Ambedkar cartoon row: An act of cowardly populism

As records go, neither Ambedkar nor Nehru had any objection to the cartoon. Shankar’s cartoon is an affectionate one, cheeky at the most.

Babasaheb Ambedkar is one of the most fascinating figures in Indian politics. In hagiographic terms, if Gandhi is the father of the nation, Ambedkar is father of the Indian Constitution. Both have a legendary status which inspires hagiolatry. Any critique of them is seen as iconoclastic. Gandhians tend to put Gandhi in moth balls in their Ashrams. Dalits similarly tend to freeze Ambedkar, disallowing the slightest controversy. Strangely Hindu gods are allowed more leeway and more plural narratives, but not our political heroes.

The Lellyweld controversy over Gandhi’s relationship to Herman Kallenbach aroused the ire of Gandhians. Similarly, a 1949 cartoon of Ambedkar and the Constitution in a NCERT textbook has prompted a protest in Parliament and an immediate withdrawal of the cartoon. Two advisers to the NCERT resigned arguing that the cartoon as a text was not read within the entirety of the context. Two immaculate professionals were abandoned by the education minister in another knee-jerk display of populist politics. The event needs to be analysed in detail.

First, as records go, neither Ambedkar nor Nehru had any objection to the cartoon. Shankar’s cartoon is an affectionate one, cheeky at the most. For a cartoonist to show irreverence is natural, but there is never anything insulting about a Shankar cartoon. It is usually presented in the form of a gentle chiding. Even the outlines are gentle, a cartoon without being a caricature. Shankar had a softness, which later political cartoonists like Ranga or Unny avoided. The first objection to the cartoon is based on the assumption that what was good for 1949 may not be appropriate for 2012. The argument is as follows. The Constitutional assembly as a ritual process is over. It is now a contract, even a sacrament. Second, Ambedkar is now an iconic figure and to treat an icon to the irreverence of a cartoon is to insult him. Third, Dalits are a greater power now and will not allow their icons to be insulted. The argument suggests that the memory of Ambedkar is as sacred to the Dalits as Mrs Gandhi to the Congress or MGR to AIADMK. Icons are items of faith, not to be subject to critical scrutiny.

It’s sad the way our politicians responded to the cartoon. Pranab Mukherjee used all his wily scholarship to praise Ambedkar’s role and decries the cartoon as inappropriate. Sibal jumped on the bandwagon by assuring Parliament that a review of NCERT books has been ordered. Others agreed with it, arguing that the cartoon was out of fashion in the age of political assertion. The sadness is that such a reading leaves two things unexamined. First, the cartoon itself and second, the imagination of the scholars who used the cartoon to enliven history and make it more understandable. A look at the cartoon, not a great one, shows it to be an innocuous piece. No ego is threatened, no status questioned. In fact, the Constitutional process as a dialogue between Nehru and Ambedkar comes out clearly. As a pedagogic device, the cartoon works. As a piece of history, it is sufficiently memorable.

Contrast this gentle piece of work by Shankar with the Danish cartoons in Jyllands-Posten. These were twelve editorial cartoons, which reviled a prophet and insulted a faith. Kurt Westergaard’s cartoons were insulting while Shankar Pillai’s cartoons were an act of faith in the constitutional process, atribute to its main architects. It is a piece of history, an accompaniment to the Constitution.

Instead of treating it as an act of pride, our politicians, in an act of cowardly populism, read it as something shameful. It is a misreading of politics, an act of bad faith, made doubly ridiculous by the fact an education minister lets down a responsible group of academics. It is not Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar who should have resigned as advisers to the NCERT. Kapil Sibal should have stood ground. He should have claimed Ambedkar as the nation’s legacy and not just a Dalit icon. As a responsible education minister, he should have stuck to reason and not played to the political gallery. The messages to the world of education whether through the AK Ramanujan controversy on the many Ramayans, or the Ambedkar cartoon is clear. Scholarship is something to be devalued before populism and democracy is to be respected as a text, but not in real life. There is a warning here that academics will not fail to read.

Finally, there is question of democracy as a way of life. Our Parliament of late seems to be redefining it in an Orwellian way. On Anna Hazare, our Parliament acts as if civil society should be disciplined and punished for contempt of Parliament. On Ambedkar, it ignores years of scholarship and the culture of cartooning as an intrinsic part of constitutional democracy. By behaving the way it did, it was Parliament that insulted the spirit of the Constitution. The sadness was that even Pranab Mukherjee, dreaming of being President of the nation, did not see the irony. Why should a search for justice or fairness get eroded by token acts of respect? Populism that we witness actually devalues the work of Ambedkar.

I think the great Indian disease is political correctness as a new strain of hypocrisy. It goes well with sycophancy. Between the two, power corrupts itself, the memory of a great politician and the world of the academic. To think Ambedkar belongs only to the Dalits is a travesty of history. To embalm him in political hypocrisy insults the courage of man. To deny him laughter, self reflexivity is the bigger crime. This much our academics understood, but our politicians did not.

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