Ambedkar Cartoon Controversy, 2012
June 1, 2012
Ambedkar Cartoon Controversy, 2012
Stepping away from the madness
A rational outlook on the debate surrounding the cartoons that appeared in the textbooks of the National Council of Educational Research and Training(NCERT).
A different reading

Crowds in support of Ambedkar

If the Ambedkar-conceived Constitution can be amended 97 times, can’t a textbook, which has to be treated as a work in progress, be amended?

When I was alerted to Shankar’s cartoon on April 10, it struck me like a whiplash. I am no teacher nor do I have children; textbooks are a distant memory. In the English medium textbooks I grew up on in Andhra Pradesh, caste, let alone Ambedkar, was rarely mentioned. Like most privileged Indians, I was to discover all this shamefully belatedly in life.

When a reporter called me for a "quote" on the cartoon row, I asked her if she even knew where Ambedkar was born. Silence. Our textbooks don’t tell students that Ambedkar, unlike Mahatma Gandhi, did not have to travel abroad to realise what it meant to be thrown out of a train; and that after having earned a PhD from Columbia University, he had to hide his identity to rent a room in an inn in Baroda and was kicked out when discovered. Dandi, yes – but neither teachers nor students are aware of the momentous, Ambedkar-led, civil rights struggle for water in Mahad in 1927. Most newspaper editors wouldn’t be able to name the four newspapers Ambedkar edited and published. Any small-town Dalit activist would know all this. Forget our MPs, the non-Dalit intellectual classes’ collective ignorance of Ambedkar seems pathological.

My concern over the cartoon in the NCERT Class XI political science textbook, Indian Constitution at Work, is how children and teachers in a classroom would read it in a society where caste prejudices and stereotypes are still rampant. Consider the general hostility towards Dalits and those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds entering elite English medium schools, as witnessed in the near racist opposition to the idea of including the poor (read "lower" castes) in rich people’s private schools through the Right to Education (RTE) Act. How would the largely non-Dalit teaching community (who handle NCERT textbooks in English) frame the cartoon? A year ago, the principal of Delhi’s elite Shri Ram School, Manika Sharma, was quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying that she was "horrified" and "jolted" when the floor sweeper from her home enrolled her child in the school where Sharma is the principal. When saying, "I can’t sit across the table from someone who sweeps my floors," she was vocalising the fear of millions of well-off Indians who think the "outcastes" should only serve, stand and wait.

Now, how would Sharma or students trained by her read this cartoon? How would their reading potentially impact the self-confidence and self-worth of the 25 per cent – children of sweepers, shoemakers, drivers, dhobis and vegetable vendors – being coaxed into these elite bastions by the RTE Act? Suppose there was just the odd Dalit student in a classroom, what are the chances of her different reading of the Shankar cartoon getting a hearing from Sharma-type principals? She would likely be shouted down, just like voices from the Dalit movement are booed at by self-righteous upholders of "freedom of expression", a term as carelessly bandied as "merit" was to attack reservation.

A snail moves tardily and a rotund Ambedkar seems to be slowing it down further. Slowness is something "undeserving" "quota" students are routinely accused of. Ambedkar’s whip is limp while Nehru’s is taut – after all, the latter is the ramrod erect national patriarch. Ambedkar cuts a sorry figure. Yes, the chapter in question discusses Ambedkar’s crucial role several times yet stops short of mentioning how and why his favourite project, the Hindu Code Bill that gave women the rights to divorce and property, was scuttled both in the Constituent Assembly and later in Parliament. But can we expect one textbook to do everything?

Images and symbols tend to have a stronger impact than words. Almost every ‘conscientised’ Dalit has a picture of Ambedkar in his or her house, they are familiar with his trials and tribulations, and the more educated Dalits engage with his key works. Ambedkar is a rallying point, a symbol of hope, of possibilities of exit from the morass of caste. In contrast, finding a picture or work of Ambedkar in an average non-Dalit household would be as rare as finding beef cooked with asafoetida – unlike Dalits, the brahmanical classes have little to gain by embracing Ambedkar’s anti-caste ideas.

As recently as 2006, at the height of the media-fuelled anti-Mandal II mania, students at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences burnt Ambedkar’s books in the hostel corridor, made vulgar gestures, shot a video of this and circulated a CD among fellow students during their annual cultural festival. These arrogant and ignorant students would not long ago have been in Class XI or XII, taught by some Sharma.

Yes, political parties across party lines use this occasion to show a patently false love for Ambedkar and his iconic status but remain silent about the recent judgement in the 1996 Bathani Tola massacre of 21 Dalits, where all 23 accused were acquitted. But that shouldn’t rankle us much. We live in a country where justice for real crimes, like the 2006 Kherlanji carnage, is elusive, even structurally impossible; a country where it is easier to win retribution for the symbolic desecration of Ambedkar. And when Dalits are forced to take solace only in symbols, who is to be blamed?

What rankles is how liberal and even left intellectuals, who claim to be fellow-travellers of Dalits, have imposed moral pressure on Dalits and Dalit intellectuals to come out and stand in support of retaining the textbook in all its sanctity. Dalits have been portrayed both in big media and alternative media, such as the blog Kafila, as "emotional-devotional" fanatics who lose all "rationalism" – something non-Dalits gleefully point out Ambedkar stood for.

It is one thing for a news publication to feature such a cartoon and quite another for it to be reused in a textbook. What makes us think these cartoonists are beyond prejudices that the Dalit-free media they work for and the society they are part of are saturated with?

My friend and cartoonist at The Hindu, Surendra, had the tendency to show his "common man" seated, reading the newspaper or watching TV, and the woman of the house always serving tea or coffee, standing. He was unwittingly reinforcing gender stereotypes that RK Laxman and Shankar had perpetuated, stereotypes which, it could be argued, reflect reality. What if one such cartoon should find its way into textbooks? Should we not seek amends so that children are not fed stereotypes of gendered division of labour? It is one thing for a news publication to feature such a cartoon and quite another for it to be reused in a textbook. What makes us think these cartoonists are beyond prejudices that the Dalit-free media they work for and the society they are part of are saturated with?

This is just one part of the story. This debate has failed to engage with what the textbook actually sets out to do. On reading it, I realised it was radical in many ways. This is a textbook that uses the word Dalit several times unapologetically. This seems a first, given that as recently as 2008, the Haryana government ordered a ban on the use of the word Dalit interchangeably with scheduled caste in all official parlance.

Here is a passage from it that would have made Ambedkar proud: "As early as 1841, it was noticed that the Dalit people of northern India were not afraid to use the newly introduced legal system and bring suits against their landlords. So this new instrument of modern law was effectively adopted by the people to address questions of dignity and justice." In the last chapter, the textbook proffers another strong opinion: "Is it a coincidence that the central square of every other small town has a statue of Dr Ambedkar with a copy of the Indian Constitution? Far from being a mere symbolic tribute to him, this expresses the feeling among Dalits that the Constitution reflects many of their aspirations." But only Dalit aspirations?

In one scenario, the textbook makes students imagine that they receive a postcard from Hadibandhu, a "member of the Dalit community" in Puri district, Orissa. Men from this community refused to follow a custom that required them to wash the feet of the groom and guests of the "upper caste" during marriage ceremonies. In revenge, four women from this community are beaten up and another is paraded naked. The postcard writer says: "Our children are educated and they are not willing to do the customary job of washing the feet of upper-caste men, clear the leftovers after the marriage feast and wash the utensils." Then the critical pedagogical import is driven home: "Does this case involve violation of fundamental rights? What would you order the government to do in this case?"

The textbook also underscores the limitations of the first past the post (FPTP) electoral system. It says that though Muslims constitute 13.5 per cent of the population, the number of Muslim MPs in the Lok Sabha has usually been less than six per cent and that a similar situation prevails in most state assemblies. It explains proportional representation and sows doubt in the minds of the student readers: "The FPTP electoral system can mean that the dominant social groups and castes can win everywhere and the oppressed social groups may continue to remain unrepresented."

Who is to take credit for the radical language of this textbook? Of course, the Dalit movement and post-Mandal consolidation of OBC interests, which have created enough intellectual, social and political pressure to warrant these changes. The textbook ends with a "request for feedback" and asks readers to suggest "changes you would like to see in the next version of this book". We first need to acknowledge that neither the textbook nor Ambedkar is above criticism. An online petition called ‘In Defence of Critical Pedagogy’, signed by academic luminaries – mostly with upper-caste sounding surnames – seems to treat the textbook like a sacred text, as if it were the Bhagavad Gita that statues of Gandhi show him holding. If the Ambedkar-conceived Constitution can be amended 97 times in 62 years, can’t a textbook, which has to be treated as a work in progress, be amended?

Till such time, we can live with this textbook and celebrate its triumphs.

This article was published in The Indian Express on May 24, 2012;

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 2012. Year 18, No.166 - Controversy.
Dangers of deletion
The Ambedkar cartoon has been misread. And this could be just the beginning

Ever since the Ambedkar cartoon controversy erupted, I have not stopped wondering about the irony of the situation. The attempt, perhaps the first one in national textbooks, to accord Babasaheb Ambedkar his due place as one of the founders of our republic, was being attacked for insulting him. Professor Suhas Palshikar, who has taught me to read Ambedkar more carefully, has been attacked in Ambedkar’s name. To be honest, we did expect an attack on these books at some point from some quarters. But little did we imagine that it would come from proponents of social justice.

Over the last two days we have tried explaining this to anyone who cares to listen. Palshikar tried explaining this to his attackers too. The cartoon in the spotlight is actually one of the more innocuous of the hundreds used in the political science textbooks of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). It has been made to look offensive by a series of misreadings. One, the content of the cartoon has been mischievously presented by overlooking the positive symbolism (that Ambedkar holds the reins to the Constitution and holds a whip) and overplaying a possible negative symbolism (Nehru holding a whip behind Ambedkar has been presented as Nehru whipping Ambedkar). Two, the art form of a cartoon is negated by a crass literal reading of the symbol of a whip. Three, the cartoon is detached from the text accompanying it on the same page that celebrates the deliberations that led to the delay in the making of the Constitution. Four, the cartoon is isolated from other cartoons involving Nehru, Indira Gandhi and other leaders that appear in this and other textbooks. Finally, Ambedkar’s depiction in this cartoon is torn out of the context of how Ambedkar and his ideas are treated in this and other textbooks.

Having gone over this a few dozen times, it became clear to me that this debate was no longer about Ambedkar or the cartoon. The real danger is not what you can see and identify clearly. The danger lies lurking just beyond your vision.

For starters, the danger is not that one or a few controversial cartoons may be removed from the textbooks without good reasons. That would be sad but not a cause for alarm. The danger is that this is just the beginning. The minister’s reply in Parliament mentioned a review of other "objectionable" cartoons and content in the textbooks. A group of parliamentarians has been demanding the deletion of several cartoons that showed politicians in a poor light. Many MPs are uncomfortable with the truthful account of post-independence history in these books. Ambedkar’s name may have been used to shield much else. This may be the beginning of a slow and imperceptible rollback of a historical transition in the writing of textbooks in this country that took place between 2005 and 2008, following the adoption of the National Curriculum Framework.

This is linked to the issue of autonomy of institutions like the NCERT. Again, the danger is not that of a sudden loss of autonomy vis-à-vis the government. It is hardly a secret that the autonomy of such institutions vis-à-vis the babus in the ministry is at best highly circumscribed and often non-existent. The rights of the authors and advisers vis-à-vis the NCERT and that of the NCERT vis-à-vis the ministry are admittedly in a grey zone. The parliamentarians obviously did not see anything grey here. They wanted to settle on the floor of the House an issue concerning the content of a textbook that had gone through a due internal process. The minister obliged. The real danger is that this would begin to appear normal to us, that we would forget that institutional autonomy is an issue.

Again, the danger is not that this issue would compromise our freedom of expression in a general sense. The media’s intense scrutiny of the political class on this question has demonstrated, if it needed any demonstration, that the Indian media enjoys ample freedom to take on the government. Besides, the textbook is not the site for an unbridled exercise of freedom of expression. Textbook writing is an exercise in caution and balance. The danger here is that we would miss an opportunity to define what freedom of expression should mean in the context of a textbook. In the course of a TV debate, a fairly well-read MP complained that this cartoon sowed doubt in the minds of young students. The danger is that we might begin to think that textbooks must not create doubts, must not leave any questions.

The attack on Palshikar’s office has momentarily shifted attention to the physical danger to which scholars involved in such an exercise may be exposed. He handled the attack with the equanimity, dignity and courage that I have come to associate with him. If and when my turn comes, I would try and emulate him. But that is not the real long-term issue. The danger is psychological. Just think of the message such an incident sends to any future textbook writers. You cannot blame them for looking at every passage, every image, every drawing, to ensure they have eliminated the possibility of giving rise to any offence to any group that may exist then or in the future. The worst form of censorship is the one that lies in the mind of the author. In any case, a text pruned of the possibility of misreading is a text devoid of any interest and substance.

Finally, the danger is not that loud voices of identity politics will triumph through brute parliamentary majority. The real danger is that any such "triumph" may be counterproductive. This incident might end up damaging Dalit politics in more ways than one. It is not just that the Dalit-bahujan leaders have lived up to their worst stereotypes in the mainstream media and reinforced the prejudices of the chattering classes. Unfortunately, the shrill pitch of the parliamentary debate and its echoes in the media may have already created an insult for Babasaheb that was never inflicted, let alone intended. The censorship that the Dalit leadership and its loyal intellectuals demand today could end up deifying Ambedkar into an empty symbol, worse than any caricature.

 This article was published in The Indian Express on May 14, 2012.;

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 2012.Year 18,No.166 - Controversy
The blind eye

Illustration: Amili Setalvad

Questioning our ways of perception

The continuing debate about the hastily withdrawn NCERT textbook – over a cartoon in which Dr Ambedkar, Dalits claim, has been depicted in a demeaning fashion – reminds me of a lesson I learnt years ago from an outstanding police officer, Vibhuti Narain Rai. An Indian Police Service officer of the Uttar Pradesh cadre, Rai attracted national and international attention in 1995 with his stunning statement in an interview to Communalism Combat: "No riot can last for more than 24 hours unless the state wants it to continue."

(In late 2002 top cop KPS Gill – who was foisted on Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi as adviser by the then prime minister, AB Vajpayee, to enforce peace – was to reiterate what Rai had claimed seven years earlier. For his part, Rai was merely stating what he had demonstrated in practice during his stints as superintendent of police in several districts of Uttar Pradesh during the 1980s).

Over more than a few drinks late one evening in Mumbai in 1995, Rai and I were discussing how communalism and casteism were close cousins. I recalled an occasion from the early 1970s in my native village in Allahabad, when I was declared a "traitor" and a "communist" by my childhood buddies, Raja Ram (a Bania) and Anis Ahmed (a Muslim). My crime lay in defending the right of Dalits to absolute social equality with upper-caste Hindus and Muslims.

I had long believed myself to be alive to the indignities of caste but that evening Rai said something that hit me like a bullet. "You and I, Javed, can never fully grasp what it means to be a Dalit. You have to be born a Dalit to know what it means to be one." Here was an "upper-caste" Hindu talking to an "upper-caste" Muslim. By way of elaboration, he recounted the story of a young Dalit from eastern Uttar Pradesh who today is hopefully a respected senior police officer somewhere in India.

A few years after he joined the IPS, the young Dalit officer shared his poignant story with Rai, his Thakur senior: "Sir, the moment news reached my village that I had been selected for the IPS, the enraged upper-caste people in my village decided that this was simply unacceptable. They decided that I must be killed, prevented at all costs from leaving the village. Luckily, our family got wind of the plot. So at 3 a.m. that very night I fled my village without any luggage, headed for the nearest railway station to catch a train to Delhi. Believe me, sir, until I reached Delhi, I was convinced they would get me and that would be the end of me and my career."

We might also recall news reports in recent years that are no less chilling. A Dalit woman stripped naked and paraded around her village; a Dalit man hacked to death for the crime of having been elected sarpanch; Dalit manual scavengers continuing to carry buckets of human excreta on their heads; a young Dalit forced to eat human excreta just to ‘show him his place’; a judge ordering the shuddhikaran (purification) of a courtroom with gangajal before occupying the high seat because his predecessor ‘brother judge’ was an "untouchable".

No doubt humane people, irrespective of caste and community background, are sickened by such recurring accounts of our ugly reality. Speaking for myself, every time I read or hear of such incidents, I recall Rai’s words: You have to be born a Dalit to know what it means to be a Dalit. The recalling prompts a question: is empathy the same as self-experience?

I do know a few rare persons who have the remarkable quality of being able to enter the emotional universe of the "other". But for lesser mortals like me, there remains the question of whether our sanskar, our social milieu and upbringing, so shapes our subconscious that the boundary between "empathising" and "feeling/experiencing" is difficult to bridge. Are there different ways of seeing? Perhaps we should ask ourselves a simple question: Would any Dalit have selected Shankar’s decades-old cartoon for the textbook? If not, why not?

What is true of caste seems as true when it comes to gender, race or religious community. Here is a recent example of what happened during a panel discussion on a national news channel analysing the results of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. A well-known social scientist and psephologist expressed the view that Muslims had not behaved as a vote bank this time and this was a healthy development. His explanation for this: "They have overcome their paranoia." Even as the discussion was in progress, he was bombarded with at least two protest text messages. One of them was from me. Paranoia? Security of life and limb has been a major concern for Indian Muslims, especially since the 2002 Gujarat carnage when even high court judges had to flee their homes under military protection while senior Muslim police officers had to hide their name tags for fear of being killed.

What is it – thoughtlessness, insensitivity or something else – that calls the understandable fear of a community, based on bloody experience, "paranoia"? Particularly disturbing was the fact that the remark came from a person who is not communal; he is someone I respect. To his credit, he responded to my message, admitting that paranoia was a "bad word" to use: "I should have said fear grounded in reality."

What are we to say when in their choice of a sketch or a word even humane people seem at times oblivious to the sensitivities of the vulnerable?

I am saddened by the fact that Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar had to resign from the NCERT in the wake of the cartoon controversy; I strongly condemn the vandalism of the latter’s home. But the context, I believe, calls not for lament over one more threat to freedom of expression or tutorials on the fine art of interpreting or appreciating political cartoons. It is time to ponder over the ‘ways of seeing’ paradigm.

Archived from Communalism Combat, June 2012. Year 18, No.166 - Focus

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.