KN Panikkar, Historian
How did you read the uproar in the Parliament?
The uproar in the Parliament is thoroughly unjustified. It adversely affects the academic freedom to convey to the students, nuances of a subject. In the Parliament, everybody across the board had objected to the cartoon. There was no rational approach to the issue. Two things, one that the book should be withdrawn and two, perhaps cartoons will never be used in textbooks, are two very disturbing decisions.
Do you see this as an isolated incident, or were things culminating towards this and we didn’t see it coming?
Several things have happened in the Indian universities like in the Delhi University or Bombay University or in Kerala, and they happened because of a communal perspective. But this is different as it a response from the Parliament. The manner in which it has been debated in the Parliament and the government’s approach, not only involves a political dimension and a misconstrued idea of how Dalit sentiments can be affected, but also an ignorance expressed by Members of Parliament. A cartoon that was published in 1946, which in no way disturbed anybody then, or now, is conceived as a great umbrage to the sensibilities of the Dalit. This is a self-conceived notion of leaders who want to vie for the support of a social group.
But if the community had found it objectionable, then do you think it should have been removed?
If there had been an objection it would have been raised then and there, but all the political leaders at that time enjoyed these things. Nehru, for instance—Shankar’s Weekly was lampooning Nehru along with others [politicians/leaders]—and the people enjoyed it. That is what cartoons are all about. Ambedkar or Nehru did not object to it. One might say, the context is different when it appears in a text book, but it is a very good way to explain to students the entire procedure of Constitution making. When Shankar is pointing out that the process is slow, the teacher can always explain the various interests involved in making the Constitution, which led to this delay. There is immense possibility of using this for pedagogic purposes.
There is a tendency to deliver history in a monotone.
Yes, but the cartoon was only one [aspect] and there was text, which brought out the different dimensions of the Constitution. If the only the cartoon was given with a one-line description, one might say that it would mislead the students, but, there was text to supplement [it] as well. And students of class 9 and 10 are capable of handling this. That is the way in which a school curriculum is handled. To believe that the students are so dumb, I don’t think the parliamentarians understand how teaching is done in schools now.
How is teaching done in schools now?
I don’t know how many Parliamentarians have read the curriculum prepared by NCERT in 2005. It was a different way of teaching and learning. The school curriculum has undergone major changes, and the new books from NCERT have been a part of the effort. Gopal Guru, who was involved in this, is a person who is fully aware of Dalit sensibilities. As were the others, they are socially sensitive human beings and scholars. To attribute to them such things and welcome their resignation… and some of the Parliamentarians are [also] asking for punishing those involved. Where are we going? Where is this country’s intellectual situation supposed to be? I am a great defender of the Parliamentary system. I have written very strongly against the Anna Hazare movement, which was absolutely ridiculous. It is a good thing for an academic institution to review itself, the textbooks, etc, but it can’t be based on the decisions taken by the Parliament. I don’t think many Parliamentarians are well equipped to pass a judgement over this. If there is an objection, there is a way of dealing with it.
An expert committee has been set up. Will it be okay if that expert group decides to remove the cartoons?
No. How unscientific it is for the committee to look into only cartoons. I can see a committee looking into the textbooks and then pass judgement. I am not aware of who the members of the committee are, but that is absolutely wrong. India should have a textbook commission, with enough power to look in every textbook of either centre or state.
Wouldn’t an institution like the NCERT fulfil that purpose?
The NCERT produces books, it used to have a yearly review, I am not sure what the procedure is now. The commission should be independent, and look into textbooks of all the various institutions. The NCERT is only one of them. If anybody has any complaints, it should be referred to the committee. Most books published by the many agencies are all communal in nature. It is very surprising that the Parliamentarians have not talked about that but have instead caught on to the cartoon.
Can you substantiate that, when you say textbooks are communal in nature?
A very old report, which a committee had produced headed by Bipan Chandra on history textbooks and concluded with examples how textbooks are communal in nature. The NCERT has taken a look at its own books, but there are a lot of other text books.
Janani Ganesan is a Correspondent with Tehelka.