An illustration in a textbook must expand or add to the lesson; Shankar's cartoon of Ambedkar does neither

The controversy kicked up over the withdrawal of a textbook for high school over a cartoon after a ruckus in Parliament has been superficially interpreted and uniformly criticised without understanding the sensitivities of the oppressed for whom B.R. Ambedkar is a hero. The anger of Dalits is being interpreted as intolerance while in fact it is an assertion of a people who are in the process of finding their long-suppressed voice and learning to stand up to insults and humiliation. What is needed is not criticism and anger but sensitivity to the emotions of a horribly wronged people.

Those lamenting the move by the government in Parliament and the apology by Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal for using the cartoon have preferred to understand it as a cynical move to “appease” the supporters of B.R. Ambedkar for political reasons, namely not to antagonise a large section of voters when elections are round the corner. A social scientist was scornful calling it “psepho-cracy” and ruing that the spirit of democracy hadn't seeped into society. Yet another said the government's withdrawal of the offending textbook was a “nominal if not hypocritical” acknowledgement of Dalit power. One could agree with both commentators: there is no question that democracy has not seeped into society which has remained deeply and irreconcilably divided along caste lines; what prevails in our society and in very many minds that have not been influenced either by education or modernity is “caste-ocracy.” As for Dalit power, it has not yet gained mass but is strong enough to force the government of the day to draw back. Hence, it is immaterial whether the acknowledgement is nominal or hypocritical. The crucial thing is that it is real.

While the government is supposed to have caved in to the protests in Parliament, it is a fact that the issue witnessed the unusual spectacle of the entire Opposition united in the belief that the cartoon had denigrated Ambedkar. The issue led to the resignation of two “chief advisers” of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), both professors of political science, as they did not agree with Parliament's stand on the issue.

What the critics say

The critics of the government's decision make the following points to show that the inflamed sentiments of Dalit supporters both in Parliament and outside are misplaced: that the cartoon is about 60 years old and that it was drawn by a well-known and highly popular cartoonist Shankar; that Nehru was democratic enough to appreciate and even enjoy the lampooning he occasionally got at Shankar's hands; that even Ambedkar would have chuckled at the cartoon especially since there is no evidence of him being offended by it when it was first published in 1948. Those who made the decision to include the cartoon also point out that an effort was made to make the lesson interesting, to infuse some humour in it. Using outdated cartoons as this one certainly is, is hardly fun. Perhaps Ambedkar laughed on seeing the cartoon. Or if he hadn't, he would have shaken it off as he had so many barbs in his lifetime, but that is beside the point. What is the relevance of this particular cartoon in the context of a lesson? Sure, it is important for a student to be told that the process was laborious and that it took several years for the Constitution to be finalised. A cartoon is a comment and a reflection on current situations and personalities of those times. Then, the cartoon was relevant and summarised pithily the delay in finalising the Constitution, but today, after 60 years, it is totally outdated and neither provides any insight nor reflects on the process of the making of the Constitution.

Importantly, any illustration with a lesson or with any piece of writing, expands and adds to the “body” or the text. It even contextualises the text. The cartoon neither adds to nor contextualises the Constitution. Importantly, in the overall context of the making of the Constitution, seen from the perspective of the present, how is the delay in finalising it important? There are more important things that need to be foregrounded to understand the process of the making of the Constitution such as how the then President Rajendra Prasad, a confirmed conservative opposed equal property rights for women, and how a modernist Nehru caved in to him and how when an outraged Ambedkar threatened to quit the team they agreed to it. Poking fun at somebody else's icons is so much easier than one's own, just as it is easy to use somebody else's opinion to introduce one's own predilection.

Panic situation

Apart from criticising the “intolerance” of Dalits and the “weak-kneed” response of the government, the critics are trying to create a panic situation, making alarmist statements that perhaps the government will now withdraw all the textbooks produced by the NCERT under the National Curriculum Framework or that now cartoonists will have to think twice before they put their pencils or paint brush to paper. At this rate all cartoons will have to be banned, says an apologist for the cartoon.

One of the professors claims that the cartoon was included to expose students to the different ways in which leaders and events were understood and viewed. One has no issue with this. If one wants to include criticism, then do it openly and not go about it indirectly. The way it has been done in the book shows dishonesty. Surely, a rational and reasoned critique won't be objected to by any thinking person. Shankar lampooned Nehru, Parliament and important events in his cartoons. Why were those not included to expose students to different interpretations? The professor also claims that for the first time, Ambedkar was given his due in a textbook as not just as Father of the Constitution but as one who laid the democratic foundations of the country: you give with one hand and take it away with another!

The issue is not that it is after all a cartoon; not about a sense of humour or the lack of it among some; nor is it about the unreasonableness or prickliness of some. It is about misrepresenting, it is about trivialising, it is about a lack of sensitivity. Most importantly, it is about a callousness that is rooted in one's own biases and prejudices. That is why the cartoon is hardly funny.

(R. Akhileshwari is a journalist and academic.)

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