Textbook Cartoon Inflames India's Debate Over Caste

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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A widely praised Indian political science textbook for high-school students became the object of controversy and -- regrettably, but unsurprisingly -- violence earlier this month after a member of Parliament claimed that it contained a cartoon offensive to BR Ambedkar, the Dalit (or low-caste) intellectual considered the architect of the Indian constitution, and to Dalits in general.

To be sure, the matter wasn't a free-speech issue, like the Rushdie affair at the Jaipur Literary Festival in January, and it wasn't an example of crude political paranoia over cartoons, like the case of West Bengal's Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in April. Even so, Education Minister Kapil Sibal certainly struck a blow both against the ideal of teaching reasoned debate and against due process in the adjudication of disputes among adults, when he apologized for hurting the sentiments of the Dalit community and promised that the cartoon would be removed from future editions of the textbook.

The cartoon -- by the famous Indian cartoonist Keshav Shankar Pilllai -- was first published in 1948. It shows the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, standing with a whip raised behind a large snail marked "Constitution," atop which rests the portly, bespectacled figure of Ambedkar, who holds the reins of the snail in one hand and a whip in the other. The scene is watched by a gaggle of Indian people. The cartoon transforms into a comic vignette the impatience felt by Nehru at the laborious progress of India's Constituent Assembly in the years following independence, when a Drafting Committee chaired by Ambedkar took almost three years to produce the draft of the constitution. The wait was actually worth every minute: it has turned out to be a very serviceable constitution.

Uncontroversial in its own time and its original context, the cartoon, once flagged as incendiary, was seized upon by many lower-caste politicians in Parliament, such as Mayawati, and outside as derogatory to the millions of Indians from the lower castes who have in the last six decades made a difficult and often painful journey toward political empowerment and social mobility, helped in part by affirmative-action policies in education and employment. What gave such protests and threats a semblance of legitimacy is the politics of competitive intolerance that has now become ubiquitous in Indian public debate, whereby almost any strand of opinion can, by the application of a little real or concocted outrage, be branded guilty until proven innocent.

In the wake of the controversy, Suhas Palshikar and Yogendra Yadav, two political scientists serving as advisers to the NCERT, the government body that had prepared the textbook in 2005, resigned. Palshikar's office was subsequently ransacked by members of a Dalit political party, who thereby showed the same violence toward a different point of view that Dalit activists had themselves suffered recently at a "beef festival" promoted by them in Hyderabad to question the sanctity of high-caste taboos against the eating of beef. Palshikar graciously desisted from filing charges against the miscreants.

The government's reaction to the cartoon controversy had two aspects: the concession in the first place that the cartoon did give offense, and the move thereafter to decide unilaterally that it would be removed from the textbook, which was prepared by a team of historians and was passed by an NCERT committee that should have been the body to which the matter was referred back. Yogendra Yadav usefully pointed out the faults with both interpretation and excision in an essay in the Indian Express:

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. [...]

The cartoon [...] 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.

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. [...] The real danger is that this would begin to appear normal to us, that we would forget that institutional autonomy is an issue.

And an ingenious reading of the cartoon was supplied in the same paper by Dharminder Kumar, who wrote:

[In the reading of its critics] 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. [...]

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. [...] 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.

The case for the defense was made most impressively by an editorial in the Economic and Political Weekly:

It also needs to be noted that school textbooks are not about the right to freedom of expression and the defence of the NCERT textbooks is not about defending this freedom. Rather, it is about the autonomy of institutions and the integrity of the democratic process through which these textbooks were produced. If there was a problem with this cartoon or any other content, it should have been the teachers and students who should be raising this issue. In the six years these textbooks have been in use, there is no evidence of any such objection. Parliament is not competent to decide on the contents of textbooks.

The best case for the prosecution was made in Outlook by the journalist S. Anand, who also runs Navayana, a publishing house devoted exclusively to books on caste issues, including several titles by or on Ambedkar. Although Anand agreed that the textbook itself was very impressive, he was less sanguine than Kumar about the process of interpretation of the cartoon. Given the history of caste prejudice in India and the persistence of such ideas among many upper castes, the cartoon, he thought, could be framed in damaging ways by upper-caste teachers or schools where upper-caste ways of thinking were invisibly normative. Nor did Anand view the cartoon as being without prejudice -- even if it was unconscious prejudice. He wrote:

My concern over the cartoon in the NCERT Class XI Political Science textbook, Indian Constitution at Work, is how would children and teachers in a classroom read it in a society where caste prejudices and stereotypes are still rampant. Given the general hostility towards Dalits and those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds entering elite English-medium schools—as witnessed in the near-racist opposition to the idea of including the poor (read ‘lower’ caste) in rich people’s private schools through the Right to Education Act—my fears are about how the largely upper-caste teaching community (who handle NCERT textbooks in English) would frame the cartoon. [...] Ambedkar’s whip is limp; while Nehru’s is taut—after all, the latter’s the ramrod-erect national patriarch. Ambedkar cuts a sorry figure. [...]

We need to acknowledge that neither the textbook nor Ambedkar is above criticism. An online petition called ‘In Defence of Critical Pedagogy’ signed by academic luminaries—mostly with upper-caste sounding surnames—seems to treat the textbook in question like a sacred text, as if it were the Bhagvad Gita that statues of Gandhi show him holding. If the Ambedkar-conceived Constitution can be amended 97 times in 62 years, can’t a textbook, which has to be treated as a work-in-progress, be amended? Suhas Palshikar and Yogendra Yadav, the capable advisers to NCERT who resigned petulantly without even debating the issue, should be brought back on the NCERT board; they only need to place their ears closer to the ground.

These are certainly arguments worth considering, though the abuse heaped on Anand by readers in the comments section -- "Hindu hating," "pseudo-secular" and "fascist" -- is worth reading as a reliable guide to the violent language, miniscule lexicon and depressingly predictable rhetorical memes of a sizeable percentage of responses to arguments in periodicals about Indian issues. One wonders what pan-Indian training school produces such a mass of respondents undistinguished in themselves and undistinguishable from one another.

I don't agree with Anand though when he says the cartoon could be excised because it might be used by upper-caste teachers or students to stereotype Dalit students as "slow" or inferior. If this is the case, then clearly a lot more needs to be worked on urgently than just one cartoon. Moreover, in an atmosphere of (depending on the situation) residual or entrenched caste prejudice, could one protect Dalit students enough from the reality of some of it filtering through? Removing the cartoon now might actually provoke more cruel jeers in classrooms than letting it stay.

Given the enormous time-span over which caste prejudice has existed in India and disabled and dehumanized immense numbers of people, it is inevitable that the struggle of Dalits for respect, equality, and empowerment -- helped by the very constitution that for the first time made them, in spirit if not yet in practice, citizens with the same rights as all others -- will not be without all kinds of impediments. When, in the Indian novelist UR Ananthamurthy's fine image, the wheels of history are made to turn after centuries of stasis, the old elites can't be expected to cede power easily.

While Ambedkar's constitution provided a road down which those wheels could travel, the actual work of keeping those wheels moving had to be done -- is being done -- by generations of Dalits after him (some inspired by the American civil-rights movement). By trying to censor a textbook by force, Dalit politicians actually do their cause a disservice by bringing their acts of resistance down to the same level as other forces in India that are happy to use the power of an appeal to emotions and the threat of violence to suffocate debate. As Ambedkar himself might have suggested -- and in this sense the cartoon is a helpful guide even to those who oppose its presence in the textbook -- it is better to try to work the reins before one looks to crack the whip.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View.  Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the author of this story:
Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com

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Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net