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Ambedkar Cartoon, Dalit Objections and Indian Left Liberals – II

Ambedkar Cartoon, Dalit Objections and Indian Left Liberals – II

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Continued from here.

This is the second, concluding part of the transcript of the interview Ravi Chandran, of the video news journal ‘Dalit Camera: Through Un-Touchable Eyes‘, conducted with Dr K. Satyanarayana, Associate Professor, Department of Cultural Studies, English and Foreign Languages University (EFL-U) on the recent Ambedkar cartoon controversy.

Dr K. Satyanarayana: If you take the syllabus of political science at post graduate level or at various levels, are we reading Ambedkar as a political thinker? You might have one or two articles from scholars, maybe from Gail Omvedt or Eleanor (Zelliot) or recently from Valerian Rodriques on Ambedkar’s thought, or Ambedkar as an untouchable thinker, but not Ambedkar as a political theorist. Ambedkar is not centrally seen as a political thinker, not only Ambedkar, the entire generation of anti-caste intellectuals and leaders and dalit movement is not at the centre of political science today. Political science looks at dalits only in the context of elections as vote banks and this is a serious failure on the part of political science.



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So when dalits are talking about representation of Ambedkar, they are talking about substantial representation of Ambedkar engaging with his intellectual and political thoughts. You may say that this is not possible in the textbook but you have to discuss about it and acknowledge that it is a complex and challenging task and it involves a lot of difficulties.

If there is any message in this controversy for me, it is that representation of Ambedkar is a very complex and challenging task. You cannot just do it by putting up a cartoon and then say that (these) textbooks are a pedagogical revolution and don’t come in the way. I see this attitude as a very serious kind of problem. Forget about Ambedkar — you have not even recognized him as a thinker or important scholar or political theorist and so on — it just indicates that today you don’t even recognize Dalits’ right to read, interpret and comment. The dalits are saying there is a problem with the cartoon and in fact the controversy did not start with the parliament. It started two months earlier with RPI. Till then you did not do anything until the state banned it. For you, the context is state banning; for me, the context is Ambedkar’s cartoon.

The Left-liberals should have taken dalit objections more seriously than the state banning. If you take dalit objections seriously and address it and carry the dalits with you, it would have been easy to fight the state. But if you want to ignore the Dalits and say that the state ban is the only issue then it will be difficult. There is a larger issue dalits are raising and if you claim to be a pro-dalit academician or a progressive academician, you have to see what is the larger structure of the argument.

In this controversy, the dalit argument is that representing Ambedkar is a serious and complex issue in a context when he was completely ignored historically, his thought was not part of political science or NCERT and (for the) first time you are trying. It is good, but you should also be willing to listen to other people, listen to dalits, listen to various kinds of people on what is the appropriate way of doing this. This should have really helped when we have not developed conceptual tools to engage with Ambedkar. It is only dalit activists and scholars who have thoroughly read Ambedkar and managed to grab something of Ambedkar.


Palishkar and Yadav, despite all their good intentions, should have realized that there is some problem in representing Ambedkar in post 90s context where historically there was no representation of Ambedkar, acceptance of his thoughts and ideas.. then in a rudimentary manner, putting a cartoon and writing a few lines will not help.. it is a difficult task…they should have thought about it.

There are very few dalit scholars but there are a large number of dalits in the public domain and they are not going to accept your representation of Ambedkar, his thought and saying that you are liberal, left and you are progressive and well intentioned. It is not enough. It has to be accepted by the dalits at large. You are right in your own claim that you are well intentioned and you are creating a revolution.This is well taken but this revolution is subject to criticism and also opposition and debates by dalits.

Ravi Chandran: How do you view the central government’s quick response to withdraw these books and going forward with an inquiry? Do you see it as a censorship of textbooks and also as undermining the autonomy of NCERT?

Central government attempt has two immediate contexts – one is the dalit protest about the cartoon in the NCERT textbook and that Thirumaavalavan raised the issue in the parliament and all MPs also objected to this cartoon in the parliament. That is one context. Another is that they have quickly withdrawn circulation of the books and appointed a committee to look into the matter. So these two things the state has done.

Obviously, my view is that they should not censor the textbook and parliament has no way of assessing and reading these textbooks or (judge) whether a particular kind of pedagogy is right or wrong. Definitely it is a matter in the domain of the experts. Having said this, the parliament also is a kind of a representative body to carry the general will of the public. The political scientists know it. All those Liberal left political scientists who are criticizing the political class and their opportunism are also aware of it.

If they would have taken dalit objections seriously and debated and said there are some points in the objections and they would like to review it… I think the parliament has the right to do what it did. It really represents the general public will according to the Indian political system but if you say that the Indian political system, parliament, itself is bogus then that is a different argument and..(you) have to argue for a different kind of parliament, for a different kind of political system. Having agreed that there is a parliament that represents the general public opinion and it has taken cognizance of dalits’ views that is not accepting the way Ambedkar has been represented in the cartoon and having taken this seriously and decided to take some action. .. State always uses opportunities like these.

There is a genuine dalit concern. Instead of deleting this cartoon.. it (the State) goes on  to withdraw the entire textbook because there are other uncomfortable cartoons, uncomfortable issues and (is) going to the extent of saying we will punish the intellectuals and even attack the autonomy of NCERT. These are all issues… autonomy of the NCERT, the values of the text book, democratic content of the text book, these are all important issues.

But here I would say that the state would always react this way. This is very much the nature of the state and the left-liberal intellectuals knew very well about this. So to stop the state from acting in this manner they should have responded to the dalit criticism. They should have come out with this argument that we want to withdraw this cartoon or we want to temporarily suspend the use of this textbook or this particular cartoon and will have an independent committee consisting of different kind of intellectuals including the dalit intellectuals. They should have gone ahead and argued for such an expert committee. This is one, and second thing is that the state should also, instead of withdrawing the circulation of this book they should have appointed a committee which includes dalits’ opinions and other minority opinions and then after the committee submits the representation, they should have taken action. But if they don’t want to do this and censor the book, it is a problem with the state that needs to be fought.

But you can fight with the state only if you carry dalits along with you and for that you have to first accept that there is a genuine concern among the dalits and it needs to be acknowledged. So if you are not going to recognize it then obviously dalits will go to the highest body in the country, which is parliament, whatever its limitations are. And in the parliament, a dalit MP raised it and then everybody said yes to it, maybe due to various reasons, but dalit concerns are also very important. But then the state also wants to use this particular controversy for its own purposes.

So, I will still put responsibility on the liberal-left intellectuals who are part of making of this textbook, that they should have reacted in a different manner, in a democratic manner. They should have been open to the debate. They should have been open to the idea that the textbooks they have made are not sacrosanct. And they are not foolproof. They are attempting something new, it may have problems, and it may have mistakes and they should be willing to accommodate all those kind of suggestions. But going with the tenor of discussion in kafila and elsewhere and the whole campaign to save the NCERT textbooks, it is clear that they are not ready to take the dalit point in notice.

As long as they are not going to take dalit point of view in notice, dalits are going to take it to the higher forums. And state and other bodies may want to use it the way they want to. The state will always use such opportunities. So there is no point in saying that the state is using this opportunity, Dalits are in no position of controlling the state and to say that only delete this cartoon. You have to say that.

There should be a serious attempt to assess Ambedkar, his contribution as a political thinker and his contribution in making India, his contribution in democracy and what are his other ideas. And if we are assessing him in that sense, then obviously his role in constitution making will also come. Because they have not properly assessed Ambedkar, they have not properly recognized Ambedkar– you don’t have proper documentation on what was the role of Dr Ambedkar in the making of the Indian constitution. In fact people in the dalit movement have pointed out that abolition of untouchability, provision of reservations, state directive principles, fundamental rights and many other fundamental aspects of the constitution..where Ambedkar played a major role. He insisted, he argued on many of those kinds of provisions, not only for dalit related provisions but for provisions related to fundamental rights, democratic values. He strongly argues on these despite there being a strong opposition from the conservative groups. (For) something like the Hindu code bill he kept on arguing but he could not succeed even in independent India.

So if you have to think about Ambedkar’s contribution in making of India and Indian democracy, in that context his role in the making of Indian constitution is very important. Many dalits have argued that the Indian constitution is not the real Ambedkar constitution, (but) it is his book ‘States and Minorities’ where you have nationalization of land, and have many different issues..There you have state socialism as an ideal but because he could not translate his ‘States and Minorities’ into the Indian constitution, he could not incorporate all this, he could argue to the extent possible against the conservative forces that were there in the constituent assembly that is why he could bring some provisions in the constitution. In that sense Indian constitution is not the one Ambedkar would have liked. It is not 100% approved by Ambedkar, this is the point dalits have to recognize today, that it is the constitution Ambedkar was part of.. and negotiated for certain fundamental rights and certain democratic values. It is an important contribution that he has made, if he was not there, then abolition of untouchability, provision of reservations, state directive principles and some of the fundamental rights would not have been part of the constitution. This is one important point. The second point is if you have to think about Ambedkar’s vision of constitution, that I think you have to really look at in his other writings as well as in his ‘States and Minorities’ so that is also important. It has now become a very sentimental issue now as everyone is denying his role, even his minimum contribution that he made in various phases. They have not even acknowledged it. Dalits have to cling to this idea that Indian constitution is Ambedkarite constitution. In fact Indian constitution benefited from Ambedkar being the chairperson but Ambedkar’s constitution will be ‘States and Minorities’ and his other ideas that are there in his writings.

Please read the first part of the transcript here.


Dr K.Satyanarayana, with Susie Tharu, edited the anthology of Dalit writing ‘No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit Writing from South’, published by Penguin India in 2011.


[Thanks, Anoop Kumar, Ratnesh Kumar, Manju Rao and Gurinder Azad for working on this transcript]


Please also read other articles published on Round Table India on the same issue:

The cartoon controversy: Inside the mind of one ‘fanatic’ Dalit – I‘ by Anoop Kumar,

Whipping up ‘critical pedagogy’: Uncritical defense of NCERT’s violence‘ by Savari,

The Cartoon, the Classroom and the Idea of India‘ by N. Sukumar,

Of critical pedagogy and rational thinking‘ by Kshitij Pipaleshwar,

The caste-neutral whip and other jokes‘ by Kuffir and

Thol. Thirumaavalavan writes to Kapil Sibal and Sukhadeo Thorat

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