RECENTLY, the unthinkable happened in India. Politicians cutting across party lines came together for a common ‘cause’; the cause of stifling the freedom of expression. All members of Parliament (MPs), barring one, united to remove a 1949 cartoon by legendary satirist K Shankar Pillai from an NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) political science textbook for Class XI. The government also announced the removal of cartoons on politicians from another NCERT textbook for students of class IX, claiming all such cartoons were “offensive and inappropriate” and “poisoned” young minds.
The 1949 cartoon depicts then Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru with a whip in his hand chasing B R Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution, who is on a snail. Politicians came down heavily on the inclusion of the cartoon in the textbook, claiming it was offensive to Ambedkar, a dalit icon. This comes soon after West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, in an act reminiscent of tyrannical rule, arrested a university professor last month for forwarding a cartoon of the chief minister online.
It is incredible how India’s political class, known to be more belligerent and confrontational in recent times than ever before, managed to promptly forge a consensus on banning a harmless cartoon, when they have failed to come together for far more crucial issues like passing key legislations in Parliament (including the Women’s Reservation Bill, that seeks to ensure 33 percent reservation to women in Parliament and state assemblies), speeding up reforms or deciding on the country’s next President.
To be sure, the Ambedkar cartoon can be interpreted in ways that can fuel resentment. It can be seen as a Kashmiri Brahmin using his power on a Dalit; or the Prime Minister exploiting his clout to bully a lawyer responsible for drafting the country’s constitution. However, the inability to see the cartoon for it is—a lucid depiction of the difficulty of drafting a constitution and the delay in doing so—reeks of a frightening culture of intolerance and bigotry.
We feel political satire and cartoons are keystones of a democratic culture, a vital element of an intellectual society and an innovative and appealing expression of current public sentiments. Nehru had once famously told Shankar, “do not spare me”. However, the Indian politician today is so insecure and completely devoid of the intellectual capital needed to accept satire with grace that any medium of criticism is met with belligerent opposition.
The political class of India instead of evolving into a more mature and liberal entity, has been reduced to a bunch of fragile egos and intolerant beings. Politicians, by virtue of being public figures, cannot be closed to or dismissive of criticism or feedback in any form, be it cartoons. What is “offensive and inappropriate” is their reaction to works of art, howsoever critical, and their belief that they can negatively influence school-going teenagers who are anyway exposed to the current political classes’ diminished moral authority.
They may have muffled expression and removed these cartoons, but everyone is still laughing— at them.