Debate vs Delete

Hurt over Ambedkar cartoon is understandable. But Babasaheb wouldn’t approve of the response

Written by The Indian Express | Published: May 12, 2012 1:06 am

Hurt over Ambedkar cartoon is understandable. But Babasaheb wouldn’t approve of the response

Parliament was disrupted by the newly-noticed presence of an old Shankar cartoon in an NCERT political science textbook,that purportedly insulted B.R. Ambedkar. Ram Vilas Paswan demanded that those who permitted the cartoon’s publication be hauled up under the Prevention of Atrocities Act,Mayawati threatened to stall Parliament until action was taken. HRD minister Kapil Sibal immediately announced that the cartoon would be deleted,the textbook withdrawn,and an independent review instituted of all such cartoons and other “objectionable” material in all political science textbooks. The cartoon shows Nehru and Ambedkar with whips,Ambedkar sitting on a snail named “Constitution” — a comment on the slow,laborious process of forming the founding document. It is unclear what,precisely,is offending about the cartoon — Nehru’s domination of the scene,or the suggestion that Ambedkar was unable to crank out the Constitution quickly. The latter is preposterous,since the cartoon is framed by text that explains why it took so much time and patience to harmonise views,and assumes full understanding of Ambedkar’s pivotal role in this process. Certainly,Ambedkar himself didn’t care about the cartoon,produced during the Constituent Assembly’s tenure. The cartooning legend,Shankar,was used to cutting political authority to size — he was famously asked by Nehru not to spare him. So why,then,does a mundane cartoon,over half-a-century old,create such political turmoil today? Because Ambedkar is not any historical figure — he remains a meld of political prophet and deity and parent to many. His views on education,on religion,on nationalism,have forged a self-aware Dalit political community. What others may dismiss as a matter of symbols is,in fact,essential to a politics of dignity and social equality,and Ambedkar’s physical image is still important to that struggle,as Mayawati and Paswan recognise.

And yet,it is ironic that those who speak for this most rational of men now want to airbrush him out of history altogether,reduce him to a mere icon — after all,he was a vital,argumentative figure of his times,there were many who agreed and disagreed with him. Should those constituent assembly debates now be muted out of our lessons too? He was a living subject to the cartoonists and commentators of the day,not a blue-suited figure on a plinth.

Given India’s laxity on free speech issues,and our tendency to flatten our history,it is not surprising that Sibal should have jumped to apologise and excise the cartoon before any attempt to discuss the “insult”. However,it is sad that our politics should lose all sense of context and intention,and prohibit us from learning about the past that has produced us.

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