The demand to ban
May 25, 2012
It is profoundly distressing that all political parties without exception joined hands in parliament to cre- ate mayhem over a cartoon published in 1949 about Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s role in the making of the Constitution of India. The cartoon, reproduced
in a Class XI textbook published in 2006 by the National
Council for Educational Training and Research, provoked
India’s members of parliament’s ire because it showed
Ambedkar riding a snail depicting the constitution and
(then) prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru standing behind
him with a whip in hand.
The lawmakers put the worst possible interpretation on
this work by the great cartoonist Kesava Shankara Pillai,
who ran the remarkable cartoons-only Shankar’s Weekly,
and who himself empathized with the Nehruvian liberal-democratic nation-building project, to which the constitution was pivotal.
The lawmakers claimed the cartoon depicted the two
men in an adversarial relationship, with Nehru about to
lash Ambedkar with the whip, while a motley crowd
laughed in delight. They, of course, didn’t bother to relate
the cartoon to the text, which speaks of Ambedkar in glowing terms.
They denied that cartoons and caricatures are integral to
good political commentary and to inculcating a critical attitude among teachers and students, while promoting playful ways of learning.
In reality, Nehru’s whip wasn’t aimed at Ambedkar, but
clearly and unequivocally, at the snail. Even the crowd is
shown concentrating on the snail.
This captured the public’s keen-
ness to see the process of constitu-
tion-making completed as quickly
It’s only the crudest, the most
vulgar, and the most literal view, of
the whip as an instrument of pun-
ishment and humiliation, which
can permit a crassly offensive
interpretation, according to which
Shankar’s intent was to insult
Ambedkar. Hence the outrage over the cartoon.
The interpretation is not only completely ridiculous; it is
downright contrived, artificial and manufactured. It denies
the legitimacy of an entire art form such as cartooning,
whose very rationale is to make irreverent, acerbic, and
sometimes shocking comment to highlight the absurdity of
the current state of social and political affairs and jolt us
out of complacency.
The demand to ban cartoons on the ground that they are
‘objectionable’ reflects perverse intolerance — the kind for
which a large number of people, including politicians,
teachers and intellectuals recently, rightly, criticized (West
Bengal Chief Minister) Mamata Banerjee, including lawmakers from the Left parties and poet-singer Kabir Suman
from her own Trinamool Congress. The Jadavpur university teacher who was victimized for circulating the cartoon
depicting her has generated a huge sympathy wave.
Banning cartoons makes a mockery of the constitutionally guaranteed right to the freedom of expression, which
Ambedkar held to be fundamental and inviolable, with
very few, carefully laid out, exceptions.
And yet, Human Resources Development Minister Kapil
Sibal, himself a lawyer who claims constitutional expertise,
wants to review ‘inappropriate’ material in all NCERT textbooks.
Never mind the fact that these textbooks, produced
between 2005 and 2008, marked a massive improvement
in pedagogy and
methods of teaching
over anything in the
past. They followed
the adoption of a secu-
Framework after gross
distortions of the notion of
history and rewriting of text-
books along communal lines
during the Bharatiya Janata Party-
led National Democratic Alliance gov-
The process of writing the new textbooks was
exemplarily inclusive and drew upon a wide range of
scholars and educationists. (I was a member of the
monitoring committee that went into the social sci-
ence textbooks; but the cartoon was not then includ-
ed in the Class XI book draft under scrutiny.
Needless to say, I would have approved its inclu-
The post-2005 NCERT textbooks encouraged teachers
and students to think independently and critically, and
appreciate the complexities of crafting a modern republican order in Independent India.
They highlighted the expansive emancipatory vision of
India’s constitution-makers, and the great distance this
society still has to travel. They took the pupil beyond unin-
formed glorification of
India’s past and compla-
cency about its present
The UPA could legiti-
mately claim that the
textbooks were a signifi-
Instead, it is now
cravenly apologizing for
them, and thus insulting
the intelligence of stu-
dents by assuming that they would necessarily ‘
misunderstand’ the meaning of the cartoon and the textbook would
foment disrespect and ridicule for Ambedkar.
The government is thus opening the floodgates to censorship and muzzling of free expression, as well as legitimizing
crass intolerance and violent behavior. The worst expression of this came when members of the Republican
Panthers Party, affiliated to the Republican Party of India
(Ramdas Athawle faction), ransacked the Pune University
office of Professor Suhas Palshikar, an adviser to the
Athawale, who recently defected from an alliance with
the Congress party to the BJP-Shiv Sena, brazenly justified
the vandalism as a legitimate expression of ‘indignation on
the part of the Dalit community’, and demanded Palshikar
and co-adviser Yogendra Yadav’s criminal prosecution.
Here there are two ideas at work: Crass literalism about
symbols, metaphors and images, and sacralization and
deification of human beings (in the present case, Dr
Ambedkar). Literalism equates images with objects and
then selectively glorifies or demonizes them. Literalism has
long been the bane of this society, as evidenced in preposterous protests against M F Husain’s celebratory depiction
of Hindu goddesses in the nude, without even a hint of vulgarity.
A more recent example is the conflation of the geological
sandbar structure called Rama Sethu or Adam’s Bridge
near the Gulf of Mannar
off the southeastern coast
of Tamil Nadu, with the
mythical bridge to Sri Lanka
built by Lord Rama’s follow-
In 2007, the Vishwa Hindu
Parishad launched a violent agitation
against a proposed shipping canal proj-
ect because it would ‘desecrate’ a holy site.
The Sangh Parivar dubbed the project’s offi-
cial justification ‘blasphemy’ and an ‘insult to
Hindus.’ Lal Krishna Advani even claimed, ‘the govern-
ment has sought to negate all that the Hindus consider
sacred … and wounded the very idea of India.’ The
Archaeological Survey of India filed an affidavit, based on
studies by the Space Applications Center, Ahmedabad and
other evidence obtained by drilling at the site, that it is a
purely natural formation, which has nothing to with
The project was dropped — not, as it should have been,
for ecological reasons — but out of deference to the ‘hurt
sentiments’ of a community. The then law minister H R
Bharadwaj abjectly apologized.
Sacralization or deification of human beings is no less
pernicious. The Bahujan scholar Kanch Ilaiah argues that
Ambedkar is for the Dalits what the Holy Prophet or the
Koran is for the Muslims. Ergo, the Dalits’ ‘hurt sentiments’ on the cartoon must be respected.
The argument was powerfully refuted by Ambedkar himself in November 1949, when he warned against deifying
people. He said in the constituent assembly: ‘Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation
and to eventual dictatorship.’ Deification elevates fallible
flesh-and-blood human beings to the status of God who
can do no wrong.
However much we respect Ambedkar, Gandhi, Nehru,
Marx or Freud —and I am a firm admirer of these thinkers
— we must recognize that they were human beings who
often changed their positions depending on the context.
In fact, it is their resilience and alertness to changing
ground realities that gave them their exceptional leadership qualities as thinkers and doers. As has been said, for
every statement that you find in Gandhi, it is possible to
find the opposite quote. This applies to Ambedkar or Marx
The present controversy is bound to lower the prestige of
Dalit politics and tar it with intolerance. It is all the more
regrettable because it has been raked up by some of the
most oppressed people of this society and proponents of
social justice, who have a rich history of iconoclasm and
questioning received wisdoms.
That’s the illustrious tradition to which Jyotiba Phule,
Shahu Maharaj, Periyar E V R Naicker and Ambedkar
belong. The tradition, which has inspired generations of
Dalits and provided intellectual ammunition to their fight
for social emancipation.
Some years ago, Dalit activists forced the Maharashtra
government to lift the ban on Ambedkar’s Riddles in
Hinduism. They also successfully combated Arun Shourie’s
anti-Ambedkar polemic in his Worshipping False Gods,
and repeatedly defended the Dalit-Bahujan legacy.
The best weapon to fight slanderous attacks is reason and
logical argument, not proscription. Banning books at the
drop of a hat can only defile democracy.
Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian political commentator