Speaking in the Rajya Sabha during the debate on the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Bill in 2009, Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal forcefully argued that education was the key to India’s future, that “it is intellectual assets that form the wealth of the country”, and that “any impediment” in the creation of this wealth is “anti-national.” It was a powerful statement of intent and one that few would disagree with. Three years later, after the unfortunate furore over the now-withdrawn NCERT Class XI political science textbooks, it is pertinent to use the minister’s own frame of reference and ask whether the national interest has indeed been served at all in this controversy.

Nobody can question the special place of B.R. Ambedkar in the pantheon of great Indian leaders but the manner in which the protest about the supposedly insulting cartoon in the textbook played out in Parliament meant that political tokenism and an unseemly rush to avoid vacuous allegations of anti-Dalitism crowded out all reasoned debate, nuance and even the most cursory discussion on pedagogy and teaching methods.

These new NCERT textbooks have been in circulation since 2006 and some of the best academic minds in the country (many of whom are advocates of lower caste and Dalit mobilisation) have worked on their design. Until this controversy was manufactured, the textbooks had generally been held up by most accounts as a significant and exciting advance in teaching methods. They use innovative techniques, provide interesting new materials and challenge students to debate real issues in ways that are significantly different from the staid old textbooks of before.

As the NCERT’s former political science advisors, Yogendra Yadav and Suhash Palshikar have argued, the use of the 1949 cartoon “does not denigrate Dr Ambedkar. Cartoon, like any art form, makes use of symbols and it would be a travesty of art if its symbolism were to be taken literally.” The cartoon itself was framed by explanatory text on the extraordinarily complicated process of the making of the Constitution and to read its reproduction as an insult to Ambedkar, a classical liberal thinker who himself did not object to them, is unfortunate.

Knee-jerk calls for political retribution by parties looking to make capital out of an emotive issue are par for the course but what is particularly disturbing is that not even a single dissenting voice was raised in Parliament once the “this is anti-Ambedkar” clamour started. Demands were raised not only for the books to be withdrawn but for charges to be filed against academics and officials who were responsible. Ram Vilas Paswan went so far as to argue that the NCERT itself should be disbanded and for charges under the SC & ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. With everyone looking to score easy brownie points on the pro-Ambedkar bandwagon, the hunt for cheap political headlines ultimately degenerated into the reprehensible attack on Prof. Palshikar’s office by RPI activists.

As a skilled lawyer, Mr Sibal has forcefully tilted against the wind and argued political hot potatoes before, most recently in the case of the 2G scam and during the Anna Hazare movement. Just last month he publicly argued that he was ready to go to all political parties with folded hands to push pending education-related legislations since this was about the future of our children. As HRD minister he has made education reform his own personal crusade, so the manner of the government’s capitulation, without even an attempt at reasoned counter-argument was disappointing.

The political unanimity on this issue meant that the government charted a course of retreat but this could equally have been the trigger for a serious debate on modes of education, pedagogy and the need to be creative in teaching methods even as we are respectful to key tenets.

This episode cements a wider trend where any kind of reasoned discussion around historical figures becomes impossible once the bogey of “disrespect” is raised. Whether it was the banning of the James Laine book on Shivaji (later lifted by the Supreme Court), or the removal of Rohinton Mistry’s ‘Such a Long Journey’ from the syllabus of Mumbai University or the removal from Delhi University of the Ramanujan essay on the myriad renditions of the Ramayana, this is a social and political ecosystem that insists on seeing the past in only one way and rejects every other viewpoint but veneration. This cuts to the very heart of the idea of a liberal society and an education system that cannot tolerate creative ways of looking at the past would be a poor one indeed.

The irony is that the fetish with the iconography of Ambedkar has reduced one of the most original thinkers of modern India into a political cipher far removed from the thinker who challenged the forces of orthodoxy with the vibrancy of new ideas.

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