The committee formed by the human resource development ministry to examine objections to political science textbooks issued by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has submitted its 39-page report, which has come in for predictable criticism. The Thorat committee recommended that 21 cartoons be deleted and some other changes be made to the textbooks for next year. The report will now be examined by NCERT’s textbook-monitoring committee. This transparent process of review and consultation should set at rest concerns, loudly expressed earlier, that the “political class” wished to stifle academic voices by exercising raw power to short-circuit institutional channels.
Reports of the Thorat committee’s suggestions also reveal that, quite clearly, some of the choices that went into the drafting of the textbooks were questionable. In particular, it is clear that there was an over-reliance on editorial cartoons as a pedagogic tool. Textbooks must include varied source materials and illustrations so that students are provided with both an entertaining and a thought-provoking experience. It is quite fallacious, however, to make the claim that an overuse of editorial cartoons is the best way to do this. Not only does it make for lazy textbook-writing – graphical illustrations need to be more varied – but it also comprehensively misunderstands the purpose and nature of editorial comment. Such comment is invariably embedded in the here-and-now; cartoons, in particular, carry the weight of complex allusion, not just of straightforward illustration. There are, thus, limits to their usefulness as teaching tools for timeless textbooks, especially in the hands of the overworked or under-trained teachers in most government schools. The panel of distinguished academic drafters of the textbooks, caught up in the romantic vision of introducing a completely new form of teaching, perhaps moved a little too far from the reality of Indian classrooms. Put bluntly, cartoons should not be used as a crutch to make excessively dry text entertaining, which is what these textbooks seem to have tried to do.
The other question is on the nature of the Thorat committee’s recommended deletions. Many observers, perhaps caught up in the anti-politics mood of the moment, have suggested that these recommendations have been made purely to protect the interests of the political and bureaucratic classes. The dissenting member of the five-member committee, M S S Pandian, said that because something is “politically incorrect” does not mean it is “educationally inappropriate”. This statement is not just indefensible when it comes to publicly funded textbooks; it is also inapplicable here. Criticism of politicians is not being “politically incorrect”. It is, in fact, the dominant discourse in India. The cartoons chosen for these textbooks strengthen, rather than complicate, that narrative — depicting politicians or bureaucrats as venal, favour-seeking, inefficient and altogether contemptible. The extent to which that picture is true is a conclusion that students should come to on their own, not by being spoon-fed by the material chosen for them — such as cartoons that ask them: “How do we live with the kind of political parties we have?” The Thorat committee’s suggestions are minimalist in substance and progressive in spirit. NCERT should consider them with care.