|Verse 193: It is hard to find the noblest of men; he
is not born everywhere nor in every clan. To whatever clan such a wise
man is born, that clan prospers.
VOICE OF SARVAJAN
Humour is by no means exempt from prejudice
TV grab of Union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal addressing the Lok Sabha,
amidst members waving photocopies of the controversial cartoon in an
A petition submitted to Prof. Sukhadeo Thorat, Chairperson, NCERT
Textbooks Review Committee, by leading Dalit and non-Dalit writers,
scholars and activists.
When NCERT’s Class XI Political Science textbook, Indian Constitution at Work,
came to the attention of some Dalit activists, they objected to the
manner in which the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the
Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, had been depicted riding a snail
representing the Constitution, with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru
wielding a whip behind him and an entire crowd smiling and watching the
spectacle. Six weeks later, the issue was raised in Parliament and a
chorus of MPs cutting across party lines sought the withdrawal of the
cartoon, and some even of the NCERT textbooks. Many sections of the
public had not been privy to the contents of the textbooks in the past
six years. It is only now that these textbooks are being debated.
We, the undersigned, are dismayed by the two polarised sets of reactions
that have emerged. Firstly, many members who were part of the textbook
advisory committee for the senior secondary level, including Chairman of
the committee Prof. Hari Vasudevan, and Chief Advisors Suhas Palshikar
and Yogendra Yadav, have since protested against the demand for
reconsidering the use of this insensitive cartoon. Subsequently, many
members who have been part of various textbook development committees
have argued that the textbooks should remain unchanged; and have been
silent about the violence of the cartoons. This is a rather untenable
position. We find it insulting when some intellectuals suggest that
people protesting the cartoon fail to understand the “productive power
of laughter” or that there’s a “fear of cartoons”. The textbooks,
however good they are and even if they mark a radical departure from
past efforts, cannot be above criticism, discussion and improvement.
This logic, in fact, goes against the stated aim of these textbooks: to
engage sceptically and critically with what one reads. Indeed, each of
the new NCERT textbooks solicits feedback, criticism and suggestions.
The textbook writers may have tried their best to overcome their caste
bias, but none of us is exempt from the baggage of caste, gender or
other interests. As the feminist movement has so clearly shown, humour
is by no means exempt from prejudice. Cartoons and jokes can be vicious
about minorities. Hate speech often masquerades as humour. Jokes and
cartoons need to be subjected to critical scrutiny.
Secondly, we do share the fear that in the name of handling the
contentious cartoon on Dr. Ambedkar, the UPA government might attempt to
remove many cartoons and other visual/textual material from the
textbooks. Crucially, these textbooks feature several posters from the
women’s movement, the SC/ST movement and the environmental movement.
Also to be commended is the inclusion of a wide range of literary texts
by Dalit writers. However, the textbook writers must realise that they
have not done a favour to SC/STs by such inclusion, which was long
overdue. There’s a lot that is good about these textbooks — a result of
the pressures that the women’s movement, the SC/ST movement,
environmental and farmers movements, anti-SEZ mobilisations exerted
—that may be lost if the final say about what may or may not appear in a
textbook is to be with the state.
These textbooks have been drafted collectively by a wide range of social
scientists, including some academicians who happen to be Dalit, and in
consultation with activists, NGO representatives and educationists
working at the field level. However, it is not as if these textbooks are
completely error-proof. Besides the offensive cartoon, the text in the
Class XI textbook does not ever properly introduce Dr. Ambedkar. The
text does not inform the students that a Drafting Committee chaired by
Dr. Ambedkar drafted the Constitution. In the absence of a proper
discussion of Dr. Ambedkar’s role in the Constituent Assembly, the
violence of the cartoon is all the more palpable. We urge the Thorat
Committee to make the necessary changes in the text as well.
We wish to express dismay over the adamantine attitude of some of our
academic friends who seem to treat the cartoon as sacrosanct. The
implication that “SC/ST intellectuals have unwittingly played into the
strategies of politicians” is indefensible to say the least. The lack of
understanding expressed by the “intellectual classes” towards the Dalit
viewpoint has been saddening. The Dalit question has always been
historically deflected and postponed in this manner. When Dr. Ambedkar
and the early SC/ST movements raised the question of caste, the
nationalist movement said the anti-colonial struggle was more important;
when the issue of caste was raised in the feminist or Left movements,
it was considered divisive; when Adivasis raised the question of
representation in the leadership of dam evictees’ movements, the
stopping of the dam was made paramount.
We wish to bring to your attention that many SC/ST activists and
scholars, including some young SC/ST students in the University of Pune,
not only condemned the act of vandalism at the office of Prof.
Palshikar, but even guarded his office from further attacks. This went
unreported in the media.
We are also deeply saddened that because of this one aberrant act, the
otherwise democratic and rational engagement with this issue that SC/STs
and some non-SC/ST intellectuals opposed to the cartoon have engaged in
— through news media, blogs, Facebook, and the Internet — has been
portrayed as emotional and infantile. The SC/ST movement has been one of
the most democratic movements in this country. And for SC/STs a whip is
a vulgar reminder of everything feudal and casteist about this society.
As the dalitbahujan feminist blog Savari says: “The whip is inseparable
from violence against slaves, dalits, women, animals and children.
Almost all histories of protest against injustice, be it feminism,
anti-slavery, anti-caste or anti-apartheid movements have protested and
continue to protest the symbolic violence in imagery that uses
instruments of violence such as the whip, noose or chains.” That the
advocates of critical pedagogy do not see this as such is regrettable.
It is time we realised that there is a permeable boundary between the
symbolic violence of such a cartoon and the tolerance of such cartoons
by academics on the one hand, and atrocities like Bathani Tola,
Melavalavu, Chunduru or Khairlanji on the other. Quite often the
iconicity of Dr. Ambedkar has been used by SC/STs to assert their
democratic rights. And the struggle against the cartoon is indeed a
democratic struggle — even if the mainstream and alternative media have
portrayed it as otherwise.
At this stage, we petition the Thorat Committee set up to examine the
textbooks to reconsider the Ambedkar cartoon (and possibly other such
insensitive material). While we demand that the NCERT take into account
the wide range of criticisms and feedback the textbooks have elicited,
we also urge Kapil Sibal, the Union HRD Minister, to desist from seeking
any major overhaul of the basic NCF framework of the textbooks.
We also think this is the occasion to seek fair representation of SC/STs
and other social minorities in NCERT’s various committees, as well as
in the Senates and Syndicates of Central and State Universities; and to
introspect on why SC/STs, despite constitutional provisions
for 22.5 per cent reservation, occupy less than three per cent of
faculty positions .
Omprakash Valmiki, Namdeo Dhasal, Bama, Siddalingaiah, Urmila Pawar,
G. Kalyan Rao, Imayam, Ravikumar, K. Satyanarayana, Susie Tharu, S.
Anand, M.R. Renukumar, Rekha Raj, Ajay Navaria, Rajni Tilak, Gogu
Shyamala, P. Sivakami, Paul Divakar, Sharmila Rege, Raj Kumar, N.
Sukumar, Sanal Mohan, Ajay Skaria, Radhika Menon, Meena Kanasamy, V.
Geetha, S. Japhet, Uma Chakravarti and Bharat Patankar.