Parliamentarians across the political spectrum rocked the Parliament the other day over an innocuous cartoon depicting Ambedkar riding a snail called ‘Constitution’, he and Nehru armed with whips prodding the snail into action amidst a crowd in splits. The caricature drawn by celebrated cartoonist K Shankar Pillai is a statement on the slow progress in drafting of the Constitution.
There is no ambiguity about what Shankar wanted to convey. The two leaders are not even remotely shown in mutual adversity. Nehru’s leash is aimed at the snail and not at the dalit icon as many television anchors wrongly projected. Both leaders were around when it was first published in 1949. Neither took umbrage. Sixty years later parliamentarians competed with each other to lambast the cartoon. Was it because the cartoon was offensive or simply because they didn’t want to be perceived as anti-schedule castes in this era of social and identity assertion? It can be argued that inserting the controversial cartoon in school textbook may be perceived, it was, as an insult to their icon by those who are in the process of finding their long-suppressed voice and now stand-up against perceived or real insults and humiliations. In our country it is now an established routine that icons are placed on a pedestal above any criticism, real or imaginary. However, some sensitivity in the case of Dalits whose narrative is grounded in long history of oppression is called for. One can appreciate Dalits’ anger but the violence unleashed by a group of Dalits at the office of Professor Suhas Palishkar, who has since resigned as Chief Adviser of the NCERT, deserves outright condemnation. More exceptionable is RPI President Ramdas Athawale condoning vandalism by his followers. Every citizen has a right to protest against perceived grievances but no one can be allowed to resort to violence in a democratic and civilised society.
Not many parliamentarians were against the Ambedkar cartoon per se barring perhaps certain leaders of regional caste-based parties. What enraged a majority of them was that a six-decade old political cartoon was inserted in a textbook for school students though its theme, namely the time consumed in framing the Constitution is no longer an issue. More importantly, the cartoon neither adds to nor conceptualises the text thereby defeating the very purpose of its insertion in the book. Whether school students in impressionable age-group should be exposed to such politically sensitive subjects is a highly debatable. While ‘liberals’ argue that high school students need to be sensitised about the political currents, there are others who assert that tender minds of school students should not be ‘poisoned’ by motivated and partisan propaganda. Many parliamentarians perceived the insertion of cartoon in book as an attempt to demonise politicians. There was near unanimity among political parties against insertion of political and partisan cartoons in the school textbooks. Cartoons, according to Pranab Mukherjee, are for mature minds and not children.
Politicians’ strong objection to their ‘offensive’ depiction in cartoons is a sign of their intolerance to criticism. No public figure in any democratic country takes exception to his/her depiction in cartoons as these are statements that are part of the freedom of thought and expression. Cartoons can provoke laughter or may be biting. These have to be taken in stride with grace. Nehru famously told Shankar, “Don’t spare me”. Those who resent them do no service to democratic spirit. Ironically, our famous and popular didi who recently came to power to liberate West Bengal from the clutches of communist dictatorship is now treading on this treacherous path. She got a Jadavpur University professor arrested for lampooning her saying it amounted to “character assassination”. Isn’t intolerance of criticism a sign of authoritarianism? West Bengal Government’s action against the university teacher is a crude attempt to stifle freedom of expression. Having said that, one must admit that politician bashing by media and intellectuals has crossed all limits. Although politicians can’t escape the blame for the loss of public esteem and credibility, there is no point in singling them out, whatever their faults, for everything going wrong. Demonising the entire political class undermines faith in democracy and prepares the ground for authoritarianism and/or military dictatorship.
Under the UPA Government, remote-controlled by Sonia Gandhi, NCERT, like several other institutions, is packed with dynasty loyalists and fellow travellers who have utter disdain for our ancient culture and values. HRD Minister Kapil Sibal has now found many ‘objectionable’ cartoons in NCERT textbooks. Maybe, he is more worried about cartoons lambasting Nehru, Indira, Rajiv and Sonia. There are others who have raised more fundamental issues pertaining to textbooks. Dina Nath Batra, Chairman of the Shiksha Sanskriti Uthan Samiti, points out that textbooks prescribed by the NCERT contain texts that distort history, contain derogatory remarks about our national heroes and cultural and religious icons. Paucity of space inhibits me from quoting excerpts from NCERT textbooks in which foul and coarse language is used about our saints, teachers and public figures. Equally worrisome is that under the garb of ‘de-saffronising’ textbooks (An atrocious reference to introduction of texts on socially relevant issues and deletion of distortions from textbooks when Dr. Mulri Manohar Joshi was the HRD Minister) NCRT has produced several ideologically skewed books for students of social sciences.
Congress party’s authoritarian streak is reflected even in the HRD’s approach to education, particularly school education. It made no effort to take on board all states while preparing National Curriculum Framework (NCF). State School Boards that regulate school education in most of the schools should be given autonomy to frame curriculum to include regional history, culture, traditions, festivals and topography in addition to broad guidelines laid down by NCF. A thorough review of the functioning and policies of the NCERT and the content of the its textbooks, not merely deletion of ‘objectionable’ cartoons, is called for. A high-powered committee comprising independent and apolitical scholars needs to be set-up by taking all stakeholders on board for the proposed review. Let the high-pitched debate in the Parliament lead to some positive action.