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Open to ridicule

India's politicians' regrettable response to a 1949 cartoon

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On Friday, more clearly than ever before, India’s political class revealed its deepest, darkest fear: that someone, somewhere, is smiling. In an enviable feat of cross-party unanimity in this partisan and divided age, India’s parliamentarians decided that a cartoon by that unparalleled chronicler of the birth of independent India, Shankar, was too offensive for a government-sanctioned on modern Indian history. The cartoon, from 1949, showed and whipping a snail labelled “Constitution”; it was Shankar’s comment on how long the Constitution-drafting process was taking. It was more than harmless enough, and more than informative enough, to find a place in a history textbook. For those, however, searching for reasons to get offended, it could look like Nehru was whipping Ambedkar — if you overlooked such minor details as the direction of the whip he was holding (towards the snail-as-constitution) or where he was looking (again, towards the snail-as-constitution). For the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, nuance was unnecessary: unless this insult to India’s best-known Dalit leader was withdrawn, her obedient legislators would not let Parliament function, she insisted. The government, showing the sort of energy the UPA only displays when it is banning things, promptly stood — in the person of Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal — to apologise profusely and announce that a committee had been set up to review such cartoons, the book's distribution would be stopped immediately and no such cartoons would find place in similar textbooks next year.

That this is a travesty of political debate is obvious. It also — as pointed out by political scientists and Suhas Palshikar, who have resigned in protest from the board advising the drafting of the textbooks — upsets “fundamental canons of democratic society”. History textbooks cannot be drafted by members of Parliament shouting slogans in the well of the House. It is particularly ironic that the subject of the cartoon should be the leisurely pace at which the was being drafted. Had that awesome responsibility been handed to this Lok Sabha and this Rajya Sabha, constantly adjourned for one minor reason or another, India would never have had a Constitution. Almost beyond irony is the depressing reflection of how little the liberalism of Ambedkar inspires those today who claim his mantle while seeking to undermine his greatest legacy.

Unlike Nehru and Ambedkar, India’s somewhat less credible modern-day politicians across parties seem unable to handle even the mildest hint of ridicule. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee famously had a Kolkata professor arrested for an innocuous Satyajit Ray-quoting cartoon; she has now reportedly said that the cartoon of her and her railway ministers contained threats to kill her. Since the cartoon has been widely distributed — the usual consequence of such state action — that statement will be judged and found nonsensical. Yet while Ms Banerjee may be extreme — she also apparently told party members that Facebook and Twitter are conspiring against her — she is not, it appears, alone. All India’s parties appear to subscribe to the politics of intolerance, of competitive offence. In the process, they do a disservice to history, to the ideas and memories of the leaders they profess to admire, and to the basic principles of liberal democracy.

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