The Petition submitted to the NCERT Review Committee (published in the Hindu, June 8 2012) on behalf of the democratic struggle against the controversial cartoon of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in the NCERT’s Class XI Political Science Textbook, have chosen this moment to reflect on the reactions to the protest and its subsequent fallout. As someone who sees herself as part of this struggle, I share their dismay over much of what has been said in the media, especially regarding the ostensible incapacity of Dalit leaders to appreciate the role of cartoons, including in a high school textbook. I especially laud their exposure of those who, while espousing the cause of a critical pedagogy, come across as claiming that the major strides made in the new textbooks (and the huge collective labours that went into their creation)render them sacrosanct, or at least grant them the sole authority to decide whether, when and how they may be criticized.
By far the most positive and transformative aspect of the debates so far has been the manner in which the cartoon itself has been subjected to critical interpretation. Many of us who did not find anything wrong with the cartoon to begin with, have had to revise their ways of seeing in the light of the kinds of readings of the cartoon that Dalit intellectuals and activists have provided. There can be no better pedagogical exercise than this, no better illustration of the invisible resilience of caste prejudice even among those who see themselves as being engaged intellectuals struggling against caste discrimination. We have learnt that insults do not necessarily have to be direct or unequivocal in order to be felt as such, and that oppressive and even violent ideas can also be polyvocal and open to multiple interpretations.
However, given that it has had the benefit of hindsight, and especially because it takes the consistent stand that nothing is above critique, it is disappointing that the petition mentions only two polarized positions – those of the defenders of the textbooks on the one hand and the voices in Parliament demanding a wholesale withdrawal of all the cartoons or of the textbooks themselves. But surely there has been another pole in this debate about which the petition is silent. When the controversy was first highlighted in the media, significant Dalit voices referred to Dr. Ambedkar as a Prophet or a God. For viewers this constituted one of the poles in the subsequent debate, a position that was taken very seriously precisely because it was articulated by Dalit intellectuals who have played hugely significant roles in the democratic struggle against caste. Thus there are at least three poles in this debate, not just two. The claim to this kind of iconicity seems to imply that leaders like Ambedkar should be above critique, and that democratic struggles must shield from scrutiny the subjects they seek to enshrine. It is another matter, of course, that the cartoon in question may not qualify as an example of such critique. To my mind, the very act of pointing this out while leaving the door open for other kinds of legitimate critique would greatly strengthen the argument being made for the withdrawal of the cartoon.
I do believe that the stance taken by the statement allows ample room in the petition for a less selective account of the struggle. The concluding demand for a fairer representation of Dalits and other minorities within academic institutions including the NCERT is absolutely crucial at this juncture. For it is only through such presence, participation and co-ownership that struggles for a less discriminatory world can afford to bear the necessary risks inherent in affirming the bond between critique and emancipation.
Mary E John is Senior Fellow, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi