Let us begin with a history lesson. Hitler runs over Poland in September, 1939. In November, 1939, the Nazis release a memorandum on the new system of governance in Poland. Here is what it had to say on education: “Only general primary schools are permitted and they will teach only the most rudimentary subjects such as reading, writing and arithmetic. The teaching of such subjects as geography, history and history of literature... (are) forbidden.”
Coming closer home, both in time and geography. On May 12, 2012, the Parliament had to be adjourned because of a furore over a cartoon supposedly maligning BR Ambedkar. More than 60 years after Shankar Pillai drew the cartoon showing BR Ambedkar riding a snail which is being prodded by Jawaharlal Nehru to make it go faster, Parliamentarians had suddenly woken up to the alleged slight.
Mayawati demanded criminal action against “people responsible for the cartoon”. She was a little late however, Pillai having died about 23 years ago. AR Joshi, the Chief Patron of All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations went a step further, demanding that the Padma Bhushan awarded to Pillai be taken away.
Criminal action being out of the question, the government did the next best thing – it set up a commission. Under the leadership of SK Thorat, the commission was quick to please its political masters and put up 21 cartoons for deletion from National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) text books. The book that carried the Ambedkar cartoon was removed from the syllabus and two NCERT officials had to quit for “allowing” the cartoon to remain. Following widespread anger from experts and cartoonists, NCERT decided not to follow the commission’s recommendations, deleting only two – the original Shankar cartoon that had been the centre of the furore and another one, depicting anti-Hindi activism.
Cartoonists and educationalists across the country are understandably outraged. “The cartoons included in educational books should be viewed as part and parcel of the democratic nature of our system instead of considering them a bad influence on the students. Not only do such cartoons stimulate the creative mind, they also afford the much-required relief in otherwise verbose text books. They are merely humorous, satirical comments founded on the cartoonists’ fertile imagination and not any personal vendetta,” says Ajit Narayanan, noted cartoonist who also teaches the art.
Indeed, cartoons have been an innocent but important expression for the vox populi. Says Pawan Kumar, cartoonist with Bihar’s Dainik Hindustan,“Cartoons have to be taken in the context of the social and political conditions in which they are created. If properly analysed, it will be seen that they actually mean no harm to any individual. Taken out of context however, their meaning will get completely warped.”
For many, the present episode is however, ridiculous to say the least. Says columnist Sudheesh Pachauri, “This merely goes on to show that the lawmakers of this country have forgotten to laugh. A society that cannot laugh any more is a sick society.” That the Parliament should busy itself with other more pressing issues, like the economy that has gone on a tailspin of the imminent droughts, is another popular sentiment. Instead of focusing on petty issues and criticising cartoons, it is high time that politicians indulged in some serious introspection. They should think of better ways to hide their incompetence. “Instead of focusing on petty issues and criticising cartoons, it is high time that politicians indulged in some serious introspection. They should think of better ways to hide their incompetence,” says Narayanan.
Truly, the furore has probably less to do with cartoons and their contents and far more to do with the desires of the politicians to stay in the view of their vote-banks, in this case, primarily the Dalits. “The Dalits are not upset, it is only the leaders who are upset. In fact, Ambedkar’s family has actually commented that he might have found the cartoon funny. So, who is really hurt?” asks cartoonist Sudhir Nath. “I have talked to individual leaders. Individually, they all think this is ridiculous. But in the Assembly, they remain quiet and toe the party lines,” he adds.
However, Pawan expresses one major concern. “How are we supposed to work if we are constantly thinking whether it will be passed by the politicians? If we are always under fear, then the quality of work will greatly suffer,” says he.
However, not everyone is so concerned. After all, India has learnt the lesson of political control through controlling education long ago. When the BJP was in power with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the NCERT had gone on a determined saffronisation move under the directorship of professor JS Rajput. The exclusion of Romila Thapar, Bipin Chandra and Satish Chandra, left-wing historians of repute, from the NCERT board had sparked off a controversy and also some anxiety over the rewriting of history at the instance of Sangh Parivar ideologues.
However, most of the cartoonists feel that the government will not be able to suppress them. Says Pachauri: “You can never stop laughter. These people have stopped us from laughing in the pages of the books but will they be able to stop people from laughing at them in their own minds? In fact, don’t they themselves laugh at things in their own way? Who are they to decide what we can laugh at and what we can’t?”
Pawan foresees a different future. “The common people will not stand for this. It is actually they who should have been asked if these changes were necessary, but as always they were not included in the decision making. If this continues and the media is forced not to show that which is uncomfortable to the ones in power, then 20 years down the line, the general public itself will demand that they be allowed to see and hear what they want to,” he says.
Whether or not what the people want really counts, only time will tell. As of now, cartoonists, the media fraternity and all democratic minded Indians will have to take comfort from the fact that at least, the number that stood at 21 was reduced to two. The more distant future, as always, is uncertain.