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MADHUSREE CHATTERJEE on the ruckus caused by an old Ambedkar-Nehru cartoonIn 1923, iconic Bengali humorist Sukumar Ray described a curious race of beings “who were scared to laugh”. With the government forced to apologise for a 1949 cartoon on Jawaharlal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar after parliamentarians of all hues raised a massive ruckus, are Indians becoming that humourless race?
The 63-year-old cartoon by the eminent Shankar – considered the father of Indian political cartoonists who ran the highly regarded Shankar’s Weekly till it closed down during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime of 1975-77 – shows first prime minister Nehru with a whip in his hand chasing Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution, who is on a snail. The uproar in parliament, that began with protests by pro-Dalit parties, led to Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal removing the sketch from NCERT textbooks and an attack on the offices of NCERT advisor Suhas Palshikar even though he had quit.
The controversy, posing the bigger question of removing political cartoons from textbooks entirely points to a tiptoeing autocracy, growing stupidity and joylessness in the Indian polity, say a cross section of scholars, intellectuals and society watchers.
Former politician and schoolteacher M.L. Chattopadhyay says the controversy is reminiscent of Ray’s limerick “Ram Garurer Chana” – children of the bird Ram Garuda who are not allowed to laugh… and were always scared that someone was laughing.
Indians are probably losing the ability to laugh because of a competitive and combative society, adds historian and writer Mushirul Hasan.
“We have lost the inclination to laugh at the self. Unless you can laugh at yourself, you cannot appreciate humour and wit,” Hasan, the author of the “Awadh Punch” and “Wit & Wisdom: Pickings from the Parsee Punch”, told IANS.
Laughter gives one confidence during “road rages when someone is either angry with you or excluding you because of your gender or for fact that you are a Dalit in a combative society…”, Hasan said.
Raking up a controversy over cartoons that were drawn over six decades ago is stupidity, says Jatin Varma, founder and host of Comic.Con, the country’s largest annual comic assembly.
“It is most stupid to condemn them now when they (Shankar, Ambedkar, Nehru) did not rake up the issue when they were alive. The sad part is that the whole process of putting together an NCERT text goes through various layers of bureaucratic screening,” Varma told IANS.
Progressive intellectual and artist Ram Rahman said he did not buy the argument that these cartoons are not appropriate for students.
“In this day and age, when more youngsters have access to the digital media, to try and censor material like cartoons which have appeared in the mass media is ridiculous,” Rahman told IANS.
The progressive artist and arts activist said proscribing cartoons which are a part of history and have been seen by millions is no different from destroying the Babri Masjid.
“The motivations are exactly the same. It is an attempt to rewrite history and also culture and tantamounts to an attack on the freedom of the press. This is like bringing in the censorship of the emergency through the back door… It is reminiscent of the controversy surrounding M.F. Husain’s art.”
“After cartoons, what next?” he asked.
In a statement from the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat), intellectuals like Romila Thapar, Zoya Hasan, Prabhat Patnaik, Sudhanva Deshpande and M.K Raina said “appropriate procedures have to be followed such as the setting up of a committee of academics to look into each case”.
“Summary judgments of the ministers concerned under political pressures of various kinds do not determine the content of our academic syllabi,” they said.
The aggressive stand over the controversy was antithetical to the democratic values cherished by Ambedkar.
The Foundation of Media Professionals, which condemned the move as “retrograde step for democracy and does not augur well for what may come”, believes that irreverence should not be equated with disrespect.
“Irreverence is not disrespect and cartoons are an important part of social-political commentary. They are not threats to democracy,” the foundation said in a statement.
For the common person, protest is the only tool against the government whip on political cartoons.
The road ahead is still uncharted on this one.