The India BlogThe India Blog is about the socio-political-economic landscape of the country, its cultural moorings and the challenges it faces – whatever affects the lives and future of the people living within its boundaries and beyond.
The Ambedkar cartoon controversy is not only an attempt by the votaries of Dalit politics to keep their icons beyond scrutiny, but also a ploy by politicians, including those in office at the centre to denigrate those that are trying to hold it accountable, though there is also genuine concern among some lawmakers about the possibility to caricatures in textbooks breeding cynicism in youth about democratic politics.
An analysis of the debates in the Lok Sabha that took place on the May 11 and 14 shows that while the immediate provocation was the 1949 cartoon by Shankar Pillay in the Class XI political science textbook, most of the speakers were concerned about the less than flattering portrayal of politicians and the effect this would have on impressionable minds. That cartoon shows BR Ambedkar flogging the snail he is riding, and Jawaharlal Nehru, whip in hand, goading Ambedkar to get on with the drafting of the Constitution, which was three years in the making. Thol Thirumaa Valavan, Dalit lawmaker of the Liberation Panthers Party (or VCK) from Chidambaram constituency articulated his sense of injury in the Lok Sabha at a Brahmin prime minister prodding a Dalit leader - a slur that Shankar surely did not intend.
The Akali Dal, which had tied up with the Dalit Bahujan Samaj Party in the recent state elections, used the emotive issue to expand the scope of the discussion and question the very use of cartoons in textbooks. 'I was horrified to hear all this,' says Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Akali Dal lawmaker and daughter-in-law of Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, when about a hundred school children aged 13 to 15 years told her, 'why would any of us want to be part of you looters, criminals, murderers and thieves?' when she asked why none of them wanted to be a politician during the Anna Hazare agitation against corruption last year. She had initiated the discussion in the Lok Sabha on the 14th, a day after Parliament's special session to commemorate 60 years of the first sitting of the Lok Sabha. Kaur was taken aback when the students cited textbooks as among the sources of information that molded their opinion against politicians.
Biju Janata Dal lawmaker from Cuttack, Bharthruhari Mahtab says he had persuaded Badal to make a noise when she had broached the issue with him. 'Cartoons are fine in newspapers but in text books it (sic) portrays a bad way of explaining the society we are living in,' he says. 'We should try to protect freedom of expression at all costs. But nuisance should not be created through a text book.'
Mahtab takes offence at three cartoons and the inference that students are asked to draw from them. In one, a candidate is being asked why he is contesting when he already has Rs 50 crore in assets. Mahtab objects to the question, 'what do you think- will the situation change?' that Class IX students are asked to answer after seeing the cartoon. In another cartoon, a 'defected MLA' is being protected by a security guard standing behind suitcases piled up like sandbags, and students are asked to offer an explanation. In the third, women with empty pots are seen lining up at a hand pump marked 'right to information', which is choked by the bureaucracy.
The revulsion against the use of cartoon in textbooks cuts across parties. 'There is an attempt to pollute the whole atmosphere of the country.... that leads to cynicism that everybody is bad...' thunders Gurudas Dasgupta, MP of the Communist Party of India. The CPI does not have an affinity to the Anna Hazare movement, which it sees as fronting for the RSS. Anna Hazare's 'sab neta chor hai' slogan has clearly hurt. Dasgupta refers to Hazare team leader Arvind Kejriwal's comment that, 'there are many rapists and murderers in Parliament.' Though the NCERT book was published six years ago, well before Hazare's campaign against corruption, it is seen as part of a wider conspiracy to undermine the political class.
This thinking finds resonance in BJP leader Yashwant Sinha. 'This is a collection of the worst cartoons on politicians in the country.... I am not surprised that children do not want to be politicians.' Sinha says that the 'brilliant minds' that went into the preparation of the texts are 'not needed in the democratic polity of this country.'
The 'brilliant minds' that crafted the textbooks between 2005 and 2007 are those of Yogendra Yadav of the Center for Study of Developing Societies and Suhas Paslikar, professor of political and public administration at the University of Pune. Yadav is a left-leaning liberal known for his scholarship of Ram Manohar Lohia and a book on comparative democracy in South Asia. Paslikar's research interest includes Dalit politics. The texts were vetted by other experts, none of whom obviously agrees with the BJP's saffronization of textbooks while in power, so Sinha allergy to them is understandable.
'Cartoons are the viewpoints of newspapers; it (sic) is not political science,' says TKS Elongovan of the DMK, who represents Chennai North. 'If we are made a laughing stock what politics will children learn,' ask Lalu Prasad, the Rashtriya Janata Dal leader.
Basudeb Acharya of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) likes cartoons, but to 'misuse' them to denigrate politicians before children is just not on. 'What are we teaching the children, what are we telling them about the nation and about democracy?' he asks. The CPM may not see eye to eye with the Trinamool Congress but on the issue of cartoons there is no difference of opinion. 'Today, not only in cartoons, but at Jantar Mantar (where Anna Hazare fasted), films, (TV) programmes, if there is a politician, give him gaali, people like it,' says Satabdi Rai, the party's MP from Birbhum in West Bengal.
Anant Gangaram Geete, Shiv Sena MP from Raigarh says he has not issue with cartoons as such. It is their inclusion in textbooks that he objects to. Geete was power minister in Atal Behari Vajpayee's cabinet. He replaced Suresh Prabhu, an upright minister, who got in the crosshairs of the Shiv Sena leadership allegedly for not being helpful with funds for the party. Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party was worried about children's outlook towards politicians. 'The whole house is anguished,' said Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal (United). Munisamy Thambidurai of the All India Anna DMK was anxious that 'if such kinds of cartoons poison the minds of the people, it will lead to anarchy and youth will not believe in democracy.' For Dhara Singh Chauhan of the Bahujan Samaj Party, 'this is a conspiracy to influence young minds against politicians.' Sanjay Nirupam of the Congress party wanted an inquiry into whether the authors were 'part of a conspiracy to defame the political class.'
Curiously almost all the parties that participated in the debate, except for the communists and the Trinamool Congress, have a record of corruption. The lone lawmaker who dissented was Shariffuddin Sharif, the National Conference MP from Baramullah (J&K), who wanted the lawmakers to introspect and ask, 'why have we given an opportunity to cartoonists to point fingers at us.'
Why did the Congress so readily disown the textbooks that its government had itself approved six years ago? One reason is that it is so insecure that it cannot countenance any erosion of its vote base. Defence minister AK Antony, for instance, recently declined to invite Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Barak, despite thriving military relations with Israel, for fear of offending the Muslims. Ironically, Dalits who were denied a voice for centuries have themselves turned censor. Ambedkar is to Dalits what the Prophet is to Muslims, says Kancha Ilaiah, a Dalit writer. In other words, no criticism will be tolerated.
Rather than defend the cartoons, Pranab Mukherjee said 'it is totally wrong.' HRD Minister Kapil Sibal said, 'I am of the view that a large number of depictions in these cartoons are offensive and are inappropriate for textbooks.' The government, he said, 'is resolved to conduct an inquiry into the role of officials of NCERT (National Council for Educational Research and Training) who approved the inclusion of offending materials in the textbooks ... and fix responsibility.'
Can a minister who is willing to hang his officers to save his skin command any respect?
More about Vivian FernandesVivian Fernandes is a senior journalist with nearly 30 years of practice, 19 of them in television, all of which he spent at TV18. Vivian’s last assignment was as executive editor of a book on India and China written by the founder of the Network 18 group, Mr Raghav Bahl. He has been an observer of Indian business and politics, and had reported on economic policy making as reporter, chief of Delhi bureau of correspondents and economic policy editor. Vivian has traveled abroad with Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. He was also reported on the World Trade Organization’s trade talks from Cancun, Hong Kong and Geneva. He continues his association with the Network18 group, but not as an employee.
"Hello?" the voice was vaguely familiar, muted, hesitant, unsure. It was from a young acquaintance. He sure didn't sound too bright. The reason, as explained haltingly in the next
Take a tour of the newspaper archives of the month of May every year and when it comes to National Capital Region (NCR) news, there is a clear pattern.