'I have an open mind, though not an empty mind. A person with an open mind is always the subject of congratulations. While this may be so, it must, at the same time, be realized that an open mind may also be an empty mind and that such an open mind, if it is a happy condition, is also a very dangerous condition for a man to be in. A disaster may easily overtake a man with an empty mind. Such a person is like a ship without ballast and without a rudder. It can have no direction. It may float but may also suffer a shipwreck against a rock for want of direction.' - Dr B. R. Ambedkar, while concluding the preface of his book 'Pakistan or the Partition of India'
It was more than a month ago that some of my Dalit friends brought this NCERT cartoon to my notice. One even sent the entire NCERT text book in PDF format through email calling the cartoon derogatory to Babasaheb Ambedkar and the need for Dalits to protest against it.
The whole issue didn't interest me at first. I had faith that people at NCERT would not do something like including a cartoon in their text books to denigrate Dr Ambedkar now, at a time when Dalit assertion is so strong and visible. So I just had a very cursory glance at the cartoon.
To be honest I didn't notice the whips. I didn't notice even Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. So there was no question of reading the cartoon as 'Kashmiri Brahman whipping Dr. Ambedkar'. [There are many commentators who are mockingly suggesting that this is how Dalits who are opposing this cartoon 'misread' it. At least I didn't read it that way.]
I only noticed Babasaheb sitting on the snail labeled as 'Constitution' and the context of the cartoon as explained in the box below it asking the students to reflect on the charge of 'snail's pace' of the constitution making process.
That was fair enough on the part of NCERT, I thought. A very valid point to ask students to reflect on while teaching them about Indian Constitution. This was one major charge against the Constitution Drafting Committee and Dr Ambedkar himself, as the chairperson of the Drafting Committee, gave an explanation in his epic speech on 26th November 1949. Nothing wrong in it.
I didn't find the cartoon derogatory to Dr Ambedkar as such, though I didn't like the cartoon much personally. I didn't like Dr Ambedkar sitting on the snail labeled as 'Constitution'. I didn't like the constitution making process being addressed as 'snail paced', even if it was mentioned just as a charge, and a historical fact, that the authors of NCERT wanted students to critically reflect on and then possibly debunk the charge.
In an ideal situation I would not like references to Dr Ambedkar, in school text books (and I repeat in school text books), in any form other than glowing tributes to his struggle and his achievements.
One can call it as my fanaticism or my hero worship or both. But I have my reasons and there is absolutely no compulsion on NCERT to consider mine and of maybe millions of other Dalits who think on similar lines on Dr Ambedkar and it has full freedom to look at his contributions more objectively than us.
Forget Dalits opposing the Indian academicians' attempts 'to look objectively' at Dr Ambedkar's contributions, Dalits never ever even protested against his exclusion from school text books for over five decades after independence (except few lines here and there on Dr Ambedkar as 'Father of the Indian Constitution').
Perhaps school and college syllabi, pedagogy etc was not on the top of our priority list. For right or wrong reasons we have been more actively engaged with reservations, education, jobs, tackling violence and discrimination, and with various forms of political and cultural assertions. But there has always been an acute awareness and resentment among Dalits about this 'exclusion'.
So it brought us a lot of joy to know that there have been some positive changes particularly in the new NCERT text books and one can now find our icons there.
So my own disliking of the cartoon did not provide me with any reason to question its inclusion in the NCERT text book nor to suspect the intentions of those academicians who were instrumental in having it there.
As a person working in the area of higher education and dealing with the cases of caste discrimination against Dalit and Adivasi students, for over a decade now, I had some other concerns.
Concerns that came to my mind, inadvertently, just by looking at the cartoon.
And these were about what non-dalit students and teachers were going to make out of this cartoon in the class. Whether this cartoon would give them any chance of lampooning Dr Ambedkar? Whether they would mock at Dr Ambedkar as 'a snail' or take him as the 'offender' behind the delay in Indian Constitution making?
Whether this cartoon would bring out the casteist prejudices both from students and their teachers in class rooms and impact Dalit students? Massively outnumbered, how were the Dalit students going to counter this in these classes?
Would the accompanying text have the power to make students and teachers to overcome their casteist prejudices against Dr Ambedkar while trying to make sense of the cartoonist's quite critical gaze on the constitution making process?
As a Dalit, I have grown up experiencing non-dalits' hatred towards Dr Ambedkar and his works in various forms and the most visible one to me, his statues being desecrated, still go unabated in different parts of the country and I realize very well that, unfortunately, our society does not have many 'pro-dalit' academics like Prof Yogendra Yadav and Prof Suhas Palshikar ready to acknowledge his contributions as yet. This number would have been much larger perhaps if Dr Ambedkar's struggle and Dalit realities were included in the textbooks of previous generations.
Prejudices often multiply and get more entrenched where there is massive ignorance about a subject (Dr Ambedkar's contribution), and here we are talking about total absence of information in textbooks for over 5 decades after the country got independence.
I have also witnessed how hatred towards Dr Ambedkar merges with hatred towards Dalits and vice versa. A lot happens when the identity and work of a public personality gets forcefully tied up and gets superimposed on his community which is facing discrimination and prejudices. Ask M.F. Husain.
Ask Dalits from Tsunduru, Andhra Pradesh where many lost their lives, in August 1991; their erecting Dr Ambedkar's statue in the village being one of the reasons behind that ghastly crime.
But this is just a cartoon. A pretty harmless one. Do my fears and concerns about its impact in class rooms look too improbable, far-fetched, over sensitive, or just reveals the working of a fanatic Dalit mind? Think over it.
In the meanwhile let me narrate my own experience on what happens in the Indian class rooms. The year was 1995. Mayawati had just become the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
In August that year, I sat for my first class after getting selected in one of the country's oldest and well reputed government engineering college. And the much learned Professor, after getting our introductions, makes a statement in the class, vigorously waving his finger, hypothetically pointing towards the 8 SC and ST students sitting among a class of over 80 students, 'SC, ST students, better work hard because I am going to mark papers, not Mayawati'.
And the entire class laughed excluding me and the Professor. Neither I could ever ask the rest of the SC and ST students on whether they shared the humor nor could I ever make out whether this was just a way of 'breaking ice' by a Professor using his sense of 'humor' that actually worked. It did bring out laughter from all other students.
What I realized with that one statement by the professor, on the very first day in my engineering college: I was 'different' from other class mates and my identity was tied up with one politician whom this professor hated and he was going to hate me too despite having no connections with Mayawati apart from both of us being Dalits.
Mayawati was still more than a decade away from her statues, Ambedkar Memorials, garlands made of currencies, her 'corruption' and all other epithets like 'megalomaniac' etc by which she often gets described now. Still she was as hated then as she is today.
What happened in the next few years of my stay in that engineering college would require me to go on for a long time. It suffices to say here that it was not a good experience, not something I wish any student of any background, least of all Dalits and Adivasis, to go through.
[Having very conveniently invisibilised caste as a problem, unless it is about reservations or on Mayawati's case corruption or on her statues, there is always a sense of disbelief from many on hearing Dalits talk about caste, about their experiences of discrimination. Any such reader can go through this link that was published in Tehelka, some three years before this cartoon controversy]
Yes, I am aware that a lot of time, over 15 years, has elapsed since my own experience and also that Dr Ambedkar is a little more acceptable today in India than he probably was two decades ago. But have the prejudices against Dalits been done away with?
Are our class-rooms free of caste-prejudices to let non-dalit students' and teachers' critical thinking faculties having a fair play on subjects like Dr Ambedkar and his role in constitution making?
The members of parliament appeared unanimous against this cartoon by saying that our students, being in an impressionable age, must not be exposed to such. Our academicians are unanimous in dismissing this point of view calling it just a bogey and have claimed that cartoons, included under a fresh pedagogical perspective, cultivate students' ability to relate the book to their own lives and develop critical thinking.
But none of these two views reflect my concerns on this particular cartoon.
Neither do I believe that the students of class XI are of impressionable age and must be 'protected' nor do I have too much faith in the critical thinking ability of the students as well as of those who teach them on the issues of caste and Dr Ambedkar.
Only thing I am convinced of is that the inclusion of cartoons does bring a fresh pedagogical perspective and definitely is a better learning tool that breaks the monotony of written text and has the ability to relate the book to students' own lives.
And that is where all my concerns regarding this particular cartoon stem from: its ability to relate to students' own lives that include their own prejudices too.
In Indian society, students of class XI standard, with very rare exceptions, have a fairly developed sense of caste consciousness. They are aware about caste hierarchies. They are aware about the rules of untouchability. They are aware about most of the local surnames and where to place them in corresponding caste groups. They are also aware about their own identities and their position in the caste hierarchy.
These students are not some 'unmarked' young boys and girls as every Indian academician, in this debate, has very piously assumed. They are not just students. Each one of them has a caste and the class room which brings these students together is a space where the tensions of caste play a role in everyday lives of the students.
And for the Dalit students this space assumes much importance in their lives. For most of them this being the only place of any meaningful interaction and sharing of common space with the non-dalits. Otherwise we live in a completely parallel universe.
If one listens to Dalits' experiences, chances are their strongest memories would be about the caste related incidents that happened inside their schools, with fellow students, with their teachers.
[One can go through Dalits & Adivasi students' portal that carries some excellent interviews of Dalit and Adivasi students and young professionals to know what they have to say about their schools, fellow students and teachers. These experiences are not from some hoary past, all of these are from within last 15 years.
These are people who were successfully able to negotiate with their caste realities and identities. But many could not and paid the price with their lives. To hear their versions of class room realities, one can go through The Death of Merit in India]
In such a context, with our own lived experiences of class rooms, isn't it natural to be a little concerned about the possibility of any misreading of this particular cartoon by the young students, certainly not impressionable but with every possibility of being imbibed with caste prejudices prevalent in the society, and by their not so young, but equally or more prejudiced teachers?
Cartoons that are critical of Pandit Nehru or any other political leaders in the text books would never create any prejudice against the students coming from the castes of these leaders but will Prof Yogendra Yadav and Prof Suhas Palshikar assure me and other dalits that the same would also not happen in the case of Dr Ambedkar?
Can they assure me that students do not harbor caste prejudices against anything Dalit and this cartoon would not provide them one more stick to beat the Dalit students with, one more reason to remain prejudiced against Dr Ambedkar even after reading the text that explains why the delay in Constitution making might have actually happened?
Do these concerns appear fanatic? Do these concerns look like they are coming from my considering Dr Ambedkar as a 'Prophet'? Do these indicate my 'intolerance' towards any depiction of Dr Ambedkar which I find irreverent?
Do these concerns denote that my opposition on the inclusion of this particular cartoon is because I consider that to be 'derogatory' to Dr Ambedkar and believe that one 63 year old cartoon can actually diminish his contributions, his struggles in any way?
With all my concerns about this cartoon I still do not oppose its inclusion in the NCERT text book. But I do think that given the level of hatred and prejudice against Dalits and Babasaheb Ambedkar, NCERT could have avoided reproducing it in the school text book.
Instead what worries me more than this cartoon is the complete ignorance shown by Prof Yogendra Yadav and Prof Suhas Palshikar on class room realities of Indian schools and their utter insensitivity towards larger social realities concerning Dalits and Dalit icons, despite being learned scholars having worked on the issue of caste for long.
Despite all my hero worshipping of Babasaheb Ambedkar I would still have lived with this cartoon in the NCERT textbook and would have just taken it as yet another instance of ignorance and insensitivity of caste-hindu scholars towards Dalit realities. However what has prompted me to write this article and the need to share my views is due to all that is being written on the internet, in newspapers and magazines and said on TV, after this controversy erupted in the Indian Parliament on 14th May.
There is so much of out-pouring of grief and anger against what transpired in the parliament, on that fateful day, from academicians, journalists and all other varieties of opinion makers. All of them are claiming this as a brutal assault on the freedom of academic expression, Dr Ambedkar becoming a prophet with intolerant followers, vote bank politics, rise of Dalit fundamentalism, low point in Indian democracy and many more things you all are well aware of.
The news papers have given a lot of space to these voices; national magazines are bringing out cover stories, Dr Ambedkar getting depicted on their cover pages as 'Prophet Ambedkar'. Internet is full of angry status messages, blog posts and almost maniac sharing of articles condemning this act.
Then there are some who have got so disgusted and charged up, that they think Dalits opposing this cartoon to be worse than 'khaki nikker wallas'. One much disturbed academician-blogger, even ponders over whether 'to leave it to the Dalits to sort out the meaning of Ambedkar's legacy'.
For a Dalit, probably this is what Mayan calendars hinted at while predicting the world, as we see, to come to an end in 2012.
However every cloud has a silver lining. Looking at the amount of debates and discussions this controversy has generated I have the feeling that Babasaheb Ambedkar has finally arrived in this country.
The efforts of innumerable Dalits who started with erecting his statues as the very first act of assertion, pouring out all their grief, pain and revolt in the form of Ambedkarite Dalit literature, millions of them coming together every year on his birth and death anniversaries to keep his memory alive and fresh, forming various political groups, associations, students fronts, employees associations all claiming to take his 'karavan' forward, all their efforts to claim public space that was hitherto forbidden, their fight to bring their icons, as marginalized as them, into the mainstream and above all their efforts in establishing Babasaheb as the greatest among all national leaders, scholar par excellence and great revolutionary, are finally paying fruits.
The evidence is quite visible. Every article, every articulation whether on TV or on internet, in the newspapers, in magazines on this controversy invariably begins with glowing tributes to Dr Ambedkar, his role in the making of this country, the importance of his legacy, his brilliant scholarship, his critical outlook, his strongest rebuke against any kind of hero-worship, his role in constitution making etc.
By doing so each of them reminded the 'fanatic' Dalit not to bring shame to Dr Ambedkar's memories, to his name by opposing one cartoon in a school text book. Even those well known Indian academicians, who used to make syllabi, write text books, take classes in prestigious universities and institutes but always excluded Dr Ambedkar in their syllabi, in their textbooks, in the classrooms are singing paeans to Dr Ambedkar. Being a little bit aware of their past scholarly works, their articulations, this is something really fabulous and heartwarming. Honestly.
I also believe that it is important for scholars who are working on caste to document all these articulations and when the dust settles down a bit to coolly sit and reflect on how much of these articulations were honest concerns and how many were just a masquerade to cover caste anxieties against Dalit assertion, against Dr Ambedkar's ever increasing relevance in today's India.
While preparing for interviews, many young Dalit aspirants for various prestigious government jobs including Indian civil services feel little anxious on two questions they fear would get thrown at them during the interview. One on reservations, another on Dr Ambedkar's being 'Father of Indian Constitution'.
Given its contentious and contemporary nature and in a direct relationship with Dalit students, questions on reservations appear quite natural. But what is so special about Dr Ambedkar's role in Constitution making process, in the eyes of many, that it is so regular a question asked to Dalit aspirants in their interviews? Dalit aspirants will tell you that they make a strong mental note of not mentioning Dr Ambedkar, in their responses, as the 'Father of Indian Constitution' or the 'maker of Indian Constitution' but to refer him as the chairman of the Constitution Drafting committee which is actually an accurate description of his role.
It was the Congress that created and actively propagated this 'myth' through school text books to appropriate Dr Ambedkar, but without his other contributions and devoid of his revolutionary thoughts, especially those engendered in the contexts of his battles against the caste system, and to invisibilise the historical confrontations between Dr Ambedkar and the Congress under Gandhi.
However this portrayal of Dr Ambedkar was brilliantly appropriated back by Ambedkarites all across the country and no statue of Babasaheb is complete without a copy of the Indian constitution in his hands. They used this 'myth' ingeniously to stake a claim on the Indian nation without ever letting others to forget about his other struggles and contributions.
While engaging with the non-Dalit public sphere that never acknowledged any 'positives' among Dalits, his image as 'the maker of Indian Constitution' was constantly evoked by the Dalits to fight on many fronts especially to counter their exclusion in the non-dalits' imagination of this nation, and to a certain extent oppose the myth of the meritorious 'upper' castes.
The non-Dalit public sphere never took lightly to this kind of evocation of Dr Ambedkar and Dalit claims. If one goes through the various critiques of Dr Ambedkar, especially the more polished ones, from various commentators including many scholars and journalists, right from the days of Dr Ambedkar, one can see that a major portion of their critique is devoted to debunk the myth that 'Ambedkar wrote the constitution'.
In such context, how to look at this controversy and the text prepared by Prof Yogendra Yadav and Prof Suhas Palshikar, that accompanies the cartoon in the NCERT text book, and the 'sensitivities' of Dalits involved will be the subject of the second part of this article.
I wish to write many more parts and share my views on different issues and on the anxieties shared by many around this controversy: on freedom of expression, on dalit politicians' arm twisting, on the rise of dalit fanaticism, on vote bank politics on this cartoon, Dalits attempts to make Dr Ambedkar a Prophet and hence place him above any criticism, the resignations of NCERT advisors etc.
Meanwhile, I request all my readers to have a look at the cartoon posted below (drawn by my friend Unnamati Syama Sundar who I believe, due to his brilliant ability to use his cartooning skills to comment on contemporary political issues, is the rightful heir to the legendary K. Shankar Pillai) and ponder over the possibilities of its inclusion in our text books as this cartoon depicts quite accurately various realities of contemporary India that everyone needs to appreciate and acknowledge. Jai Bheem!
To be continued.
Please also read the article 'Whipping up 'critical pedagogy': Uncritical defense of NCERT's violence' on the same issue here.
First cartoon, drawn by K. Shankar Pillai, courtesy: the net.
Second cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.