By Praful Bidwai
It is profoundly distressing that all political parties without exception joined hands in Parliament to create mayhem over a cartoon published in 1949 about Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s role in the making of the Constitution of India. The cartoon, reproduced in a Class XI textbook published in 2006 by the National Council for Educational Training and Research (NCERT), provoked our MPs’ ire because it showed Ambedkar riding a snail depicting the Constitution and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru standing behind him with a whip in hand.
The MPs 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 who himself empathised with the Nehruvian liberal-democratic nation-building project, to which the Constitution was pivotal.
The MPs claimed the cartoon depicted the two men in an adversarial relationship, with Nehru about to lash Ambedkar with the whip, while a motley crowd laughed in delight. They of course didn’t bother to relate the cartoon to the text, which speaks of Ambedkar in glowing terms. They denied that cartoons and caricatures are integral to good political commentary and to inculcating a critical attitude among teachers and students, while promoting playful ways of learning.
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 see the process of Constitution-making completed as quickly as possible.
It’s only the crudest, the most vulgar, and the most literal, view of the whip as an instrument of punishment and humiliation which can permit a crassly offensive interpretation, according to which Shankar’s intent was to insult Ambedkar. Hence the outrage over the cartoon.
The interpretation is not only completely ridiculous; it is downright contrived, artificial and manufactured. It denies the legitimacy of an entire art form such as cartooning, whose very rationale is to make irreverent, acerbic, and sometimes shocking comment to highlight the absurdity of the current state of social and political affairs and jolt us out of complacency.
The demand to ban cartoons on the ground that they are “objectionable” reflects perverse intolerance—the kind for which a large number of people, including politicians, teachers and intellectuals recently, rightly, criticised Ms Mamata Banerjee, including MPs from the Left parties and poet-singer Kabir Suman from her own Trinamool Congress. The Jadavpur university teacher who was victimised for circulating the cartoon depicting her has generated a huge sympathy wave.
Banning cartoons makes a mockery of the Constitutionally guaranteed right to the freedom of expression, which Ambedkar held to be fundamental and inviolable, with very few, carefully laid out, exceptions. And yet, human resources development minister Kapil Sibal, himself a lawyer who claims Constitutional expertise, wants to review “inappropriate” material in all NCERT textbooks.
Never mind the fact that these textbooks, produced between 2005 and 2008, marked a massive improvement in pedagogy and methods of teaching over anything in the past. They followed the adoption of a secular, forward-looking National Curriculum Framework after gross distortions of the notion of history and rewriting of textbooks along communal lines during the tenure of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government.
The process of writing the new textbooks was exemplarily inclusive and drew upon a wide range of scholars and educationists. (Declaration of Interest: Along with political scientists Zoya Hasan and Gopal Guru, and others, I was a member of the monitoring committee that went into the social science textbooks; but the cartoon was not then included in the Class XI book draft under scrutiny. Needless to say, I would have approved its inclusion.)
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 expansive 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 ofIndia’s past and complacency about its present governance system.
The UPA could legitimately claim that the textbooks were a significant achievement. Instead, it is now cravenly apologising for them, and thus insulting the intelligence of students by assuming that they would necessarily “misunderstand” the meaning of the cartoon and the textbook would foment disrespect and ridicule for Ambedkar.
The government is thus opening the floodgates to censorship and muzzling of free expression, as well as legitimising crass intolerance and violent behaviour. The worst expression of this came when members of the Republican Panthers Party, affiliated to the Republican Party of India (Ramdas Atahwale faction), ransacked the Pune university office of Professor Suhas Palshikar, an adviser to the NCERT.
Mr Athawale, who recently defected from an alliance with the Nationalist Congress to the BJP-Shiv Sena, brazenly justified the vandalism as a legitimate expression of “indignation on the part of the Dalit community”, and demanded the criminal prosecution of Prof Palshikar and co-adviser Yogendra Yadav. He, and other Dalit groups, have threatened a nation-wide agitation if their demand is not conceded.
At work here are two ideas: crass literalism about symbols, metaphors and images, and sacralisation and deification of human beings (in the present case, Dr Ambedkar). Literalism equates images with objects and then selectively glorifies or demonises them. Literalism has long been the bane of this society, as evidenced in preposterous protests against MF Hussain’s celebratory depiction of Hindu goddesses in the nude, without even a hint of vulgarity.
A more recent example is the conflation of the geological sandbar structure called Rama Sethu or Adam’s Bridge near the Gulf of Mannar off the southeastern coast of Tamil Nadu, with the mythical bridge to Sri Lanka built by Lord Rama’s followers. In 2007, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad launched a violent agitation against a proposed shipping canal project because it would “desecrate” a holy site.
The sangh parivar dubbed the project’s official justification “blasphemy” and an “insult to the Hindus”. LK 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, Ahmedabad 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 HR Bharadwaj abjectly apologised and said: “Lord Rama is an integral part of Indian culture and ethos … and cannot be a matter of debate or litigation… The whole world exists because of Rama ..” He melodramatically added: “Just as the Himalayas are the Himalayas, the Ganga is the Ganga, Rama is Rama… It’s a question of faith. There is no requirement of proof to establish something based on faith….”
Sacralisation or deification of human beings is no less pernicious. Thus Bahujan scholar Kanch 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, when he warned against deifying people. He said 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 this 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, which has inspired generations of Dalits and provided intellectual ammunition to their fight for social emancipation.
Some years ago, Dalit activists forced the Maharashtra government to lift the ban on Ambedkar’s Riddles in Hinduism. They also successfully combated Arun Shourie’s anti-Ambedkar polemic in his Worshipping False Gods, and repeatedly defended the Dalit-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. (IPA Service)