Thursday, 5 July 2012

In the name of critical thinking

In the name of critical thinking
Manoj K. Chahil
Some days ago I was sitting with one of my friends in the canteen and having lunch with her sharing some light moments. We were in the middle of our lunch when another friend joined us. All three of us are research scholars at Delhi University. We were still in the mood of light joking. Meanwhile, the friend who had just come asked me “Tell me, on which side are you?” First, I didn’t understand what she meant, so I asked her to clarify. She remarked that her question was in the context of the recent cartoon controversy. After understanding her emotions and intention I replied that I was on Mayawati’s side. Her response to my answer was unexpected. She expressed wonder that in spite of being an educated person I held this opinion. When I asked her to define ‘educated’ she clarified that it meant a person like me who was a research scholar. The debate between us went for around an hour and it ended without any conclusion except for me being labeled as ‘casteist’.  But there were some serious issues which came out of this discussion and provoked me to study the ongoing cartoon controversy in a more detailed manner. One main point which came out is that how one sees the cartoon. My friend said, “Arey! It clearly says that Ambedkar is sitting on the snail which represents the constitution and both Pandit Nehru and he are using their whips to increase the pace of its making.” Prior to this she also asked me a question as to how does one look at a cartoon? My response was that it varies from person to person as to how one sees this and it’s an individual matter. I proposed to look at the cartoon from another perspective (which one calls Dalit perspective in this controversy) that Dr. Ambedkar is moving the snail ahead and Pandit Nehru who is standing behind is whipping Dr. Ambedkar. The response of my friend on this was, “You people are trying to make an issue out of nothing and you are against critical thinking.”  The question which arises here is that is this critical thinking? To affirm one’s perspective alone and ignore another’s is that critical thinking? And if so then, what is the difference between the earlier textbooks (NCF 2000) and the current ‘progressive’ textbooks (NCF 2005)? The earlier textbooks were full of facts and students had to rote memorize them. If here also we have to provide only information to the children by textbooks without leaving any scope for understanding and reflection then I don’t think it is critical thinking. Those who are contemptuous of the dalit voices against the cartoon are acting as if there is no space for multiple perspectives and construction of knowledge in this case, a stand contrary to NCF 2005 itself.
Some critics say that Dalits are opposing the cartoon because Pandit Nehru belongs to a higher caste and he is portrayed as whipping Dr. Ambedkar who belongs to a lower caste. We cannot ignore this reading of the cartoon as well. Suppose for a moment we believe that there is no whip in Pandit Nehru’s hand or he is missing from the picture, even then is there not a possibility that the message received by both dalit and non-dalit students is that Ambedkar being a Dalit was not capable and that’s why the process of constitution making was getting delayed?
Shankar Pillai made lots of cartoons and he received great acclaim. He was perhaps the greatest cartoonist of his time as a result of which his cartoons are being incorporated in present textbooks. An important question which needs to be answered here is that why a great painter like Maqbool Fida Hussain not been included in the chapter on arts and aesthetics? Why don’t the supporters of so called ‘critical thinking’ raise their voice there? They can’t because it hurts the sentiments of the majority and such intellectuals also would like to keep mum due to fear of a backlash. Why are some people intent on imposing this ‘critical thinking’ on Dalits only?
One more thing which came out in the debate is the issue of the language of a cartoon. People say that a cartoon uses language of symbols. But can students of class 11th and 12th make sense of these symbols? Yogendra Yadav says that there is a separate chapter in the textbook which talks about how to read cartoons. I find that I can’t make sense of many cartoons and therefore I wonder whether it is possible for all students of this age group to make sense of cartoons and particularly that which the cartoonist intended. Here I would like to draw attention to a debate on the Rajya Sabha Channel where scholars like Krishna Kumar, Kancha Ilaiah, Mushirul Hasan, Irfaan (cartoonist) and Yogendra Yadav participated. School children also participated in this debate and I was totally surprised after listening to their responses. It seemed that the students had more understanding than the experts who were there! All the experts were ranged against Kancha Ilaiah who represented the lone voice against the cartoon and they co-opted the responses given by the students. It was made to appear by the clearly one-sided presentation that this cartoon controversy was needless. It is significant that all the students who participated in the debate were from a ‘reputed’ private school of Delhi and we know that such schools serve a very small and privileged section of the society. We can also make inference as to how many Dalit students study there and if they do then which class they come from. Perhaps it was a matter of dignity for the Channel or something else, but it was certainly queer that there was not a single student participant from any government school in the said debate. And we are talking of a fully state established and funded channel here! Were these textbooks made only for private schools? If we honestly want to know about the opinions of students or children about these textbooks then one should go to the area where Dalits live and ask them if there is any effect or not. Similarly, we need to take the question to the students from government schools also. Since one dominant group claims to have the correct understanding of cartoons so it is trying to tell everyone that there is nothing offensive in the cartoon and in fact it is a groundbreaking pedagogic tool which needs to be appreciated by all.
Some people think that children read these cartoons in daily newspapers and on internet, so there should not be any problem if they are included in textbooks. Here, we have to understand the difference between ‘choice’ and ‘compulsion’. At this point of time half of the schools of our country don’t have any extra reading material other than textbooks. The majority of the students of this nation do not have access to any sources which may help and prepare them to familiarize with such mode of representation. Obviously, those who are assuming the commonness of access to such means of communication are either not in touch with the ground realities or they are trying to represent their particular reality as the nation’s reality.
The opposition to the cartoon is being seen as an attack on the academic community and the inappropriate intervention of the parliament. It is true that this debate got politicized and the incident that took place in Pune was deplorable. (And it was indeed condemned by almost all the dalit intellectuals opposing the cartoon.) But is NCERT higher than parliament? Do the elected representatives of the people have no right to question as to what is being taught in the classroom? There is no doubt that the present textbooks are far better than the earlier ones and they provide greater space to children for critical thinking. But it doesn’t imply that there is no possibility of improvement and these are complete in themselves. It would have been better if the institution had taken the objections in the right spirit in the beginning itself and carried out an honest dialogue to understand the sentiments behind the protest and removed the cartoon if found problematic after due deliberation. We need to understand that Dalits have been given no reason by the so called mainstream leadership of this nation to identify with them and therefore it is difficult for them to tolerate even apparent insult to Dr. Ambedkar who is for them the icon because of his liberationary role and not because of lineage or background.
A teachers’ manual needs to be developed which includes this and other cartoons so that teachers become more aware and they can arrange debates at their own level. We also need to institutionalize conditions and resources in schools which motivate all children and encourage them to read newspapers and magazines. Finally, one doesn’t know how much representation of Dalits was there in the textbook committees of NCERT but it is necessary to make sure, in the context of this debate, that there should be proper representation of Dalits in all public work of this kind.

Manoj K. Chahil is a research scholar at Department of Education, University of Delhi.

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