The Cartoon Controversy and the Freedom of Expression

Posted on May 24, 2012 in Politics

By Akash Bharadwaj:

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”
― Abraham Lincoln

The word freedom is not merely a word. It is an idea that has the power to shape our reality. The recent controversy surrounding a cartoon which depicts Dr. B. R. Ambedkar sitting on the snail labeled as constitution and Nehru standing on his back with a whip should make us rethink on the use of phrase like ‘freedom of expression’ without falling into its progressive charm that can prove fatal at times. The cartoon published in 11th std. NCERT text book must take into account the psyche of teachers, students and the larger society before terming this as a step towards fostering critical thinking especially among children. While many in the mainstream and alternative media have started supporting and opposing the presence of the cartoon in the text book, the parliament has also decided unanimously to withdraw the cartoon and Prof. Yogendra Yadav and Prof. Suhas Palshikar, responsible for the text prepared, have given their resignations following the controversy, this incident should be a point to reinforce the resistance against caste anxieties and caste discrimination existing in the academia.

Do institutions like NCERT and media houses represent the marginalized sections like Dalits? If not, then why? This question can have an answer only when one looks at the society at large and scrutinizes the historical and social realities of caste system. In almost all the institutions whether be it government, non- government or private, Dalits do not have significant representation. In a school where non- davit students and teachers treat their fellow Dalits as untouchables (mind you, the forms of untouchability have also changed), I fail to understand how these kinds of cartoons will make students think critically. A cartoon in a school text- book can promote critical thinking only when the audience is secular and represents all the parties concerned. However, that is not the case today in the academia. The ruling apparatus first must make the opportunities available for davit students to access school and education and delete the saffron and nationalist pages so that they can understand their own history before standing for a debate to win or lose.

Many of the scholars and intellectuals are also making a point that raising a question mark over the cartoon and the proposal to withdraw it from the text book is an attack on the freedom of expression. However, they must note that using their freedom of expression against a community which has been denied expression since ages and now this progressive current which advocates for piecemeal liberation cannot be termed as critical pedagogy. This debate can be a good start to deconstruct the biases existing in institutions like university, schools and media.