The popular view is that political anger against the use of cartoons in NCERT text books is unjustified. Most people also say it smacks of intolerance and amounts to an infringement of academic freedom. But let me, this morning, present a contrarian position. If, nothing else, it might make you think again.
First, the specific BR Ambedkar cartoon that has become a cause celebre. As I look at it, it's comic. But to some it could be closer to ridicule. After all, he's riding a snail and looks pathetic. Indeed, that may well be how we're meant to see him.
More significantly, the cartoon also suggests Ambedkar is a laggard who Nehru had to goad to get a move on. Isn't that why Nehru is standing behind with a whip in his hand?
Now this raises two questions. First, is the cartoon an accurate reflection of how the Constituent Assembly functioned and Ambedkar's handling of the Constitution? Dipankar Gupta, one of our most reputed sociologists, who has studied the Assembly, tells me it's not. Far from being slow, Ambedkar personally initiated and forced through some of the most critical sections of the Constitution.
Next, does the cartoon compliment or contradict the accompanying text? While the text explains that writing the Constitution took time it doesn't say Ambedkar was slow or Nehru had to speed him up. Nor is it critical of Ambedkar. So, the cartoon, it would seem, conveys a different message.
Finally, the view it's only a cartoon and we should not over-react. No doubt that's how Nehru and Ambedkar saw it contemporaneously. But times and attitudes change and whether a cartoon is acceptable or offensive can, as a result, alter. It's like Gollywogs and Enid Blyton stories. Once upon a time they were considered ideal toys or books for children. No more. In Dalit eyes has the same happened to this Ambedkar cartoon?
You can, therefore, argue that this specific cartoon was poorly chosen and ought not to be in the book. But that only leads to a wider and more fundamental question: Are cartoons a helpful or misleading tool in teaching? This, I'm sure you'll agree, is the real issue.
Let me raise three questions and, then, you can decide for yourself: First, given that cartoons are designed to poke fun, lampoon or ridicule are they an appropriate tool for teaching or will they inevitably deflect and distort the message?
Second, there's no doubt cartoons are easy to understand and they make dry subjects accessible but would a student in Class 9 be able to say to himself it's only a cartoon, it's not the full reality and it needs to be put in a wider perspective?
Third, don't politicians have a point when they say cartoons which ridicule politics and politicians re-inforce the prejudiced opinion of politicians as 'sab chor hain' and, if you agree, ask if that is what education is supposed to do?
You can see what conclusion I'm driving at. But now let me, briefly, turn to the government's response. These books were cleared by several committees above and beyond the NCERT. We, therefore, need a high-powered and thorough inquiry to discover why the problem wasn't detected by any of these reviewing authorities. They share responsibility.
Also, shouldn't the minister have waited for that review before withdrawing the books and promising action? Instead, what's happened is the books have been withdrawn and tough action threatened before a review establishes the reasons for this.
Views expressed by the author are personal