One of the fundamental tenets of humanities education includes the idea that nothing is ‘apolitical’ or ‘objective’. In fact, choosing not to take a political stand is also a political stance. However, CBSE’s recent apology for the question printed in the class 12 sociology board exam paper points towards a belief that there exists a barrier between the political and the academic, which must not be crossed. Through this article, I do not intend to take a position on the contents of the question itself. Rather, I want to explore the politics of the narrative created by CBSE and how it might affect the study of humanities in India.
The CBSE board paper for the class 12 sociology exam asked students to select, from multiple options, the government under which large-scale anti-Muslim violence took place in Gujarat in 2002. The question was formulated from the Class 12 sociology textbook, and matched almost word for word a line in the text itself. Immediately after the exam, CBSE sent out a tweet apologising for the ‘inappropriate’ question and promised to take stern action against those responsible. However, their second tweet discloses a more problematic justification for their apology.
According to the board, questions appearing in the paper should be ‘academic-oriented only’ and should refrain from broaching topics that could hurt the feelings of individuals ‘based on social and political choices.’
NCERT’s Class 11 political science textbook, titled ‘Political Theory’, attempts to explain the meaning of the term ‘politics’ in its very first chapter. It explores the all-pervasive nature of politics that is not simply restrained to the government and its functioning but extends to discussions, negotiations and choices of individuals. Based on this definition, espoused by a CBSE-approved curriculum, I urge you to find a question in any board paper that doesn’t directly or indirectly deal with people’s social and political choices. These choices make up society and politics, both of which are subjects that the humanities deals with extensively, and form an integral part of the academic life.
How CBSE’s reaction affect academic spaces
Drawing a dichotomy between academic topics and socio-politically inclined questions is a futile and arbitrary exercise. Privileging this question as lying outside the realm of academics, and thus, untouchable, speaks volumes about the politics of the CBSE. Their swift acknowledgement perhaps indicates a culture of fear that evokes preemptive apologies and the assurance of ‘righting a wrong’. More importantly, it cultivates a narrative that certain things can be part of academic discussions while others cannot. It systematically robs an academic debate from vital points of discussion for the fear that they may be divisive or hurtful.
This promotes the idea that academic spaces should be neutral and subsequently defines for us what neutrality means. Not only is this impossible, but also undesirable. The humanities has created multiple spaces of argumentation in the form of research papers, debates, student activism in Universities and much more. These spaces allow for conversations and passionate disagreements that inform, and are informed by, political happenings in the country. These are very often educational spaces. Therefore, such a statement from the largest educational board in India is a matter of concern as it shapes the scholastic lives of the majority of students in our country.
Unearthing the politics of any institution becomes very important. If CBSE’s policy becomes common rhetoric, the integrity of intellectual spaces may be endangered even further, eroding the foundation of an informed citizenry.
The author is a student at St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. Views are personal.