Is self-serving political correctness making us ignore the larger political context of the debate about the Ambedkar-Nehru cartoon and its removal?
By Shipra Nigam
The tenor of the debate within the ‘left’ regarding the 63-year-old political cartoon which has created a huge uproar in the parliament and in the country is distressing. The issue of the specific cartoon apart, the eagerness with which parties across the spectrum came together to demand a ‘review of textbooks’ by a ‘team of members of parliament’ is terrifying. This includes the ‘party left’ which has itself been wary of the ‘new textbooks’ for all the wrong reasons.
While we need to recognize the nuances of the debate and the politics on the ground, it’s important not to be swept by the certitude of political correctness, and the concomitant refusal to place the entire furore and the support coming from certain sections of ‘left,’ within the larger political context in which this debate is raging.
As a progressive historian and queer activist friend put it, ‘There is a world of difference between the New York Post, a right-wing publication owned by NewsCorp of the Murdoch family, and Shankar, whose cartoons as we have seen critiqued a range of political luminaries across the political spectrum from the 1930s onwards. In addition, the criticism from certain progressive sections fails to recognize the self-serving and opportunistic actions of minuscule political organizations in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, in addition to the questionable involvement of Mayawati in this debate, by dignifying these actions as “the aroused political consciousness of the dalits”. We might recall that in the early 2000s, these were precisely the tactics used by the Sambhaji Brigade which ransacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune because a historian had called attention to evidence that questioned Shivaji’s caste affiliation. The previously unknown organization used such violence to justify its continued presence in local Pune politics. And if we were to look to a longer genealogy, these were precisely the methods of the Shiv Sena in the 1960s.’
Where the cartoon itself is concerned, Aditya Nigam points out, “It is this textbook, by the way, that perhaps for the first time, gave Ambedkar the place in the history of modern India that he deserves, a fact lost today in the cacophony that marks Parliament.”. In fact, Dr. Ambedkar, in this cartoon, has been depicted in his ‘capacity’ as the Chairperson of the ‘drafting committee’ of the constituent assembly and not merely as a dalit leader.
As Mary E. John, Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS) points out in her email to FeministsIndia list-serve, these textbooks were written after more than two decades of ‘dalit mobilisation’ and critiques of ‘castelessness’ of Modern Indian state, especially within academic and activist circles. It is time that we engaged with issues of ‘iconisation’ and ‘sacrosanctness’ of symbolic identities, even with regards to marginalized sections including women and dalits. This is perhaps imperative, even more so, to establish and assert our identities on an equal footing for ourselves. This requires moving beyond a simple understanding of ‘victimisation’ in a more nuanced engagement which is able to engage with contemporary modes of marginalization.
Dr B.R Ambedkar himself had no objections to the cartoon. A cartoon portraying what happened during those days is bound to be located within that context. There are several other cartoons on a range of politicians and issues portraying the ‘evolving Indian democracy”. Our history is as important as our present in gaining insights into this process. After all these years of debate, activism and mobilization, are we not even ready to revisit our own past, if for nothing else, to provide a perspective on the present?
I also find this understanding of children in ‘class 11 and 12’, more than sixteen years old, as ‘impressionable minds’ to be protected from a more critical engagement with historical contexts slightly misplaced. The cartoon itself is part of the ‘socio-political’ historical context, sensitivity to which is being sought to be inculcated in children’s minds. Are we living under the impression that children, who are today exposed to a wide range of alternative media sources, witnessing widespread lampooning of politicians and political contexts, are innocent of the meaning and nature of political satires? At the very least, as Mary points out, we definitely need to know more about how they do indeed respond to them before coming up with such conclusions.
Given the complexities of our social world, is it possible to come up with intelligent, nuanced and insightful textbooks which ‘open up the world of politics for students’ without coming up with some material which will not be unanimously and unambiguously ‘non controversial’? Under such circumstances, given that these students are part of this complex social world themselves, the best that pedagogy can do is to encourage critical thinking, which is precisely what these textbooks are attempting to do.
Besides a careful perusal of the textbook, placing the cartoon in its context, shows that the textbook actually points to the complexities of mammoth tasks such as writing of the constitution and the ‘inevitability’ of the lengthy process of drafting it entails. It in fact, endorses the importance of spending those years on writing the constitution in a way which is laudatory of those involved in its writing, including Dr. Ambedkar as its Chairperson.
I also beg to differ on the need to insert only ‘contemporary’ and not ‘historical’ cartoons either on grounds of relevance or on grounds of ‘who’ can be the object of political satire. Surely, building bridges with the past in bringing about a sensitivity to the manner in which political discourses develop in ‘public sphere’ over time is not only relevant but important.
As has been pointed out many, these textbooks were the outcome of a collective process of intensive deliberations, drafting and reviewing by hundreds of academics, researchers, teachers and social scientists. This is not to deny the need for their revision, but surely that process has to be at least as informed and democratic as the one that brought those textbooks into existence?
Allowing a team of ‘members of parliament’ to intervene at this moment, as the parties in question in their short-sightedness do not see, sets a very alarming precedent of accepting such future interventions by a wide spectrum of political interests – from neoliberal to saffron – in dictating future academic agendas if not the current one.
Debates and disagreements apart, we must not to let this episode escalate into another act of partisan censorship.
Shipra Nigam is a Consultant Economist at RIS (Research and Information Systems for Developing Countries), New Delhi.
Related reading: Just why was that cartoon in text books?