It is unreasonable to expect the Dalit community to not take offence at the cartoon of B R Ambedkar, drawn by the great cartoonist Shankar in 1949, withdrawn from NCERT textbooks by Indian members of Parliament earlier this month.
This is not because the cartoon is offensive, in its historical context. It depicts Ambedkar riding a snail, which represents the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution of which he was the Chair, with Jawaharlal Nehru wielding a whip behind him.
In his November 1949 speech to the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar made it clear that he was aware of the complaints — one member had called the Drafting Committee the “Drifting Committee”, for instance. “It was being said that the Assembly had taken too long a time to finish its work, that it was going on leisurely and wasting public money,” Ambedkar said, before rebutting his critics.
It is hard to argue, as many have, that Shankar’s cartoon was a deliberate attempt to depict a Brahmin whipping a Dalit. The cartoonist lampooned Nehru, Jinnah and other national leaders with as much sharpness. He was treating Ambedkar as an equal to his peers, equally worthy of satirical treatment. Some Dalit commentators have made the more accurate point, which is that what was not offensive in 1949 may be felt as offensive in 2012.
To argue that the Dalit community should place freedom of expression above its sense of offence ignores the ground reality of the Indian experience in the last two decades. In recent times, few communities, political or religious leaders and groups have placed a principle ahead of the prospect of gain. Brahmins stung by Habib Tanvir’s criticism of their caste successfully shut down performances of Ponga Pundit in Chhattisgarh.
The Shiv Sena, setting itself up as the guardian of Hindu sensibilities, has stalled all scholarship into the lives of revered icons such as Shivaji and Bal Thackerayji. And a handful of Muslim leaders found it easy to capitalise on vote bank politics in order to prevent Salman Rushdie from speaking at a literary festival, allowing fanatics who felt that even Rushdie’s image on a screen caused great offence to represent the entire community.
The Dalits, already underprivileged, should have their chance along with upper castes, politicians and religious leaders who put on their best performances in TV studios, to reap the benefits of claiming offence. These are considerable benefits, in 2012: claim offence and you claim valuable space, while shutting down art galleries, textbooks, scholarship, criticism and reasoned argument.
In all of these debates over the limits of free speech and the need to be sensitive to the dangers of giving offence, we have lost more than just our free expression rights, important as that is. One loss is a relatively minor loss of perspective: all of the threatened violence over books, cartoons, textbooks, art and cinema has been organised by political parties. Though we may choose not to acknowledge this, it makes that violence much more containable than the kind of spontaneous outrage over literature and art which, frankly, hasn’t happened in decades. (Unless you’re including the people who insist on asking paragraph-length questions at book launches in the ranks of the dangerously violent.)
The other loss is major. This is the loss of the idea that if you’re dealing with art and especially satire that has cut deep, adding context is better than deleting the offensive material. The late M F Husain’s paintings of goddesses lose their ability to offend when you place them besides similarly naked ancient sculptures of the gods. Rohinton Mistry’s criticisms of Indira Gandhi or Thackeray should be read alongside, say, Shankar’s cartoons of the Emergency, or chronicles of the rise of the Sena in Maharashtra.
With the Ambedkar cartoon, why ask for erasure when you should ask, instead, for more? Why was a Dalit blamed for the delays in drafting the Constitution? Because he was the head of the Drafting Committee? Or because there were more subtle caste politics at work? Broaden the discussion, and ask why Dalit academics weren’t part of the process of critical pedagogy, but don’t tear the cartoons out of all textbooks.
In that 1949 session, Ambedkar began by addressing the criticism that the Constitution had been drafted at snail’s pace. But a little later, he came to a point that concerned him greatly: “In India – where democracy from its long disuse must be regarded as something quite new – there is danger of democracy giving place to dictatorship.”
He was echoing his colleague, T T Krishnamachari. In answer to a question about why the fundamental rights to liberty – including freedom of expression – were not stronger, Krishnamachari said: “If the Parliament of the future is not going to safeguard the liberty of the individual, I do not think that anything we put in this Constitution can possibly safeguard it.”
Perhaps once Parliament is done with protecting itself – and any group that screams offence – from any kind of criticism, past and present, it may have time to address Ambedkar’s fears.