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The Cartoon Conundrum

 

 

 

A counterpoint: Conundrum of a cartoon and the proselytization of professors

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Bojja Tharakam

A considerable bunch of professors are up in arms against those who condemned the cartoon republished in the text book in political science for class XI (published by the National Council of Educational Research and Training), depicting Jawaharlal Nehru, whip in his hand, driving Dr. Ambedkar, also holding a whip and sitting on a snail labeled as the 'constitution' and a large group of people laughing at the scene. The professors including the two chief advisors, Prof. Suhas Palshikar and Prof. Yogender Yadav, also condemned the decision of the Government of India to remove the cartoon and withdraw the text book. They bemoan the lack of wit and wisdom, a sense for appreciating a punch and humor and condemned the people who are against the cartoon for their ignorance of the new trend of pedagogy introduced in the text book.

The professors are missing the point that those who oppose the cartoon are not against cartoons and caricatures and their importance in our life. They are also not against freedom of speech and expression. The professors are betraying their anger when they are caught on the wrong foot and are ventilating their ire on those who condemn the cartoon and its publishers in an oblique tone saying "Oh they are dalits, they cannot understand the nuances of a drawing, a poem, an essay and a song". Incidentally, those who first raised their voices against the cartoon are Mayawati, Ramdas Athawale and Thirumaavalavan. The quarrel is not only on the cartoon but also on its use in the text.

Before we appreciate the point and the counter point, let us pose and answer three questions which have not been raised so far. First: "Whether a cartoon drawn in 1949 is relevant in 2006, particularly in a lesson on the Indian Constitution at work?"; second – "does the reproduction of the cartoon reflect truly the contents of the text?"; and the third – "what could be the intention of the editors or chief advisors in inserting the cartoon and what did they want to drive at?".

Before I answer these questions, let me place the views and expressions of the professors in support of their anger. Their grievance is that the attackers of the cartoon are not appreciating their good intention of including the name of Dr. Ambedkar in a text book; after all there is no space for Ambedkar in any syllabus of any school, college or University. Also there was no research work on Dr. Ambedkar in Universities till Professor Sukhadeo Thorat occupied the chair of UGC. The professors feel that they did a great favor to Dr. Ambedkar by referring to him.

Before I answer the first question, let me emphatically say that the text does not acknowledge anywhere that Dr. Ambedkar was the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution. The authors of the lesson do not have the sincerity to record a historical fact, leave alone the gumption. Nowhere in the lesson does one find the relevance of Dr. Ambedkar to the constitution and the role played by him. Nowhere do we find any mention of what was the assignment given to him and what a monumental work was accomplished by him single handed. Nowhere is it mentioned that as the Chairman of the Drafting Committee, he answered hundred of questions, objections, interventions and dealt with thousands of amendments. Nowhere is it mentioned with what a great amount of Constitutional and Political Wisdom he had cleared off thousands of doubts expressed by the Hon'ble Members of the Constituent assembly. Without giving all these accounts, putting out a cartoon that depicted that he and he alone was going at a snail's pace and Nehru, growing impatient, was whipping Dr. Ambedkar: what message does this cartoon convey? Let the professors delve deep into the mind of Shankar and bring it out or let them explain what message they want to hand over to the students through this cartoon.

The professors acknowledge their deep respect for Dr. Ambedkar but are they justified in not telling the students that Dr. Ambedkar was the Chairman of the Drafting Committee? On the other hand, the lesson says that "the constituent Assembly had eight major committees on different subjects, usually Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Patel, Moulana Azad or Ambedkar chaired their committees". These lines are distortion of the facts and do not reflect the correct picture. Rajendra Prasad was the president of the constituent assembly itself. He almost chaired the entire proceedings which took place between 9th December 1946 and 26th November, 1949. Dr. Ambedkar was unanimously elected as chairman of drafting committee and he compiled the entire constitution incorporating the work of different sub-committees.

It is most unfair on the part of the author, editor and chief advisors in putting the blame for the delay on Dr. Ambedkar without acknowledging his great and most erudite contribution. No doubt they have mentioned in the text that "every other matter was discussed and seriously debated"; that "the voluminous debates in the constituent assembly where each clause of the constitution was subjected to scrutiny and debate"; that "each instance, every single argument, query or concern was responded with great care and in writing" and that "the assembly met for 166 days spread over 2 years and 11 months", yet the delay is attributed to Dr. Ambedkar.

The whole issue has to be viewed in this perspective. Pictorial descriptions are not new in text books. Pictures are drawn for the purpose of the text. Artists will be commissioned for that purpose. There is no prohibition in using a picture already drawn and available, but that should be relevant to the text and it should further facilitate understanding of the text. The cartoon in dispute has no relevance. A doubt arises in the minds of those who attacked the cartoon that republishing this cartoon may be a deliberate attempt to denigrate Dr. Ambedkar, particularly when the text does not acknowledge the fact that Dr. Ambedkar was the Chairman of the Drafting committee. The history of the making of the constitution is not properly told to the students. Intellectual dishonesty cannot be condoned.

In this background, let us examine the anger of the professors. Airing the first explanation, Professor Suhas Palshikar and Yogendra Yadav say that "in no way the text or the cartoon denigrate or down play the contribution of Dr. Baba Saheb Ambedkar". This explanation is contrary to the facts. In an article published in The Hindu, dt 16.5.2012, Professor Palshikar tried to heckle those who oppose the cartoon saying sarcastically that "no sex and text book cartoons please, we are under eighteen". This is the unkindest cut of all. The learned professor is diverting the controversy by trying to suppress the original intention in borrowing a cartoon, drawn in 1949, that throws the entire blame on Dr. Ambedkar and appreciates the anxiety of Nehru in getting the constitution drafted quickly. The learned professor is also unhappy over the appointment of an enquiry committee in this matter. The professor of politics fails to note that freedom of speech and expression is not absolute and that it is controlled by reasonable restrictions. No cartoonist has a right to denigrate any person, much less a person of the stature of Dr. Ambedkar. What was the reaction of Nehru and Ambedkar on the cartoon is immaterial. The question is, whether it is relevant or not? Shankar may be a great cartoonist and Nehru enjoying cartoons featuring himself is a different thing. The cartoon must be in good taste. It has to be further seen against the backdrop of suppression of facts in the text. K.N.Panikkar, a renowned historian termed the reaction of the members of the Parliament as unwarranted and disturbing (The Hindu, 17 May, 2012). No doubt he called the cartoon as thought-provoking lampooning of one of the major events but said it did no harm to Nehru and Ambedkar. The renowned historian failed to see the historical dishonesty in not telling the students that Dr. Ambedkar was the chairman of the drafting committee which left the entire task of drafting to Dr. Ambedkar. This is the sense of history we have!

Satish Deshpande bemoans why this ruckus now when "there was no protest when it was first published". The national press would not have carried any reaction of Dr. Ambedkar, if any at that time because in his life time Dr. Ambedkar did not get his due in the press. He was ignored by a conspiracy of silence.

Another aspect to be observed in this whole episode is that there were other cartoons depicting Nehru as a great leader, tackling different view points, leading together different feuding parties and opinions and ultimately projecting him as a hero. It is not to draw comparisons here, but when we depict the contribution of two great leaders, each with creditable performances, one should not be depicted in a poor light and denigrated for no fault of his. This is what happened here. It may not be a deliberate act. But it left that effect. Another disturbing feature we find in this country is that Dr. Ambedkar is identified with Dalits, and it is unfortunately left to Dalits only to raise their voice against anything which harms the reputation of Dr. Ambedkar. The nation has not grown yet to that stage where Dr. Ambedkar is considered as one of the greatest sons of this country and the tallest intellectual giant. That day will be a great day – not for Dr. Ambedkar, but for this country.

 

Bojja Tharakam is a Senior Advocate, in Andhra Pradesh High Court, and social activist.

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