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Raising some nervous laughs

The cartoon row indicates that we can't trust an education that depends on policy. Hari Vasudevan writes.

india Updated: May 18, 2012 23:06 IST

Recent events in Parliament concerning a National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbook use of a Shankar cartoon of Babasaheb Ambedkar have correctly drawn outrage and public debate. General outrage has also been correctly expressed at the attack on Suhas Palshikar's office in Pune - apparently for his role as chief advisor of the offending textbook.

In his statement, human resource development minister Kapil Sibal has chosen to limit his understanding of this outrage. He has stated that he found much that was inappropriate in the textbooks. He has stated that, besides action against the offending cartoon and textbook, he has requested a general review of all NCERT textbooks. He has also requested Prof P Sinclair, NCERT director, to stop the distribution of textbooks. This is a cause for worry and sad reflection.

As the chairman of the society that guides the NCERT, Sibal has the right to instruct the body to take steps in cases where he doubts the probity of its actions. It's up to the director to take measures. Sibal undoubtedly feels he's taken an important step to settle the impressionable and sensitive minds of his fellow parliamentarians.

Significantly, neither the outraged MPs nor the minister noted that the political science textbook was the product of one of the most broad-ranging initiatives in school education taken by the NCERT and the government. They did not note that it was their own collective wisdom (under a different HRD minister from the same party) that approved and praised these books a few years ago.

The production of books in social sciences, languages, sciences and mathematics was undertaken between 2005-09. The process was the result of NCERT research, the involvement of academics and teachers and discussions of syllabi and principles of pedagogy in official committees, the press and the internet. There was no one author of any of these books. They were a collective product, although the chief advisors played a pivotal role in the making of these books.

After preparation, the textbooks were discussed with teachers and passed through State Councils of Educational Research and Training and departments of education in the states. Secretaries to the government and noted academics were present in the National Monitoring Committee.

The use of cartoons in textbooks was discussed. Their value was pointed out in committees that approved them. Such cartoons were - and have been - part of India's public culture. Children see them every day. Teaching them how to handle cartoons is part of a good education. It is true that no process is perfect, nor is any individual. People draw attention to contradictions and problems in textbooks repeatedly. Full revision and change must attend any textbook for all outlive their time.

Yet, as in the case of the recent events, ignoring the depth of consultation and attention that surrounded the NCERT's books when highlighting a possible error must raise questions. This is a bad precedent. It is portentous for the slew of education bills Sibal has in the pipeline. It indicates that there can be no trust in policy or education that depends on policy. If the products of the most thorough and inclusive process that India's seen in recent times in school education can be the subject of an executive ban before a review, there can be little hope for policies not so well-founded.

Whatever the immediate sensitivity of parliamentarians, the course of events to which the public has been a witness demonstrates a callous approach to children and their parents.

Hari Vasudevan is former chairman, NCERT Textbook Development Committee for Social Sciences

The views expressed by the author are personal