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Online petition

Right to critical thought

Kapil Sibal, India’s minister for human resource development, recently withdrew a school book on constitutional law from circulation because of a cartoon he considers ”offensive“. Many Indian scholars oppose such censorship, and five of them have posted a petition online. The following lines are a slightly abridged documentation.

The reason the government withdrew the textbooks was a historical cartoon that made fun of the slow pace in which laws are made. It shows independence leaders Jawaharlal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar wipping a snail. Ac­cording to the government, members of the disadvantaged Dalit community might feel offended since Ambedkar was their leader.

(...) Uproar against an individual cartoon has now snowballed into a wide-ranging attack against the new NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) textbooks. The office of one of the Advisors of the Political Science textbooks has been ransacked, the Political Science textbooks have been withdrawn from circulation, and the Government has resolved to conduct an inquiry into the role of those who sanctioned the inclusion of the ‘offending material’ in the textbooks. (...)

The fear of cartoons is not unimportant. It tells us a lot about the democracies we now inhabit. (...) Nehru and Ambedkar, and great democrats like them, were aware of what cartoons mean. They were aware that creative cartoonists like Shankar and Laxman can encourage us to question what is taken for granted, reveal the ambiguities and contradictions of individuals, persuade us to see things in a new light. India has a long creative tradition of satire and irony. (...) Only in non-democratic countries is there a fear of cartoons.

The cartoons used in the new NCERT textbooks have a pedagogic function. They are being used along with a range of other material – paintings, posters, sketches, maps, storyboards, and extracts from original sources – to engage student minds, help them think critically, make them recognise that visuals too can help us understand the past and the present. Questions that accompany the visuals and sources help that process of critical engagement with the text. These are pedagogic strategies used in the finest school texts all over the world to nurture children’s minds, and sharpen their interpretive skills.

(...) If we think 16-year olds are naïve, impressionable minds who have to be insulated from the world, protected from the conflicts and tensions within society, we patronise them. (...) If we fear critical thought, instead of nurturing it, we only reveal the fragility of our democratic thinking.

What has been profoundly disturbing is the way the Ministry of Human Resource Development has chosen to act. The new NCERT textbooks were produced through a prolonged process of democratic discussion. A whole range of committees and sub-committees were set up to oversee different stages of the process. The National Curriculum Framework 2005 was drafted after an intense collective discussion that involved over 300 people – academics, educationists, teachers – from all over the country.

The textbooks that were subsequently written were again the ­products of collective efforts. Each textbook was written by a team; each chapter was discussed, debated and revised. (...) The abrupt decision to withdraw all the Political Science textbooks, and institute an inquiry to decide who was responsible for the inclusion of material that is now being judged ‘offensive’ ought to alarm all those who believe in the right to critical thinking, and respect the sanctity of democratic processes.

Each generation has to produce textbooks that mark a major shift from those that have existed earlier, and each generation has to think of new and ­creative ways of writing these texts. ­Textbooks therefore have to be debated and revised – a process that ought to consider the feedback from students and teachers. But this has to be through an academic, collective, democratic and inclusive process. Any direct government intervention will inevitably corrode the processes of democratic functioning. (...)

– Dr Sarada Balagopalan, Centre for the Study of Developing Countries, Delhi
– Professor Neeladri Bhattacharya, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlan Nehru Univerisity (CHS/JNU), Delhi
– Professor Janaki Nair, CHS/JNU
– Professor Kumkum Roy, CHS/JNU
– Professor Hari Vasudevan, Calcutta University