ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Cartoons, Textbooks and Politics of Pedagogy

The outrage in Parliament over the Shankar cartoon and the NCERT textbooks is one born out of a misrecognition of the visual content of the cartoon and a peculiar reading of the pedagogical intent of these well crafted books. It is useful to look at this outrage in the context of the new critical scholarship and struggles that emerged following the appalling textbooks introduced by the NDA regime in its earlier tenures.

Much has been written in the last few weeks on what has now been designated as the “cartoon controversy”. To recap briefly, after six years of their publication, some Lok Sabha members (across political lines, including the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party- BJP) raised a strong objection to the inclusion of Shankar’s now publicised 1949 cartoon, about the delay in the framing of the Constitution, in the National Council of Educational Reserach and Training – NCERT's Class XI Political Science textbook. The objection was that Shankar’s cartoon, by positioning a whip wielding Jawaharlal Nehru behind Bhimrao Ambedkar (riding a snail) had ridiculed Babasaheb. The refrain of those objecting to the cartoon was that this insult had hurt dalit sentiments, and therefore the cartoon must be withdrawn from the books.


Several events and claims followed the initial question in Parliament including demands for the removal of the particular cartoon in question; all cartoons; and the books themselves, the minister for human resource development (MHRD), Kapil Sibal’s apology, other than the attack on professor Suhas Palshikar’s office, all of which are now well known. In this piece therefore I do not wish to rehearse this familiar terrain, but to open up for discussion certain issues that I think deserve some reflection. These include the history of dalit politics and its radicalising influence, in intellectual and activist contexts; contextualising the idea of “hurt sentiments” within a longer history of such claims, and its implications for a social justice agenda ; and the problem of the visual in pedagogic practice



The contrast with 1998


However, let me begin first with a brief history first of recent textbook writing controversies in this country. In 1998, the MHRD minister Murali Manohar Joshi of the BJP had convened a meeting of the education ministers from different states. Here, amongst many other suggested changes, was the introduction of the idea that “education must be Indianised, nationalised and spiritualised” (SAHMAT:5). The NCERT books that were then written, with full government sanction, are amongst the worst, and most dangerous that I know of. It was not merely their unimaginably communal and casteist content that was at fault; it was also that there were glaring omissions, and were riddled with extraordinary factual errors. Significantly, the substantial protest against the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s sponsored NCERT textbooks came mainly from amongst the same group of academics and scholars who were involved in the debates and discussions that led to the writing of the new NCERT textbooks in 2005. As one of the critical commentaries in the early 2000s noted.


Phule is absent, Ambedkar figures only in the communal award context and as Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution. Their role in stimulating and organizing lower caste movements….are suppressed…Perhaps the most atrocious statement, in a textbook almost unimaginably bad, occurs on (p. 59): ‘The task of the framers of the constitution was very difficult. Their foremost job was to ensure the integrity of the country taking into account the presence of Pakistan within India itself’. What is the teacher or student meant to make out of this? (Sarkar 2002: 72-76).


Unless I am entirely mistaken about this, I must say that I do not remember the kind of generalised and sustained criticism against either the errors, or the politics, of the NDA text books a decade ago, as that presently being levelled against the inclusion of Shankar’s cartoon in the political science text-book. This is significant as those books, other than being intensely communal and casteist, utilised the worst “familial” tropes of Brahminical patriarchy while speaking of history or politics. In my struggle about how to respond not merely to the initial outcry over Shankar’s cartoon, but also the increasingly polarised debate on this issue (often sustained by the speedy general common sense created via social networking sites such as Facebook) I have been wondering not merely about this incident, but also about the larger questions that under-gird this moment, and how best to respond to it, politically.


In the course of the last few weeks what has become increasingly of concern to me is the structuring of political polarisation (pro/anti dalit). Significantly, now, the writers of the textbooks, the committee, and most recently the authors and signatories of the petition defending the books (and hence opposing the removal of the cartoon) have been characterised as either downright casteist, or at least deluded by elitist and upper caste myopia. As in an earlier moment, “progressive”, and “left liberal” (whatever that means) has replaced the earlier epithet of “pseudo-secular”. What is lost in this slightly self righteous ire is not merely the histories of sustained earlier protests by the self same “progressives” but also their involvement in writing textbooks in which for the first time not merely dalit, and the much longer and complex history of anti caste movements, but also of inter-sectionality (the complex engagement of gender/caste and class concerns) is centrally addressed. Naturally this happened as the writers were shaped by, and share many aspects of the same broad terrain of politics and criticality generated by dalit movements (as indeed different moments of the women’s movement, and other ongoing struggles for justice and self determination in India). Additionally, it was also because of the formidable body of scholarship on diverse aspects of these issues that has been produced in the country in the last two decades. In fact, it is this that enabled the kinds of changes that were affected in the undergraduate level history syllabi in Delhi University in the mid to late 1990s. Particularly for those of us living, and teaching in the north, whose politics was shaped by earlier histories of the Left/and women’s movements, the most significant moments of critique in contemporary Indian history came during what is often referred to as the Mandal/Masjid crises of the late 1980s.


New Critical Scholarship


With this it was no longer possible to retain the Nehruvian fiction of the unmarked Indian citizen. The Left could no longer pass off caste as an Indian version of class, and the universalist assumptions of both Left and mainstream women’s movements were confronted with the urgency of examining their own privileged positions that rendered invisible caste and religious difference, and thereby highlighting the limits of their own political positions. Significantly, one of the earliest such political challenges within the women’s movement came from scholars based in the south, who brought the complexity of Mandal/Masjid and Fund/Bank politics to critique the assumptions about a unified female subjectivity (Tharu and Niranjana 1994:93-117). This, and Gopal Guru’s (1995:2548-2550) seminal intervention, “Dalit Women Talk Differently” are amongst the arguments that provoked some of the most serious intellectual debates. They also inspired a new body of critical scholarship to emerge in this decade. Indeed, I would say that the intellectual/ political debates on caste, and religion, have been the ones that have shaped not merely curricular changes, but also led to struggles for the creation of new interdisciplinary departments like the study of discrimination and exclusion, and for affirmative action (implementing reservations); equally, these have also pushed for new pedagogies in that intensely political space – the classroom.


The reason for highlighting some of these issues here is because I believe that the criticality of the social justice agenda raised by dalit movements, and subsequent scholarship, is not well served by the idea of “hurt sentiments”. Such an idea is also perilously reminiscent of Hindu right wing demands, which have universally been couched in terms of assuaging “hurt sentiments” (most recently the controversy over M. F. Hussain’s paintings of naked Hindu goddesses, and over Ramanujan’s interpretation of the Ramayana in Delhi University’s history syllabus). In each of these instances the demand, at the very least, has been of removing the “hurtful” object from the public domain; most often it leads to demands for bans, and attacks on those who differ from the “hurt” community. Yet, unlike the Hindu right wingers' cacophony about their “hurt sentiments”, which I would dismiss almost instantaneously as these are made as part of majoritarian muscle flexing, I do wish to engage more seriously with the wider context to which the present dalit outrage gestures.


In an early essay in which she tried to bring into the same frame what she called the “politics of recognition” (identity) and the “politics of redistribution” (class) Nancy Fraser (1996) underscores the immense urgency of not dismissing one, by the other. The crux of her important, and complex, argument is that social justice politics needs to find ways by which the logical trajectories of both these demands are kept alive, as they do not necessarily follow one from the other. In other words, correcting economic marginalisation and deprivation does not automatically remove invisibility, stigma or disrespect.


However, as Fraser also argues, political realities are far more murky, and [b]ivalent collectivities…may suffer both socioeconomic maldistribution and cultural misrecognition in forms where neither of these injustices is an indirect effect of the other, but where both are primary and co-original. In their case, neither the politics of redistribution alone nor the politics of recognition alone will suffice. Bivalent collectivities need both. (ibid: 15) [emphasis, author’s]. In our context of multivalence, we are faced with a far greater challenge of how to structure intersectional alliances within the context of a social justice agenda.


The outrage over Shankar’s cartoon, albeit born out of misrecognition, draws one’s attention to the complex history of viewership, and of the visual itself. Having worked for long with visuals, and in more recent years run a course on “Violence and Visuality”, I am fully aware of the importance of contextualising spectation. Just as a visual has at least three dimensions (the artist/creator; the viewer; and the visual object itself) and its “reality” works within an ever-changing set of relationships between the three, it is also important not to prioritise any one aspect of this complex equation. Shankar’s cartoon was a response to the then debate in the Constituent Assembly regarding the slowness in producing a Constitution for the newly independent India; interestingly in his Anglophone context of Delhi, the Malayali cartoonist uses two English terms with other meanings - “whip” and “snail’s pace” - as referents in his cartoon. The present misrecognition reads caste back into this visual, where a brahmin prime minister is seen as humiliating a dalit icon, who was also the chief architect of the Indian Constitution. Outside of the historical, and Anglophonic context then, neither whip, nor snail’s pace, have the same meaning.


Here then we are stuck within an impasse between Shankar’s intention, and a contemporary form of viewership. I would suggest that one way out of this would be to creatively introduce this recent debate on spectation, and the many issues that it raises about the visual, and representation (both visual and political) into the text-book. By retaining Shankar’s cartoon, and annotating it with different positions within this debate, the student will get an excellent opportunity to think about visuality, violence and the politics of viewership.


Finally I would also wish to remind those who are seriously engaged, or following this debate that the bulk of the school going children in this country do not study NCERT text-books. Maybe this is then the time to begin a critical engagement with both the vast corpus of textbooks produced by Vidya Bharati (or the RSS schools) and the private, and often unregulated, textbook producing industry?



Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 30, No. 41/42 (Oct. 14-21)

SAHMAT (2002), Saffronised and Substandard - A Critique of the New NCERT Textbooks: Articles, Editorials, Reports, compiled by Sahmat, December

Sarkar, Sumit (2002) “Errors and Howlers: Class IX Social Science Textbook”, included in, Saffronised and Substandard - A Critique of the New NCERT Textbooks: Articles, Editorials, Reports, compiled by Sahmat, December

Social Scientist, Vol. 22, No. ¾ (Mar – Apr.)

Back to Top