One last reference to the hullabaloo over the Shankar cartoon on the quickening the pace of Constitution-making. It has turned Kapil Sibal as much a controversial as a ridiculous character. Writing in The Indian Express (20 May), columnist Ravi Shankar had some hard things to say about parliamentary reaction. Wrote he: “Nehru and Ambedkar were self-confident about their position in history. Today’s politicians are not self-confident; they are just bullies”. About cartoonists themselves, Ravi Shankar wrote: “The cartoonists’ role in a democracy is a solitary one. He is a sniper who shoots at social and political hypocrisy… he has the right to mock the king. There are no holy cows in his manger”. Hindustan Times (16 May) said: “If our politicians had more of a sense of humour, the level of debates in Parliament would surely be elevated. Humour and repartee are potent tools for driving home a point as many of our tallest politicians like Mr. Vajpayee have demonstrated … This raises the suspicion that they are playing to the galleries or that they have nothing worthwhile to contribute to public discourse… All our parliamentarians are doing by indulging in all these shenanigans is to make caricatures of themselves”. The Times of India (19 May) referring to the debate in Parliament said that the “funny things” is that “while our politicians want us to cut critical words and scrap satirical art, they provide us with continuous inspiration for both”. It said: “They can refer to each other using vivid living images plus purple prose. But one dipoy doodle by the aam aadmi makes true-blue leaders see flaming red”.
The Hindu, as always gave a matter like this considerable coverage and outside comment. The OpEd pages (16th and 18th May) carried learned articles on the subject of cartooning, one by Mushirul Hasan, an expert, one by Satish Deshpande, an adviser to NCERT and yet another by a student of Political Science, no doubt to convey how a representative of GenNext looks at the current controversy. The Hindu, it may be remembered, used to publish the cartoons of the famous British cartoonist David Low, from as early as August 1933. Deshpande, as can be expected of an academician, looked at all sides of the controversy, even going to the extent of saying that “if today the Dalit community is exercising its veto through a presumptive ban on the offending cartoon and is using community sentiment to trump rival arguments or bypass debate, it does have a strong entitlement to do so”. After presenting contrary viewpoints, Deshpande stuck to his pro-Dalit stand, saying: “Is it not reasonable, then, to expect that a Dalit standpoint would be not just sympathetic, but actually committed to a critical pedagogy?” Mushirul Hasan presented an excellent study of the place of cartooning in India, starting with the cartoons published in India Weekly by its editor, Subramania Bharati, as early as the 1910s! Later, Awadh Punch took up the task under the leadership of its editor, Sajjad Hasain, in the 1920s.
According to Mushirul Hasan, “cartoons ridiculing the colonial government appeared with impunity in this Lucknow publication” and “the first two decades of the 20th century offered multiple themes for political satirists to explore”. The British authorities took to cartoons that lampooned them in good homour and actually, a senior British administrator, Archibald Constable, even went to the extent of putting together a collection of Awadh Punch cartoons “in recognition of the amusement and interesting information we have from time to time, derived from its pages and pictures”. That says a lot about British governance of India. Ishaan Sharma, the Political Science student was in his own way showing a catholicity of his tastes. He put it this way: “As a student of Political Science, I can say that we need to from our opinion on the basis of values of democracy, freedom, diversity and creativity, which is exactly what political science as a subject teaches us”. Well put. But the most important report published by The Hindu (18 May) is a statement issued by several Dalit activists and intellectuals, condemning what happened in Parliament, describing it as “a brazen attempt at wooing the Dalit vote bank”. What is interesting is that most of our leading newspapers seem to have missed the meeting held in Jaipur on 17 May and attended by six leading Dalit Groups like the Centre for Dalit Rights. A statement issued by the group, following its deliberations called the cartoon controversy “uncalled for”. Said the statement: We are certain that there is nothing objectionable in the Nehru-Ambedkar cartoon by itself and the text accompanying it.
In fact, it is highly appreciative of the hard work by the Constituent Assembly under the leadership of Dr BR Ambedkar… What is extremely disturbing is the manner in which Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal apologised in Parliament and conceded the demands for removal of the cartoon and stopping distribution of books”. One reason for the government to be extra careful not to offend Dalits is a tremendous sense of guilt among the so-called upper castes. The Hitavada (18 May) published a report by the Press Trust of India that said that over one lakh cases of atrocities against Scheduled Classes and Scheduled Tribes are pending in courts and the government is considering amendments in the existing law to fast-track trial. One hopes no one will draw a cartoon of a Government Minister raising a whip against a judge seated on a snail representing Court. Who knows: the judiciary might complain. What is interesting to know is that out of over one lakh cases of atrocities pending at the end of 2010, the highest number of 19,939 cases are pending in Uttar Pradesh which, till the other day, had a Dalit Chief Minister. If a Dalit Chief Minister fails to provide justice to fellow dalits, who, then, can be possibly blamed? Over to you, Mayavatibehn. Poor thing, she herself is now facing charges that she is involved in scams worth Rs 40,000 crores. Will Akhilesh dare try to sue her in court?