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Mainstream, VOL L, No 32, July 28, 2012

NCERT’s Political Science Textbooks Controversy: Cartoon-centred Pedagogy

Tuesday 31 July 2012, by Arjun Dev


The NCERT brought out a series of textbooks in Political Science, as in other subjects, based on syllabi which were formulated after the new National Curriculum Framework (NCF-2005) developed by it was adopted. There was ample justification for preparing a new national curriculum framework as the NDA Government, which had converted the NCERT into an instrument of communalisation of school education (through, among others, its NCFSE-2000) was thrown out of office in 2004.

The communalisation of education at all levels had been a major issue of concern during the entire period of NDA rule and had become an election issue during the 2004 elections to the Lok Sabha, with the UPA promising to detoxify curriculum when it came to power. The NCF-2005, however, did not make even a token reference to communalism, much less presenting it as a major issue that needed to be kept in view as one of its major foci. The fundamental determinant of the NCF-2005 was the so-called ‘curriculum load’, following the report of a committee headed by Professor Yash Pal which was submitted to MHRD in the early 1990s. The higher bureaucracy of the MHRD which in 2004 asked the new authorities of the NCERT to review the NCFSE-2000 keeping in view the Yash Pal Committee Report; but it suffered from total amnesia about the report of another committee, set up by the MHRD to examine the Yash Pal Committee Report, which had, in effect, totally rejected the Yash Pal Committee Report. The NCF-2005 was prepared with ‘curriculum load’ as its fundamental basis along with what the framers followed by those who worked on preparing new syllabi and textbooks called ‘new pedagogy’ and ‘critical pedagogy’.

It is about seven years since the NCF-2005 was prepared and about five years since the new textbooks have been in use. The NCERT on its own should have started the process of comprehensively reviewing the NCF-2005 and all that accompanied and followed it by way of reports of focus groups, new syllabi and textbooks based on them. The textbook, Indian Constitution at Work for Class XI, with which the furore in Parliament first started over a cartoon, was first published in 2006. The process of evaluating it should have started soon after it began to be used in the classroom, not only its scrutiny by subject experts but also review in classroom situations with the help of students and teachers of its comprehensibility and suitability from the point of objectives that were formulated and have been claimed on behalf of the NCF-2005, the syllabi and textbooks, particularly the achievements (and failures) of the ‘new pedagogy’ and ‘critical pedagogy’ and the way it was applied in the writing of textbooks.

The present controversy began over a cartoon in the Class XI textbook and then a few more cartoons in that book and some other Political Science textbooks. The Minister of HRD apologised for one particular cartoon which was alleged to have lampooned Dr B.R. Ambedkar who has been stated to be an ‘iconistic’ figure by many intellectuals, Dalit and non-Dalit, a prophet by some and god by a former Member of Parliament. The NCERT, at the instance of the MHRD, set up on May 14, 2012 a Committee under the chairmanship of Professor S.K. Thorat, Chairman of the ICSSR (and formerly Chairman of the UGC) ‘to review the Classes IX-XII Social Science/Political Science textbooks of NCERT from the point of view of identifying educationally inappropriate material in them, providing suggestions for alternatives to be placed in the textbooks so that the material can be immediately made available to the learners concerned’. The other members of the Committee were a Professor of Political Science, a historian from Chennai who is presently on the faculty of the JNU, a school teacher, a journalist and social worker (from Meghalaya) and the present Head of the NCERT’s Social Science Department. The Committee was given one month’s time to complete its work. The Committee submitted its Report on June 27, 2012. It is presently under consideration of the Monitoring Committee which had been set up by the MHRD when the preparation of textbooks began.

The controversy, however, has continued with the media mainly reporting almost exclusively, and perhaps selectively, a part of the Report dealing with Recommendations ‘For Immediate Changes in the textbooks in Current Year’. While the Monitoring Committee has to give its opinion, and the government/NCERT its decision on the Report, the ‘current year’ has already begun with the opening of the schools about two weeks ago. A detailed analysis of the controversy and the Report may, therefore, have to wait.

It can, however, be said that it is totally uncritical of the NCF-2005 and the paradigm shift that it claimed to have brought about, and the syllabi and the textbooks in general (except for its few Recommendations) with their ‘new’ and ‘critical’ pedagogy claims. On the whole, even on the question of cartoons and the ‘twitters’ by the precocious wisecracks, the Report is uncritical. Some expressions used in the Report, appropriate or otherwise, have led some newspapers to make what may be described as acerbic comments. There is, for example, one and only cartoon (about Indira Gandhi’s massive victory) which has been objected to on the ground of being ‘politically sensitive’. There is actually little ‘politically sensitive’ in the cartoon. This single instance of the use of the words ‘politically sensitive’ has led The Hindu of July 4, 2012 to say: “Indeed, going by the suggested deletions , the ‘politically sensitive’ argument looks tailor-made to ensure the removal of cartoons seen as causing offence to the Nehru-Gandhi family.”

Now, in a Class XII textbook, there are 12 cartoons in which Indira Gandhi figures (no other member of Nehru-Gandhi family figures in any cartoon with the exception of Nehru who figures in 14 cartoons), of which three have been recommended to be deleted. One of these has been referred to above. The second one has been recommended to be deleted on the ground that Syndicate has been depicted as an animal and the third on ground of ‘regional sensitivity’ (the cartoon shows Sheikh Abdullah bowing in a semi-prostrate position before Indira Gandhi to receive the crown—chief ministership—from her). The third cartoon does appear to depict Sheikh Abdullah in a demeaning manner.

There are many problems with the Political Science textbooks (as with books in other subjects). Cartoons is one of them, being the most conspicuous of them. In the Class XI textbook, which has a very large number of them, no cartoon, except two foreign ones, carries a date which means that one cannot know the context in which they were created.

For the Class XI student, most of them, if not all, would be, in all likelihood, remain meaningless and incomprehensible and, hence, irrelevant. The very first cartoon, on page 5, is supposed to be about the failure of the European countries of the EU to create a European Constitution. Of the five persons depicted, not a single one can be identified. Do the students have any idea of the EU, either here or before or even after they have completed their Class XI.

On page 7, there is a cartoon to understand which one should have been around when it was drawn. It shows Nehru with two faces, one looking at a group of people, all in dhoti-kurtas, sitting on the ground shouting and gesticulating like rowdies. The other face is looking at a group of persons sitting in chairs, in Western dress, holding Western musical instruments, with some persons standing behind them, all very sober and well-behaved. This group seems to be singing Jana Gana Mana while the other group is singing/shouting Vande Mataram. The caption given by the producers of this book says, “Here is Nehru trying to balance between different visions and ideologies. Can you identify what these different groups stand for? Who do you think prevail in this balancing act?” Can You? It is not about the controversy over National Anthem as there wasn’t any debate on the National Anthem. Do the Vande Mataram and Jana Gana Mana represent different visions and ideologies which are identifiable by looking at the two groups. Perhaps the persons sitting on the floor and shouting are Leftists—they are on Nehru’s left—and the others on Nehru’s right are Rightists.

On page 15, there is a sketch showing two persons who can be recognised as Dr Ambedkar and Dr Rajendra Prasad though the caption says “Rajendra Prasad”, CAD, Vol. I, p. 6. One of them is giving the other a packet, who is giving and who is receiving is not clear. CAD, one presumes, means Constituent Assembly Debates. And when one turns to the box to the left of the sketch, the name of the second person still remains unidentified (unless one is familiar with Dr Ambedkar’s picture), but there is some shocking information given there. It reads,: “Much before the Costituent Assembly finally came into being, the demand for such an assembly had already been made. This was echoed by Dr Rajendra Prasad in his first address as the Chairman of the Constituent Assembly of India on December 9, 1946…. He said…. (four lines from the speech are reproduced here).” Shocking because Rajendra Prasad was not the Chairman of the Constituent Assembly on December 9, 1946, it was Dr Sachidanand Sinha and the words quoted in the box were Dr Sinha’s. (Dr Rajendra Prasad was elected Chairman on December 11.) This, of course, is a trivial point. But then there are others.

The text, referring to the Constituent Assembly says, “It held its first sitting on 9 December and re-assembled as Costituent Assembly for divided India on August 14, 1947.” Now, after its first sitting on December 9, 1946, it had its sittings from December 10 to 23, 1946, again from January 20, 1947 to January 25, 1947, April 28, 1947 to May 2, 1947, and then from July 14, 1947 to July 31, 1947 (before it met again on August 14, 1947). Also too trivial to be taken note of. But then on the same page, the reader is informed that ‘its members were elected by indirect election by the members of the Provisional Legislative Assemblies that had been established in 1935.’ ‘Provisional’ for ‘Provincial’ is quite clearly a printing error but members of the assemblies established in 1935 did not elect members of the Constituent Assembly.

Coming to the cartoon over which the controversy about Political Science books began, it may be said that while it is important to know why the Assembly took about three years to frame the Constitution, to do it through a cartoon is not the best way. “Why do you think, did the Constituent Assembly take so long to make the Constitution?” is the question put to the students as a part of the caption of the cartoon. To answer this question, one needs information which is derided by the proponents of their version of ‘critical pedagogy’ used here, not a cartoon. A paragraph from Dr Ambedkar’s speech in the Assembly on this question would have been appropriate and fully comprehensible. The text accompanying this cartoon nowhere even mentions that Dr Ambedkar became the Chairman of the Drafting Committee which was set up on August 29, 1947. The only purpose that most cartoons in these books seem to serve is to make the textbooks incomprehensible.

The Report of the Committee headed by Professor Thorat has made use of some researches that have been conducted on the use of cartoons. This part of the Report has nowhere been mentioned by the critics of the Report.

The author is a former Professor of History at the NCERT.

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