It has been two weeks now since India’s Lok Sabha rose in unison to demand that a cartoon be expunged from the NCERT’s Class XI political science textbook. My first reaction, like that of most right-thinking people, was to assume that here, again, we have an example of the competitive politics of intolerance; that it further reduced the space for free speech in this country; and that Parliament was grossly overstepping its jurisdiction.
As time has gone by, I realise that I was wrong on each point.
First, this isn’t a free speech issue. Nobody is banning Shankar’s cartoons. Nor are they being burned on the streets; his name is spelled across the frontage of the building where I work, but there are no angry mobs on the street delaying my commute. (Admittedly, it’s tough to burn his cartoons when you can’t even find them. Even his Children’s Book Trust doesn’t have any collections on sale.) Removing a cartoon from a state-sponsored textbook isn’t a free-speech issue.
Nor is Parliament interfering in matters beyond its remit. Yes, there are fewer history PhDs in Parliament than there were on the drafting committee. But that’s irrelevant. This is not about the facts; nobody believes that the Constitution was in fact a giant snail. This is about the interpretation of history that the state is teaching its students — which cannot, in any way, be depoliticised. Contestation over the interpretation of history is the very stuff of politics. Unlike, say, stock-market regulation, it cannot be left to “experts”. Oddly, even those who vociferously object to the lack of democratic accountability involved in technocratic management of the economy defend equivalent expert-fetishism in fields closer to home.
But is not Parliament’s intervention merely an intrusion of the politics of intolerance? Not entirely. After all, while some voices have indeed compared cartoons of Ambedkar explicitly to those of Islam’s prophet Mohammed, that isn’t the sole motivation. It has become clearer and clearer over the past fortnight that the real problem is: how will this image be used and interpreted in classrooms? Yes, the best textbooks encourage critical, independent thinking. They will ask questions; that should be among their primary functions. Yet it appears painfully evident that those who draft textbooks are distant indeed from the cruelty and discrimination and viciousness of which schoolchildren are capable, from the casual bigotry that an unaccountable teacher can display. Can anyone with half a conscience look within themselves and conclude the possible benefits of a single question outweigh the likelihood that the cartoon on which the question is based will be used to mock the quiet Dalit child in the corner, who has lived in constant of physical violence and intimidation at school, and whose home has a garlanded photo of Ambedkar above the television? You and I can look at the cartoon and see Nehru and Ambedkar both whipping a snail. Others, clearly, read that cartoon differently. Perhaps that is because their lived experience is different from ours, perched as we are in exclusively upper-caste newsrooms and seminar rooms? Do we consider their reading outlandish because we think critical interpretations of cartoons are OK only as long as they’re our critical interpretations?
Good people worked hard to produce these textbooks. Yet Parliament’s intervention showed their class, caste and professional composition might have been deficient. It may not have allowed for the diversity of experiences that actually should inform state-sponsored textbooks — which must meet a different bar from the strictly optional textbooks produced by the private sector. These textbooks are unquestionably a big step forward. They are thoughtful, critical, open-minded, comprehensive. Yet they also display a distance from classrooms that’s typical of Indian efforts at drafting. We tend to have textbooks drawn up by people who teach graduate students, and not high-schoolers. And they are written as if for graduate students; by people who call themselves “pedagogues”, not teachers. You can check this yourself. Download and read them; evaluate the English in them. Their language is academic, wordy, dry, difficult. Compare it to what eleventh-graders actually read. Hell, compare it to any newspaper. This, just like the Ambedkar cartoon, is the problem with assuming only academic historians should write history, or academic geographers geography. We are a qualification-mad country; outcomes be damned, who are you to judge them, anyway?
Qualifications aren’t enough. Accountability matters, too. And that’s why Parliament did not overstep in discussing them. (HRD Minister Kapil Sibal was, of course, too quick to withdraw all the textbooks; his government likes to control whatever they can — perhaps because there are so few things they can in fact control.) But wait, you say: didn’t Parliament object to other cartoons, too? Isn’t that part of the war between politics and humour, led by Mamata Banerjee on one side and the entire internet on the other? Not quite. Actually, it was a more subtle point the speeches in the Lok Sabha made. Editorial cartoons, they said, are opinion; ephemera that preserve a moment of anger against an individual politician or party. They reflect the norms of the dominant groups that exercise power over the media. They are at their best when most unreasonable. Relying on them as the primary illustration for contemporary history or political science textbooks is like writing history entirely framed by quotes from, say, columns such as this. A frightening thought, I’m sure you’ll agree. One cartoon is interesting; dozens, of similar theme, can produce a distinct anti-democratic tinge to the book. That my Parliament is worrying about that makes me feel good. Because I care about outcomes and experience, not qualifications.