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Ambedkar’s Cartoon and the Caste question

Ambedkar’s Cartoon and the Caste question

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Raj Kumar

A harrowing monologue is in vogue in the popular media and academic forums apropos a cartoon of Dr. Ambedkar in a Political Science textbook prepared by NCERT for its Class XI students. Apparently, in the cartoon, Ambedkar is depicted being whipped by Jawaharlal Nehru for delaying the framing of the constitution. The cartoon was first published in 1949 and was drawn by cartoonist Shankar Pillai. Though in interior Dalit circles, the cartoon was being despised for denigrating ‘Baba Saheb’ as they lovingly call him, no heed was paid to their sentiments till the issue was raised in the Parliament and taken up by Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati. Government had to concede and the cartoon was removed from the textbook and HRD minister made a public apology for the goof-up followed by resignation of two academicians involved with the curriculum committee.

This generated a tormented reaction from the academicians as an attack on freedom of speech and the Dalits becoming intolerant and some zealots of freedoms of speech even castigating Dalits as new fascists. Very few reactions have come from the Dalits in this ongoing intimidating academic exercise. The whole controversy and the consequent fallout must be seen in the context of higher education and its poverty in terms of social diversity. One must not forget the fact that Dalits are still suffering from the academic untouchability, more so in higher education. With more than half million teachers at university and college level across the country, Dalits do not account for more than two percent, and most of them are at the assistant professor level only. In academic institutions the real power rests with the professors and the Dalit professors in the country can be counted on finger tips, at less than hundred in both state and central universities. Most of the committees, commissions and institutions responsible for preparing, executing and monitoring academic affairs enjoy pristine brahamanical purity, devoid of representative diversity and therefore fail to project the collective sensibilities. NCERT is no exception to this.

Did Ambedkar framing the constitution delay constitution making?

For those who do not have much to do with the NCERT books as students or civil service aspirants, it was news that the completion of the constitution of India was delayed. Though almost everybody is aware of Jawaharlal Nehru’s haste and anxiety for transfer of power and its formalisation. Projecting this personalised perception in the textbook transgresses the brief a bit. The first meeting of the drafting committee was held on 30th august 1947 and the draft was ready in the first week of November 1949. It took little over two years for Ambedkar to accomplish the gigantic assignment and everybody except Arun Shourie and his likes, recognises Ambedkar’s immense contribution in making the constitution. Suddenly this so-called humorous but in fact denigrating insertion in 2006 is out of place, uncalled for, and non-academic to the core. Indian constitution holding together the most hostile groups and paving the way for the peaceful transformation from a highly iniquitous to more egualitarian society, and it easily qualifies to be one of the best constitutions of the world. Therefore, the 2006 insertion does not represent the true nature of the work, and a cartoonist might not be having an iota of idea what a magnificent marvel the constitution was and is, way back in 1949.

Just for argument’s sake for a moment, let us accept the proposition that the cartoon reflects reality and the constitution completion was delayed. Even then, Nehru had no business whatsoever holding the whip in an extra-constitutional manner, and in a way having seemed to have usurped the stewardship of Dr. Rajendra Prasad who was entrusted the responsibility to oversee the making of the constitution. It was theoretically and academically an inappropriate demonstration of the events taking place at that point of time.

Moreover the cartoon is ethically, morally and pedagogically flawed and mischievous to the core. Not only the cartoon does not reflect empirical reality but had a very dangerous prescription. No expression is created in a vacuum and is always meant to communicate with the targeted individual or group. Here the cartoon is meant for Class XI students. The message this communication carries is that if one is slow in working, or in submitting the assignment, he or she is liable to be whipped, and not even the best ones are to be spared. This method may hold merit for barbaric societies but in civilised societies the prescriber is likely to be booked for promoting and perpetuating violence. Also even Indian law does not allow teachers in the class rooms to whip the students for being slow in doing their class work or home work. Many teachers have been booked for this crime including in the capital of the country. Even whipping an animal is unacceptable that promotes the cruelty against the innocent being and may invite the criminal proceedings against the persons involved. There is no reason to believe especially after implementation of the constitution so arduously written by Dr. Ambedkar that we are living in a master slave society and also there is no justification to cherish the idioms of that age either.

Pedagogically, material available to the students must inculcate inquisitiveness and sense of initiative and in no way force the students to accept whatever is delivered by the teacher. There can be no greater travesty of education if whipping becomes the paragon of classroom teaching. It is frightening to the students and has rich potential to transform the young impressionable minds into vegetative, docile and diffident entities who are otherwise young, energetic and receptive to the idea of change.

Right to freedom of speech in India is one of the most valuable and cherished fundamental right available to every citizen, that includes right to criticise government and its policies and programmes with reasonable restrictions. Freedom of speech is definitely not available at the public expenditure and the governmental educational institutions are not beyond the puriew of accountability and public probity. While Shankar Pillai may have been well within his professional obligation in drawing the cartoon of a particular orientation, NCERT and its appointed public servants are answerable for their action and therefore theoretically cannot claim impunity in the name of freedom of expression. Suhas and Yogender may have freedom to support or hold the opinion of Ambedkar being responsible for slow drafting of the constitution but it would be inappropriate for propagating their individual opinion with public money. It’s a gross impropriety on the part of experts involved in the curriculum framing.

Understanding Dalit Anger

The teacher holding the whip reminds us of the day-to-day reality most of the Dalit students have to face by and large in their class rooms. Very few Dalits have escaped this trauma in their initial years especially in the village schools, and definitely for not being slow in learning, although that is the pretext used by teachers who invariably bear caste biases. This phenomenon has been one of the most important reasons for Dalits students dropping out from the schools. This inhuman and utterly unprofessional attitude of teachers has been the bandwagon of brahamanical hegemony and cause of classroom ordeals of Dalit students. Therefore Dalits demand of removing the carton from the books is their proclaimed declaration of removing the whip from the classrooms, which has been haunting them all these years. The garrulous talk in the media by self proclaimed progressives is devoid of depth and betrays lack of professional ethics.

Education is used to reproduce the social systems in which it operates and has always been an instrument of dominance and its perpetuity. How caste is kept vibrant and always thriving gets manifested through this cartoon controversy. Brahamanics have been spreading the canard of quota inefficiency and declining quality etc. and reservation is held as the real culprit for this decline. Ambedkar is already projected as closely related with reservations in India though as a matter of fact Ambedkar never wanted reservations for Dalits but the reservations were imposed on Dalits forcibly by Gandhi and the Congress as a necessary condition of Poona pact.

NCERT books caters to the urbanised middle class students who hardly find any merit in Dalit liberation discourse and see themselves at the receiving end because of these movements of emancipation and empowerment and more so because of reservations, and hence the cartoon whipping of Ambedkar suits their subconscious sensibilities which is in complete opposition to the Dalit students who see Ambedkar as their role model. It cuts both ways, helping ossify the Dalit stereotype as being unworthy of performing efficiently, fit only for menial scavenging jobs, and demoralising Dalit assertion.

Hyperbole of Dalits becoming highly intolerant fascists and extremist must be treated with the disdain it deserves. Brahmanism is known for distinct hypocrisy and it is the classical example of its dubious characteristic. It is an open secret that for centuries together, Dalits have been subjected to most horrendous and heinous atrocities unabated and they had accepted it as their divine destiny. They have been suffering the misery and hardships without any complaint. With the movement of their liberation gaining momentum, Dalits are waging the war for reclaiming their lost glory and prestige. Any attempt on the part of Dalits for restoring their self-respect and dignity is seen as an infringement on the divine rights of the bhoodevtas and therefore the hullagullah of Dalits becoming intolerant, extremist and fascist.

But Dalits’ forbearance is coming to an end. Nobody should take them for granted anymore, for none is to be counted for more than one in democratic institutions and society. These dynamic Dalit voices critical of the cartoon are the fruit of democracy and calls for celebration.

Contrary to what is being projected in academic and public media as Dalit fascism, it is testimony to the intolerance and arrogance of the brahamanical elite inimical to every positive change in the socio-political relations in the society. This self proclaimed educated group has never worked for the democratisation of the educational institution rendering campuses as dens of casteism with greater vigour and vitality. The near consensus of left, right and centrist political pretentions on Dalit representation in academics, betrays their brahamanical orientations. Otherwise there is no reason why the constitutional safeguards and representation of Dalits cannot be ensured in the educational institutions. A slightest assertion by the caste victims for claiming their due share is perceived as a threat to their dominance by this academic militia and is painted as casteist and catastrophic for peaceful social fabric of the community. Opposition to Mandal commission in higher education and sinister designs in denying reservation at associate professor and professor level are some of the recent glaring examples of their caste consensus. An iota of resistance to their serenity is met with ferocious and vehement opposition and the most liberal of them takes no time in converting themselves into the most reactionary casteist.

The inertia effecting the educated and learned is pathetically irritating and exposes the perfidy; this noble profession has suffered in India. No meaningful progress is visible in developing theoretical frameworks for the glaring socio-economic political realities and as a result the academics are surviving as parasite on public funds with zero contribution to the discipline and society at large. Development of theories, concepts, and ideas is a remote reality as long as closed minds are enjoying absolute monopoly over research and academic institutes are hell bent upon not letting diverse social groups to peruse academic excellence lest their mediocre calibre is exposed. The discipline of political science seems to be enjoying its lowest status in the league. As a result no contribution is made by the academician in the ongoing struggle for social transformation and economic emancipation in the country. Most of the academics cherish status quo and work against the forces of changes and minuscule minority which swears for change seems to be interested in leading theses movements and hardly anyone is seen working as grassroots worker. It seems to be case of appropriating leadership with command over language and maneavourings skills.

Not surprisingly, the society at large has stopped looking forward for intellectual guidance from these self centred educated elite. Ideally an intellectual must be motivated by the dynamics of social purpose and must act as the scourge and scavenger of the society as Ambedkar has observed. What a magnificent failure our educational and research centres have become, working as caste centres maintaining hierarchies and graded inequalities. There seems to be an attempt on the part of some innocuous individuals to show their goodwill and righteous intentions towards the Dalit issues but the question is not of some individuals behaving in a dignified and non-casteist fashion, there is nothing extraordinary in behaving in a normal humane manner, what is more important is to develop the institutions of equality so that a decisive onslaught on the institutions of oppression and discrimination is unleashed. Here the convictions are turned into mere convenience and the birth process of Voltaire is aborted abruptly. Brahamanical intelligentsia is yet to produce its Voltaire and Ambedkar has rightly challenged it to produce one. The total absence of Dalits from these institutions is deliberate, intentional and political to the core. This subtle yet systematic exclusion and ostracism of the Dalits from these institutions is a blunt mechanism of perpetuating exclusive brahamanical values and upholding its manifest edifices.

The only institution which has become increasingly representative and democratic in content and contour is the legislature, both at state and central level. Parliament truly represents the social diversity and may symbolise the unity in diversity paradigm. When the Dalits are being burnt alive, Dalit women are paraded naked and raped in public, scolded and discriminated day and night, the collective conscience of the intelligentsia refuse to take note of it. It becomes imperative on the part of Dalits with whatever little resources they have at their disposal to protest with all their might. When the target is the one whom Dalits revere the most, like Dr. Ambedkar, they have every right to protest and register their anger with available constitutional democratic means. Uproars in the Parliament and scores of protest movements are the representative demonstrations of collective outburst of the entire community and must be seen from that perspective.

However, unlawful intimidations have no role to play in Dalits’ democratic assertion and must be dissuaded firmly. There is a sinister design to malign the legislature for having lost sheen and quality by the caste Hindus for the simple reason of having lost the majority there. But the Parliament represents the only hope for languishing majority in the country which occasionally comes for their rescue. All other institutions, i.e. executive, judiciary, media and intelligentsia are yet to respond for their call of democratisation and representation. Not even a whisper is heard in academic circles or media when schemes, programmes run for the Dalits and the marginalised in the name of Ambedkar and other icons are scrapped by the Uttar Pradesh government. Where are the progressive and liberal voices protesting when Savitri Bai Phule Balika Madad Yojna providing 25000 Rs and a cycle to every girl student is scrapped or foreign study exchange programme for Dalit students of Gautama Buddha University is abolished or Ambedkar village development scheme is discontinued? This selective and partisan deprecation will further demolish the myth of ours’ becoming a secular and modern civil society that apparently refuses to exist at least for the time being. Any attempt to demean the Parliament or for that matter politicisation of the masses is bound to invite equal and square reaction from otherwise marginalised masses.

Ambedkar-Congress relations could be termed as worst at the best. A perennial discomfiture right from the day one existed with hardly any meeting ground between the two till Ambedkar breathed his last in 1956. Congress did its best to stop Ambedkar entering the Constituent Assembly and when he did not succumb to their mechanism of subversion, Congress had to eat humble pie and let Ambedkar assume the role of chairman of drafting committee of the constitution. Why and how Ambedkar became the chairman of the drafting committee is one of the greatest mysteries our political scientists, historian and researchers must unearth. Anybody aware of the political reality of that particular time must critically re-examine the claims of some Gandhian that Congress that Ambedkar declared as sinking ship and burning house, offered him the coveted post. Over Hindu code bill and OBC reservations Ambedkar fought vociferously and resigned from the national government headed by the Congress. That uneasiness between the Congress and Dalit movement has not ended even today as most of his followers were co-opted by the Congress after Ambedkar demise. Dalit movement felt betrayed largely at the hand of Congress in post Ambedkar era. This is no coincidence that Congress dissipation in north India is accompanied by profound Dalit assertion. Dalit empowerment is increasingly becoming coterminous with congress down fall in the countryside. The politics of last two decades largely remains a hide and seek game for Dalits and Congress in the north India and more specifically in Uttar Pradesh. In this context the known Congressian academicians inserting an out of context carton into the textbook seems to suggest taking political positions which may be an honest admission of their political orientations but pretentions of being politically correct and votary of freedom of speech does not hold water.

Those who had refused to recognise and realise Ambedkar potential contributions in the making of the nation have no morality to ridicule or denigrate him. Is Ambedkar just a constitution maker? As they would know nothing more of him out of their textbook ignorance and inability due to their myopic vision, it provides no solace to belittle him. By fighting for the rights of most deprived and oppressed lot Ambedkar had provided the maximum strength to the foundation of nation building. However mighty a super structure may be, it remains shaky if erected on a weak foundation. The stature and stamina Dalit movement has gained is a direct result of Ambedkar’s single handed contribution which makes him a great democrat, social revolutionary with a missionary zeal with great vision. He is among the few revolutionaries India has produced. As an exemplary human being his enormous sagacity and mammoth capabilities distinguish him from the ordinary being.

Nonetheless Ambedkar himself was product of the socio-cultural movement of his times and his greatness lies in providing the decisive leadership to the down-trodden to scale the insurmountable and unimaginable heights. But that never translates his accomplishments and actions beyond scrutiny brackets. As an ardent Buddhist, rationalist and humanist, Ambedkar refused to adhere to consistency and worked for change all through his life. Every attempt to immortalise his teaching will be unacceptable and undesirable to the ideological opponents but every critical observation cannot be construed as animosity displayed by his enemies. That fine distinction is to be maintained by every Ambedkarite if one cherishes the commitment, convictions and courage to liberate the Dalit masses from the inhuman, abject and ignorant subjugation. The cartoon controversy is an an eye opener that the Dalits are watching others’ actions and ready to contest each and every inch of identity, history and culture of India and will strike with vehemence if their patience is put to test. It is a declaration of their long overdue arrival and is a great sign for Indian democracy and society at large.


Raj Kumar is Associate Professor Political Science, Dyal Singh College, Delhi University.