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Ambedkar Cartoon Debate: A Perspective

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By Sandeep Singh:

A raging controversy has erupted over a 1949 cartoon of Ambedkar and Nehru in a NCERT political science textbook, leading to an uproar in the Parliament, and an announcement by the HRD Minister that the textbook would be withdrawn from circulation till the cartoon was removed.

ambethkar controversial cartoon

I strongly condemn the attack by a mob on the Pune office of Suhas Palshikar, one of the authors of the textbook. Political leaders should stop orchestrating such violence, that smack of the right-wing assaults on dissenting voices. Debate on educational content is welcome, but cannot be dealt with through physical attacks. There is an urgent need to view the matter at hand in the light of reasoned debate. The note below is my stand on, and contribution to, this debate.

On the one hand presence of the 1949 cartoon by noted cartoonist Shankar in the NCERT textbook, is being described as offensive to Dr. Ambedkar, and as part of a political conspiracy to denigrate Ambedkar. On the other hand, the makers of the textbook have resigned in protest against what they hold to be the infringement on academic freedom, and there has been an outcry against censorship. We hold that there is a need to go beyond these two polarized and black-and-white positions, and consider the issues involved, in a spirit of reasoned debate.

First, is the cartoon as it appears in the textbook, really indicative of a malign attempt to denigrate Dr. Ambedkar? To arrive at an answer, let us take a closer look at the concerned chapter, as well as the process of preparation of the textbook.

The concerned chapter, in which the cartoon in question appears, is titled ‘Indian Constitution: Why and How.’ The chapter closely examines the democratic goals, political debates and political interests that informed the process of preparing the Constitution. It is as such very sensitive to the question of caste and communal discrimination and civil liberties. For instance, the section subtitled ‘Limitations on the powers of Government,’ discusses a scenario where the authority empowered to make laws, enacted laws that imposed dress codes, curbed freedom to sing certain songs, or decreed that “people who belonged to a particular group (caste or religion) would always have to serve others and would not be allowed to retain any property” or “that only people of a certain skin colour would be allowed to draw water from wells.” It then explains how one of the functions of the constitution is to set limits on government’s powers, by specifying fundamental rights, civil liberties, and other principles that no government, as a rule, can trespass.

Apart from the Ambedkar-Nehru cartoon by noted cartoonist Shankar, there are several other cartoons that are featured in the chapter, each accompanied by certain thought-provoking questions, which can be answered by reading the chapter’s text itself. For instance, there is a telling cartoon, also by Shankar, on page 7, showing Nehru with two faces, one turned towards a concert of politicians singing Jana Gana Mana, and another turned in the direction of politicians chanting Vande Mataram. The text below comments “Here is Nehru trying to balance between different visions and ideologies,” and asks students to identify these contending forces and try and think about who would have “prevailed in this balancing act?”

The cartoon that is at the centre of the debate, appears on page 18. The text beneath it reads: “Cartoonist’s impression of the ‘snail’s pace’ with which the Constitution was made. Making of the Constitution took almost three years. Is the cartoonist commenting on this fact? Why do you think, did the Constituent Assembly take so long to make the Constitution?” If one reads the accompanying text relating to deliberations of the Constituent Assembly, the answer to the above questions that is suggested is certainly not that Ambedkar was slowing the process and Nehru trying to whip him into going faster. Instead, the text actually spells out the different contending ideas and the painstaking and time-consuming debates, in a very positive light, as an exemplary democratic process. It says, “The voluminous debates in the Constituent Assembly, where each clause of the Constitution was subjected to scrutiny and debate, is a tribute to public reason at its best. These debates deserved to be memorialised as one of the most significant chapters in the history of constitution making, equal in importance to the French and American revolutions.”

So, the textbook as such does not endorse the criticism of the ‘snail’s pace’ of the Constitution. Rather it presents the cartoon as a contemporary comment, and then asks students to consider if the comment is justified? It asks why did it take so long? Was the time for debate well spent? Isn’t it healthy for democracy to take a long time to work out a consensus through reasoned debates?

Further, it is also true that in the process of drafting the textbook, several academics, including leading dalit social scientists, were shown the textbook, who did not at the time make any objections to the inclusion of the cartoon.

A Case for Review of the Cartoon

A close reading of the chapter in the context of which the cartoon appears, establishes that the cartoon and the textbook were unlikely to be motivated by anti-dalit intent. However, that said, is the cartoon itself appropriate or sufficiently sensitive to the context of a society where biases against dalits continue to be rampant, and where dalits are often treated as and held to be subservient to upper castes, and where Ambedkar statues are often vandalised? Surely, there is need to subject the cartoon too, to the process of ‘public reason’ that the textbook itself upholds in its discussion of the Constitution?

The cartoon shows Ambedkar on a snail called the Constitution, driving it with a whip, and Nehru behind him, whip in hand, while the entire nation watches. The problem arises from the perception: is Nehru driving the snail with a whip? Or is he driving Ambedkar with a whip? If the latter, then the image of an upper-caste PM driving a dalit — that too a leading dalit figure who is an icon to the dalit community — with a whip, makes for uneasy viewing. That it did not rouse such a response in its own day, and that Ambedkar himself did not object, is beside the point. Today, the aroused political consciousness of the dalits has made us all more sensitive to such problems of representation, and rightly so. Similarly, many images of women which in 1949 might not have aroused comment, would certainly invite objections today.

The NY Post once had to apologise after there was a furore against a cartoon it carried, depicting President Obama as a chimpanzee who has been shot dead by police officers, who comment, ‘They’ll have to find someone else to write the next Stimulus Bill” (the scene was a parody of an actual incident where a chimpanzee who violently attacked a woman was shot dead). The cartoon was, on the face of it, a comment on the ‘Stimulus Bill’ being introduced by the US Government. Now, cartoons depicting George Bush as an ape did not invite protest. But the depiction of the US’ only black President as an ape being shot dead, raised uncomfortable resonances of the long history and continuing racist culture of depicting black people as sub-human and inflicting violence on them. Is it not possible that the cartoon showing Nehru and Ambedkar might (perhaps without the intention of the cartoonists and the textbook authors) carry similar resonances evoking the history and continuing culture of holding dalits to be subordinate to upper castes, as ‘taadan ke adhikari’ (deserving of a thrashing)?

It is true that all those who prepared the textbooks, and the experts including dalit intellectuals to whom it was sent, did not, during the preparation of the textbooks, see the cartoon as objectionable. But if in retrospect, there is widespread resentment against one interpretation of the cartoon and the wisdom of its place in the textbook; if the cartoon is seen as having a (possibly unintended) potential to strengthen caste prejudices and distract from the overall spirit and purpose of the chapter, we believe there should be a review of the cartoon. We believe the authors of the textbook should be open-minded and willing to reconsider the wisdom of their choice, and that there should be a review of that cartoon in that chapter, by a panel of academics including the authors as well as leading dalit intellectuals. If the panel finds the cartoon to have any potential to strengthen casteist notions, it should be replaced with more appropriate content.

No to the Culture of Censorship and Bans

But Yes to Willingness to Revisit Textbooks in the Light of Democratic Concerns and Egalitarian Principles. Should we support the ban on the cartoon and textbook imposed by the HRD Minister? In the first place, we question the commitment and concern of the range of leaders who are doing politics over the cartoon. After all, we wonder why not a single of these leaders — be it of the ruling Congress, or the Dalit and ‘social justice’ parties — is yet to raise any concern inside Parliament over the recent shocking acquittal of all the accused in the Bathani Tola massacre, where 21 dalits, mostly women and children were slaughtered by an army of upper caste landowners?

Secondly, we must recall the ugly precedents of right wing forces dictating bans and censorship of educational material — be it the question of beef-eating in textbooks of ancient history, the recent withdrawal of Rohinton Mistry’s novel in Mumbai University, or that of AK Ramanujam’s essay in Delhi University. A culture of political decrees on the content of our textbooks and curricula is extremely dangerous and unhealthy. Such educational material must be decided through a process of reasoned debate and discussion. And we should also not play into the hands of the prevailing culture of banning expressions of political dissent: Mamata Banerjee’s crackdown on a cartoon of her, and Kapil Sibal’s attempt to remove images critical of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi from the internet are cases in point.

However, while firmly rebuffing censorship and bans, we should always be willing to revisit educational material in the light of fresh concerns about upholding egalitarian principles.

Will Reviewing the Cartoon Be a Surrender to Attacks on Academic Freedom?

One question is being asked: “If we agree to review this cartoon in response to hurt dalit sentiment, tomorrow will we able to protest and object when right-wing groups demand deletion of anything claiming ‘hurt’ to hegemonic ‘Hindu sentiment’, as the saffron right routinely does?” This argument is flawed. There is a world of difference between amending a textbook to appease certain political or social groups, and between doing the same to uphold democratic principles and egalitarian values. After all, when the saffronised textbooks of the BJP regime were replaced, was it an act of censorship or ‘appeasing’ minority sentiment — or was it a necessary act of correcting bias? This time, too, the cartoon should be reviewed, not only because dalits say it hurts them, but because there is a possibility that it goes against egalitarian values and is not sufficiently sensitive to the dominant discriminatory culture that prevails in society.

Would review of the cartoon amount to denial of freedom of artistic or academic expression? No, because textbooks should be a collective endeavour, seeking to encourage and uphold democratic values and egalitarian principles. This particular textbook too is a product of such a process — and there is nothing undemocratic about revisiting that process in the light of fresh concerns about egalitarian values.

Kapil Sibal has hinted that all cartoons that ‘disparage’ any political leaders might be reviewed, and now other MPs too have objected to all the cartoons in the textbook, on the grounds that they show politicians ‘in a bad light’, and is therefore ‘dangerous for democracy’! This is preposterous and must be opposed tooth and nail. All public figures are legitimate subjects for lampoons, and banning such would amount to banning dissenting voices. Most cartoons in the textbook under question actually strengthen democracy by encouraging a questioning rather than reverential mindset in students. In this context, this particular cartoon of Ambedkar and Nehru should be reviewed, not because it is critical of leaders, but to investigate if it has a potential to reinforce discriminatory caste stereotypes, and to replace it in case it does so.

This particular cartoon in the textbook should therefore be subjected to a serious process of review by an appropriate panel of academics including the authors and other experts including leading dalit intellectuals. And if the cartoon is found wanting in sensitivity to existing discriminatory caste stereotypes in society, it should be replaced.

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