As cartoons, like all other images, are constantly subject to fresh interpretation, there is a need to set boundaries within which dissent must be tolerated; or else we run the risk of damaging the task of knowledge building
Like many books, works of art, and articles that have been summarily withdrawn from public circulation, for different political reasons, and due to public pressure, the controversial 1949 cartoon by Shankar has been aired hundreds of times as eager TV anchors provided a platform to both the vociferous opponents of cartoon's use in the NCERT Class XI book, and those who equally vociferously supported the rights of cartoonists, and the pedagogic value of discussion and debate. The internet too has quickly generated a wide range of comments, vilifications and defences of all the shades of political action that have been generated by the cartoon.
Such unintended “fission” of image circulation, produced by the very “will to censor” is among the richest ironies of the contemporary media-saturated lives of Indians.
Given the long afterlives of these images, it is worth thinking about the long-term consequences of the demand, not only for the withdrawal of the cartoon from the textbook, but a review of all new NCERT textbooks, and for a criminal case to be filed against the two Chief Advisers (and possibly Shankar posthumously).
It is futile to cry hoarse about the need to understand the larger text of which the cartoon is an illustration: not only is the text unexceptionably fair in its assessment of the Constituent Assembly's achievements, it has anticipated many possible critiques of the constitution making process as well. Let it be said that what the textbook achieves is not only a way of reading Indian politics, but encourages a politics of reading, anticipating opposition, criticism and building defences. These are all experiences and challenges that our young people deserve. But representations have many lives, and are subject to fresh interpretation and critique. The possibility that an image offends in the present day, and becomes a call to political action, where it might not have had the same impact at the time of its production, needs to be fully recognised.
This is what has been achieved by those who have raised their voices against the cartoon. Far from being another affirmation of public unreason, the protests have brought the politics of reading to the fore.
Precisely for this reason, (i.e. the unintended afterlife of images and texts) it is impossible to anticipate at which point or in which location a particular representation will cause offence. Today the right to be offended has become among the most frequently asserted of all rights. This places an intolerable burden on the production of knowledge itself, to which I will return below.
Yet, the rare political unanimity of parties in Parliament against the use of the cartoon, and tacit agreement on its offensive content, despite its transparent opportunism, should have been reason for immediate pause. (Consider the counter example, of cacophonous and extraordinary vitiation in Parliament on questions of offences against, and representations of, women, leave alone the issue of reservations). Of what commitment to public reason and debate, to reflection, critique and indeed a historical temper, does this consensus speak? Why might the demand for a withdrawal of the book or at least the cartoon, spell long-term danger to the processes of reflection on and critique of the past, and even the present? And what threats does it pose to the future of the social sciences and humanities in this subcontinent? Let me spell out at least four lingering effects:
1. At a time when the drive to privatise higher education is receiving the strongest support from the state, and the “encashability” of disciplines alone determines their continuance in the academy, the humanities and social sciences are surviving largely in public universities. It is within these enclaves that critical reflections are possible, and it is precisely these spaces that are being transformed in both form and content by the (constitutionally and politically mandated) presence of hitherto disadvantaged sections of Indian society: Dalits, tribals, backward castes, and women. The call to withdraw materials from the sphere of debate and discussion and critique may achieve far more quickly the vision of the mighty corporates and even other political forces who wish to stifle dissent and produce a sanitised, pious, celebratory account of our past and present.
2. The impossibility of representation: if one of the tasks of the humanities and social sciences is to produce critical knowledges of not just oneself and one's own community, but also of others, and of other periods than the present, within a wider sphere of circulation and contest, then the implicit assumption of such political protests may be detrimental to this process. It produces a great vulnerability among those engaged in such knowledge production, who may find it impossible to anticipate which future (politicised) group or community will object to representations in visual or linguistic forms. We must therefore defend certain parameters within which dissidence and dissonance can and must be tolerated. In the absence of such parameters, the possibility of generating critical knowledge is fatally damaged.
3. Cartooning and the state: by definition the cartoonist is one who is distanced from the state, and may even be anti-state. Political humour depends on exaggeration, distortion etc and particularly the use of animals as metaphors of human quirks and failings: obstinacy (the donkey) slowness (the snail), clumsiness, memory, (the elephant), or wiliness (the fox) etc. (Shankar himself has portrayed Sheikh Abdullah on a donkey, Puroshotam Das Tandon driving bullocks, Gandhiji as an elephant, and so on) If the cartoon is offensive today, should it also remain unavailable to researchers, writers, critics, etc or should we, as Vasant Moon has done, take up these materials for compilation, critique and study? In short is there an important pedagogic purpose to be served even by those materials which are or were considered offensive to sensibilities of one or another group? (Indian literature proscribed by the British in the late 19th Century has been a rich source of creative historical writing.)
4. The relevance of identity: is it Ambedkar's Dalit identity that is represented in the cartoon or his critical role in crafting the Constitution? In confining him to his place as an iconic leader of the Dalits in India today, which he no doubt is, would we be reducing the importance of his larger than life presence in Indian politics as whole: as a severe critic of the Congress, and indeed of Gandhianism and Nehru, at different points in his life? At the same time, are we also obliged to know at which moments, however fleeting, he may have shared Nehru's impatience, while thinking through the labyrinthine process of constitution making?
Since all the furore has been about the appropriateness of the cartoon in a school text book, we need to understand the urgency of not infantilising our teenagers: in this large and complex society such as ours, can we possibly achieve some consensus on the kinds of themes, sections of society and aspects of our past which we can “safely include” in a prescribed text book? Does the student not need to be prepared to enter into a complex world with multiple received and achieved hierarchies? The prospect of a sanitised, pious space that teaches us what the old colonial “civics” textbooks taught us is the undesirable alternative.
Will even such sanitisation ensure that our children are saved from encounters with controversial materials and images? Schooling in the recent past has flooded back into the house, with projects and assignments crowding the schedule and the holidays, forcing parents to monitor, prepare and coach the child on a continuous basis.
For many families, the burden of assignments has turned them to the internet, which surrounds us like a gas, to produce the most banal patchwork jobs. Will the electronic media replace the textbook as the source of Continuous and Comprehensive “Education”? And can the proliferation of “authors” and images on the internet be as amenable to the controls that are being proposed for the textbook?
(Janaki Nair teaches history at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.)