Of cartoons and controversies…

Spokey Wheeler

by Spokey Wheeler
International Director, Adhyayan

For much of May 2012, educationists and politicians have been taking sides in an increasingly heated controversy over the publication of Shankar’s cartoon featuring Dr Ambedkar. I had thought of entering the fray with a piece entitled, “Where Angels fear to tread”. That was until I read Shri Krishna Kumar’s recent article in The Economic and Political Weekly, ‘Quality Constraints in Education -Fallout of the Cartoon Controversy’. Maybe it is because he has lived in the eye of the storm for so long at NCERT, but Shri Krishna Kumar’s calm, authoritative voice was reassuringly sensible and measured after the cyclonic sound bites which had preceded it.

I am of both Irish and English descent, itself a permanent source of potential conflict. So I do not intend to address the issue of Shankar’s Dr Ambedkar cartoon. However, in the Times of London in the week this storm erupted in India was a wonderful cartoon depicting the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Cameron, the PM, was holding in his arms his deputy, Mr Nick Clegg, who had the mien of a terrified child. The Prime Minister looked equally scared. Both were staring fixedly over each other’s shoulder at an opposing door. While a fearful Mr Cameron stared at the one marked ‘Tory Party’, the right honourable Mr Clegg, his arms wrapped around the PM’s neck shrank from the one marked ‘Liberal Democrat’. The caption read, “Please don’t let them get me!”

While the cartoon loses something in translation, it will not surprise you that these two gentlemen, the heads of their respective parties, are in Coalition government together and living through troubled times. What the cartoon implies is that rather than keeping an uneasy truce between warring factions, the two party leaders are now more worried about their own party followers than they are of their coalition partners. Could I have gleaned so much, so quickly and with such clarity in a Times Leading Article? I think not.

Having spent a lifetime teaching literature and now almost as long as a school leader, I am convinced that one of the most important gifts we have to offer our children is the acquisition of critical acuity. Becoming an independent thinker, however, requires a culture in which independent thought and freedom of expression are valued. What the NCF 2005 and the NCTE 2009 have done is to create an aspirational curriculum for our Indian classrooms. The challenge is: How do we make real the mantras of independent thinking, activity-based learning, and problem solving in lessons where text books and exam syllabuses are predicated on a rote learning approach in which knowledge is more valued and gains more marks than understanding? I fear that if we move too close to politically correct solutions we will end up with young citizens who don’t understand enough to be offended by the cartoons they see.

Note: Krishna Kumar’s article in the Economic and Political Weekly can be accessed here: