Entering the debate

As the summer wound to a close and schools readied themselves for the reopening across most states, a debate raged in Parliament and was captured in its most strident tones in various media, from television to newspapers to the Internet. Should political cartoons be allowed in textbooks? With what lenses and how closely should curricular material be scrutinized? Should the State interfere in the production of learning materials? How can we balance ethnic/caste/religious/gender sensitivities with the development of critical sensibilities and presentation of historical debates?

For all the voices that were raised in protest against the NCERT’s textbooks and those defending them, one section of stakeholders was conspicuously absent. Teachers’ opinions on the cartoon, on the text accompanying it, or on the ways in which they had used (or would use) it in their classrooms, would have brought another dimension to the discussion and perhaps thrown a bit of cold water on all the heat generated by the protestors. Several opinions have been laid out both supporting and opposing the government’s decision to remove Shankar’s cartoon commenting on the framing of the Constitution. Some insist that the cartoon includes elements that hurt the sentiments of Dalits, while others say that it is to be read within its historical context and open up debate. Some say the symbols of caste hierarchy such as the whip can be offensive and humiliating to students/children belonging to those communities while others say such visual representations can be read in a variety of ways, all of which can be contested.

Whatever might be our position on the specific cartoon in question, it remains that as teachers we are likely to encounter in our formal and informal learning materials, elements that we find challenging to handle, for a variety of reasons. As teachers, as people engaged in pedagogy, we need to think critically and beyond these dichotomies as to what we would do with such materials, and how we can get our students to think in different and unexpected ways. Cartoons and indeed any materials that allow multiple interpretations open up important spaces for learning, as any teacher knows. Their tongue-in-cheek approach forces us to uncover layers of meaning and confront unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable points of view. But they also force us to look beyond the lines on paper to the minds that produce them and the audiences they are intended for; in this sense they take us back to the period in which they were produced.

The entire “May mayhem” as the cartoon episode has been dubbed, also serves to remind us that the classroom is an intensely political space, whether we realize it or not, and we need to use it to advantage, building a culture of debate and open discussion, and a tolerance of diverse and often conflicting viewpoints. It would have been good to hear from teachers on how they have dealt with these cartoons in their own political science or civics classes, to temper some of the polemic in the mass media. It’s time we stepped out of our notebooks – or classrooms – and looked at how we can draw lessons from the things around us, and add our voices to such ongoing debates.