that the MPs want deleted, and have a public debate in the only place a reasoned debate is possible – outside the parliament, in the public, in academic institutions, in seminars and discussions. And let us call all the self-righteous MPs to come and explain to us – bewildered citizens – what is it that they are objecting to and why.
In conclusion, some background about these textbooks, placed on record for what it is worth. The NDA government had reduced NCERT to a pathetic forum peddling the ruling Hindutva ideology in textbooks, and after its exit, the question of rewriting textbooks came up afresh on the agenda. That was when the National Curriculum Framework 2005 was produced, evolving 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. After the NCF 2005 was released, it was followed by a prolonged public debate. One opinion then expressed was that in order to 'detox', we needed to simply bring back the old, pre-NDA textbooks which upheld secular values etc. As opposed to this, there was another opinion, espoused by a large number of academics and educationists, that we needed to upgrade the textbooks in more ways than one. For one thing, many strides have been made in the field of knowledge and we cannot simply revert to older text books. Our new books should reflect the latest developments in thought. Secondly, the pedagogical question should now be placed on top of the agenda. The old textbooks that gave ready-made 'gyan' to students that they had to then memorize, should be replaced by more creatively produced textbooks that pushed students to think for themselves. The idea was to raise questions that would encourage critical thinking among them. This also meant a move away from the boring, pedantic style of old textbooks. It meant further that even supposedly settled questions like those of 'secularism' would not be taught as if there is nothing to debate there. In this attempt to refashion textbooks, a huge public debate took place, first around the NCF 2005 in which hundreds of the best social scientists of the country participated, followed by an even more intensive collective process of textbook writing.
The process of actual writing of textbooks that followed, involved literally hundreds of teachers and researchers throughout the country. This process would not have been what it became but for the stewardship of the new NCERT Director, Krishna Kumar who made it into a veritable movement for writing textbooks across all disciplines. So it is misleading to see these textbooks as the outcome of the fertile imaginations of one or two individuals who became the public face of part of the process. Indeed, some others like historian Neeladri Bhattacharya who co-ordinated the writing of the history textbooks, and educationist Sarada Balagopal who co-ordinated the text-books on Social and Political Life, deliberately emphasized the collective nature of the process and placed themselves outside of any high profile publicity. It was over months of intensive collaborative discussions of drafts and repeated writings and re-writings, that these textbooks finally saw the light of day.
Now that politicians and MPs are seized of the matter, will the old debate be rekindled in the old way? Are we to go back to textboks that stifle the imagination of the learner? To get back to those good old days when no questions were encouraged?
But after all, text-books are only part of the universe of the student. How will you stop students outside the classroom from thinking for themselves, and and seeing for themselves who the actual cartoons are?