The controversy over the publication of great cartoons by the legendary cartoonist Shankar in the NCERT textbooks and the shameful surrender of the Central Government to the diktats of the “dalit” parliamentarians has disturbed all the right-thinking Indians. HRD Minister Kapil Sibal , known otherwise for his intellect coupled with arrogance, has “agreed” disgracefully to withdraw the “offending” textbooks that depict the controversial cartoon on BR Ambedkar , who was the chairman of the drafting committee of the Indian Constitution, “wrongly” and examine the banning of cartoons altogether in textbooks. No member in Parliament has challenged the spurious argument that school children are not mature enough to understand the subtle nuances of the political cartoons.
I do not intend to go into details of the case, its merits or otherwise. Suffice it to say that the great Ambedkar was very much alive and active when the cartoon was drawn in 1949. He did not protest. But now the “dalit” parliamentarians find that objectionable , and most of them belong to the ruling Congress, their leader in this case being none other than KL Punia, presently chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and previously a senior IAS officer of Uttar Pradesh cadre.
I would like to emphasise in this column two bigger issues and their serious implications for Indian polity and society. First issue is the role of the government in writing the textbooks through NCERT. In no comparable democracy does the government have such a role. After all, what is the government? Ultimately, it is the rule of a political party or a coalition of parties. And that means that the textbooks that are written have to be in tune with what the ruling party or parties are comfortable with. Today’s rulers did not like the NCERT textbooks written during the NDA regime. Likewise, one is sure that if the NDA returns to power, it will change the textbooks written over the last eight years. And there are valid reasons too. Having a look at the NCERT book on Indian Politics that my daughter reads, I get a distinct impression that there have been deliberate attempts to ignore the existence of the NDA government in between 1998 and 2004 and underplay its achievements. And if you read the history textbooks, you will come out with the impression that Hinduism is probably the worst religion in the world.
Who writes these textbooks? Mostly these are university teachers who are sympathetic to the overall views or politics of the ruling party of the day. The converse could also be true. The government, which, in effect, is the ruling party, prefers those textbook writers whose views or ideas it finds useful for getting votes.
Viewed thus, there is something inherently wrong with NCERT textbooks. It being a government organisation, NCERT should have no business in writing textbooks, particularly when it wants the students all over the country to read only those books. This is as bad as imposing uniformity in a diverse and plural country such as ours. Therefore, as with everything else in a liberal democracy that India is, school children and their teachers should have a broad range of textbooks to exercise their choice. That was the system when I was in school. And that is the reason why my mind was wide open to various ideas and new points, something one does not see in my daughter reading NCERT books today, though she is a topper at the school and fetches more marks at the examination than I did.
The second issue pertains to the whole question of identity politics and the consequent intolerance to others’ views, the trend of which has assumed dangerous proportions in India today. In this cartoon- controversy, the “dalits” have protested invoking the identity factor for them Ambedkar is “their” icon. They see Ambedkar only though “dalit prism”, whereas the fact is that Ambedkar was a leader of “all” Indians and should belong to “all’. It is because of this identity politics that Mayawati wants to be known as a “dalit” leader despite having prime ministerial ambitions. Likewise, these days one hears a lot about Muslim issues and Muslim leaders. Some want India to have a “Muslim” President in the name of secularism; they are not interested in having a President of integrity and competence who could be a Muslim. Recently, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav was looking for a “Muslim” to be appointed as chief secretary. I think he has done a great disservice to Javed Usmani by making him the chief secretary. Usmani is reputed to be an outstanding IAS officer; he deserved to be the chief secretary for his record in service, but the chief minister has reduced him to be a mere Muslim!
Ironically, most of the academicians and intellectuals associated with the NCERT have been great votaries of such identity politics. They could have never imagined that some of them would one day become targets of the communities believing in identity politics! Be that as it may, identity politics has come to signify a wide range of political activity and theorising founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups. Votaries of identity politics rationalised how members of that particular group asserted and used their distinctiveness to challenge the dominant order of the day to realise their legitimate dues from the polity and society. Political scientists such as Rajni Kothari became the cult figure of identity politics by relying on notions of sameness to justify political mobilisation.
However stimulating the theory of identity politics may be, the fact is that it stands as a ridiculous and dangerous approach to the issues facing India today. The notion that it is “right” to hold other people in a nation hostage through the threat of riots (physical violence) or smearing others’ names (violence that makes trust impossible) can only push the rest of us to violence, if not today then tomorrow. There will be no democracy if everybody thinks or acts only as the member of a particular category or community. Unfortunately, this is happening in India today. Indians are more divided today than what they were before 1989, when identity politics got the biggest boost through the implementation of Mandal Commission recommendations.
Ironically, the practice of identity politics has revealed why identity politics is not the solution to the problems it has revealed. Finding that identity is indeed central to politics, and that conforming to a particular identity is a requirement for political participation, identity politics perpetuates identity rather than transcending it, which, ironically, is the goal of every liberal and democratic country. Other than the inherent totalitarian trait (concept of “me” and “my group” only) in it, identity politics does not cope with the fact that every individual has multiple identities. How does one juxtapose the imperatives of one’s creed or caste with that that of the identity as a professional, as a member of a club or association, as a user of services such as transport, health, hospitality and entertainment, to just give an example? Will a dalit patient go to a dalit doctor? Will a Muslim go to a school or college only for Muslims? Unfortunately, if we go by the current trends in Indian politics and remain silent, that horrific day is not that distant. Identity politics has thus revealed the liabilities of the ‘citizen’ that grounds the liberal polity. It, by illustrating the resistance to ‘others’ in the political and social arena, has revealed that the universal citizen/subject is nothing of the sort.
Given this horrendous prospect, it is time we moved from identity politics to a politics of identification. In the politics of identification, the political actors should identify with particular political causes and mobilise to achieve particular political goals. Such identification could locate problems based in identities, but it is not necessary that the reasons for that identification will be monolithic; these will vary from place to place. One cannot equate the problems of the relatively better off Meena tribes in Rajasthan to that of Juang tribes in Odisha. One does not need to be a supporter of Narendra Modi to discover that conditions of the Muslims in Gujarat are infinitely better than those in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. Even among the dalits, the sub-groups that the likes of Mayawati and Paswan belong to do not have the same pains and anguish of the others. The point is that embracing an identification does not entail ﬁxing the whole of the identity of a citizen in a particular location. In other words, we should focus on identification, not identity, for emancipation of our underprivileged.
In sum, identity politics as we see today in India has too much identity in it. Therefore, we should move to the politics beyond identity.
By Prakash Nanda