Ambedkar Cartoon: On Sensibilities, Lies And Half Truths

Umakant is a Delhi-based activist and researcher.

Umakant

The cartoon controversy evoked strong condemnation from the academic community against the move by the government and the political parties to curtail academic freedom and also the right of freedom of speech and expression under which political satires in the form of cartoons and caricatures should be preserved or else the new pedagogical initiative will lose its significance. In this age of finding quick fix solutions and lampooning politicians as boor and uncultured has become a norm with which even liberal and secular intelligentsia is not free. An attempt has been made here for an informed debate by giving an honest assessment by picking up issues which certainly deserve to be judged on their merit. There are certainly more issues involved than what meets the eye!

Babasaheb Ambedkar cartoon in a text book for Class XI entitled “Indian Constitution at Work”” prepared by National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) created a storm in the Indian Parliament where the Dalit Members of Parliament raised the issue and forced the Government to order a review and the subsequent withdrawal of the offensive cartoon in which Jawaharlal Nehru is shown whipping a snail on which Dr. Ambedkar is sitting. This and other cartoons are part of the new text books prepared by the NCERT under the National Curriculum Framework (NCF 2005). It claims to start a new pedagogical shift in the school textbooks wherein classroom teaching is to be done with the help of cartoons, caricatures and illustrations so as to make the teaching as well as the learning process in a more relaxed way and which is also easier for students to comprehend and learn.

The cartoon controversy evoked strong condemnation from the academic community against the move by the government and the political parties to curtail academic freedom and also the right of freedom of speech and expression under which political satires in the form of cartoons and caricatures should be preserved or else the new pedagogical initiative will lose its significance. In this age of finding quick fix solutions and lampooning politicians as boor and uncultured has become a norm with which even liberal and secular intelligentsia is not free. An attempt has been made here for an informed debate by giving an honest assessment by picking up issues which certainly deserve to be judged on their merit. There are certainly more issues involved than what meets the eye!

Let us first examine whether the issue of slow pace of writing the Indian Constitution was based merely on hearsay or was it based on facts and logic. One will have to revisit the Constituent Assembly Debates to know the truth. This is what Mr. T.T. Krishnamachari had to say after Dr. Ambedkar tabled the first draft of the Constitution for discussion in the Constituent Assembly of India on 5th November 1948.

“Mr. President Sir, I am one of those in the House who have listened to Dr. Ambedkar very carefully. I am aware of the amount of work and enthusiasm that he has brought to bear on the work of drafting this Constitution. At the same time, I do realise that the amount of attention that was necessary for the purpose of drafting a Constitution so important to us at this moment has not been given to it by the Drafting Committee. The House is perhaps aware that of the seven members nominated by you, one had resigned from the House and was replaced. One died and was not replaced. One who was away in America and his place was not filled up and another person was engaged in State affairs, and there was a void to that extent; one or two people were away from Delhi and perhaps reasons of health did not permit them to attend. So it happened ultimately that the burden of drafting this Constitution fell on Dr. Ambedkar and I have no doubt that we are grateful to him for having achieved this task in a manner which is undoubtedly commendable….”

While replying to the motion after members finished their intervention for the third and the final reading of the Draft Constitution, Dr. Ambedkar in his speech on 25 November 1949 said,

“Sir, looking back on the work of the Constituent Assembly it will now be two years, eleven months and seventeen days since it first met on the 9th of December 1946… Coming to the Drafting Committee, it was elected by the Constituent Assembly on 29th August 1947. It held its first meeting on 30th August. Since August 30th it sat for 141 days during which it was engaged in the preparation of the Draft Constitution. The first Draft Constitution as presented by the Drafting Committee to the Constituent Assembly contained 315 articles and 8 Schedules. At the end of the consideration stage, the number of articles in the Draft Constitution increased to 386. In its final form, the Draft Constitution contains 395 articles and 8 Schedules. The total number of amendments to the Draft Constitution tabled was approximately 7,635. Of them, the total number of amendments actually moved in the House were 2,473…. In making comparisons on the basis of time consumed, two things must be remembered. One is that the Constitutions of America, Canada, South Africa and Australia are much smaller than ours. Our Constitution as I said contains 395 articles while the American has just seven articles, the first four of which are divided into sections which total up to 21, the Canadian has 147, Australian 128 and South African 153 sections. The second thing to be remembered is that the makers of the Constitutions of America, Canada, Australia and South Africa did not have to face the problem of amendments. They were passed as moved. On the other hand, this Constituent Assembly had to deal with as many as 2,473 amendments. Having regard to these facts the charge of dilatoriness seems to me quite unfounded and this Assembly may well congratulate itself for having accomplished so formidable a task in so short a time”.

Dr. Rajendra Prasad, President of the Constituent Assembly had this to say on 26 November 1949…

“It has undoubtedly taken us three years to complete this work, but when we consider the work that has been accomplished and the number of days that we have spent in framing this Constitution, the details of which were given by the Honourable Dr. Ambedkar yesterday, we have no reason to be sorry for the time spent”.

Considering the clarifications given by Babasaheb Dr. Ambedkar and Dr. Rajendra Prasad in the Constituent Assembly, is it fair to accept Shankar’s cartoon worthy of being included in a text book on Constitution of India? If yes, then why this note of explanation is missing in the book? These questions must be looked into with an open mind and a proper perspective and should also be answered by all the stakeholders.

The Shankar’s cartoon on Ambedkar has to be seen in a context to understand the meaning and also perhaps the motive behind it. The time when the cartoon came in 1949, there was a general sense of expediting the process of Constitution making exercise by the Indian National Congress members. The overwhelming presence that the Indian National Congress enjoyed in the Constituent Assembly had made them little impatient and this was reflected in their attitude and also the views that they displayed after Dr. Ambedkar submitted the first draft of the Constitution. Dr. Ambedkar was accused for disregarding the traditional value system, gram swaraj, for borrowing everything from the American, European and Australian Constitutions. There were members who wanted that more Congress- minded members should have been in the Drafting Committee so as to represent the principles and thoughts of the people who brought this Assembly to fruition and whose desire could have been reflected in the draft. While other members accused Dr. Ambedkar for not following the Objective Resolution. Some members were also miffed about Dr. Dr. Ambedkar’s bold statement wherein he equated village republic to, ‘a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism’. On the other hand there were members who accused Dr. Ambedkar for going beyond the terms/ main principles laid down by the Constituent Assembly. They were of the view that in the draft Constitution, they did not find any trace of Congress outlook, and no trace of Gandhian social and political outlook. And that is how the Drafting Committee’s work was not worthy of any commendation, it was below par. It was even called “Drifting Committee” by a non- Congress member.

On a careful reading of the Constituent Assembly debates one could find that most of these members did not like the work done by Dr. Ambedkar and the Drafting Committee. These were also perhaps reflected in media coverage around that time. But when the article and clause wise discussion started Dr. Ambedkar was able to clarify their misgivings and also convinced a large number of them for going beyond traditional mindset and prepare a Constitution for a modern India and not an India of the past.

Equality is always among the equals! In a society where there are no level playing fields in any sense of the term be it social, cultural, religious, economic and political, how could one assume that every section of society would have same kinds of sense of humour? A sense of humour is always embedded in caste, racial, gender, class and religious norms. It is very easy to blame the victims for their wretchedness but difficult to understand their predicaments. Empathy is good but when it turns into patronising and sermonising tendencies then it loses its sanctity. The sensibilities are always grounded in greater understanding of social and cultural disabilities that defines an individual’s and even community’s standing in society.

Manu- the Brahmanical Hindu law giver, may have died long ago, but the code of conduct as propounded by him has not only survived but is alive and ticking in several overt and covert forms even now. Whereas on the other hand the reverence that Babasaheb commands symbolises the urge for excellence in the face of adverse and hostile situations and the urge to change the iniquitous socio, cultural, religious, economic and political order into an egalitarian system based on the notion of liberty, equality and fraternity. Babasaheb has certainly emerged as a symbol of hope, equality and justice.

The response that has come so far from the media and by several of the social scientists raises some vital questions and should force every right thinking person to search for answers if they believe in being fair, objective and judicious. Arrogating cartoonists, artists, writers, academics, judges and several others beyond criticism and according a super human status meaning thereby that whatever they do is all fine and good and everything that they produce should be protected at all cost in the name of right to freedom of speech and expression. Are all rights that are enshrined in our Constitution ‘absolute’? Does freedom of speech and expression give a license to denigrate someone or something? Is it not an example of Brahmanical knowledge system?

While speaking on the motion after introducing the Draft Constitution on 4th November 1948, Dr. Ambedkar observed that what the Draft Constitution has done is that instead of formulating fundamental rights in absolute terms and depending upon our Supreme Court to come to the rescue of Parliament by inventing the doctrine of police power, it permits the State directly to impose limitations upon the fundamental rights.

Similar Kinds of Cases from Other Countries in Recent Times

Cartoons/caricatures, political satires, paintings, books etc. have all been accused of being biased on one pretext or the other since a long time. India is not an exception in this regard. One such controversy arose in the United States of America in 2009. New York Post, a newspaper belonging to the Rupert Murdoch group, apologised over a ‘racist’ Barack Obama cartoon linking him to a chimpanzee. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/barackobama/4724866/New-York-Post-apologises-over-racist-Barack-Obama-cartoon.html).

Even as recent as February 09. 2012, a fresh cartoon controversy featuring Barack Obama was reported from New Orleans. Some parents complained that some of the political cartoons created for a Middle School assignment could incite violence and should not have gone on display. They were particularly upset by an image of President Barack Obama on which a bullet hole was drawn. The cartoons were among many drawn for a social studies class at Boyet Junior High in Slidell, a predominantly white suburb of New Orleans. Administrators took down the entire exhibit. (http://www.wbrz.com/news/middle-school-obama-cartoons-causes-controversy).

On April 19, 2012 news item was reported about a genocide cartoon in French school which shocked Turkish students. Two Turkish students in a French school reacted after a cartoon depicting a Turk carrying a basket full of skulls with the words “Armenian Genocide” written on its side was shown in class. The incident occurred at the College Anatole France high school in the city of Montbéliard in France’s Comte region. A teacher displayed a cartoon during a geography and history class and asked students: “What do you understand from this cartoon? Why can Turkey not join the EU according to this cartoon?” The families of the students notified the anti-racism COJEP International foundation. COJEP President Ali Gedikoğlu said they would bring the cartoon to the attention of the authorities in France and file a complaint with the French Education Ministry to have the cartoon removed from the curriculum. (http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/genocide-cartoon-in-french-school-shocks-turkish-students-.aspx?pageID=238&nID=18820&NewsCatID=351).

South Africa is currently witnessing a court battle over a painting depicting President Jacob Zuma with his genital exposed. The art work forms part of Bret Murrey’s Hail to the Thief II exhibition running at the Goodman Gallery. It is inspired by an iconic image of Lenin, and shows the President with his genital on display. “The presidency is shocked and disgusted at the grotesque painting by Brett Murray depicting President Jacob Zuma in an offensive manner,” spokesperson Mac Maharaj said. “We are amazed at the crude and offensive manner in which this artist denigrates the person and the office of the President of the Republic of South Africa.” “Nobody has a right to violate the dignity and rights of others while exercising their own,” he said. (http://mg.co.za/article/2012-05-17-anc-irate-over-spear-of-the-nation-artwork). The battle over the controversial artwork is being currently fought on the streets and in the Court after first coming to light in the middle of May 2012. The court hearing has been postponed and even the City Press has withdrawn this controversial artwork from their website. The original artwork was defaced by two persons in the third week of May. (http://mg.co.za/article/2012-05-28-mthembu-denies-any-split-in-anc-over-spear). Zuma filed a case against political caricaturist Zapiro and sued him for R5-million after he depicted Zuma about to rape a blindfolded Lady Justice, unbuckling his belt as she was held down by his political partners in the tripartite alliance. The matter is still before court after Zuma first laid the charge in 2009.

Are we to learn any lesson from the cases cited above? I would leave it here to readers to take an informed decision of their own by judging each case on its merit.

Glaring Omissions, Lies and Half Truths

Any book on Constitution of India should ideally start with a brief history of legislative initiatives that were taken during the British rule and how they paved the way for future political development. It is also surprising that there should be three cartoons on the inability of people in other countries to frame up their Constitution. The cartoon on page no. 5 about inability of people to frame up a Constitution for European Union and again on page no. 9 a cartoon depicting warring groups- Shia, Sunnis and Kurdish and thereby unable to get ready to write a Constitution in Iraq and again on page no. 14, a cartoon entitled ‘castle of cards’ with reference to the new Iraqi Constitution with a caption asking students, “Would this description also apply to the Indian Constitution?” is highly unwarranted and may create negative impressions about internally divided Muslims in Iraq. It certainly defies a rational logic. What have the author/s of this book tried to do? Where was the need for taking such high moral grounding?

The section on composition of the Constituent Assembly on page no. 16 could also have been prepared in a much better way. What was guiding principles on which members were to be elected? How many provinces were to be covered? What was mode of electing the members? Who were the stalwarts who got elected from the Congress Party? Is it enough to say that Congress Party had an overwhelming majority as it occupied 82% of the seats? Which other Political Parties were represented? This section also provides information about 26 members from what were then known as the ‘Scheduled Classes’. The question that needs to be asked here is this: “From where did the author/s get this information that they were called Scheduled Classes?” Right from the time the list was prepared and appended to the Schedule 1 of the Government of India Act, 1935, it is always mentioned as Scheduled Castes. Even the figure of 26 is little doubtful. Initially there were 30 members belonging to Scheduled Castes. But with partition of the country, some of the Scheduled Caste members lost their membership. Dr. Ambedkar while speaking in the Constituent Assembly on 11 October 1949 indicated there were only 28 members belonging to Scheduled Castes as on that day.

It is wrong to say that the Constituent Assembly had only eight major Committees on different subjects and usually Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad or Ambedkar chaired these Committees. This information is mentioned under the title: ‘Procedure’ on page no. 18. It would have been good if the author/s had done some more research and mentioned about 17 different Committees along with the names of chairmen respectively, which were set up during this period of constitution drafting. This information about 17 important Committees along with the name of its Chairmen is available on the website of Indian Parliament. (http://parliamentofindia.nic.in/ls/debates/facts.htm).

It is also important to see how the issue of ‘Objective Resolution’ has been presented and what has not been shared in this book. In the second paragraph under the title ‘Inheritance of the Nationalist Movement’ on page no. 19, it is written like this: “Perhaps the best summary of the principles that the nationalist movement brought to the Constituent Assembly is the Objective Resolution (the resolution that defined the aims of the Assembly) moved by Nehru in 1946. This resolution encapsulated the aspirations and values behind the Constitution”. Yes, there was near unanimity on this as the Constituent Assembly was in complete control of the Congress. But there were dissenting voices too. Dr. M.R. Jayakar and Dr. Ambedkar had serious objections to certain aspects of the resolution that was piloted by the Congress leadership. But it does not find any mention here. The resolution was adopted on 22 January 1947 without the presence of the Muslim League and any representative from Indian States, meaning Princely States. A short note on points raised by Jayakar and Ambedkar would have certainly been a good example of a balanced and more nuanced approach to dealing with this resolution.

The minority situation in the country still remains unresolved to great extent and we must try for a sincere and genuine effort for a peaceful co-existence on equal footing i.e. integration at par with each other in place of assimilation that was advocated by Patel and the Congress leadership, which unfortunately continues in many forms even now.

In a highlighted item on page no. 42, the information about National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India is an example of gross error. It has been mentioned that it was set up in the year 2000. Is there any need to remind them that NHRC was established in 1993 after the Parliament of India enacted Human Rights Act, 1993? The question that needs to be raised here how could other Constitutional and Statutory bodies like National Commission for Scheduled Castes, National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, National Commission for Women and National Commission for Minorities be completely ignored?

It is also quite baffling to find cartoons, collage of news items and even reproduction of news items in Hindi language in a book which is written in English language and that is meant to be taught in English medium schools. How could the writer/s assume that teacher and students would be able to understand these knowing it fully well that Hindi is neither a mother tongue nor a medium of instruction in schools in different parts of India?

There are other critical issues like Fundamental Duties, Constitutional Safeguards for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and a host of several other matters that have not been sufficiently dealt with. Issues like separate electorate continues to be demonised whereas the defects of joint electorate system and the first past the post system are never highlighted. It is in this regard that a need has been felt for a revision/review of all the text books that have been prepared under NCF- 2005. This will certainly help not only in rectifying errors but also in putting several issues in perspective and also with required sensibilities. This appeal must be taken in right earnest to further strengthen the new pedagogical shift that started with NCF- 2005.

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