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Are Indian netas humourless?
John B. Monteiro
A day after the 60th anniversary of Indian Parliament was celebrated on Sunday (14-5-12) with much solemnity and many pious promises to uphold the dignity and sanctity of the institution, we were witness to a sad spectacle. MPs, cutting across party lines, displayed a rare sense of unanimity when they took umbrage at the use of cartoons ii the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks, some of which mocked politicians. And the government, in what has now become a depressingly familiar practice, buckled under pressure and declared that it was withdrawing the offending cartoons as well as reviewing the textbooks.
What had begun as a protest against a cartoon by the legendary cartoonist Shankar, showing B R Ambedkar, in a political science textbook for class XI is now part of a wider agitation by MPs against showing politicians in poor light. The protests by some politicians over the Shankar cartoon which allegedly showed disrespect - when in reality it did no such thing - to Ambedkar are now an established routine where icons are placed on a pedestal and placed above criticism, real or imaginary. It is an irony that the same cartoon has appeared in a collection where Jawaharlal Nehru, who is also shown in the ’offensive’ cartoon with Ambedkar, is quoted as saying: "Don’t spare me Shankar."
Troubling as the phenomenon of competitive intolerance is, the discussion on the NCERT textbooks in the Lok Sabha was more an illustration of the outdated ideas that our MPs have on pedagogy and school education. In speech after repetitive speech, MPs read the cartoon as part of a larger conspiracy to denigrate politicians and corrupt young minds. The abject surrender of the government was summed up in HRD minister Kapil Sibal’s reply where he admitted that a large number of cartoons in the textbooks were "offensive" and "inappropriate" and forthwith agreed to set up a committee to vet the textbooks.
Though the speeches by the MPs displayed a deeply troubling intolerance towards criticism and satire, freedom of expression wasn’t the primary issue here. At stake is the kind of education system India wants and the sort of textbooks schoolchildren should study. The current batch of NCERT textbooks, rolled out between 2005 and 2008 under the National Curriculum Framework, came after school textbooks had been tainted by the saffron agenda of the former HRD minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, of the BJP.
The new set of textbooks is refreshing in its even-handed approach to Indian history and politics and the use of visual tools to grab the attention of students and to force them to ask questions. Cartoons are liberally used along with newspaper headlines, famous advertisements and graphics to liven up what had been rather dull and, worse, ideologically skewed textbooks. But unfortunately the cartoons are now seen as subversive by our politicians who believe that Indian teen-agers are not capable of comprehending satire or humour.
If Indian politicians think that this approach is poisoning the minds of students, we must reach the sad conclusion that the latest pedagogical methods have bypassed our MPs and that they are firm believers in rote learning. Worse their attitude reeks of paternalism which completely underestimates the minds of today’s teenagers. Further, it jettisons the autonomy of educational institutions, which is anyway fragile.
During the discussion in the Lok Sabha, RJD MP Lalu Prasad unwittingly made an important point when he said that merely withdrawing the ’offensive’ cartoons won’t help since students would have already imbibed their message. What he and his fellow MPs need to realise is that in this wired age, where students are avid users of the internet and other forms of media, merely pulling the plug on textbooks won’t stop the dissemination of the ideas contained in them.
The subject is open to many views. What are yours? Over to you.
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