Used together, variants of the controversial Ambedkar cartoon can make students aware of what the cartoonist wanted to say and his limitations

Shankar’s cartoon on Ambedkar and the Constitution has been discussed threadbare by now. The Thorat committee report has added more layers to the controversy. I would like to contribute to the ongoing debate in a different way — through more cartoons.

Like most other contemporary issues in India, especially those related to identity and caste politics, this one too has conveniently assumed a complex, fudged nature, giving rise to three unfortunate by-products.

One, the more vociferous party is not only successful in getting what it wants, but also getting what it did not, to start with, in this case, getting more than a specific cartoon removed from the book. Two, populism, one of the most dangerous elements in a democracy, gets a boost. By this I do not mean that the hurt felt by a section was populist, but the manner in which all parties, regardless of their ideology, took a stand in favour of banning the books, with some groups even going to extent of attacking the academic consultants to the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). And, three, the people, more importantly the middle classes, can conveniently treat the complexity of the issue as “confusion,” and thus justify their cynicism and inaction.

Two arguments

Can this controversy be looked at differently? Say, by imaging alternative cartoons? Can this make us realise the essence of the contending arguments? What were the main arguments in this controversy? In my opinion they can be distilled as follows (there are many other important side issues, but I will steer clear of them for the moment):

Argument 1: The subconscious plays a big role in all expression, artistic or otherwise. This is the way in which hegemonies work in a society, and they are even more harmful than open domination. Broadly speaking even when a person from an upper caste or class tries to go beyond her location, her views do have an element — howsoever small it may be — of her dominant position. It is never easy to de-caste or de-class. In this sense, even though Shankar’s cartoon may be basically aimed at how the process of forming the Constitution was delayed, it also has an important element which demonstrates his biases and so ends up demeaning the position of Ambedkar. This is immensely hurtful to the Dalit sensibility.

Argument 2: The specific cartoon depicts no hegemony. It is trying to make students think rather than spoon-feeding them, and the text accompanying the cartoon is ample proof of this. Overall, the book is much more pro-Dalit than the earlier ones, and has given Ambedker his due. Feelings are hurt too easily today, and society is becoming progressively intolerant.

Three depictions

Can we include both these views simultaneously? I am presenting three different versions of the cartoon, two of these adaptations from the original. The original one depicts Shankar’s broad political comment about the sluggish process of drafting of the Constitution, as the second arguments claims it does, and acts as a pedagogical tool. But from the other point of view, which is equally important, this also holds Ambedkar in bad light, as Nehru stands behind the snail with a whip in hand, and this is the limitation of this cartoon.

The other two cartoons can make students become aware of and think about this limitation and also, about whether the cartoonist, by being more sensitive to the hegemony in society, could have said it in any other way. One of these cartoons depicts Ambedkar standing behind the snail. Sitting on it is Nehru, who was in a sense ultimately responsible as the prime minister. In the second adapted cartoon, both leaders are standing behind the snail trying to push it forward.

Together these three variants can make students aware of what the cartoonist wanted to say at a particular point in history as well as how his own location creates limitations. They illustrate how the interpretation of history is always contemporary and is a continuous process. It indicates how one should locate an issue in history and also interpret it through contemporary sensibility simultaneously, without chauvinism. I am in favour of strong action against exploitation and hegemony. But my point is that, today, if it takes the form of bans, it sets a bad precedent, produces the three side effects I mentioned at the start, and more importantly, we lose an opportunity to make the future generations aware of how hegemonies works.

Being a creative writer and architect myself, I do believe that creative writing and visuals look at reality in a different way and so I am also trying to say it through cartoons. Is this the only way out? Should there be alternative cartoons for every cartoon? I am certainly not saying that. I am only trying to find out if there is any way other out of the imbroglio than either being “sensitive” and thus support a ban, or being on the side of a freedom of expression in a vacuum.

(Makarand Sathe is a playwright, novelist, theatre historian and architect based in Pune.)

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