Dangers of deletion

The Ambedkar cartoon has been misread. And this could just be the beginning

Ever since the Ambedkar cartoon controversy erupted, I have not stopped wondering about the irony of the situation. The attempt, perhaps the first one in the national textbooks, to accord Babasaheb Ambedkar his due place as one of the founders of our republic, was being attacked for insulting him. Professor Suhas Palshikar, who has taught me to read Ambedkar more carefully, has been attacked in Ambedkar's name. To be honest, we did expect an attack on these books, at some point from some quarters. But little did we imagine that it would come from proponents of social justice.

Over the last two days, we have tried explaining this to anyone who cares to listen. Palshikar tried explaining this to his attackers too. The cartoon in the spotlight is actually one of the more innocuous of the hundreds used in the political science textbooks of the NCERT. It has been made to look offensive by a series of misreadings. One, the content of the cartoon has been mischievously presented by overlooking the positive symbolism (that Ambedkar holds the reins to the Constitution and holds a whip) and overplaying a possible negative symbolism (Nehru holding a whip behind Ambedkar has been presented as Nehru whipping Ambedkar). Two, the art form of a cartoon is negated by a crass literal reading of the symbol of whip. Three, the cartoon is detached from the text accompanying it on the same page that celebrates the deliberations that led to the delay in the making of the Constitution. Four, the cartoon is isolated from other cartoons involving Nehru, Indira Gandhi and other leaders that appear in this and other textbooks. Finally, Ambedkar's depiction in this cartoon is torn out of the context of how Ambedkar and his ideas are treated in this and other textbooks.

Having gone over this a few dozen times, it became clear to me that this debate was no longer about Ambedkar or the cartoon. The real danger is not what you can see and identify clearly. The danger lies lurking just beyond your vision.

For starters, the danger is not that one or a few controversial cartoons may be removed from the textbooks without good reasons. That would be sad, but not a cause for alarm. The danger is that this is just the beginning. The minister's reply in Parliament mentioned a review of other "objectionable" cartoons and content in the textbooks. A group of parliamentarians has been demanding the deletion of several cartoons that showed politicians in poor light. Many MPs are uncomfortable with the truthful account of post-Independence history in these books. Ambedkar's name may have been used to shield much else. This may be the beginning of a slow and imperceptible rollback of a historical transition in the writing of textbooks in this country that took place between 2005 and 2008, following the adoption of the National Curriculum Framework.

This is linked to the issue of autonomy of institutions like the NCERT. Again, the danger is not that of a sudden loss of autonomy vis-à-vis the government. It is hardly a secret that the autonomy of such institutions vis-à-vis the babus in the ministry is at best highly circumscribed and often non-existent. The rights of the authors and advisors vis-à-vis the NCERT and that of the NCERT vis-à-vis the ministry are admittedly in a grey zone. The parliamentarians obviously did not see anything grey here. They wanted to settle on the floor of the House an issue concerning the content of the textbook that had gone through a due internal process. The minister obliged. The real danger is that this would begin to appear normal to us, that we would forget that institutional autonomy is an issue.

Again, the danger is not that this issue would compromise our freedom of expression in a general sense. The media's intense scrutiny of the political class on this question has demonstrated, if it needed any demonstration, that the Indian media enjoys ample freedom to take on the government. Besides, the textbook is not the site for an unbridled exercise of freedom of expression. Textbook writing is an exercise in caution and balance. The danger here is that we would miss an opportunity to define what should freedom of expression mean in the context of a textbook. In the course of a TV debate, a fairly well-read MP complained that this cartoon sowed a doubt in the mind of a young student. The danger is that we might begin to think that textbooks must not create doubts, must not leave any questions.

The attack on Palshikar's office has momentarily shifted attention to the physical danger to which scholars involved in such an exercise may be exposed. He handled the attack with the equanimity, dignity and courage that I have come to associate with him. If and when my turn comes, I could try and emulate him. But that is not the real long-term issue. The danger is psychological. Just think of the message such an incident sends to any future textbook writer. You cannot blame them for looking at every passage, every image, every drawing to ensure they have eliminated the possibility of giving rise to any offence to any group that may exist then or in future. The worst form of censorship is the one that lies in the mind of the author. In any case, a text pruned of the possibility of misreading is a text devoid of any interest and substance.

Finally, the danger is not that loud voices of identity politics will triumph through brute parliamentary majority. The real danger is that any such "triumph" may be counter-productive. This incident might end up damaging Dalit politics in more ways than one. It is not just that the Dalit-Bahujan leaders have lived up to their worst stereotypes in the mainstream media and reinforced the prejudices of the chattering classes. Unfortunately, the shrill pitch of the parliamentary debate and its echoes in the media may have already created an insult for Babasaheb that was never inflicted, let alone intended. The censorship that the Dalit leadership and its loyal intellectuals demand today could end up deifying Ambedkar into an empty symbol, worse than any caricature.

The writer, a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, resigned as chief adviser to NCERT following the cartoon controversy
express@expressindia.com

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