Art News & Views



The Dangers of Deifications

by Premjish Achari

We had very few cartoons in our school text books. I vaguely remember the reproduction of a cartoon from my Social Science text book which was circulated during the French Revolution. At that time it was difficult for me to comprehend the intended pun. There was a stooping figure carrying three other human figures on his shoulder or each one carrying the other on their shoulders and at first glance it resembled a physically distorted Quasimodo the hunchback of Notre-Dame. The accompanying caption made me understand that it was sarcastically imitating the four tier feudal structure of the French Society where the peasant had to bear the burden of his vassal, priest and king. Cartoons in text books were very rare in those days. Yet we found ourselves amidst a vibrant culture of social criticism available to us through cartoons, mimics skits, columns by political satirists, etc. One of the main sources of political and social lampooning available to us was through published by Toms. The name of the comic book is also the name of its main characters, two young naughty brother and sister duo Boban and Moli. Through these young characters Toms introduced a series of socio-political issues with a sarcastic tinge. There was no politician or political party which has escaped the acidic wit of Toms. Christian missionaries especially the Catholics were heavily criticized in his cartoons for their departure from social service to churning out money through a vast network of private colleges and hospitals. The ever repeating politician in his cartoons was symptomatic of the decadence of every political organization in this country. He came heavily on Congress, BJP and CPM whenever they faltered and deviated from the aspirations of the common man was the political almanac for an entire generation. It was read by young kids to adults. Published in a fragile low quality paper the comic book was affordable for everyone. Yet no one dared to ban Bobanum Moliyum and raise opposition that it maligned the image of politicians.

But for the last few years this country is witnessing a dangerous level of intolerance in its public sphere. It has become easy to hurt sentiments and procure bans from the temples of law. The earliest we saw was our Human Resource Ministers attempt to control social networking sites from circulating morphed images of his party leaders. The latest is now a raging controversy over a cartoon in an NCERT textbook which needs no introduction for the readers. How does a simple line drawing accompanied by few words become a potential threat that it invites the scorn of the ruling class and a disgruntled intolerant majority? Why is the ruling class afraid of any form of social criticism that they are ready to ban it the moment it lands in a controversy instead of engaging in a democratic debate and discussion? Unlike high art forms cartoons enjoy a wider circulation and viewership/readership and this is an important reason for its continuous victimization across the nations. We have recently seen the reactions of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee against a cartoon circulated against her. Undermining all democratic procedures and political ethos Bengal government arrested the Jadavpur University professor who circulated that cartoon in social media.

Government's eagerness to ban any form of expression was quite evident in this debacle too. As soon as the issue was raised in the parliament Kapil Sibal apologized for the inclusion of the cartoon and then without any hesitation his government decided to remove all the cartoons from the textbook. This decision was taken without taking the academic committee in confidence and foremost the text book committee which was responsible for the introduction of a radical departure from the early forms of textbook writing. Decisions were taken in haste undermining children's ability to grasp the content and a text accompanying the chapter which delineates the reasons for the delay in the process of constitution writing. The main reason to impose the removal was that it projected Ambedkar in a bad light and hence hurt the sentiments of the lower castes for whom he is a Messiah. Unfortunately the ban was capitalized on a stereotype that Dalits have a fragile ego and are easy to get hurt. It is true that a historic victimization and oppression of the lower castes has been the ideological and theoretical foundation of the Dalit movement in India. Nevertheless the Dalit movement has to overcome the melancholia of this historic oppression to move ahead in the political and social arena. It is not an easy task when Dalit atrocities are on a rise in various parts of the country but a constant mourning and agony will not help the movement to evolve as a constructive force.

My initial opposition to the cartoons was based on the teaching system in India and the upper caste dominance in the academics. Whether this cartoon will be introduced to the students in its right sense? Will Ambedkar end up as a secondary figure in front of the popular Chacha Nehru? When we are still unable to assess or review the importance of Ambedkar's role as an economist, political scientist, and political leader is it right to introduce such a cartoon to the school level kids? Will the teachers be able to explain the delay in the constitution writing taking in account of the diverse and heterogenous nature of this country and the problems faced by Ambedkar to ensure social justice through constitution? But a failure to assess or review one's contribution should not be a reason to spare him from political satire. On what grounds should we grant exclusion for Ambedkar to be not represented in a cartoon? Ambedkar never raised an opposition to this cartoon and it was circulated during his life time. Moreover it did not attract a debate when it was introduced in a text book. Why this furor now? Ambedkar is definitely an icon of the Dalit and Bahujan movement of this country but it does not confer any special privileges on him. He and his teaching should be scrutinized through the same critical tools which have been used to expose the brahmanical foundations of modern India. Contrary to the popular perception that this debate has polarised the Dalit and Left-Liberal thinkers many Dalit thinkers are annoyed by the physical assault on Professor Suhas Palshikar and the eruption of the controversy. Many believe that such acts will hamper the Dalit movement in this country and it will be easy for the upper caste led mainstream media to depict Dalit movement as only emotionally charged militant force. The demand to remove the cartoon will also deify Ambedkar and it will be an insult to a thinker who was harsh against the deification of national leaders like Gandhi and Nehru.

The Neo Buddhist visual culture has been able to consolidate an alternative art and architectural aesthetics to the mainstream brahmanical visual culture. Sculptures, paintings, and calendars of Ambedkar are the main forms of resistance against the upper caste oppression and expressions of Dalit pride. Ambedkar is more than a revolutionary for them. He is a guiding figure, teacher and visionary for them. In Uttar Pradesh with the construction of Ambedkar parks and monumental realistic figures of Ambekdar and other lower caste social reformers Dalit aesthetics have attained new heights. But this profuse depiction of Ambedkar has also deified him. The community has somewhat moved away from the teachings of Ambedkar and is only interested in holding on to the icon. This is an extremely dangerous scenario because when the community fails to revise and introspect on its own positions it replicates the structures it is opposing and eventually will get marginalized.

Since independence it is the first time that Ambedkar gets a worthy mention in a school text book. He is not only presented as a constitution writer but a staunch critic of Gandhi led Congress. It is a welcome relief from the earlier ones which taught us that the national movement was synonymous with Congress. Only a critical pedagogy will expose the shallowness of the conventional nationalist and communal scholarship. Let the students decide whether they want it or not.

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