The National Monitoring Committee (NMC) of the NCERT has rightly desisted from accepting the NCERT committees report to review its social science textbooks in the light of the controversy around the use of cartoons. There are reasons to support the decision. First,the report submitted by S.K. Thorat,chairperson of the committee,claims to be a consensus report,which it is not. One of the members,M.S.S. Pandian,was not even allowed to see the draft report. It left no option for Pandian but to file a separate report. It cannot be called a dissent note as he was not allowed to dissent. This procedural flaw makes it difficult for the NMC to consider only the Thorat report and ignore Pandians note.
What is the way out? The anxieties expressed by parliamentarians need to be addressed. The Thorat committee was expected to do precisely that. The NCERT expected it to give an academically sound report. Instead,Thorat gave a report suggesting cuts and modifications which are arbitrary and lacking in pedagogic logic. Its suggestion to replace the word Dalit with SC also shows it is speaking a legalistically correct language,obliterating the politics of language.
Action was not the need of the hour,the creation of deliberative space was. Since the Thorat committee has not been able to do this,the job falls on the NMC. It would be necessary for it to reiterate the fundamental principle of the National Curriculum Framework (NCF),2005: the child is not an empty vessel to be filled with positive messages and saved from negative ones and the teacher is not a carrier of state-approved truths. The NCF grants both agency,not available to them before. The classroom thus turns into a site of knowledge construction. It is a principle not easy to understand,let alone accept. It needs to be understood that faith in the teacher and the young is a must for a confident nation. To fear that they would never be able to cross their communitarian boundaries would be to deny them the fundamental human ability of transcendence. Modern education is meant to question,critique and demolish essentialised categories.
The NMC would also have to remind the people and parliamentarians that textbooks created by the NCERT are only exemplars; it is not mandatory for different boards and states to follow them. The NCERT,as an autonomous academic body developing different kinds of study material,should have the freedom to create textbooks of different kinds. In fact,one of the main pleas of the NCF,2005 is to allow teachers to use more than one textbook.
A society which cannot tolerate diverse books is unsure of itself. It should be possible for a healthy society to facilitate various styles and contents of books that our young read. The power of judgement over taste should never be exercised as a legislative power. Deletion of certain cartoons and rewording dialogues between fictional characters,to make them sound politically and socially correct,would be to alter the very design and style of the textbooks. It would be important for the NMC to reassert the integrity of the textbooks. If society feels it is unable to handle cartoons in classrooms,it can very well use books without visuals since the meaning one derives from a visual also depends on the way one adopts to view it.
NCERT textbooks have always remained symbolic sites,claimed by warring identities and ideologies. In the process,they lose their educational value. This is the moment to address this issue. It would not be out of place for the NMC to recall the first round of assaults on the NCF,2005 and the new textbooks. Left ideologues derided the NCF,2005 and the new books for centrestaging child and teacher. They claimed that they were full of prejudices and superstitions and could not,therefore,be given autonomy. They also feared and suspected the openendedness and ambiguity of the new textbooks. The HRD ministry would do well to remember that despite the proximity these Left academics enjoyed with the then HRD minister,he stood as a rock between them and the NCERT. In fact,the creation of the NMC as a mechanism to oversee the quality of textbooks was meant to prevent any outside intervention and oversight. Of course,2005-06 were very different from 2012. Then,the ruling formation was self-assured,and did not care whether the Emergency was being critiqued in state-funded textbooks or cartoons depicting its icons in a not-so-favourable light were being used. Now,the government seems shaky on all fronts. But it is also a question for the larger political class to ponder: how is it they are so threatened by cartoons in textbooks? Why is it they want to sanitise classrooms and textbooks?
Democracy is a site of contestation. Let our young enter this field with their own minds rather than our trying to stuff them with textbook platitudes. The failure of the Thorat committee has created a fresh opportunity for the NCERT,through the instrument of the NMC,to reassert its autonomy. By respecting its decision and restraining any impulsive action,Parliament would only demonstrate that it can always revisit a contentious issue and revise itself,which is a sign of the maturing of democratic instincts. In abiding by the decision of the NMC and the NCERT,it would be re-emphasising the principle of institutional autonomy without which democracies cannot function. Is that too much to ask?
The writer teaches Hindi at Delhi University