The controversy kicked up over the withdrawal of a textbookfor high school over a cartoon after a ruckus in Parliament has been superficially interpreted and uniformly criticised without understanding the sensitivities of the oppressed for whom B.R. Ambedkar is a hero. The anger of Dalits is being interpreted as intolerance while in fact it is an assertion ofa people who are in the process of finding their long-suppressed voice andlearning to stand up to insults and humiliation. What is needed is notcriticism and anger but sensitivity to the emotions of a horribly wronged people.
Those lamenting the move by the government in Parliamentand the apology by Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal for usingthe cartoon have preferred to understand it as a cynical move to “appease” thesupporters of B.R. Ambedkar for political reasons, namely not to antagonise alarge section of voters when elections are round the corner. A social scientistwas scornful calling it “psepho-cracy” and ruing that the spirit of democracyhadn't seeped into society. Yet another said the government's withdrawal of theoffending textbook was a “nominal if not hypocritical” acknowledgement of Dalitpower. One could agree with both commentators: there is no question thatdemocracy has not seeped into society which has remained deeply andirreconcilably divided along caste lines; what prevails in our society and invery many minds that have not been influenced either by education or modernityis “caste-ocracy.” As for Dalit power, it has not yet gained mass but is strong enough to force the government of the day to draw back. Hence, it is immaterialwhether the acknowledgement is nominal or hypocritical. The crucial thing is that it is real.
While the government is supposed to have caved in to the protests in Parliament, it is a fact that the issue witnessed the unusual spectacle of the entire Opposition united in the belief that the cartoon had denigrated Ambedkar. The issue led to the resignation of two “chief advisers” of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), both professors of political science, as they did not agree with Parliament's standon the issue.
What the critics say
The critics of the government's decision make the followingpoints to show that the inflamed sentiments of Dalit supporters both inParliament and outside are misplaced: that the cartoon is about 60 years oldand that it was drawn by a well-known and highly popular cartoonist Shankar;that Nehru was democratic enough to appreciate and even enjoy the lampooning heoccasionally got at Shankar's hands; that even Ambedkar would have chuckled atthe cartoon especially since there is no evidence of him being offended by itwhen it was first published in 1948. Those who made the decision to include thecartoon also point out that an effort was made to make the lesson interesting,to infuse some humour in it. Using outdated cartoons as this one certainly is,is hardly fun. Perhaps Ambedkar laughed on seeing the cartoon. Or if he hadn't,he would have shaken it off as he had so many barbs in his lifetime, but thatis beside the point. What is the relevance of this particular cartoon in thecontext of a lesson? Sure, it is important for a student to be told that the processwas laborious and that it took several years for the Constitution to befinalised. A cartoon is a comment and a reflection on current situations andpersonalities of those times. Then, the cartoon was relevant and summarisedpithily the delay in finalising the Constitution, but today, after 60 years, itis totally outdated and neither provides any insight nor reflects on theprocess of the making of the Constitution.
Importantly, any illustration with a lesson or with anypiece of writing, expands and adds to the “body” or the text. It evencontextualises the text. The cartoon neither adds to nor contextualises theConstitution. Importantly, in the overall context of the making of theConstitution, seen from the perspective of the present, how is the delay infinalising it important? There are more important things that need to beforegrounded to understand the process of the making of the Constitution suchas how the then President Rajendra Prasad, a confirmed conservative opposedequal property rights for women, and how a modernist Nehru caved in to him andhow when an outraged Ambedkar threatened to quit the team they agreed to it.Poking fun at somebody else's icons is so much easier than one's own, just asit is easy to use somebody else's opinion to introduce one's own predilection.
Apart from criticising the “intolerance” of Dalits and the“weak-kneed” response of the government, the critics are trying to create apanic situation, making alarmist statements that perhaps the government willnow withdraw all the textbooks produced by the NCERT under the NationalCurriculum Framework or that now cartoonists will have to think twice beforethey put their pencils or paint brush to paper. At this rate all cartoons willhave to be banned, says an apologist for the cartoon.
One of the professors claims that the cartoon was includedto expose students to the different ways in which leaders and events wereunderstood and viewed. One has no issue with this. If one wants to includecriticism, then do it openly and not go about it indirectly. The way it hasbeen done in the book shows dishonesty. Surely, a rational and reasonedcritique won't be objected to by any thinking person. Shankar lampooned Nehru,Parliament and important events in his cartoons. Why were those not included toexpose students to different interpretations? The professor also claims thatfor the first time, Ambedkar was given his due in a textbook as not just asFather of the Constitution but as one who laid the democratic foundations ofthe country: you give with one hand and take it away with another!
The issue is not that it is after all a cartoon; not abouta sense of humour or the lack of it among some; nor is it about theunreasonableness or prickliness of some. It is about misrepresenting, it isabout trivialising, it is about a lack of sensitivity. Most importantly, it isabout a callousness that is rooted in one's own biases and prejudices. That iswhy the cartoon is hardly funny.