DELHI - As the parliament of the world's largest
democracy commemorates 60 years since its
inception, the august institution is in uproar
over a 63-year-old political cartoon.
trouble started last week when several
parliamentarians of various political hues
objected to a political cartoon of D Bhimrao
Ambedkar - a dalit (formerly known as
untouchables) icon and chief architect of the
Indian constitution - found in a political science
textbook dating back to the 1960s.
politicians felt the cartoon was "objectionable"
and had the potential to poison the
"impressionable minds" of children against the
political class. The seemingly innocuous cartoon
(drawn by renowned late artist Keshav Shankar
Pillai) depicts Ambedkar
sitting atop a snail
while India's first premier, Jawaharlal Nehru,
brandishes a whip urging the snail to move faster
as a crowd looks on.
ostensible wit of the cartoon, which underscores
the complexity of drafting a constitution, the
United People's Alliance (UPA) government has gone
out on a limb and apologized to the agitating
politicians for it being reprinted in 2006.
Unappeased, house members have demanded the
resignation of Human Resource Development Minister
Kapil Sibal, though he wasn't even the minister at
A rattled Sibal was forced to
reiterate that the cartoon was indeed
"objectionable". "Concrete steps will be taken to
ensure such things are not repeated," he assured
the Rajya Sabha (Upper House). The minister has
also promised to launch a full-scale "review" of
all National Council of Educational Research and
Training (NCERT) books to weed out any other
cartoons that parliamentarians might find toxic.
The cartoon has been part of the NCERT textbook since
To make matters worse, following the
uproar, Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar, chief
advisors for political science at the NCERT,
resigned. Palshikar's office was also ransacked,
which many feel is a gross violation of human
rights. Why should the scholar resign when it
wasn't him who drew the cartoon, his supporters
ask? Not that he should necessarily have resigned
had he drawn the cartoon.
dissent are rapidly becoming unbearable for the
powers that be, says a senior Congress party
functionary. "All the more because the people who
oppose such voices remain unpunished by the police
or state, thereby straining the country's secular
It seems ironic that in the year
parliament celebrates the anniversary of its first
sitting, politicians are killing its spirit by
pulling out of context an art form and
deliberately distorting its meaning to fatten
their vote banks. Even more intriguing is the fact
as to why a political cartoon - which captured the
prevailing sentiments 60 years ago, and was taken
in good humor by politicians of the time - should
incense contemporary politicians so much.
As experts point out, this not only
illustrates the abysmally low levels of
intolerance today's leaders have towards art, but
also their ignorance of Article 19(1)(a) of the
constitution that guarantees the right to free
speech. The unsavory episode also showcases the
pusillanimity of the UPA coalition that seems
inept at squashing unreasonable demands while
getting on with the simple task of parliamentary
Central to the cartoon furor
is the question of vote bank politics. In this
case, it is the dalits, who make up a sizeable
section of voters, that the ruling dispensation is
afraid of annoying. So is the UPA government
taking the extreme step of vetting all NCERT texts
to woo the dalit vote bank?
academics are aghast at the way the government has
handled the sensitive issue. "If a particular page
or pages have to be dropped, then please do, but
don't withdraw entire lots of books," pleaded
historian Ramachandra Guha on an Indian TV
Guha believes that textbooks
written in conformity with the National Curriculum
Framework (NCF), the state body that supervises
school texts, especially on sociology, political
science and history, "were outstanding and made
humanities subjects accessible and interesting".
Sociologist Dipankar Gupta opined that the
textbooks in questions should have been screened
by a "proper committee before the government
decided to withdraw them".
Yogendra Yadav, who served as adviser to textbook
development committee, felt that a decision to
review textbooks written and approved between 2005
and 2007, as Sibal intends doing under pressure,
could "roll back the textbook revolution" in the
country by decades. Incidentally, Yadav was also a
member of the committee that devised the NCF.
The cartoon episode is of subtext to the
larger narrative of intolerance growing in the
country. The Indian cultural landscape is littered
with countless examples of authors, artists,
filmmakers and other creative people whose voices
have been muzzled by vested political interests.
Such people are blatantly denied the right
to free expression. In 1997, journalist Arun
Shourie was assaulted in Mumbai by a group of
dalit activists, because he had written a book
that was critical of Ambedkar.
Shourie's Worshipping False Gods called
Ambedkar a British stooge who had little to do
with the creation of the constitution for which he
is revered by millions. The book was publicly
burned in New Delhi along with effigies of
"Silencing the critic, or
preventing alternative views from being heard
belong in fascist regimes, not liberal democracies
like ours," points out political scientist
Prashant Kanjilal of the Jawaharlal Nehru
University. "This intolerance erodes India's
robust reputation as a land of free speech."
However, National Conference member
Sarifuddin Shariq feels political cartoons hold a
mirror to reality. "We have given cartoonists the
chance to make cartoons on us. Instead of
criticizing these works, we should use some
introspection. It is a reflection of what we have
done and a reaction to it," Shariq told the media.
"Is it not a reality that when one becomes
an MP [member of parliament] or an MLA [member of
a legislative assembly] for the second time, they
become richer? Their assets [an affidavit of which
is submitted to the Election Commission before
each election] show a considerable increase,"
It is unfortunate that
despite parliament commemorating an important
milestone, it is being assailed by competing
political interests, disruptions and logjams,
interrupting vital legislative work. The ensuing
governance deficit has not only led to a
widespread disenchantment with the UPA government
but has also bred cynicism against the entire
Many of these vested
interests are forcing the government to support
their unreasonable demands by threatening
prolonged disruption of house proceedings. But why
should the government capitulate under pressure
when an attack is mounted on a right declared
fundamental and guaranteed by the constitution?
Once again, partly out of the government's
desire to win a vote bank and partly out of fear
that letting the cartoon controversy fester may
trigger more commotion, it is the artist who has
been made a scapegoat. He is bearing the brunt of
the system's intolerance and the government's
inability to stand up for their rights.
Cartoonist Shankar, in whose name the
government runs an art competition for children
around the country to nurture budding artists, may
well be writhing in his grave at this tragic farce
involving his art. It is the same cartoonist whom
then-prime minister Nehru famously told: "Do not
It seems the large-heartedness
and good humor that characterized politicians of
yore is missing in today's lot.
Neeta Lal is a widely published
writer/commentator who contributes to many reputed
national and international print and Internet
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