Cartoons and more

Much more than an icon

Tackling the historical denial of freedom and expression

If we rework Shankar’s cartoon with, say, Mahatma Gandhi riding a bullock cart of democracy in his dwija (twice-born, or upper-caste) dress and Jawaharlal Nehru standing in his sanatan (upper-caste Hindu) pandit’s dress, a thread across his body, and Babasaheb Ambedkar in his suit, unhitching that cart, would Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar – former NCERT advisers – have included that cartoon for a lesson in democracy? I am sure they would not.

In 1949 when Shankar drew that cartoon – wherein Ambedkar sits with a whip on a snail that is the Constitution and Nehru stands behind, also with a whip in his hand, while the masses watch the fun – Ambedkar’s role as chairman of the drafting committee had still not been appreciated by the Indian elite. The political elite in particular were cursing him. He also did not have high standing among the people at large. Only a very few educated Dalits treated him as their worthy representative.

After Ambedkar joined Nehru’s cabinet, he was also seen as one who compromised himself for power. After he resigned from the cabinet in 1951 and after he embraced Buddhism five years later, his image and status transformed quite dramatically. And after the Mandal movement of 1990, Ambedkar’s stature assumed messianic proportions. The present Ambedkar is not a negotiator with Nehru or Gandhi. Rather, as a messiah of the large army of the oppressed people of this country, he is quite different from Gandhi and Nehru. While picking this cartoon from Shankar’s archives for the Class XI political science textbook, the editors should have understood this phenomenal change in perception, in the media, of the Dalit bahujan (majority).

Early in May, Dalit MPs cutting across party lines took up a cultural issue that related to the dignity and status of the most oppressed community and their icon. Human resource development minister Kapil Sibal did the right thing by apologising over the matter and promising immediate withdrawal of the textbook that carries the controversial cartoon.

Questions like why this issue is being raked up seven years after the book’s publication or why this cartoon is being attacked 63 years after it was drawn need to be answered with sound reasoning and a proper understanding of the level of consciousness of the Dalit leadership itself. Do these questions not sound like yet another question, namely why make an issue of untouchability and caste, as they have, after all, been practised for 3,000 years? The answer lies in the changing consciousness as also the possible avenues that are opening up for fighting the matter out. If Ambedkar had not fought for the education of the lower castes as also for reservation in politics and jobs, there would not have been any Dalits in Parliament. Had it not been so, nobody would have asked any questions even if Ambedkar’s name was removed from Indian history altogether.

The consciousness of Mr Yadav and Mr Palshikar is couched in Lohiaite-Marxist-Gandhian politics which refuses to recognise the far greater transformative status of Ambedkar. In the intellectual realm, Mr Yadav represents a typical, symptomatic socialist transformation of Lohia – similar to what Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav do in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Somehow they are very uncomfortable with Ambedkar. This is reflected in the selection of this cartoon in the 21st century – a time when Ambedkar has overtaken Gandhi, Nehru and Lohia in stature. What Mr Yadav and Mr Palshikar refuse to recognise is that Ambedkar was not just a writer of the Indian Constitution, not just a nationalist leader and not just a theoretician; he was a prophetic figure who revived Buddhism which was driven out of India by a whole range of social forces over a period of several centuries. Thus in every Buddha Vihara today he sits alongside Buddha.

The icon of the oppressed community cannot be compared with a god or goddess of the oppressors. Nor can the protest against the Ambedkar cartoon be seen on a par with the Hindutva protest against the painting of Goddess Saraswati by MF Husain. The May 11 protest in Parliament by Dalit MPs to remove the derogatory Ambedkar cartoon from the NCERT’s political science textbook is a demand that came from those representing the oppressed masses. This is the first ever major fight for the cultural transformation of Indian society. Earlier, Dalits were not seen as a people who could fight for their own cultural identity. They were seen as a people who fight for higher wages, reservation and scholarships. Shankar Pillai’s cartoons were friendly jokes for the upper-caste English-educated elite of the post-independence ruling class but certainly not for the Dalit/OBC (other backward classes)/Adivasi population.

Cartoons also carry with them the politics and culture of those who drew them. In fact, no cartoon is free from politics and caste/class bias. This is where the need arises for the emergence of a new brand of cartoonists from among the deprived sections, if only to induct Dalit culture into the realm of cartoons. Caste bias operates not only in religion, politics and economics but also in art, music and dance. Political scientists Mr Yadav and Mr Palshikar know this only too well.

When NCERT textbooks were written by right-wing historians and political scientists, they were criticised by left-wing historians, political scientists and sociologists. Later, the left-wing secular academics undertook a rewriting of the textbooks. However, the problem with secular, democratic social scientists is that they are not caste-sensitive. They also do not include enough caste-sensitive Dalit-bahujan social scientists. Today any discussion on caste is seen as undemocratic; and Mr Yadav and Mr Palshikar thought Nehru belonged to the fast track democratic school whereas Ambedkar drove snail-paced Constitution drafting! This kind of senseless handling of democratic casteism must be checkmated and that is precisely what happened in the Indian Parliament on May 11.

One way to train our children in ideological politics is by making use of school textbooks. When the National Democratic Alliance was in power, it prepared school textbooks with an overdose of Hindutva ideology. Later on, the United Progressive Alliance government appointed a well-known educationist, Prof Krishna Kumar, as director of the NCERT. The textbooks that have sparked a controversy now were prepared under his directorship. By and large, the new team prepared much better schoolbooks. But the problem was that the left, secular and socialist social scientists never bothered to examine the Indian caste system. Most of these men treat Ambedkar simply as one of the nationalist leaders. They also do not seriously examine Ambedkar’s socio-spiritual status and the deep emotions of the oppressed masses that were built around his Buddhist spiritual existence. It is this status that is likely to lead to many self-assertive struggles by the Dalits.

A national-level response to any desecration of Ambedkar’s statues and a similar response to remove a cartoon that depicted him in a derogatory manner are all part of an effort to put him on a different liberationist level from what an ordinary political scientist could comprehend. All the same, it is important that one respects in all humility the decision of Parliament. It is also important that one does not demonstrate an intellectual ‘Annagiri’ against Parliament. Parliament is supreme and can decide everything in this country.

This article was published in The Asian Age on May 22, 2012;

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 2012. Year 18, No.166 – Controversy.



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