The influence of the British Punch in the second half of the nineteenth century, which gave rise to a host of regional comic versions in India, started it all. Indian cartoonists, led by the renaissance-infused Bengalis, used the craft to not only counter colonial injustices; they went beyond imperial Britain’s limitations in self-criticism and indulged in self-parodying and social criticism as well. Prannath Dutta, in his famous magazine Basantak, created brilliant satire. Dutta, for example, delivered a comic punch at Vidyasagar’s ‘Society for the Prevention of Obscenity’ by sketching Kali in a Victorian garb (blouse and long skirt) walking over a prostrated Vidyasagar-as-Shiva. Some of the cartoons, being products of common social mores, were however tied down to stereotypical notions. Gaganendranath Tagore’s cartoon ‘A Hypocritical Brahmin’ (circa 1917) depicts a gluttonous-looking Brahmin indulging in meat-eating, alcohol and women, clearly trying to find fault with his lack of piety.
As an art form cartoons are not outside the problem of representation. The mode of caricature can either subvert or be conventional, depending on the nature of the depiction. Cartoons have to be read as critically as they illustrate their subject.
The selection of cartoons of K. Shankar Pillai—the cartoonist in the midst of the present controversy—in the Class IX NCERT textbook of Political Science appears to weigh in Nehru’s favour. If the politics of presence matters, the sheer number of cartoons on Nehru in the textbook guarantees pre-eminence. This is not to question the motivations of the text development committee but simply to register an observation. Nehru, in the various cartoons, is shown as a music conductor struggling to balance the two sides quarrelling over the choice of the national anthem; pulling the tail of an elephant that symbolises ‘adult franchise’; and amusedly straining to hear the voice of a ‘tiny’ Opposition. Since cartoons are texts open to interpretation, one can read these Nehru cartoons as clichéd representations of him as a sensitive prime minister who struggled against various odds. What is also a little intriguing is that in a book about the Constitution, Nehru is given more than his fair share of presence in the text itself, while Ambedkar’s contributions flit by.
Some scholars have contended that Ambedkar’s finding more than a token mention, unlike on previous occasions, should be seen as a major breakthrough. Despite his minor presence in a major breakthrough, the Ambedkar cartoon stands out as an uncomfortable glance on the page. The interpretation of Nehru whipping the snail and not Ambedkar (who also holds a redundant whip) is merely a literal one. If you make a man sit on a donkey, while another man whips the donkey from behind, it takes a child’s guess and sense of humour to laugh at both the donkey and the man sitting on it. The cartoonist’s intentions need not always be scrutinized nor his interpretation rendered sacrosanct. It is a cartoonist’s job to caricature and lampoon, just as it is a reader’s prerogative to be uncomfortable about unintended meanings.
The political class’s high-handed and noisy intervention has diverted us from the important questions. And it has unfortunately led certain scholars to react impatiently. If Dalits hold Ambedkar as their icon and get aggrieved by the way he is represented, the historical nature of this intimacy warrants a critical acknowledgement rather than an unengaged dismissal. Scholars who espouse vanguard notions of politics would have to traverse beyond their notion of the universal subject and grant Dalits the specificity of their struggle and identity.
The arguments of these scholars, criticising the intellectual protest of Dalits, are unconvincing. The freedoms of art and expression do not imply that a cartoon’s value or aesthetics cannot be challenged. Moreover, the context of the debate is not merely the cartoon but its presence in a school textbook. In a country like India, where caste prejudices have so far merely changed forms and dimensions of intolerance, the school cannot yet be seen as a space where sensibilities of human dignity, equality and even difference are progressively attuned towards culturally stigmatised identities. It is then a matter of contention whether these identities should find such a tricky place in a textbook. Political education can include humour and encourage discussion, but to expect Indian schoolteachers and students to laugh like good liberals is ridiculous.
The feminist movement continues to contest sexist stereotypes in art. That need is also felt by the Dalit movement. If victims of politically incorrect differences have to deal with politically incorrect humour, others may have to deal with their politically correct protests against such humour. Victims must be afforded time to laugh at themselves and their avowed heroes. The time taken to overcome such a painful limitation is historically determined, and does no favour to the victims, except torture their already beleaguered selves. It augments a deprived spirit of seriousness. The absence of such humour among the oppressed, though, is the opposite of the intolerance shown by those in power. So it would be politically illogical and in bad faith to equate the discomfort of Dalits with the discomfort of autocratic leaders and the religious right against whom satire is directed.
However, the intellectuals protesting the cartoon would do injustice to Ambedkar if they finally turn him into a holy cow of humourless obeisance. But scholars who feel Ambedkar’s national status depends heavily on his prominent role in the making of the Constitution should know better about upper-caste Indians choosing to value Ambedkar selectively for that contribution alone. For instance, it has been argued that Ambedkar was not a Dalit in the cartoon, but the Chairman of the Drafting Committee. This division of identity is neither ideologically credible nor conceptually meaningful. It makes a farce of political identity and its representation. Ambedkar’s intellectual stature rests upon his egalitarian critique of the Hindu social system, which allowed him to formulate a progressive charter that connects law with democracy.
The arbitrary ban on the use of cartoons in school textbooks by circumventing scholarly review and debate is an unjustifiable, authoritarian act. This has allowed the fracturing of the debate across various ideological lines. The old problem of throwing the baby with the bathwater stares at us once again.
Manash Bhattacharjee is a political science scholar and writer living in Delhi