“Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul”, B.R. Ambedkar said in a famous speech to the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, just before putting the Constitution of India to vote. “But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”. If only the parliamentarians who vented their anger against a 1949 cartoon last week had bothered to read and understand the hero in whose unnecessary defence they sprang up, Indian democracy would have been spared the degrading spectacle of the government banishing a sixty-year-old sketch from the classroom. The sight of our parliamentarians cutting across the political spectrum foaming at the mouth in simulated rage, vying to outdo each other in their pious indignation, and sporting their ‘hurt' sentiments like badges of honour was like watching a bad soap opera gone worse. That they could have spent the day grandstanding over a totally inoffensive cartoon is not merely deplorable. It is also downright dangerous, if we pause to consider that these are the men and women we elect to safeguard our constitutional democracy, of which the freedom of expression is a fundamental and inviolable part. Disrupting Parliament would have been unjustifiable even if the cartoon were repugnant. But to create a controversy over a comment on the slow speed with which the Constitution was being drafted, on the absurd ground that the cartoon “insulted” Ambedkar, was downright ridiculous.
The demand that criminal action be taken against those who permitted the cartoon's publication is reflective of a larger malaise among many of India's politicians. Apparently, they think there is more political mileage in creating controversies over irrelevancies than addressing genuine issues facing Dalits such as backwardness and discrimination. Predictably, the Centre's response was one of total capitulation, reflected in HRD Minister Kapil Sibal's craven apology, his agreement that the cartoon was “shameful,” and his promise of even criminal action in the matter. That there is a slippery slope between hostile speech and violent behaviour was manifest when the office of one of the scholars involved in the production of the textbook was ransacked by vandals. The argument that the cartoon could be misconstrued by the 11th standard schoolchildren who read the textbook is bogus and an insult to their intelligence. It is our MPs who showed a total lack of acumen and wisdom by wasting the nation's time on a complete non-issue. Worse, they have ensured that public life in India, already awash with hurt sentiments of one kind or another, will now be inundated by a torrent of demands to ban more and more expressions of culture, art and knowledge.