May 17, 2012
By Saroj Giri
The left progressive camp in the cartoon controversy are directing all their ire now against Sibal – seeking restoration of the textbook. It is however no ‘speaking truth to power’ happening here. Instead this is only a symptom of their refusal to engage with Dalit forces who have raised serious objections to the cartoon. This smacks of an attempt to deny the reality of caste by turning the issue into a mere question of pedagogy or the issue of creative learning versus rote learning, or even worse, just a question of the ‘ability to laugh at oneself’!
But there is a peculiarity here. To start with, given the logic of competitive oppositional politics the blow was clearly directed at the government. How come the political scientists who wrote the textbook ended up taking it? Did they invite it upon themselves? There is no doubt that they have produced a critical pro-Ambedkar, pro-Dalit textbook. Yet the book could be seen as a government initiative and, for most Dalits, the government and India’s ruling order represent the Brahminical social order.
Put it this way: the matter hangs between the ‘narrow fact’ of a pro-Dalit textbook promoting critical pedagogy and the ‘wider fact’ of a government and Indian ruling order which is indeed upper caste dominated. The Dalit leaders (as distinct from all MPs/politicians who joined them later) were really attacking the latter, wider fact, even though it happened in the name of the former, narrow fact. In any case, there is a strong dimension of caste at work here – precisely what is being denied as it is now made out to be a case of ‘ability to laugh’, or ‘reason versus unreason’, or ‘critical pedagogy versus bland learning’ and so on.
Do Yadav and Palshikar think that their otherwise commendable work of radical pro-Ambekarite NCERT textbooks could change the very nature of the government and ruling order? They would of course be the first to say, ‘no it does not’. If it does not, then there clearly were two options for Dalit leaders. Either save the pro-Ambedkarite textbooks by at best deleting only that one cartoon; or use that cartoon as a pretext to corner, lampoon and kowtow the government regardless of what happens to the radical textbook. They went for the latter and have come in flying colours – the entire opposition and government had to bow in front of ‘Dalit power’.
Do most Dalit leaders value this (so-called?) assertion of ‘Dalit power’ far more than a thousand good textbooks hailing Ambedkar as a great constitution-writer? The answer seems to be ‘yes’. Between a good pro-Ambedkar textbook and rocking Parliament and the nation in the name of Ambedkar – the choice seems quite obvious for Dalit leaders. Such a ‘choice’ is of course squarely entrenched in a cynical power game which is the general culture of mainstream politics today. And yet what is undeniable is that caste is a key factor here.
However every attempt was made to present it as having nothing to do with caste or with Dalits or with Ambedkar himself. The verdict being: since there is no denigration of Ambedkar and instead these are pro-Ambedkar textbooks hence it is not a caste issue. The fact that Dalits perceived it as such was not important at all. But a price had to be paid for getting rid of caste. For once the critical caste element was taken out, the issue was up for grabs. So then you had the sordid drama of MPs all clamping up pleading for banning all cartoons, banning NCERT and protecting their own tribe from any scrutiny or satire. To complete the picture those in favour of cartoons appeared to be the upper middle class, anti-politician ‘virtuous’ citizens resembling the Anna Hazare-led ‘self-righteous civil society’. Yadav sensed this possible conflation and he wrote a piece (Times of India, 17/05/12) which was more like a belated damage-control without however realizing that this Anna Hazare slippage was only a price to be paid for expunging the critical element of caste.
Yadav and Palshikar are obviously under great pressure today but I only wish they had not given in to the easy path of setting up the issue as only one between ‘critical pedagogy versus bland learning’ or between ‘reason versus unreason’, between ‘good textbook versus a bad one’. They decided to stick to defending the cartoon and the textbooks. This was not a problem in itself. And I am sure they did try to open a dialogue with the Dalit leaders. But I think saving the textbooks should have been secondary to engaging with those who feel that Ambedkar has been denigrated – even if it is not so. Sometimes facts do not speak for themselves.
Palshikar’s attempts to talk to some Dalit groups unfortunately had a bitter end. I would be more interested to know more about this, rather than whether or not the textbook will be ‘saved’. The problem is of course the overall atmosphere of progressive politics today – where it seems some kind of an enlightened technocracy of the HRD ministry seems to be mediating (or perhaps blocking) the relationship between critical intellectuals and movements on the ground. This is a problem.
Palshikar rightly asserted the NCERT’s autonomy from the government. He questioned an MP who said that yeh sarkari kitab hai. However the time has perhaps come for critical intellectuals to declare their autonomy from bodies like NCERT itself. It is too risky to rely on these stories of autonomy or ‘checks and balances’ within a democracy and so on – stories from ‘old textbooks’. And the way to be autonomous from such government bodies is not really by pointing out specific clauses in the constitution and ordinances but by being part of a wider progressive movement. Sorry to sound utopian: but what is happening to such a movement in the country? With a vibrant movement in place, the Dalit leaders would have perhaps engaged with the political scientists rather than take it up in the Parliament creating disarrary in the progressive movement.
In this disarray now the most unscrupulous right-wing, upper caste politician can now appear as an ardent breast-beating Ambedkarite! All these corrupt elements are now trying to shield themselves (from cartoons and public probing) in the name of defending Ambedkar. J. S. Rajput, arch-rightwinger, who would bury all Dalits if given a chance, now sheds crocodile tears since Ambedkar has apparently been denigrated by the textbooks! Ah, the fault is not all of some Dalit leaders who of course are no less as they embrace Shiv Sena and call Narendra Modi to garland Ambedkar. The problem is also of those on the left who tend to deny the caste angle, indirectly opening the way for this Dalit-Hindutva bonhomie mediated by a technocratic idea of being on the side of reason, argument and efficiency.
My fear is that we are now witness to critical progressive minds appealing to Sibal to defend critical pedagogy! The point is: the government has got something on a platter. That something is I think ‘ideological legitimacy’. So today the government can now pose itself as the defender of critical pedagogy! Well, one might say, so what? Why not? But then next time you corner Sibal for his policies of destroying critical social science, he is going to dangle the ‘critical Ambedkarite textbook’ in your face – which you think is not a sarkari textbook. So we can now finally have neoliberal restructuring of education presented as critical pedagogy. A Yadav or Palshikar or Jean Dreze (in the National Advisory Council) to counter balance for say a Montek Singh Ahluwalia. The real threat then is not really the withdrawal of these brilliant textbooks under cynical political pressure.
In the midst of all this heated controversy perhaps a moment of reflection might not be bad. Is the problem emanating from the waning of an independent left movement in the country? Increasing numbers of left intellectuals, scholars and activists are getting inducted in government think-tanks, policy making bodies. I am myself inducted in the University system. When I teach Marx, ‘secure with my job’ (as others sometimes remind me), I do feel slightly duplicitous. Some students give me a reality check when they say, ‘sir aapka to naukri hai, to aap radical baat kar hi sakte hai’.
It is not an individual issue however. The left and radical left working through the Congress is as old as the left itself. Tailing the Congress, and not having an independent assertion is an old feature even the Communists could not break till maybe 1967 break of the Naxal movement. Think of the Congress Socialist Party in the 1930s. The left getting absorbed in the ‘Congress system’ is indeed continuing and one only wonders if there is ever a deliverance from it.
Much is also made of the use of democratic spaces for progressive left purposes. When such spaces do not exist then one can struggle for them and attribute non-existent powers to them. But here is a case of an apparently autonomous NCERT where the democratic space actually existed. And then what happened? The answer is swirling all around us today.