Ambedkar cartoon row: Government needs to focus on capacity building of education institutes

Education system in India has always been marred by controversy. Recently a controversy over the cartoon depicting Dr BR Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru in an NCERT textbook has drawn attention to politicians. They vociferously raised the cartoon issue in Parliament compelling the union government to set up a six-member committee under Thorat to look into the matter.

The committee’s report has brought disgrace to freedom of expression. Except a dissenting member, the majority of the panel suggested the removal of around 20 cartoons in the political science textbooks for classes IX to XII. The committee further suggested that if it was not possible to remove cartoons from the textbooks, change it.

The committee’s recommendation was based on logic that these cartoons could cause agony among politicians and hence academically inappropriate for country like India where people of different cultures and faiths live together. If we truly focus on diversity, no cartoon would ever pass litmus test due to its potential for causing distress among one group or another.

The whole point of political cartoons will be disrespectful, humorous and even bitter. Expressed in humour, they display as a sharp comment on the happenings of the day. The controversial textbooks are some of the best books published by NCERT for they encourage the students to question and, in the process, destroy the monopoly of any single interpretation of political history.

Besides, the guidelines for reviewing these cartoons remain abstract. An R K Laxman cartoon depicting a beggar presenting a bowl to a garlanded Indira Gandhi may be considered politically sensitive by some people, but could completely catch the mood of the times for others.

The matter goes far away from school curriculum and also echoes the approach of the government towards education in general. The quality of infrastructure from primary schools to universities in the country continues to be shoddy. Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report 2011 showed a constant backsliding in basic reading and maths abilities of students across the country. On the other hand, no Indian university finds its place in the list of top 100 universities in the world.

Instead of improving education standards, the government involves in addressing insignificant issues such as cartoons in school textbooks or change the IIT admission process despite the latter’s impressive credentials.

India’s education system suffers from a serious capacity crisis. In a bid to reap its demographic dividend, the country requires a number of quality educational institutions. But this needs a massive shift in policy. Instead of implementing irrational rules on schools – as the Right to Education Act does – or implementing quotas in higher education, the need of the hour is to make the education sector fulfill market demands and construct the number of quality education institutes so that the country’s youth has access to quality education.

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