The tyranny of context

Looking closer at the Ambedkar cartoon and the power play in it

We have examined a lot of politics and history around the Ambedkar cartoon but left the most important part unexamined — the very cartoon that created such a furore in Parliament. By assuming that the meaning of the cartoon is wholly dependent on one context, we have denied the work of art whatever autonomy of meaning it could have. The cartoon deserves to be analysed on the basis of its own logic. But a tyranny of context, the present one, has suppressed readings that could challenge the version of Ramdas Athavale.

In that reading, the foregrounding of the two figures translates into a Brahmin whipping a Dalit. Here Nehru is given a privileged position and Ambedkar is not. But another reading reveals this opposition is not supported by the symbolic universe of the cartoon. The cartoon is about power, not oppression. Power is spread across the frame instead of unequally operating between two people. Both Nehru and Ambedkar hold whips. The fact that Ambedkar too holds a whip — over the constitution-making process — gives him agency and prises him out of Athavale's casteist context. He is not merely at the receiving end of power but a participant in a process of assertion.

What sets them in opposition is not Nehru's act of whipping but Ambedkar's act of not whipping. If you notice, Ambedkar's whip is limp while Nehru's whip is taut, implying it is being used. Ambedkar does not use the whip. He is focused on the reins he holds. Whip and reins control how power operates in the cartoon.

The whip is power; reins are technique. The whip is speed; reins are deliberation. The whip forces; reins guide. A deeper binary that operates here is of power versus knowledge. An imperious Nehru wields his statist power while a deliberative Ambedkar exercises his knowledge, which guides, restrains but ultimately subverts.

Nehru's romance of growth and Ambedkar's juridical positioning creates another opposition — fast and slow. Nehru cracks his whip because he believes in rapid growth, a growth that will itself take care of social inequities. But Ambedkar believes in the process of law as a solution for social inequities. Ambedkar's slowness does not come from his character, from his being lazy, but out of his project, the law. The snail is a symbol of law, legislation and legal process itself, and does not indicate Ambedkar's own deficiency. Nehru's power was constructive, but Ambedkar's knowledge was subversive. Can Nehru's power override Ambedkar's knowledge? Contemporary India, where the state has variously failed but the law has triumphed, is a sufficient answer to this question.

It is difficult to say that one actor is privileged over the other. The Brahmin-Dalit opposition is not justified by the structural codes of the cartoon. It is a projection of current politics and not something that emerges out of the cartoon's own universe.

The crowd does not participate. As its arrangement shows, it does not align itself with either of the figures. The cartoon slopes up towards the crowd which looms over Nehru and Ambedkar. It invests their act with a public meaning. That's what makes the Nehru-Ambedkar binary a narrative of nation-building.

The crowd may be laughing at Ambedkar, at Nehru or at the act. We must grant the artist his right to ambiguity. If there is no way to recover the authorial intent now, it does not mean one particular context should arrogate meaning-making to itself. While it is not possible to completely strip a text of context, working back and forth between various contexts and from text to context can yield a better meaning-making process. There has been an attempt to impose a crude objectivism on the complex structure of the cartoon.

The cartoon controversy is also a sad allegory on the way Ambedkar has been remembered after his death. Just as we lost sight of the cartoon and focused entirely on our own political contexts, Ambedkar too seems to have been lost in a haze of politics. Speaking of textbooks, instead of insisting on the exclusion of Ambedkar, we should insist on his inclusion — more and more of him. It may suit the political class that Ambedkar remains a mere icon. But Ambedkar the philosopher, the political scientist and the sociologist must be recovered from his iconic caricature.

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