Decades after the purportedly offensive cartoon portraying Jawaharlal Nehru and B R Ambedkar was published in an NCERT textbook, the entire Parliament has woken up to it. And all of a sudden, what was obviously intended to be a funny statement on the birth of the nation and its constitution, has taken on caste overtones.
If anything unites our politicians, it’s their inability to laugh at themselves – or the predecessors they worship, despite Ambedkar’s own exhortation against idolisation of leaders.
Before we consider the offensiveness quotient of the cartoon, though, let’s ask ourselves what this is really about. First of all, the cartoon depicts Ambedkar riding a tortoise quite regally, while Nehru tries to whip it into a gallop. Now, who comes off looking like the idiot here?
You could look at it as a lawyer meticulously framing the constitution, while a harried Prime Minister ridiculously expects so important and laborious a task to be done with quickly.
Or, you could see it as the framer-of-the-constitution choosing the slowest possible vehicle to get to his goal, while the frustrated Prime Minister vents his fury.
Does it make any sense, though, to see it as a pundit ill-treating a Dalit? Well, not unless you’re Mayawati, and want to revoke the Atrocities Against SC/ST Act at the drop of a hat.
And not unless you think the iconic satirist Shankar, who drew the cartoon in 1949, spent his time coming up with conspiracies to “poison” the “impressionable” minds of these students.
But all our MPs, with the exception of the National Conference’s S D Shariq, believe our textbooks are better off even duller and drabber, purged of the vicious cartoons that “endanger democracy”. So, freedom of expression endangers democracy. Was greater irony ever heard, even in the Parliament?
Helming this movement is Sonia Gandhi, the Italian granddaughter-in-law of Nehru, who himself seemed to have had no objections against being caricatured. She even thumped the desk when BJP MP Yashwant Sinha referred to this work of Shankar’s as being among “the worst cartoons of politicians.”
Her solution is to withdraw the “objectionable material”, and if necessary, the whole book, and “send out a clear signal” by finding a scapegoat from the education board that approved the cartoon. While Akali Dal MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal, who was the first to wake up and smell the cartoon, wanted “strict action” against those responsible for it, Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam was of the opinion that these people were part of a scheme to malign politicians. Well, let’s hold a séance and ask Shankar, shall we?
But the row is not really about the Ambedkar cartoon. As the Parliament pushes for action on the issue, drowning out the lone sensible voice of Shariq, it’s obvious that the cartoon was simply an excuse. Anyone who objected to its removal could be branded casteist, and disrespectful of a man whose foresight has guided the country for decades. Never mind that he himself would have likely reacted to the cartoon with an amused chuckle.
Shariq went so far as to say it was true that the assets of MPs increased considerably when they were elected for a second term. Of course, Kapil Sibal came up with an irrelevant reply about the cartoons not being “educationally appropriate”.
A committee has been set up to scrutinise textbooks, and suggest alternatives to such “offensive cartoons” within a month. A month! Meanwhile, the NCERT has already begun pulling out its textbooks from distributors. Up to 100,000 textbooks could be withdrawn under this drive.
This action not only vindicates the likes of Mamata Banerjee, who had Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra arrested, for allegedly threatening to assassinate her by putting the word “vanish” into a caricature; it also ensures that students will never see the work of the likes of Shankar and R K Laxman, who played as important a role in the politics of the country as any of the people they lampooned, unless they go looking for these.
And that means far from living in a democracy, we live in a dictatorship; only, we have about 500 megalomaniac dictators running this country. If we can come together to demand the Lokpal, when most of us don’t know what the hell it means, it would be an embarrassment to us if we didn’t protest against this preposterous ban. Since when did politicians acquire the right to remove our sense of humour?