Critical Reading of NCERT text ‘Indian Constitution at Work’

Lalit Khandare

The National Curriculum Framework 2005 for social sciences states:

"In the social sciences, the approach proposed in the NCF recognises disciplinary markers while emphasising integration on significant themes, such as water. A paradigm shift is recommended, proposing the study of the social sciences from the perspective of marginalised groups. Gender justice and a sensitivity towards issues related to SC and ST communities and minority sensibilities must inform all sectors of the social sciences. Civics should be recast as political science, and the significance of history as a shaping influence on the child's conception of the past and civic identity should be recognized " (pg. ix)[1]

Indeed, the National Curriculum Framework 2005 attempts to disembark from the uncritical, undemocratic, pedagogic practices to advance towards a critical, democratic and an egalitarian outlook.


lalit_cartoon

"It's really cruel burdening kids like this. I had to hire that boy to help my son!"

Source: Page 77 of National Curriculum Framework, 2005


The National Council for Education, Research and Training (NCERT) in this context becomes a responsible agency to operationalise this framework and thereby play a significant role in shaping and influencing the country's future and generating 'official knowledge'.

The recent controversy over the cartoon of Dr.B.R.Ambedkar in Political Science text of class XI, has brought the NCERT into limelight. Although autonomous in its functioning, this educational body and its texts appear to have been used by elected governments in several ways. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was accused of saffronising education whereas now the Congress led government is accused of the denigration of Dr.B.R.Ambedkar. Clearly, governments may also have a role to play apart from those who shape and create such texts. Undoubtedly, this medium is known to be used in order to influence young minds through favorable images created of the dominant classes, influencing political ideologies or leveraging images of certain political leaders and thereby maintaining the dominants' interests.

Contrary to this widely known critique of curriculum, Prof Yogendra Yadav insists on underpinning the role of National Curriculum Framework, 2005 as an effective insulation protecting it from governmental influences and making it a critical text, sans of any politics. This also implies the authors of the text therefore are not political and free of any politics.

One may even believe that authors writing NCERT texts are autonomous and they are apolitical, without any agendas, however if one considers critical theorists such as Ivan Illich (1973) who criticized the institution of schooling itself for its innate working through 'passive consumption' that is marked by uncritical approval of the social order and further allowing regimentation and disciplining, one may speculate on the role of schooling, NCERT texts, and its authors.

It is not to dismiss Prof Yogendra Yadav's argument or to subvert and denounce schooling in the current context but to broaden our understanding that schooling essentially is a regimenting process and therefore claims of critical curriculum need to be carefully analysed.

Curriculum is never a sacrosanct, infertile tool, but a political text, laden with scripted and encrypted messages, an assortment of deliberate, selective inclusion/omission of information and thereby a weapon in the hands of dominants to advance politics of oppression. And this is achieved through extensive, deeply rooted politics of wording. It is in this backdrop that this article examines the controversial text of NCERT, Class XI; subject Political Science, titled as 'Indian Constitution at Work.'

This controversial text was brought into limelight only after a few activists claiming to be working in the interest of Scheduled Castes attacked the office of Prof Suhas Palshikar, an advisor to NCERT. Ironically, the text has been in circulation since 2006 but only recently generated attention. The attack was motivated by the inept clarification offered by Prof Suhas Palshikar over the inclusion of the cartoon in the text, which they perceived as denigration of Dr.B.R.Ambedkar implying deep casteist connotation.

The debate in the parliament was not limited to Dr.B.R.Ambedkar cartoon, but the similar caricature of Parliamentarians and other aspects of the Constitution. The text clearly sparked uproar amongst the Parliamentarians, who have unanimously criticized it and were against the use of mortifying political satire of any form in school texts. The HRD Minister Kapil Sibal thereafter announced a review of all NCERT textbooks and removal of all such cartoons that are offensive including that of Dr.B.R.Ambedkar.

Ironically, the popular media is already criticizing the Parliamentarians of exhibiting intolerance, lacking in humor and controlling curriculum. Besides, this controversy is projected as a sentimental issue for the Dalits (ex-untouchables) and their derailment from democratic, nonviolent politics.

Amidst this chaos, one of the key advisors of the text, Prof Yogendra Yadav in his IBN-CNN interview has urged the Parliamentarians to read the text and move beyond the cartoon imagery. It is at the backdrop of this deliberation, this paper urges to draw readers' attention to the context of the cartoon and take a critical inquiry. Further, I insist that it is important to draw our attention towards the 'content' and its problématique from a critical perspective, besides foregrounding the epic dismissal of Dr.B.R.Ambedkar's contribution for decades in texts dealing with the Constitution of India. Further, this article touches upon examination of content in its context, consistent politics of nomenclature and its serious implications, distorted facts, ideas of the text, meanings of subtext and its implications to the nation's curriculum.

Beyond Cartoon

Though the trajectory of this debate has moved beyond Dr.B.Ambedkar, it initially began with the cartoon item of the text implying humiliation, derogation of Dr.B.R.Ambedkar, thereby hurting the sentiments of Dalits (ex-untouchables). Pacifiers have been pointing out this cartoon has been old and it first appeared in 1949, in a leading newspaper. Then Dr.B.R.Ambedkar who was alive, supposedly unheeded it. Indeed, in its spirit, then, the cartoon may have been innocuous; however, it will be naïve to restrict our understanding of its reappearance in an educational text book particularly under governments which have been in question on doing justice to Ambedkar's legacy.

To the defense of the text, Yogendra Yadav in the IBN-CNN interview states that, "these textbooks for the first time established the foundational role of Ambedkar... It's indeed ironic that these textbooks are seen as anti-Ambedkar"[2]. Also, the uniqueness of the text is the use of cartoons aimed at engaging students. One may agree and even applaud this inclusion of cartoons to rescue students from monotonous texts that formerly lacked humor. It is also remarkable for incorporating archive material and the extensive use of cartoons to make this text interactive, lively and factual. Nevertheless, it is here that one needs to caution and question if the cartoon of 1949, published in a newspaper carries the same innocence and innocuousness when imported into a school textbook now? Besides, should consumption of cartoons running throughout the text be simply understood as a 'creative and humorous break or should they be examined at the background of some context?' It is here, I suggest that it is critical to examine the wordings/script of the text, move beyond cartoon in order to advance towards the content. Only this approach will help us to some extent to truly understand the politics and in unpacking of a political text book.

Impressions

In spite of using leniency and openness, this text unusually comes across as offensive, largely due to its tone. The entire text in its overly interactive genre appears to underpin the worthlessness and inefficiency of the constitution than its accomplishments. One may appreciate this critical element; however it may be questioned if it was the failure of the people to implement the constitution in its true spirit or the constitution itself that is responsible for the disappointments?

The text also suggests the entire constitution is embedded with problems, thus ineffectual. It also fails to bring the various stakeholders of democracy as possible factors in failing the constitution due to their narrow interests, unwillingness, incompetence or incapacity to implement the constitution in its true spirit. Oddly, the entire book which is full of quotes (some wanted, some unwarranted and some irrelevant) however ignores very important quotes by Dr. Ambedkar and Dr Rajendra Prasad. Dr. Ambedkar forewarned, "I feel that the Constitution is workable; it is flexible and it is strong enough to hold the country together both in peace time and in war time. Indeed, if I may say so, if things go wrong under the new Constitution the reason will not be that we had a bad Constitution. What we will have to say is that Man was vile." Similar views were echoed by Dr. Rajendra Prasad, "If the people who are elected are capable men of character and integrity, they should be able to make the best of a defective Constitution. If they are lacking in these, the Constitution cannot help the country" (Narayan, 2000, pg. 13).

There are several other serious errors that one encounters throughout the text. This paper points out some of them and underscores the necessity of being politically and constitutionally correct at least in a text that is addressing issues and matters related to the constitution of our country.

Wrong Reference to Constitutional Terms

At least 11 pages in this book use the term, 'Dalits'. First and foremost, the word 'Dalit' does not appear in the Constitution of India, yet the book uses the term Dalits instead of Scheduled Castes, similarly for Scheduled Tribes it uses the word Adivasis. It may be noted that although these term/concepts are widely used in academia, activism and new texts, they are not constitutional terms. But the use of constitutional references is more suitable in a text book; however the authors choose to ignore this and root for the terms, Dalit and Adivasi.

Further, on page 185 and 191, the textbook also uses Backward Castes for Other Backward Castes (OBC). Technically backward castes or backward classes also refer to Scheduled Castes, however, the usage of "backward caste" for OBC raises the question of sensitivity of such wrong usage of nomenclature; such attempts will bring much harm to the oppressed castes than one can imagine. To cite a failed attempt of 2005, an amendment was proposed by Sharad Joshi (2005) to the Prevention of Atrocities Act (POA), 1989 to include agriculture laborers in the category of Scheduled Castes[3]. Such attempts to include lower castes of the Hindu social order in the list of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Category will not only jeopardize the basic purpose of POA act but also protect the perpetrators of crimes against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes making the act the most ineffective, deviating from its objective. Heedfully, this implies the oppressors and perpetrators of atrocities against ex-untouchables and tribals will share not only the conceptual umbrella and equal protections but also demand similar constitutional protections that are meant for SCs and STs.

Moreover, the term Scheduled Caste and Dalits should not be used interchangeably as both have different meanings, history and contexts. It would be precarious to use these interchangeably in a text relating to a subject such as the Constitution of India or even in parliamentary proceedings. This will not only lead to confusion and debilitate the clarity of identifying the specific historicity of ex-untouchables and tribes but also bury the history of ex-communication, a uniqueness of Indian society.

Making of Constitution and time

The whole process of Constitution making according to Prof. Granville Austin was "perhaps the greatest political venture since that originated in Philadelphia in 1787." He further described the Indian Constitution drafted by Dr. Ambedkar as 'first and foremost a social document.'... 'The majority of India's constitutional provisions are either directly arrived at furthering the aim of social revolution or attempt to foster this revolution by establishing conditions necessary for its achievement' (Narayan, 2000, pg. 13).

Review of the text on the process of Constitution making textbook on pages 18-19 gives a sense of incongruousness as they are laden with false information on procedure of constitution formation. This part uses the cartoon and offers explanation on the lengthy timeline to draft the Constitution. The cartoon suggests that the blame is to be put on Dr. Ambedkar, riding at a snail's pace, because "he was not happy with Congress and Gandhi on the upliftment provision for Scheduled Castes."

It would have been reasonable for these political scientists and advisors to have analysed the historicity of the Indian Constitution and its making, at least in two areas to have enriched the student's critical thinking. 'Duration' in constitution making is an extensive and relative process. Therefore, comparing it with other countries and their Constituent Assemblies becomes mandatory and the process of deliberations contextual. Moreover, some countries took more time than others; however, one also understands that the duration of framing the Constitution has no relevance to quality and strength. For instance, to examine some of the other Constituent Assemblies in the world in terms of duration, it took four months for US to draft its Constitution, Russian Constituent Assembly decided their Constitution in 13 hours, and Italian Constituent Assembly drafted their Constitution in 19 months (from 25 June 1946 until 31 January 1948). And the French National Constituent Assembly lasted from 9 July 1789 till 30 September 1789. The Indian Constituent Assembly completed the task of drafting the Constitution in 2 years, 11 months and 17 days. Is it possible to judge these constitutions solely on the basis of duration but not on deliberations, context and distinctions? But it appears that the authors are suggesting to the students to think that 'duration' is the marker of judging a fine, meritorious constitution. One cannot help but critique such a constricted perspective.

Further, one cannot stop from thinking why the distinction and relative strengths of India's constitution are not highlighted in this context. For instance, the Constitution of India embedded 'Universal Adult Suffrage.' Other countries such as US, took almost 175 years (from 1789 till1964) to give equal voting rights to African Americans. This right came in force after the 24th amendment (1964) to the Constitution of USA, and the later enactment of Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Factually, all major democracies of the world witnessed the challenge of incorporating this basic fundamental right in their Constitution. Universal adult franchise was also a big challenge for India. One must recall that the under the Government of India Act of 1935, getting on electoral rolls was not easily accessible to all. This act set several disqualifications for voting rights, some of these disqualifications were: if one is not a British subject, not below 21 years of age, does not possess a sound mind, not found eligible by a competent a court, and does not have adequate property ownership and education.

If we compare the history of the struggle for universal adult franchise in India, Dr. Ambedkar strongly advocated for voting rights for all citizens since his presentation at Indian Statutory Commission on 23 October, 1928. Dr. Ambedkar pleaded for universal adult franchise even before independence and the formal beginning of constitution making. Isn't this crucial to the history of India and the world of democracy that even when most of the western nations were grappling with voting rights, India had Dr.B.R.Ambedkar's fighting for these rights even before independence?

This distinction achieved through universal adult franchise was incorporated in spite of the opposition, and equal rights were given to rich/ poor, men/women, and high caste/ low caste, untouchables and every citizen irrespective of their background. The above illustration of distinction indicates that the authors of texts can distort and overlook historical facts implying deep seated politics of exclusion.

Other several occasions

Besides such flaws and warped interpretations the text does not mention the Prevention of Insults to National Honor Act, 1971, a preventive and punitive act against insult to the Indian National Flag and Constitution of India. The book has other flaws when dealing with issues of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Minorities. Examples: on page 63 and 64, the text attempts to open discussion on separate electorates, but however, ends with two anti-separate electorate statements, one from a Scheduled Tribe member and another from a Muslim member. In the critical assessment from a perspective of untouchables and their political situation, this does not reflect whole meaning and purpose of separate electorates. Ironically, this text does not discuss why Gandhi put his life at stake against "separate electorates" for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes by going on fast unto death.

Another serious distortion of fact in the book is on Page 22, where it states that the Constitution of India borrowed the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity from the French Constitution. However, this is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution of India or in any reference by Dr. Ambedkar, the chief Architect of the Constitution.

On page 236, the text in a satirical tone, questions, "Is it a coincidence that the central square of every other small town has a statue of Dr. Ambedkar with a copy of the Indian Constitution? Far from being a mere symbolic tribute to him, this expresses the feeling among Dalits that the Constitution reflects many of their aspirations."

Refreshingly, the authors of the text understand this phenomenon of instituting statues of Dr.B.R.Ambedkar across India, not as a result of a cult or hero worship of ex-untouchables but as expression of their "aspirations." However, the authors 'conservativeness' of limiting Dr.B.R.Ambedkar to an inspiration only to ex-untouchables is extremely disappointing and shallow, as it fails to liberate students and Dr.B.R.Ambedkar from caste-role model admiration.

Conclusion

Indeed it is not an easy task for any author to draft a sincere, honest text with an objective to liberate, emancipate and instill democratic values in the minds of the readers within their politics. Analogously, it must have not been an easy task to the constitution makers to frame a country's constitution. Amidst this, how justified is the politics of parody, content appropriation and dismissal of Dr.B.R.Ambedkar's contribution to this country? Why have the authors failed to deal with this subject with factual clarity? These are some of the questions that need to be answered.

Undoubtedly, this text has been innovative in many ways by facilitating learning by students with lively animated pictures, data, information, humor, questioning and critical thinking. However, the text falls short of being consistent, impartial and committed to provide necessary information for students to judge and evaluate the constitution of our country from a holistic point of view. It may also be true that Dr.B.R.Ambedkar is duly recognized in texts for the first time. However this 'compromised inclusion' is equally condemnable as much as the hitherto persistent exclusion.

Also by providing inadequate information, false explanations and inconsistent reasoning, the text does more harm, to students of polity, than any justice by not giving them an opportunity to be well-informed, critical and responsible future citizens. The cartoon row may have caused great distress to academicians, parliamentarians and followers of Dr.B.R.Ambedkar, however, it once again opened our eyes to politicization of curriculum as a continuous process, an ongoing struggle and vulnerable to regime appropriation. Most importantly this ban should not be revoked alone on cartoon deletion but also on the lines of stringent revision and examination of the content. eventually, the ban may get justified for crude political satire but it would be pity if we limit our reading it as curtailment parody paralyses but fail to examine the context and the text. By not falling into this trap of superficial understanding, we may save ourselves and our country from becoming an irresponsible democracy.

Notes

[1] National Curriculum Framework 2005, page ix

[2] IBN-CNN discussion- Ironic these text books are termed anti-Ambedkar: YogendraYadav. Retrieved from http://www.firstpost.com/india/ironic-these-text-books-are-termed-anti-ambedkar-yogendra-yadav-307085.html

[3] "AS INTRODUCED IN THE RAJYA SABHA-BILL NO. LXXIV OF 2005 ON THE 29TH JULY, 2005 THE SCHEDULED CASTES AND SCHEDULED TRIBES (PREVENTION OF ATROCITIES) (AMENDMENT) BILL, 2005 A BILL further to amend the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. It proposed to for the words ''Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes'' the words ''Vulnerable Communities'' shall be substituted'(ee) "vulnerable communities" includes the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, farmers and agricultural workers.'

References

Ambedkar, B.R. (1954). Dr. Ambedkar' interview. All India Radio Broadcast, October 3, 1954

Ambedkar, B.R. (1979). Dr. Ambedkar Writing & Speeches.Vol. III.

Elster, Jon (1997). Ways of constitution-making. In Axel Hadenius (ed.). Democracy's Victory and Crisis. Cambridge University Press.

Giddens, A. (2006). Sociology. New Delhi: Polity.

Government of India Act, 1935. Retrieved from http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1935/2/pdfs/ukpga_19350002_en.pdf

Joshi, S.A. (2005). The Scheduled Castes And Scheduled Tribes (Prevention Of Atrocities) (Amendment) Bill, 2005 A Bill further to amend the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Retrieved from http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/APCITY/UNPAN023480.pdf

Narayan, K.R. (2000). Address by the President of India. Journal of Parliamentary Information.Volume 46 (1). New Delhi: LokSabhaSecretariate. Retrieved from http://parliamentofindia.nic.in/jpi/MARCH2000/CHAP1.htm

NCERT.(2006). Indian Constitution at Work. New Delhi: NCERT.

Prevention of Insults to National Honor Act, 1971

Vundru, R. S. (2012, May 13). Voting rights for all, no mean achievement.The Hindu. Retrieved from http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/article3415438.ece

Lalit Khandare is a PhD. candidate in Indiana University.

~~~

Please also read other articles published on Round Table India on the same issue:

'The cartoon controversy: Inside the mind of one 'fanatic' Dalit - II' by Anoop Kumar,

'The cartoon controversy: Inside the mind of one 'fanatic' Dalit - I' by Anoop Kumar,

'Whipping up 'critical pedagogy': Uncritical defense of NCERT's violence' by Savari,

'The Cartoon, the Classroom and the Idea of India' by N. Sukumar,

'Of critical pedagogy and rational thinking' by Kshitij Pipaleshwar,

'The caste-neutral whip and other jokes' by Kuffir,

'Thol. Thirumaavalavan writes to Kapil Sibal and Sukhadeo Thorat',

'Ambedkar's Cartoon and the Caste question' by Raj Kumar.



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