At 10.30 pm on Sunday night, Yogendra Yadav, the former Political Science advisor with NCERT was busy taking calls, meeting people and fielding questions on what made him quit as advisor after seven years. During that period he, and Suhas Palshikar-- Professor of Politics and Public Administration at University of Pune-- gave their best innings to NCERT, poring over each word, each coma of the six text books that had to be reviewed, rewritten and submitted to the NCERT.
Yadav and Palshikar’s ‘deal’ with the NCERT was that they would be given reasonable academic autonomy in writing the syllabus and designing the complete package but they had to meet tight deadlines.
Thus started in 2006, NCERT’s most ambitious, biggest ever exercise in pedagogy overhaul that was meant to align all text books in every discipline with the National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education 2009.
The exercise took three years to complete, during which time Palshikar and Yadav, along with their team that comprised some of the ‘best brains handpicked from the academia’ put together Democratic Politics 1 & 2 (a compulsory read for Class IX and X students); Contemporary World Politics, Political Theory, Politics in India Since Independence and Indian Constitution at Work prescribed for Class XI and XII students of Political Science.
This last book, Indian Constitution at Work is what caused the furore over the inclusion of a BR Ambedkar cartoon that’s been in existence since 1949 but was never a subject of controversy. Yesterday, Democratic Politics 1was also criticised in the parliament for another set of cartoons.
A Senior Fellow with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), and the founder Director (1997-2003) of Lokniti, a research programme on comparative democracy at CSDS, Yogendra Yadav unravels the mysterious events that caused the ‘May Mayhem’ in Parliament over a cartoon made by celebrated artist Keshav Shankar Pillai, recipient of Padma Shri in 1956, Padma Bhushan in 1966 and Padma Vibhushan in 1976.
Q. Is it correct that Indian Constitution at Work has been in existence since 2006?
No, all six political science text books have been developed from scratch in order to make the curriculum more meaningful and engaging for the target age group. We involved some of the top minds in the field, Prahap Mehta and Rajiv Bhargava to name just two for the book Indian Constitution at Work, which later became controversial, to assist us in this operation. Our objective was to strike the right note and balance in these books, not just for the sake of political correctness (because we already had a free hand in this matter) but because text book writing is essentially the art of striking a fine balance.
Agitation is not my field, but we had a team of young and highly spirited political scientists well versed with pedagogy and with their help we undertook this exercise in all seriousness and with the sole intention of making the study of Political Science engaging for the students. If you pick up one of our books, the preface declares, “Civics is boring. We want to change that.”
Q. What was the brief given to the Textbook Development Committee?
There was no separate brief given except the national curriculum framework, itself. Thus our brief was to move away from bookish learning and linking student life at school to their lives outside. Specifically, we tried to move away from the legacy of descriptive and abstract textbooks in favour of books that are engaging, interactive and which encourage questioning. Prof Krishna Kumar, the director of NCERT and the moving force behind this huge transformation gave us extraordinary freedom with a fixed time frame that we had to strictly abide by. We had complete autonomy in the selection and composition of the team, what material to include etc. Of course, we had to satisfy the National Monitoring Committee appointed by the HRD Ministry that the text books met the highest standards of disciplinary knowledge, appropriateness, fairness and balance.
In doing all this and more, we had to cajole, arm-twist, brow beat some of the best academics in the country into giving their best and I am glad we eventually succeeded in this endeavour.
We walked into this exercise with a lot of enthusiasm and excitement. I must say these were perhaps the most exciting and rewarding years of my life that I can look back upon.
Q. At any point during the consultative process, had you anticipated this kind of a reaction from the parliamentarians?
Honestly, no. We had anticipated some reaction but not of this measure or degree and certainly not on this issue. Not in our wildest dreams had we imagined that we would be accused of stoking anti-Ambedkar sentiments! Suhas Bhai and I often joked amongst ourselves that this or that thing could invite trouble. If you had asked me to pick up two dozen things in these textbooks, which could cause controversy, I may not still have picked up this cartoon.
Later, we of course presented the draft of the entire book to the Ministry’s Nation Monitoring Committee, which comprised of eminent academics, such as professors Mrinal Miri, G P Deshpande, Zoya Hassan and Gopal Guru. They made a number of suggestions and asked for several modifications. In one instance, one key and potentially controversial chapter was read aloud word for word more than once. Later, I am sure the textbooks may have been looked at, at levels higher than those, as well.
Q. Whose idea was it to include political cartoons in the books?
It flows straight from the new approach laid down by the national curriculum framework. Cartoons and other visuals were very much an integral part of this new way of writing textbooks. They are not meant just for visual relief or fun. Cartoons cultivate students’ ability to relate the book to their own lives and develop critical thinking.
Besides, given NCERT’s quality of printing, we thought line drawings would reproduce better and they’d also be visually attractive. You can’t get cartoons wrong in print. There is also a bit of history associated with a political cartoon. So many things that cannot be said in text can be conveyed through a cartoon commentary and we have had such a glorious tradition of political caricaturing in our country.
For the books on international politics, we even selected and acquired a few cartoons at dollar rates from a Latin American agency and NCERT happily paid for them.
Q. Since this particular cartoon has been in existence since 1949, when Keshav Shankar Pillai, BR Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru were all alive, and no one found it offensive, what caused the furore now? Sachin Kharat, the founder president of the Republican Panther of India also admitted in an interview to the Indian Express that he did not know of the existence of Shankar’s cartoon, until after the parliament debate broke out. What does this indicate? Heightened sensitivity among Dalit groups to how their leaders are depicted? Do you think those protesting are representative of the community?
He (Sachin Kharat) is innocent and ignorant but then why blame him? Even the MPs thought the cartoon in question sullies the image of B R Ambedkar when it actually tries to establish him as the main force behind the constitution. We were totally taken aback.
I am not sure that these protests represent Dalit community. I fear that this is an instance not of leaders reflecting a community’s ire but the community reflecting the messages that the leaders have carried to them.
Q. You are a trained Political scientist. You should know why all political parties closed rank on this issue.
Understanding politics teaches you to be attentive about interstices, within the working of the State. There is always room for creativity. There are always spaces that can be used. It appeared to us that our democracy had entered a phase where we could reflect back upon our own democratic experience in a more mature way. Recent events may have shaken some of this belief, but I would still wish to hold on to this faith.
Q. Kapil Sibal’s decision to pull out the cartoon – doesn’t it indicate that the government does not have faith in its own consultative committee? Why call it an “independent” committee then?
That is for the government to think about. All I can say is that if there is a due process for preparation of the textbooks, there should also be due process for any deletion or withdrawal of a textbook. Perhaps we need to evolve better conventions and norms about this.
Q. Does this episode indicate that we have become more intolerant as a society?
I cannot say “we have become more intolerant…” because I don’t know if we have always been tolerant as a society, especially of beliefs and institutions that require autonomy. That’s the deep flaw with our system. We don’t easily allow autonomy of institutions. We are intolerant of beliefs other than our own. Who practices tolerance in India? I fear certain amount of intolerance runs across the political spectrum.
Q. What is more dangerous – accessing ‘wrong’ information, or blocking all kind of information, thus disallowing a Class XI student to arrive at his own understanding of right and wrong? Do our children deserve to be given such a blinkered, sanitized, tampered view of history?
You know the answer to that. I often say if a child gets confused after reading a material, consider yourself successful in implanting seeds of doubt in his mind. That’s the goal of education – to stimulate diversity of thought, beliefs and ideas.
Q. Do you think it would be a good idea to have student representation (Class X to XII) on every Textbook Development Committee?
At the face value, it appears like a good idea, but we have to first put in place a mechanism to identify such students - those who can freely and fearlessly voice their opinions. We had school teachers on the consultative panel but this does not always work. Sometimes school teachers take disciplinary orthodoxy more seriously than do university professors.
Q. Kapil Sibal takes pride in projecting himself as a liberal. This one incident however undermines his convictions. What should a more seasoned politician have done in his place? What would you have done in his place?
It’s a difficult, hypothetical question to answer. I do understand that the Minister faces a very hard choice. He has four Bills stuck in the parliament and he is in an understandable hurry to get them passed. He faces parliamentarians cutting across party lines who demand action. At the same time, I recall, Mr Arjun Singh facing a similar situation with Hindi textbooks. I though he handled it differently. After all, politics is the art of the possible.