“This world, in which reason is more and more at home, is not habitable. It is hard and cold like those depots in which are piled up goods that cannot satisfy”
— Emmanuel Lévinas
The debate on the Ambedkar cartoon started with a wide-ranging condemnation of the act of vandalism and two opposing views eventually emerged. Some, including those who were involved in the making of the textbooks, supported the inclusion of the cartoon as part of their larger endeavour to create an atmosphere of critical thinking in the classroom. Others, opposing the inclusion of the cartoon, argued that Dalits in particular are apprehensive of how the cartoon is being received in Indian schools, so the cartoon should be removed from the book. Caste prejudices still thrive in Indian schools and though Ambedkar’s role in crafting the Constitution is celebrated by the mainstream, his more significant role as a Dalit scholar who fought against the Hindu social system is sidelined. Since the political class—which hardly ever renders good service to social science education (rather finds ways to hinder it)—quickly supported the demand for the deletion of the cartoon and also ordered the possible scrapping of all the cartoons in the new textbooks, the debate became more divided.
Amidst relentless arguments and counter-arguments what has emerged at last, perhaps not unusually, is a facile wrangle between two notions/concepts: reason and the sentiment of hurt. The good thing about the debate finally getting into this zone is that the mindsets behind the argument have appeared at the forefront. It has also helped the debate to engage the political with what was the point of divisiveness.
First let me call the bluff of the argument posited by left-liberal ‘rationalists’ who have sought to create this false rift between emotion and reason. From the very beginning, these votaries of reason produced a language of unchecked sentiments. Those in opposition to the cartoon were branded politically naïve, undemocratically partisan and unenlightened victims of emotionalism. But to the ‘rationalists’ their self-representation was never a matter of doubt. Dalit counter-representation, on the other hand, was branded emotional. The perils of this binary-fication never occurred to their rational minds. Reason is notorious for creating crooked distinctions to hegemonise itself.
Some among the ‘rationalists’ concluded that Dalits were being taken for a ride and had been reduced to sentimental beings, incapable of reason. Those who spoke in favour of the community’s discontents were blamed for instigating adverse emotions. When reason creates binaries, emotions become pathologies. As if Dalits were gullible children, susceptible to manipulation. This betrayed how the ‘rationalist’ scholars assumed a “pathological naturalism” for Dalits. But by a sleight-of-hand reasoning, or using the cunning of reason, they tried to shift their prejudice on to those who supported the Dalit sense of discomfort and hurt.
This dichotomising of reason and emotion is exactly how colonial discourses thrived. It is despairing but instructive to see the repetition of that discursive strategy.
The other false dichotomy resorted to by some of the rationalist scholars was between two kinds of community: a community of rational individuals and a community of affect.
The distinction was not made explicitly in these terms. But if one interpreted the mode of representation, the dichotomy became obvious.
The liberal community was seen as the proper decision-making body, while the community of affect was asked to rise above their (as if self-evident) partisan views and embrace larger interests as emphasised by the decision-makers. Apart from paternalism, such a high-handed attitude revealed a strong centralising mindset. The ‘rationalists’ assumed their decision-making centrality and mainstream-ness. It is rather contradictory in spirit to argue in favour of a “democratic culture” by assuming one-self to be the chief (rational) proponent of change, which then logically envisages others as peripheral beneficiaries.
Every critical voice against the use of this cartoon in the prescribed textbook argued according to their reading of the cartoon (their problem with the symbol of the whip, etc.), on how Indian schools are still not free from deep cultural prejudices, and how these reasons might make a legitimate case for Dalit students facing discomfort in school spilling over into a general feeling of insult. The growth of this apprehension was not based on emotions but on certain social and cultural realities that Dalits face every day. If basing one’s arguments against genuine discomfort has nothing to do with reason, then what is? It is in fact insulting to presume that the feeling of discomfort and insult cannot be articulated rationally. It is insulting to assume that those who assert the reason of sentiments have no reason at all. But reason cannot be a value in itself. It is only a mode of argumentation, and has to serve other things of importance in order to be anything at all. What, indeed, is reason out to defend in this world if not the hurt, the shame, the sense of humiliation of people in the world? Reason’s primary job is to listen to hurt and improve itself by arguing for a world where people with less or no power are able to resist the reasons of the powerful. That is why a so-called ‘emotional’ misreading of a text is as valid as a so-called ‘rational’ reading.
Gaining knowledge is one thing, but growing in empathy comes with more difficulty than knowledge, because empathy is not necessarily imbibed from school textbooks. It arises from the real encounter with suffering. It also comes with feeling humbled before the other. The other, unlike the intimate enemy, is the difficult stranger and friend, who beseeches you to listen to an-other story of history—a story where you are illuminated by difference and by the realisation that the real enemy between you and the other is the abstraction of reason.
The devotees of reason are also expected to know what constitutes the other of reason—that which reason fails to conquer and which creates an excess: the other’s disturbing presence that one is bound to face and address. It is also a presence that needs hearing. The other becomes a co-opted subject if only represented (however sensitively) but not heard. The sensitivity behind the welcome inclusion of the problem of caste discrimination in political science textbooks did not match the requisite ethical level of engagement with specific objections (particularly from Dalits) in public discourse. It proved that textual sensitivity is one thing and public sensitivity, another.
The other of reason is not a pathology—it is that other side where reason’s avowed status is still under question, and other voices of reason are allowed to exist and claim their doubts and misgivings. Including hurt. The other of reason is an-other subject, whom critical pedagogy has to accept and understand, before asking for its services. This is the beginning moment of any true politics of recognition; a politics which isn’t simply about the need for affirmative action, but an equally important affirmation of voice.
In the case of the cartoon controversy, what has been denied from the start by the ‘rationalists’ is the possibility that the sense of hurt might be a key issue around the cartoon’s status in a school textbook. Some scholars have been reluctant to give hurt its due because of apprehensions regarding majoritarian misuse of the same. But the ethical merits of hurt are contextual. As a political sentiment, hurt needs to be evaluated vis-à-vis the problem of coercive power. Distinguishing between deserving and undeserving sense of hurt will not be enough to avoid political contestation in both cases. Right-wing intolerance in the name of hurt will not bother whether or not the sentiments of the oppressed are accommodated. No democracy can escape the ironies behind its contradictions. I do not think, however, that the cartoon issue is not significant only because, as someone argued recently, it is not a material issue for the Dalits. When did the symbolic and the material part ways in any politics against cultural hegemony?
One of the key figures in this debate, Professor Gopal Guru, has thrown up a challenge to all those who want to reduce Dalits to a people thriving on mere affect. His language is double-edged and seeks to resist any attempts to claim him. Guru does not want Dalits to be valorised as sentimental subjects. This plea cannot be understood till the articulation of sentiments remains suspect before the tribunal of reason.
To regain an irreverent democratic culture, where cartoons thrive and solidarities of difference prosper, a genuine opening up to the other’s language needs to take place. Solidarities are not built by forced mechanisms of a consensus-seeking politics. There can be disagreements over Dalit perceptions of Gandhi, Ambedkar himself, and even certain aspects of the Ambedkar cartoon. But the question that needs to be asked is this: Is the Dalit subject, carrying apprehensions of accordance and burdens of discordance, allowed to be other? Shouldn’t we fulfil the ethical act of hearing its predicaments before speaking? Isn’t the first violence against the other, the violence of resolute deafness?
(This short essay is dedicated to Prof. Ajay Skaria, who propelled me to write it.)
Manash Bhattacharjee is a Political Scientist and a writer