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Cartoons, Caste and Politics

The controversy over the Ambedkar cartoon in school textbooks is more a refl ection of the hurt sentiments of the political class rather than of the dalits. It seems that an artifi cial hurt has been created through a misreading of an innocuous cartoon from six decades ago. In a context where the social justice agenda is often neglected, such emotional issues provide political players with an opportunity to maintain their popular support.

COMMENTARY

Cartoons, Caste and Politics

Manjit Singh

The cartoon at the centre of the controversy has a historical context. It depicts B R Ambedkar riding a snail, which is representative of the Constitution-making process, while Nehru stands with a limp

The controversy over the The degree of hostility, often taking a hysteric form, that the Indian

Ambedkar cartoon in school

polity is now displaying at the

textbooks is more a refl ection

slightest display of dissent makes it diffi

of the hurt sentiments of the

cult to believe that it is the same country

political class rather than of the where two and a half millennia back Buddha achieved enlightenment. People

dalits. It seems that an artifi cial

cannot feel secure when a cartoon simply

hurt has been created through

forwarded by a professor can land them

a misreading of an innocuous

in trouble because it lampoons a political

cartoon from six decades ago. In leader. Such intolerance towards creative art and literature was first noticed in an

a context where the social justice

organised form with the campaign

agenda is often neglected, such

against M F Husain who was accused of

emotional issues provide political

depicting Hindu deities in a vulgar man

players with an opportunity to ner and attacked repeatedly by Hindu fundamentalists.

maintain their popular support.

The Cartoons

Suddenly, however, such attacks have started coming up frequently and from unexpected quarters. Ambikesh Mahapatra of Kolkata’s Jadavpur University was picked up by the police for allegedly forwarding cartoons of West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress chairperson Mamata Banerjee. The cartoon, based on Satyajit Ray’s movie Sonar Kella, allegedly showed Banerjee and present railways minister Mukul Roy discussing how to get rid of party Member of Parliament (MP), Dinesh Trivedi, who was then railways minister. Mahapatra was also physically attacked by Trinamool supporters.

What has happened on 11 May 2012 in the two houses of Parliament over a cartoon is really worrisome as it has exposed the hollowness of the world’s largest democracy. The punitive attitude of the state towards the creative arts and literature is only too well known in the history of democratising societies. However, the nature and sharpness of the reaction witnessed, both from the opposition parties in Parliament as well as the government, over the reproduction of a

Manjit Singh (manjits@pu.ac.in) is director of 1949 cartoon by Shankar in the textbook the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion of XI class only shows how fragile our and Inclusive Policy, Panjab University,

democracy is and how alienated our

Chandigarh.

political parties are from the people.

Economic & Political Weekly may 26, 2012 vol xlviI no 21

EPW

whip behind wondering whether to goad it to move faster. While it has been interpreted as Nehru whipping Ambedkar, a look at the cartoon will show that it is the slow-moving snail that both men are trying to move, Ambedkar with the reins and whip in hand too. It shows Nehru’s anxiety, as prime minister, to give a Constitution to the people of India as early as possible. Ambedkar, as chairperson of the Constituent Assembly (CA), on the other hand, did not want to leave any loophole in the Constitution lest development bypasses the poor or social justice is undermined. He consulted all contemporary constitutions of successful democracies before finalising the draft for approval as well as allowed the consultative process within the CA to unfold itself. There is an ambient conflict between the two stalwarts of Indian democracy – one is worried at the delay in declaring India an independent republic, whereas the other wants to ensure every bit of detail of the social agenda to be included in the draft before fi nalising the Constitution. Precisely for these reasons nobody misunderstood the cartoon 60 years back.

The Iconography

In independent India the social justice agenda of the Constitution has rarely been taken seriously. The policy of reservation is implemented by the ruling political parties not as much with the intention of empowering the marginalised dalits and tribes of India as to use it as a tool to garner political power. It is for the same reasons that the voices of 117 scheduled caste (SC) and scheduled tribe (ST) MPs rarely reverberate with such unison on the issues of unemployment, poor health and low wages of workers as on such emotive issues. In a socially, culturally and economically skewed society, bringing identity and emotive politics to the fore costs nothing to the politicians to secure positions of power. Corporatisation of politics amidst innumerable castes, ethnic groups and cultural identities is

COMMENTARY

the hallmark of the present-day Indian democracy. This approach has weakened political parties to the level where they are not sure of popular support of the people even when in power and thus they resort to such political gimmickry to secure it.

Dalits, on the other hand, are now in search of an alternative spiritual system outside the brahmanical umbrella. Ambedkar, who himself converted to Buddhism towards the end of his life is often a natural choice for many dalits as he is the only iconic fi gure acceptable across different castes and thus provides not simply the political philosophy for dalit mobilisation, but also tends to fi ll this spiritual void. It is worth remembering here that Ambedkar was against any idol worship and, true to Buddhist teachings, while addressing the CA on 25 November 1949 said, “Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul, but in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”. In step with the teachings of Buddha, Ambedkar wished each one of his followers to be a source of his own light instead of slipping into a path of idol worship. Mainstream politicians however would like nothing better than to convert Ambedkar into an idol that they can use for political capital.

A closer look at the sequences of the events shows that the move was not simply limited to the intolerance to Nehru-Ambedkar cartoon, there are many other cartoons lampooning politicians included in the political science textbooks of classes IX to XII produced by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). Members of the Parliamentary Forum on Children had met NCERT officials on 8 May 2012 to express their concern on the inclusion of such cartoons in their textbooks and sought a meeting with the people responsible in the third week of May. A cartoon of R K Laxman included in the class IX textbook depicts the hypocrisy of Indian politicians by drawing their two contradictory faces, one before the elections and the other immediately after, holding the reins of power. It is therefore now amply clear why political parties of different hues joined hands in opposing the inclusion of cartoons in the textbooks.

It was a dalit activist Thirumavalavan, Lok Sabha MP from Chidambaram and leader of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (Dalit Panthers Party) of Tamil Nadu, who first objected to this cartoon, followed soon by Ramdas Athawale of the Republican Party of India from Maharashtra. Thirumavalavan raised this issue in Parliament on 11 May and was soon joined by MPs from all parties waving copies of this cartoon claiming it was “insulting to Ambedkar, Nehru and the whole nation”. Thirumavalavan even asked for Sibal’s resignation and the minister on his part responded by saying that he has “no hesitation in apologising to the nation”. Kapil Sibal has already announced an inquiry into the role of NCERT offi cials responsible for the inclusion of such cartoons, the withdrawal of this textbook until revisions are made and a further review of all textbooks for derogatory or insensitive material. Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati demanded criminal prosecution for those responsible for putting this cartoon in the textbook while Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party wanted the government to disband the NCERT.

Taking refuge under the cartoon controversy many MPs openly expressed their fear that the entire institution of Parliament and the concomitant democratic process is under attack from “certain quarters”. In this chorus of condemnation the only dissenting voice was of Sharifuddin Shariq of the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference who defended these cartoons and advised his parliamentary colleagues to do some soul-searching.

The MPs have argued that satirical cartoons in textbooks can “spoil” the tender minds of young students. Our MPs seem to forget that in today’s world of free-flowing information and communication, children watch politicians on television viewing pornography inside state legislatures, parliamentarians abusing and shouting at each other and holding entire sessions of Parliament to ransom over trivial matters and read about the corruption and criminality in our polity. Can such schoolchildren, especially those who are soon to become voters, be fooled by these cartoons? Therefore, it is

may 26, 2012

not these cartoons in textbooks which are responsible for the poor image of political leaders, the parliamentarians are themselves to be blamed for their present disconnect from the people. It is worth remembering here the public trial of Socrates who was, besides other things, accused of spoiling the youth of Athens. There is no difference between the argument of ancient state of Athens and that of the parliamentarians of our time.

The Danger Ahead

It also needs to be noted that both the advisors to the NCERT Political Science textbooks, Suhas Palshikar and Yogendra Yadav, had submitted an explanation to the objections raised by parliamentarians. In that they had pointed out the historical context of the cartoon, its pedagogical uses today and also that these textbooks had been seen by an expert committee of some of India’s leading social scientists, like Mrinal Miri, G P Deshpande, Gopal Guru and Zoya Hassan belonging to different persuasions and perspectives.

The stance of the MPs soon infl amed the emotions of the dalits outside who deem both the Constitution and its architect as sacrosanct. However they missed a clear difference between the offi cial position and an individual persona. Shankar did not lampoon Pandit Nehru or B R Ambedkar. It was a satire on their respective public position they were endowed with by the great republic then in the making. Our parliamentarians, by their irresponsible acts added fuel to the casteist fire. Consequently, the very next day, on 12 May, some activists allegedly belonging to Republican Panthers Party of India ransacked the office of Palshikar. Ramdas Athawale justified the attack and demanded criminal cases against Yadav and Palshikar.

At the end of the day, what is most dangerous is that political representatives of the people are joining hands in inflaming all sorts of casteist, ethnic and religious feelings as part of their power games, instead of addressing the basic needs of the people. Earlier this was limited to some right-wing sections of India’s polity but now it appears to be on its way to becoming the norm. This is the real threat to the future of Indian democracy.

vol xlviI no 21

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

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