Red Herrings, Red Rags and Red Flags – Once More on the Cartoon Controversy
With the recent article by Prabhat Patnaik, the controversy over the ‘Ambedkar cartoon’ issue has now moved into a different terrain. In this important statement, Prabhat undertakes the task of pointing out the numerous red herrings that have entered into the debate. These include ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘sense of humour’ and the question of whether Ambedkar had actually seen and let pass this cartoon. Prabhat’s point about the changed sensitivities and increased audibility of the dalit movement today is also well taken.
We must also be thankful to Prabhat for stating his views so candidly over the past few years, on a number of critical issues ranging from Nandigram and the electoral defeat of the Left to the ongoing cartoon controversy. We must thank him because because in my opinion, all his positions on these disparate sets of issues are of a piece and take us to the very heart of the impasse, not merely in the Left but in our politics itself. But before I respond to some of the issues raised by Prabhat, let me restate my positions on some aspects of the ongoing controversy. This is also necessary in order to identify what exactly it is in Prabhat’s piece that is so disturbing.
Dalit Response and Hurt Sentiments
In its initial phases, the cartoon issue was certainly a ‘dalit issue’ – even if it was raised only by a section of the dalit political leadership and intelligentsia. Very soon, however, it became clear that there was a more cynical game being played where the most corrupt and compromised sections of our politicians – especially those in parliament – were using Ambedkar as a shield, in order to deflect the blows that were actually aimed at them. The amazing unity of purpose and determination displayed by the parliament has rarely been seen in recent times; nor has the love for Ambedkar ever been expressed with such vigour.
These circumstances give enough reasons to suspect that the game had already changed by the time it reached the parliament. Not many people may have noticed but it was a Congress MP (an official spokesperson in Madhya Pradesh) who raked up a long dead issue of the book by Arun Shourie (Worshipping False Gods), demanding that it be banned.Notice that the demand was not raised ever by the dalit leadership or intelligentsia. In fact, the dalit intellectuals had countered the book by writing their books and articles. Also worth remembering, parenthetically, is the fact that this really cynical style of playing with ‘sentiments’ is a strategy that that the ruling Congress has perfected over the decades. After all, the question of Salman Rushdie’s proposed visit to the Jaipur Literary Festival was raised not by Deoband, but by the doddering Congress leadership. Just in case we have forgotten, let us rewind to 2001, when the NDA government was in power and a wholesale tampering with textbooks was undertaken. No less than the prime minister, AB Vajpayee had justified the deletion of ten passages from NCERT history textbooks. That seems quite understandable, given Hindu right-wing politics. But there was one curious deletion that had to do with the narrative on the execution/ martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur in the class XI textbook on Medieval India, written by Prof Satish Chandra. Let me cite here from an article written by Prof Sumit Sarkarat that time (Times of India, 2 December 2001):
“The passage in Satish Chandra’s book about the execution of Guru Tegh Bahadur, which no one had objected to even at the hight of the Khalistani movement, suddenly comes under attack, and sadly, first of all from the Delhi Congress – just on the eve of the Punjab elections.”
We could go on producing such evidence of the way the Congress has perfected this strategy to a fine art, always with the certainty that secularists and/or those whose sentiments are ostensibly hurt will fall for the bait. However, we will let these instances suffice for now.
Nevertheless, it also needs to be stated here that the question of hurt sentiments on the cartoon issue as raised by a section of the dalit movement is not something to be dismissed easily, at least, before the Congress and Kapil Sibal entered the picture. After all, that has to do with a longer term memory of how dalits have been represented or portrayed within the domain of knowledge – a clearly brahminical domain in India for millennia. I would even go so far as to say that even though I read the particular cartoon in question very differently, we need to recognize that others may not – and that readings may be coloured by our respective locations. The issue therefore is sensitive and we should recognize this even though we may be uncomfortable with the direction that the attack has taken.
But matters do not end here. As Prof Gopal Guru put it in his characteristic style in a recent talk at JNU, it is presumptuous to assume that dalit intellection is merely about hurt sentiments and emotions, devoid of all faculty of critical reasoning. That there is a vibrant tradition of critical/ rational intellectual argument within the movement is something that that Guru was at pains to underline. My own sense of Ambedkar himself is that almost all his writings are scholarly rebuttals of his adversaries’ positions, without rhetoric and demagoguery. Ambedkar meets his adversary on his own ground and in his speeches and interventions in the Constituent Assembly too, it will be difficult to find fault with him on this score. He speaks with the authority of a scholar, not merely in the name of his identity. Even when the question of identity is articulated, it is always presented as a question of a constitutional imperative, as an imperative of the logic of equality – for example on the issue of ‘safeguards’ and minority rights. It is, I presume, this tradition that Guru was referring to and to be sure, this is a formidable legacy to live up to. That is what the critical voices that have come up lately seem to lay claim to.
Given this, it is also time to explore possibilities of debate. Clearly, there can be no single meaning that supposedly emanates from the cartoon in question – as indeed from any text. And matters certainly become more complicated and volatile when it comes to visual representations. But to say that the cartoon is open to multiple interpretations is not to suggest that meaning is entirely independent of it and lies only ‘in the eyes of the beholder’. If there has to be any rigour in the argument for or against, we must be able to at the very least account for the various elements in the cartoon/ text. If we simply wish to focus on one whip where there are two, we are clearly doing a selective reading. All our interpretive energies are spent on that single whip and the fact that its wielder is the brahmin prime minister, without any reference to the other elements of the cartoon. Similarly, if we simply ignore the fact that the snail represents the Constituent Assembly that comprises largely upper caste people, and Ambedkar actually has its reins in his hands, whipping it when necessary, while sitting on it, are we actually being true to the ‘text’? Perhaps, those who are opposed to the cartoon should undertake an analysis of all the elements of the cartoon at some point. Else this criticism is destined to remain at the level of pure rhetoric.
And while we are at it, let us also look at the larger text or body of texts within which this cartoon appears. This demands, at the very least, a study of the points at which the series of textbooks produced in 2006 are different and make a significant break from earlier textbooks. Are these textbooks moving towards doing away with the biases in the way history, politics and such subjects were taught earlier? Let me just give two illustrations from the Social and Political Life Part I and Part II textbook for classes VI and VII respectively, produced as a result of the exercise following NCF 2005. The very first Unit of the first textbook (Part I for class VI) is entitled ‘Diversity’. The second chapter of this Unit, ‘Diversity and Discrimination’ discusses notions such as ‘prejudice’, ‘stereotypes’ and the problems of inequality and discrimination. This section (pages 19-23) discusses the term ‘Dalit’ – who are dalits, why they reject terms like ‘untouchable’ and then goes on to say this about Dr Ambedkar:
“Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, one of the great leaders of India, shares his first experience of caste-based discrimination, which took place in 1901 when he was just nine years old. He had gone with his brothers and cousins to meet his father in Koregaon which is now in Maharashtra”
(p. 19, after which follows a moving four para description of the experience in Ambedkar’s own words.)
The class VII textbook on Social and Political Life II, has a long extract from Joothan where Omprakash Valmiki narrates how he was made to sweep the floor or clean the school premises while others studied. This description in Valmiki’s own words is followed by these words:
Omprakash was made to sweep the school and playground for the next couple of days and this only came to an end when his father who happened to be passing by, saw his son sweeping. He confronted the teachers and then walking away from school holding Omprakash’s hand he said loudly for all of them to hear, “You are a teacher…so I am leaving now. But remember Master…(He) will study here…in this school. And not just him, there will be many others coming after him.” (pp 7-8)
These are snippets from two books, but it did not happen accidentally. This kind of presentation was the outcome of the debate on critical pedagogy that posed and dealt with difficult questions like how should textbooks be written that bring out, rather than hide questions of exclusion and discrimination rampant in our society? How do we write textbooks and orient classroom discussions once we give up the unspoken assumption that classrooms are only full of upper caste Hindus? Things may not yet be perfect but a reasonable criticism of this novel effort must situate it in the context of what it was battling against. It must analyze what kind of textbooks were in circulation before this exercise was undertaken. Any such informed criticism will, it seems, make a very different case, even if one still wants to argue that the “Ambedkar cartoon” hurts dalit sentiments.
Accountability, Legitimacy and Democracy
Having said this, let me now turn to Prabhat Patnaik’s continuing diatribe against intellectuals and his reassertion of the ‘supremacy’ of the parliament in this context. What is clear is that we are no longer debating the right and wrong of the particular cartoon in question but the political leadership itself, whose credibility today is that its lowest ebb. That is the precise point at which Prabhat locates his intervention.
It was this supposedly ‘beleaguered’ leadership that jumped at the cartoon issue, making in the process a vital claim: any questioning or criticism of the political class (and I shall explain in a moment what I mean by this term) is tantamount to raising questions about democracy itself. It was argued that such criticism weakens the faith of ‘impressionable’ students in democracy. And this aspect of the defense of the political class is inextricably linked with the other issue – what we might call the legitimacy question. Briefly put, it is a question about what gives legitimacy to intellectuals or any group of individuals in society to criticize politicians for what they are.
For Prabhat, the matter seems already settled: the MPs or MLAs are elected representatives; legislatures therefore are by definition the sole legitimate arena of decision making on any matter – from textbooks to economic policy. Intellectuals (and you can substitute any nonparty group or movement here), on the other hand, are only self-appointed guardians of what they consider proper. They are accountable to nobody but themselves. And this is precisely the question that Prabhat Patnaik has been raising ever since his strident attack on those he chose to label ‘anti-left intellectuals’ during the troubled days of Nandigram. Who are these ‘intellectuals’, he had asked then, to challenge the Left parties and their wisdom. The Left parties were after all, progressive a priori; their signboard said so. And they were elected to boot. But the intellectuals? They were ‘messianic moralists’ who had pitted themselves against the Left.
This time round, Prabhat has made a further move: intellectuals associated with the writing of textbooks have been subsumed within another more easily identifiable anti-democratic category, that of the ‘expert’. These intellectuals who wrote these textbooks are merely ‘experts’ in their fields, says Prabhat, who were entrusted with the task of writing textbooks by the state.
Since Prabhat Patnaik makes much of the right of the parliament to have its say in the matter of textbooks, let us state this very clearly: Ours is not a criticism of the right of the parliament to debate and give its considered opinion. Our criticism is precisely that the parliament is not exercising its prerogative; that it has ceased to be a deliberative body, that serious debate hardly ever takes place there – except when it comes to defending their so-called parliamentary privilege.
We have not forgotten that the Special Economic Zones Act was passed in parliament in just twenty minutes. One only has to look at the recent volume, The Indian Parliament: A Democracy at Work (BL Shankar and Valerian Rodrigues, OUP 2011) to see that important issues – like mass displacement, the Sardar Sarovar dam, (or the NBA movement), ecological issues, the pros and cons of nuclear power – have been singularly absent from the concerns of the parliament. One would be hard put to find a single reference in this 412 page volume to any of the vital issues that have become matters of intense political debate outside parliament over the past two decades or more. And this is not a failing of the book but rather of the parliament whose workings it diligently describes.
So where is this debate actually taking place? Well, among the experts – scientists of the nuclear establishment, hawks of the national security state, the scientific experts on big dams and lobbyists of various kinds. And Prabhat himself knows too well that on matters concerning economic policy and liberalization too, there has been no debate in parliament – the matter was settled outside, among economists and representatives of global financial institutions – and the parliament has accepted without debate most such positions as fait accompli.
About the only time a serious debate took place in parliament in recent times was when the Anna Hazare movement challenged it, and then it was about parliamentary privilege. Here’s my argument then for using the term ‘political class’ – the elected representatives have acted only in their self-interest, and acted swiftly when their ‘parliamentary privilege’ was threatened. Where other matters of supreme importance are concerned, they have had no opinion – for they have already, long before Prabhat wrote his piece, ceded the territory to the ‘experts’.
It is twenty years too late, alas, for Prabhat to advise that “Parliament must consult ‘experts’ but must not cede its jurisdiction to ‘experts’.”
What is this ‘accountability’ that the parliament apparently has – definitionally, almost as an a priori? Perhaps Prabhat can enlighten us about what kind of accountability was ensured by the sheer fact of being elected when the Babri Masjid was demolished; when thousands of Sikhs were massacred in 1984; when thousands of Muslims were massacred in Gujarat 2002? In my perverse view of things, it was the immunity provided by being elected representatives that enabled the destruction of every value that Prabhat himself perhaps holds dear. Had it not been for parliamentary immunity, had an LK Advani, a Jagadish Tytler or a Narendra Modi been an ordinary citizen (‘accountable to no one’) justice might have been dispensed much faster.
In short, no political party in parliament has thought it worth its while to examine any of the issues of vital concern for different sectors of the population, and it is concerned citizens’ groups who have actually made these issues matters of serious public debate. Is it Prabhat’s suggestion that citizens in a democracy have no business to meddle in the task of governance and policy-making beyond casting votes, once every five years? In part, I suspect, his diatribe in this case, also has to do with the fact that he seems to have no understanding of the actual process through which the textbooks came to be produced. Prabhat seems to believe that some academicians were commissioned ‘by the state’ to produce textbooks.
This is not only entirely misleading, it also refers to an earlier style that was perfected during the days Congress-Left bonhomie (initially it was the CPI, later the CPI(M) too found a place in this dispensation). When the NDA government came to power it simply replicated the same style, giving the contract this time to their handpicked academics. By and large, this had meant, in both cases, that the books produced were highly ideologically laden, with certain preferred narratives and facts to fit those narratives. Pedagogically boring, the Congress period books too, relied on giving ready-made nuggets of information to students, rather than encouraging them to ask questions. The main difference during the NDA period was that alongside a much more virulent ideological baggage, those books were produced by academics of little worth.
What had happened during these long decades of state control was that citizens’ groups and organizations concerned with education like Ekalavya began working on alternative pedagogies and producing textbooks for science and social science disciplines, working along with communities of learners. When the 2004 elections came – at the end of six dark years of NDA rule – a kind of ‘natural alliance’ took shape between these groups, social movements and a Congress chastened by years out of power. The return of the Congress in those elections was not a simple return of the old Congress: supported by social movement groups and with the political support of the Left, the UPA I represented a new constellation. On a number of policy issues, new channels of discussion, exchange and consultation had opened out. Thus when the matter of producing the new textbooks came up, it was clear that this time, despite the pressures to simply restore old textbooks, the process would be radically different. What ensued under the stewardship of Prof Krishna Kumar, the newly appointed Director of NCERT was a veritable movement. The ‘state’ had perhaps no clue to who these hundreds of academics were who were involved in the production of these textbooks at different levels. If anybody had visited the NCERT premises in those days, it was a campus buzzing with activity, with teachers from all over India, different groups meeting in different parts of the campus, discussing successive drafts of the books.
One of the key ideas that governed the production of these textbooks was that these should not become reflective of any specific ideological position. That is not to say they should not be political. On the contrary, precisely because they should be political, because they should be able to discuss political questions, they should not treat any issue as a matter beyond debate. It was part of the overall pedagogical approach to open out questions as debates rather than as issues settled once and for all. In fact, one of the critiques of the new approach from defenders of the older system was that it dissolved categories like the “nation” by bringing up dalits, tribals, minorities as separate and discrete entities – and many of Prabhat’s comrades were in the front ranks of that critique. Nonetheless, the sheer force of that new energy was such that eventually many of the critics too joined in – if haltingly and hesitatingly.
It might be well to remind ourselves that this was a movement for pedagogical transformation – inspired by and drawing on the experience and inputs of assertions by dalits, women and other sections struggling for justice, attempting to bring into the classroom the lessons learnt from them.
It would be a shame if the gains of this movement were allowed to be subverted in the long-term interests of the ruling elites and the political classes.