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The cartoon crisis in India

by Praful Bidwai, 24 May 2012

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The News International

May 19, 2012

It is profoundly distressing that all of India’s political parties joined hands to condemn an inoffensive cartoon published in 1949 about Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s pivotal role in the making of the nation’s constitution. The cartoon, reproduced in a Class XI textbook published in 2006 by the National Council for Educational Training and Research (NCERT), showed Ambedkar riding a snail depicting the constitution and Prime Minister Nehru standing behind him with a whip in hand.

Indian politicians have put the worst possible interpretation on this work by the great cartoonist Kesava Shankara Pillai, who ran the remarkable cartoons-only Shankar’s Weekly, and empathised with Nehru’s constitution-based liberal-democratic nation-building project.

They claim the cartoon depicts the two men as adversaries, with Nehru about to lash Ambedkar with the whip, while a motley crowd sniggered. They of course don’t bother to relate the cartoon to the text, which richly praises Ambedkar. They deny that cartoons and caricatures are integral to good political commentary and to playfully inculcating a critical attitude among students.

In reality, Nehru’s whip wasn’t aimed at Ambedkar, but clearly and unequivocally, at the snail. Even the crowd is shown concentrating on the snail. This captured the public’s keenness to speed up the slow process of constitution-making.

Only the crudest, the most vulgar, and the most literal, view of the whip as an instrument of punishment and humiliation permits a crassly offensive interpretation, according to which Shankar’s intent was to insult Ambedkar. The interpretation is ridiculous and contrived. It denies the legitimacy of the art of cartooning, whose very rationale is to make irreverent, acerbic, and sometimes shocking comment to jolt us out of complacency.

Banning cartoons reflects perverse intolerance – and makes a mockery of the constitutionally guaranteed right to free expression, which Ambedkar held to be inviolable and part of the charter and guideposts of democracy. And yet, Education Minister Kapil Sibal, a lawyer who claims constitutional expertise, wants to review other “inappropriate” material in all NCERT textbooks.

Never mind the fact that these textbooks, produced in 2005-08, marked a massive improvement in pedagogy. They followed the adoption of a secular, forward-looking National Curriculum Framework after gross distortions of history and rewriting of textbooks along communal lines during the tenure of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government.

The process of writing the new textbooks was exemplarily inclusive and drew upon a wide range of scholars. (Declaration of Interest: Along with political scientists Zoya Hasan and Gopal Guru, and others, I was a member of the monitoring committee for social science textbooks; but the cartoon was not then included in the draft under scrutiny.)

The post-2005 NCERT textbooks encouraged teachers and students to think independently and critically, and appreciate the complexities of crafting a modern republican order in Independent India. They highlighted the emancipatory vision of India’s constitution-makers, and the great distance this society still has to travel before realising it. They took the pupil beyond uninformed glorification of India’s past and complacency about its present governance system.

The UPA can legitimately claim that the textbooks were a significant achievement. Instead, it’s cravenly apologising for them, and thus insulting the intelligence of students by assuming that they would “misunderstand” the cartoon and the textbook would foment disrespect for Ambedkar.

The government is thus muzzling free expression and legitimising crass intolerance. The worst expression of this was the ransacking in Pune of the office of Suhas Palshikar, an adviser to the NCERT, by members of the Republican Panthers Party, affiliated to the Republican Party of India (Ramdas Athahwale faction). Athawale brazenly justified the vandalism and demanded Palshikar’s criminal prosecution. Dalit groups have threatened an agitation if their demand isn’t conceded.

At work here are two ideas: crass literalism about symbols, metaphors and images, and sacralisation and deification of human beings (in this case, Ambedkar). Literalism equates images with objects and selectively glorifies or demonises them. Literalism inspired the notorious protests against MF Hussain’s celebratory depiction of Hindu goddesses in the nude, without a hint of vulgarity.

More recently, Hindutva supporters conflated the geological structure called Rama Sethu or Adam’s Bridge off Tamil Nadu’s southeastern coast, with the mythical bridge to Sri Lanka built by Lord Rama’s followers. They launched a violent agitation against a proposed shipping canal which would “desecrate” it. The sangh parivar dubbed the project an “insult to the Hindus”. L K Advani even claimed, “The government has sought to negate all that the Hindus consider sacred ... and wounded the very idea of India”. The Archaeological Survey of India filed an affidavit, based on studies by the Space Applications Centre and other evidence obtained by drilling at the site, that it is a purely natural formation, which has nothing to with Rama.

The project was dropped – not, as it should have been, for ecological reasons – but out of deference to the “hurt sentiments” of a community. The then law minister abjectly apologised and said: “Lord Rama is an integral part of Indian culture and ethos ... and cannot be a matter of debate or litigation.....” He melodramatically added: “Just as the Himalayas are the Himalayas... Rama is Rama... It’s a question of faith” and needs no proof. Sacralisation or deification of human beings is no less pernicious. Thus Dalit studies scholar Kancha Ilaiah argues that Ambedkar is for the Dalits what the Holy Prophet or the Koran is for the Muslims. Ergo, the Dalits’ “hurt sentiments” on the cartoon must be respected.

The argument was powerfully refuted by Ambedkar himself in November 1949 in the Constituent Assembly: “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.” Deification elevates fallible flesh-and-blood human beings to the status of God who can do no wrong. Thus, however much we respect Ambedkar, Gandhi, Nehru, Marx or Freud – and I am a firm admirer of these thinkers – we must recognise that they were human beings who often changed their positions depending on the context.

In fact, it is their resilience and alertness to changing ground realities that gave them their exceptional leadership qualities as thinkers and doers. As has been said, for every statement that you find in Gandhi, it is possible to find the opposite quote. This applies to Ambedkar or Marx too. The present controversy is bound to lower the prestige of Dalit politics and tar it with intolerance. It is all the more regrettable because it has been raked up by some of the most oppressed people of Indian society and proponents of social justice, who have a rich history of iconoclasm and questioning received wisdoms.

That’s the illustrious tradition to which Jyotiba Phule, Shahu Maharaj, Periyar EVR Naicker and Ambedkar belong, and which has inspired generations of Dalits to fight for freedom and social emancipation. Dalit activists forced the Maharashtra government to lift the ban on Ambedkar’s Riddles in Hinduism some years ago. They also successfully combated Arun Shourie’s anti-Ambedkar polemic in his Worshipping False Gods, and defended the Bahujan legacy. The best weapon to fight slanderous attacks is reason and logical argument, not proscription. Banning books at the drop of a hat can only defile democracy.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1 at


The above article from The News is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use