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Cartoons All! Politicians and Self-Seekers

May 14, 2012

The uproar over what is being referred to as the ‘Ambedkar cartoon’ in the class XI textbook prepared by NCERT first began over a month ago, that is to say, almost six years after the books have been in circulation, been taught and received high praise for their lively style and a critical pedagogical approach (more on this below).  It was a political party – one of the factions of the Republican Party of India – that decided to kick up a ruckus over ‘the issue’ – that is, the ‘affront’ to Dr Ambedkar that the cartoon in question supposedly constitutes, and the resultant ‘hurt sentiments’ that it has caused. Very soon everyone began to fall in line, and practically every member of our august Parliament was vying with one other to prove that  they were indeed more hurt than their colleagues. One of them, Shri Ram Vilas Paswan has even demanded that the NCERT itself should be dissolved!

Good old Jurgen Habermas – and good old Habermasians  – have always invested a lot in forums like the parliament, that are to them the hallowed institutions of ‘rational-critical discourse’ where through reasoned argument people convince each other. That is how the voice of Reason ultimately prevails in democracies. I have always been suspicious of this claim and have thought that Habermas’ empirical work on the decline (‘structural transformation’) of the public sphere was more insightful than his normative fantasies. Long long ago, his empirical work on the transformation of the public sphere showed that it was the rise of political parties that had actually destroyed all possibilities of ‘rational-critical discourse’, where organized passion in the service of immediate political interests carried the day.

But believe it or not, the text book and the cartoon that is now in the eye of the storm, is normatively speaking a Habermasian tract. In other words, it invests too much in this fantasy of rational communication. The text below the cartoon (reproduced above) says:

” Cartoonist’s impression of the snail’s pace with which the Constitution was made. Making of the constitution took almost three years . Is the cartoonist commenting on this fact? Why do you think the Constituent Assembly took so long to make the Constitution?”

And much as I personally disagree with this  romantic representation of what went on inside the Constituent Assembly, here is what the textbook it self has to say, perhaps as its own answer to the question posed in the text below the cartoon:

“Each member deliberated upon the Constitution with the interests of the whole nation in mind. There were often disagreements amongst members but few of these disagreements could be traced to members protecting their own interests…

The Constitution drew its authority from the fact that members of the Constituent Assembly engaged in what one might call public reason. The members of the Assembly placed a great emphasis on discussion and reasoned argument…The very act of giving reasons to others makes you move away from simply a narrow consideration of your own interest because you have to give reasons to others to make them go along with your view point. The voluminous debates in the  Constituent Assembly, where each clause of the Constitution was subjected to scrutiny and debate, is a tribute to public reason at its best.” (pages 17-18)

One of the reasons for the delay was perhaps, in the view of the text, this emphasis on deliberation. It is this textbook, by the way, that perhaps for the first time, gave Ambedkar the place in the history of modern India that he deserves,  a fact lost today in the cacophony that marks Parliament, as the cartoons inhabiting it strut about making speeches outdoing one another in idiocy.

What is worse, of course, is that now Ambedkar has become the excuse for all manner of politicians to claim that it is not just him but all politicians who are being denigrated by the use of cartoons in the textbooks. Apparently a 40 member body of parliamentarians is now seized of the matter and has taken up the task of cleansing the textbooks. According to a report in The Indian Express, a letter by Saroj Yadav, head of the Department of Education in Social Sciences (where??) has written to one of the supervisors of the NCERT textbooks, that the forum of MPs felt “the cartoons show disrespect to politicians and depict them in a very poor way. ” Apparently the esteemed members held that “depicting politicians in a poor light in textbooks for children of impressionable age erodes their faith in democracy and in politicians (the tautulogy is in the original letter as cited in the TOI report) in general.”

So it is not really the multi-crore scams that politicians are involved in, the loot of the mineral and other resources that they make possible, the fixing of ministers, the cash for votes in parliament, MP’s watching porn on their laptops while parliament is in session – it’s not any of this that really erodes people’s faith in democracy. The real culprit is the depiction of this in cartoons!

We need to go back to the cartoons – each one of those that the MPs want deleted, and have a public debate in the only place a reasoned debate is possible – outside the parliament, in the public, in academic institutions, in seminars and discussions. And let us call all the self-righteous MPs to come and explain to us – bewildered citizens – what is it that they are objecting to and why.

In conclusion, some background about these textbooks, placed on record for what it is worth. The NDA government had reduced NCERT to a pathetic forum  peddling the ruling Hindutva ideology in textbooks, and after its exit, the question of rewriting textbooks came up afresh on the agenda. That was when the National Curriculum Framework 2005 was produced, evolving out of an uncommonly democratic process, involving about three hundred people all over the country – teachers, academics and educational activists – over a period of seven months. After the NCF 2005 was released, it  was followed by a prolonged public debate. One opinion then expressed was that in order to ‘detox’, we needed to simply bring back the old, pre-NDA textbooks which upheld secular values etc. As opposed to this, there was another opinion, espoused by a large number of academics and educationists, that we needed to upgrade the textbooks in more ways than one. For one thing, many strides have been made in the field of knowledge and we cannot simply revert to older text books. Our new books should reflect the latest developments in thought. Secondly, the pedagogical question should now be placed on top of the agenda. The old textbooks that gave ready-made ‘gyan’ to students that they had to then memorize, should be replaced by more creatively produced textbooks that pushed students to think for themselves. The idea was to raise questions that would  encourage critical thinking among them. This also meant a move away from the boring, pedantic style of old textbooks. It meant further that even supposedly settled questions like those of ‘secularism’ would not be taught as if there is nothing to debate there. In this attempt to refashion textbooks, a huge public debate took place, first around the NCF 2005 in which hundreds of the best social scientists of the country participated, followed by an even more intensive collective process of textbook writing.

The process of actual writing of textbooks that followed, involved literally hundreds of teachers and researchers throughout the country. This process would not have been what it became but for the stewardship of the new NCERT Director, Krishna Kumar who made it into a veritable movement for writing textbooks across all disciplines. So it is misleading to see these textbooks as the outcome of the fertile imaginations of one or two individuals who became the public face of part of the process.  Indeed, some others like historian Neeladri Bhattacharya who co-ordinated the writing of the history textbooks, and educationist Sarada  Balagopalan who co-ordinated the text-books on Social and Political Life, deliberately emphasized the collective nature of the process and placed themselves outside of any high profile publicity. It was over months of intensive collaborative discussions of drafts and repeated writings and re-writings, that these textbooks finally saw the light of day.

Now that politicians and MPs are seized of the matter, will the old debate be rekindled in the old way? Are we to go back to textboks that stifle the imagination of the learner? To get back to those good old days when no questions were encouraged?

But after all, text-books are only part of the universe of the student. How will you stop students outside the classroom from thinking for themselves, and and seeing for themselves who the actual cartoons are?

51 Comments leave one →
  1. sadan jha permalink
    May 14, 2012 11:30 AM

    Aditya, you are right about pointing to the plight of reason from the parliament in recent years and also about juxtaposing it with the spirit in which Constituent assembly functioned when the task of creating a future nation had uplifted politicians from their narrow fractions to a considerable extent. However, i feel that it is somewhat difficult to only blame parliament.The attack on cartoons of Baba Sahab and the decision to remove it from NCERT is recent but only an addition in the series of such acts of recent years. These acts point to a new constellation of the sacred and the visual. In this ensemble, cartoons are particularly sites of intolerance. This is particularly complex as we also find a celebration of the scared in cartoon forms when Ganesh has acquired new constituency among bacha log in the last ten years. While he can achieve friendship status, leaders do not have such access. they are revered and hence their representations must circulate in specific manner. Sometimes back, Mamta Bannerjee was in news directly combating cartoons. She was preceded by Narendra Modi. Few years back, we had row over depicting Mohammad Saheb in cartoons. One may easily say that these are isolated events and can only be seen in their respective contextual frames. Yet, the thread that runs across is scary. it is about the politics of the visual more particularly about cartoons and satire. While the pictorial empowers them to strike scathingly, cartoons often escape the language of precision. it is this second trait that politicians and the government find difficult to handle. Both science as well as state needs precision of language. Cartoons attack this clarity, this singularity of meanings. They are ambiguous as they embody plurality of meanings and effects. This multiplicity only strengthens democracy and dissent. But by doing this, cartoons also open up politics at its Un-imaginative points of reference hence a difficulty for political leaders or intermediaries who always want to control meanings and define what politics of images must mean.

  2. subhashini ali permalink
    May 14, 2012 11:56 AM

    much of the debate including this sharing of gyan has really nothing to do with the cartoon..and the cartoon has really nothing to do with Dr Ambedkar! subhashini

  3. May 14, 2012 12:21 PM

    Aditya, why do you pull the punches when it comes to Dalit intellectuals. What it is that gets D Raja, Prakash Ambedkar, Kancha Ilaiah and so many others to come out supporting the demand for deleting the cartoons / scrapping the textbook/s and more. How come not one Dalit intellectual has come out to tell Mayawati (who asked for “criminal prosecution” of the authors and experts, presumably under the SC/ST Act) or Paswan, whom you quoted above, “Not in our name!”.

    Why is that not one Dalit is defending these textbooks, “…that perhaps for the first time, gave Ambedkar the place in the history of modern India that he deserves”? I had hoped you will grasp the nettle on this one!

    I am dismayed, very dismayed with what is happening. This somehow feels many times worse than all the attacks of the khaki nikkers and such others.

  4. May 14, 2012 12:23 PM

    Also, I remembered after submitting the last comment that I shouldn’t have used “pull your punches” since its liable to misunderstanding, specially in the given context. All I meant was “ruthless criticism” and no physical violence.

  5. May 14, 2012 2:55 PM

    In the shouting gallery that Parliament has become, we had the shame of seeing the withdrawal of textbooks without even a sensible debate on the subject. One good cartoon portrays what even a thousand words would not.Besides those cartoons were put in perspective by accompanying explainations. A progressive nation led by a regressive Parliament !

  6. Raghu permalink
    May 14, 2012 3:36 PM

    What I really wonder among all this cacophony is about the other cartoons that are currently a part of the text books – can anyone, who has access to these, take care to publish them, so that we all kno what is going to be deleted from “next year” ?
    Also, I am just wondering whether there is EVEN ONE cartoon in there that is about members of the Nehru-Gandhi clan ! I am sure tht there will NOT be even ONE cartoon tht is on Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru.!!!

  7. jyoti punwani permalink
    May 14, 2012 4:02 PM

    heres an article by a dalit intellectual:
    Publication: Mumbai Mirror ; Date: May 13, 2012; Section: City; Page: 4

    Attack an insult to Dr Ambedkar

    Dr Hari Narke

    It was very disappointing to hear about Prof Suhas Palshikar’s office at the University of Pune being vandalised on Saturday. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar himself was a hardcore supporter of liberty of thought. It was because of his reverence for the freedom of speech and thought that he specially incorporated Article 19 in the Constitution of India, which assured citizens the right to think and express their thoughts.

    Liberty of thought is the most important tool to defend the rights of the downtrodden, weak and those unable to express themselves. The Ambedkari movement (progressive movement) has so far faced much criticism and has rebutted them at the intellectual level. For example, when Bal Gangal, editor of Sobat, criticised Mahatma Jyotiba Phule in the late 1980s, a plethora of Dalit writers successfully proved him wrong.

    Again, when Arun Shourie made defaming statements in his ‘Worshipping False Gods’, similar rebuttals were given. These types of criticisms were shown their worth through well-supported and well-worded retorts.

    The Ambedkari movement has the capability to face off with and counter anybody in the world without an iota of fear. More so, because it shows that we have lost the capability to engage in an intellectual debate. This violent attack is very much out of line with Dr Babasaheb

    Ambedkar’s vision and is an insult to his teachings.

    Both Prof Palshikar and political commentator Yogendra Yadav are close to the Ambedkari movement. They have contributed immensely towards progressive thought throughout their careers. To doubt their integrity or to target their offices is not only unfortunate, but also a condemnable act.

    The controversial textbook, at the heart of all the acrimony, was written five years ago and is being taught in schools all over the country under the NCERT syllabus. All of a sudden, pandemonium erupted in Rajya Sabha on Friday, with Union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal finally announcing that he has ordered the ‘offensive’ content to be removed from the books.

    These governmental steps aside, it would have been welcome had the objection to Shankar’s cartoon come via the same or similar medium instead of a violent attack. Having said that, it must be remembered that Dr Ambedkar himself had seen the cartoon in question, and had not objected to it.

    Dr Ambedkar was sporting by nature, and he knew how to respect opponents’ ideology. Now, political stunts are being used to gain instant publicity. It is damaging for the progressive movement to indulge in such violent means when we have the constitutional recourse of expressing differences of opinion with Prof Palshikar and Yadav.

    The point is open to debate whether this cartoon, which was drawn and published in 1949, is obsolete and putting it in a textbook is out of context. But such attacks close the routes to debate, which is the more untoward development.

    Discussion is the wealth of democracy. That is why, as a worker of the Phule-Ambedkar movement and as a teacher as well, I condemn this ghastly act. I also appeal to all not to close the doors to debate and discussion and to not shrink the vast expanse of Phule’s and Ambedkar’s thoughts.

    (The writer is Chair Professor and Head of the Mahatma Phule Chair, University of Pune and member, Maharashtra State Backward Classes Commission)

    • vallyettans permalink
      May 15, 2012 6:38 AM

      hats off to the writer

  8. Rukmini permalink
    May 14, 2012 4:26 PM

    Three points:

    1. Thirumavalan, a Lok Sabha MP from the VCK party, first raised the issue in Parliament. Activists of a party called the “Republican Panthers of India” ransacked Palshikar’s office.
    2. Amazingly, this “progressive” book on the Constitution, finds no mention of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. So why should anyone assume that the removal of this cartoon will reduce this book to propaganda, when the absence of Indira G has already set that well into motion?
    3. It is beyond ironic to say that the only place for a reasoned debate on the depiction of Ambedkar/ the Constitution is outside Parliament.

    • Nivedita Menon permalink*
      May 14, 2012 9:00 PM

      Rukmini, not that you’re really interested in boring facts, or in reasoned argument, but just for the record – the Political Science course is done over two years, Class 11 and 12, and there are 2 books in each year. Class 11 has Political Theory and Indian Constitution, Class 12 has Contemporary World Politics and Politics in India since Independence. This last mentioned book has a whole chapter on the Emergency, which pulls no punches.
      It is “beyond ironic” to quote your nicely tuned phrase, that nobody cares to read or at least check out the text-books, all readily available on-line, while “defending the honour”, of all people, of a scholar like Dr Ambedkar.

      • Rukmini permalink
        May 15, 2012 12:17 AM

        Any particular reason to assume I’m not interested in reasoned argument, or is ad hominem snarkiness just the default mode here? If not for its immense snarkiness, your point about the syllabus is actually interesting. I’d love to have an actual discussion about this particular book, which I read, not dealing with the Emergency as well as the author’s call for debate to take place only outside Parliament but for snarky point-scoring, I believe the rest of the internet is available.

  9. Manash Bhattachrajee permalink
    May 14, 2012 5:15 PM

    I think there is, as has always been, a centrist-nationalist bias in all school text books. I also think the cartoon is a shallow product of perception and a bad joke. The text which goes against the grain of the cartoon has its own romantic notions about the so-called “the interests of the whole nation ” in the Constituent Assembly debates. I think lot of heat that has generated around it has gone overboard on sanctimonious issues rather than on the political nature of the problem. The cartoon can be deleted, but is there more at stake? I think we should ask the question about how children perceive cartoons. Does any cartoon in the text book question or ridicule the most venerated leaders of the upper-caste? What about a cartoon full of pun on how Nehru and the Congress handled partition? The politics of selectivity cannot be overruled.

    This cartoon has to be also read vis-a-vis the text, and the overall structure of the book. Chapter IX, to my understanding, is key to understanding the mindset of the author. There is a typical aversion to the word “politics”, and the general middle-class notion of politics as a waste of time (which was also Nehru’s understanding of politics) is upheld. The ‘political’ equation between law and politics is left aside. As if the question of law is a universally agreeable product of rational choice by illuminated citizens.

    Thirdly, the questions children raise can be very important. But to ask questions on their behalf and tutor their curiosity in a textbook in preconceived directions is plain, adult mischief. The writer of the text book in question should also limit his author’s credentials by not trying to father the text.

    Lastly, I think the credentials of people involved in the project is a side-issue. Questions should be raised about the process of writing school text books; of what is allowed and disallowed; of what are the “norms” of inclusion and exclusion.

    • Manash Bhattacharjee permalink
      May 14, 2012 9:34 PM

      I think I need to re-view a couple of things I have said here after thinking through certain things Aditya has said. Act of self-criticism :)
      I also however think, branding people is not going to help very much, Aditya. We should not lose patience.
      I am not interested in taking sides. There is a more complicated intellectual side to the debate as much as a certain shallow politicisation of the issue that has taken place. I hope everybody realises the differences and desist from mixing and confusing them.
      Ambedkar’s status as a nationalist and constitutionalist, however, I would like to add, can perhaps go equally well with his specific role of being an icon of Dalit political consciousness.

      • May 15, 2012 6:46 PM

        Erm…didn’t get your argument about asking questions on the children’s behalf. Isn’t the whole point of a textbook, prodding?

  10. Aditya Nigam permalink*
    May 14, 2012 5:45 PM

    Thanks Jyoti, for posting this article by Hari Narke. Aniket, to the best of my knowledge, Prakash Ambedkar has been among the few voices who has on television taken a position contrary to the general, ill informed attack that is being launched in the name of Ambedkar. You are right about the ridiculous stance of many dalit intellectuals (and many newly admiring upper caste radicals), who have made a joke of the whole affair. I am nonetheless, more concerned at this moment at the general culture of intolerance that is growing by leaps and bounds. As Sadan’s comment above mentions, we have very recently seen Mamata Banerjee go to ridiculous extents in her reaction to a cartoon that was doing the rounds in West Bengal. I am not competent to comment on the larger issue of visuality and the specificity of the visual form in such matters. What is really amazing is that now we have reached a situation where anybody’s ‘sentiment can be hurt’ at the drop of a hat. If you remember, sometime ago, a professional body of doctors had protested against a film saying it portrayed the doctors in a bad light. And Kolkata Metro, found the depiction of a man committing suicide by jumping before a metro train, an affront to the Metro’s pride. And now, Ambedkar is made to stand in for the whole lot of corrupt and wheeling dealing politicians. Is it wrong to think then that this has become a pathology of our times? I am certainly appalled at the way a section of dalit intellectuals has fallen in line with the parties and leaders who have already made a name for themselves in misogyny and what have you. And in this atmosphere, even those among the dalit intellectuals who disagree with this position, have adopted a diplomatic silence. I do not think that Dr Hari Narke, whose article Jyoti Punwani has posted above, is a lone voice. I do certainly believe that this current mobilization does not represent Ambedkar’s legacy, whose response to his opponents was always in the form of a scholarly, well thought-out argument – not of rhetoric and demagoguery. But then who am I to say all this? After all, Kancha Ilaiah has decreed that Ambedkar is not a national leader or a drafter of the Constitution; he is the Prophet of the dalits. I had thought that the complaint so far had been the reverse: that Ambedkar had been reduced to the position of a dalit leader and had not been recognized as a national leader of the same stature as Nehru and Gandhi. But apparently, that is not what Prof Ilaiah – and others of his ilk – wants. Then let us leave it to the dalits to sort out their – and Amebdkar’s – legacy.

    • Saikat permalink
      May 14, 2012 7:25 PM

      Aditya – I vigourously disagree with your statement – “Then let us leave it to the dalits to sort out their – and Amebdkar’s – legacy.” It is such a paternalistic sentiment. Dr. Ambedkar is part of the whole nation’s DNA – whether privileged castes or dalits want it or not. This is not up for claims …

    • May 15, 2012 6:20 PM

      I am not sure that I agree with making this primarily an issue of freedom of speech and expression or of (in)tolerance. In my opinion its neither; school textbooks are not arenas for freedom of speech or of tolerance. However, I agree with you have written otherwise.

  11. Dinakaran permalink
    May 14, 2012 8:17 PM

    That one had to select a third class cartoon, by a highly over-rated cartoonist like Shankar, itself speaks volumes on the quality of consultancy the eminent advisers to NCERT have offered ! I know that a huge reservoir of ill-will lies beneath the sweetened homilies the ‘washed classes” heap upon Dr.Ambedkar and this cannot solely be due to any rational disagreement with his politics. The underlying tone behind the lib-left horror at the debate on the cartoon within the parliament matches the overall mood among the urban,anglicized Hindus vis-a-vis representative democracy. If the people’s representatives cannot make their decisions, even apparently “foolish” decisions, we might as well march into a future of guided democracy ! Anna Hazare and his friends from Nagpur would surely hope for such a denoument to our First Republic !

    • Shiva Shankar permalink
      May 15, 2012 9:06 PM

      Well said! I remember Shankar’s cartoons, but vaguely, as insipid and uninspiring. Certainly none that challenged the brahminical social order which is entirely responsible for the mess this society finds itself in.

  12. M Sayeed permalink
    May 14, 2012 9:02 PM

    I wonder what do you mean by public debate outside of parliament and if it would be beyond Habermasian forums. What form it would have and through what modalities and techniques it would take shape? Can communication be separated from Habermasian ‘sphere’ and implanted in a new form?

  13. Rohit permalink
    May 15, 2012 5:14 AM

    “Does any cartoon in the text book question or ridicule the most venerated leaders of the upper-caste? What about a cartoon full of pun on how Nehru and the Congress handled partition? The politics of selectivity cannot be overruled.”

    The answer is yes. There are several cartoons ridiculing everyone from Indira Gandhi to Nehru to V.P Singh.

  14. Radhika permalink
    May 15, 2012 10:21 AM

    Ambedkar Cartoon Debate:
    A Perspective
    A raging controversy has erupted over a 1949 cartoon of Ambedkar and Nehru in a NCERT political science textbook, leading to an uproar in Parliament, and an announcement by the HRD Minister that the textbook would be withdrawn from circulation till the cartoon was removed.
    We strongly condemn the attack by a mob on the Pune office of Suhas Palshikar, one of the authors of the textbook. Political leaders should stop orchestrating such violence, that smack of the right-wing assaults on dissenting voices. Debate on educational content is welcome, but cannot be dealt with through physical attacks. There is an urgent need to view the matter at hand in the light of reasoned debate. The note below is our stand on, and contribution to, this debate.

    On the one hand presence of the 1949 cartoon by noted cartoonist Shankar in the NCERT textbook, is being described as offensive to Dr. Ambedkar, and as part of a political conspiracy to denigrate Ambedkar. On the other hand, the makers of the textbook have resigned in protest against what they hold to be the infringement on academic freedom, and there has been an outcry against censorship. We hold that there is a need to go beyond these two polarized and black-and-white positions, and consider the issues involved, in a spirit of reasoned debate.
    First, is the cartoon as it appears in the textbook, really indicative of a malign attempt to denigrate Dr. Ambedkar? To arrive at an answer, let us take a closer look at the concerned chapter, as well as the process of preparation of the textbook.
    The concerned chapter, in which the cartoon in question appears, is titled ‘Indian Constitution: Why and How.’ The chapter closely examines the democratic goals, political debates and political interests that informed the process of preparing the Constitution. It is as such very sensitive to the question of caste and communal discrimination and civil liberties. For instance, the section subtitled ‘Limitations on the powers of Government,’ discusses a scenario where the authority empowered to make laws, enacted laws that imposed dress codes, curbed freedom to sing certain songs, or decreed that “people who belonged to a particular group (caste or religion) would always have to serve others and would not be allowed to retain any property” or “that only people of a certain skin colour would be allowed to draw water from wells.” It then explains how one of the functions of the constitution is to set limits on government’s powers, by specifying fundamental rights, civil liberties, and other principles that no government, as a rule, can trespass.
    Apart from the Ambedkar-Nehru cartoon by noted cartoonist Shankar, there are several other cartoons that are featured in the chapter, each accompanied by certain thought-provoking questions, which can be answered by reading the chapter’s text itself. For instance, there is a telling cartoon, also by Shankar, on page 7, showing Nehru with two faces, one turned towards a concert of politicians singing Jana Gana Mana, and another turned in the direction of politicians chanting Vande Mataram. The text below comments “Here is Nehru trying to balance between different visions and ideologies,” and asks students to identify these contending forces and try and think about who would have “prevailed in this balancing act?”
    The cartoon that is at the centre of the debate, appears on page 18. The text beneath it reads: “Cartoonist’s impression of the ‘snail’s pace’ with which the Constitution was made. Making of the Constitution took almost three years. Is the cartoonist commenting on this fact? Why do you think, did the Constituent Assembly take so long to make the Constitution?” If one reads the accompanying text relating to deliberations of the Constituent Assembly, the answer to the above questions that is suggested is certainly not that Ambedkar was slowing the process and Nehru trying to whip him into going faster. Instead, the text actually spells out the different contending ideas and the painstaking and time-consuming debates, in a very positive light, as an exemplary democratic process. It says, “The voluminous debates in the Constituent Assembly, where each clause of the Constitution was subjected to scrutiny and debate, is a tribute to public reason at its best. These debates deserved to be memorialised as one of the most significant chapters in the history of constitution making, equal in importance to the French and American revolutions.”
    So, the textbook as such does not endorse the criticism of the ‘snail’s pace’ of the Constitution. Rather it presents the cartoon as a contemporary comment, and then asks students to consider if the comment is justified? It asks why did it take so long? Was the time for debate well spent? Isn’t it healthy for democracy to take a long time to work out a consensus through reasoned debates?
    Further, it is also true that in the process of drafting the textbook, several academics, including leading dalit social scientists, were shown the textbook, who did not at the time make any objections to the inclusion of the cartoon.
    A Case for Review of the Cartoon
    A close reading of the chapter in the context of which the cartoon appears, establishes that the cartoon and the textbook were unlikely to be motivated by anti-dalit intent. However, that said, is the cartoon itself appropriate or sufficiently sensitive to the context of a society where biases against dalits continue to be rampant, and where dalits are often treated as and held to be subservient to upper castes, and where Ambedkar statues are often vandalised? Surely, there is need to subject the cartoon too, to the process of ‘public reason’ that the textbook itself upholds in its discussion of the Constitution?
    The cartoon shows Ambedkar on a snail called the Constitution, driving it with a whip, and Nehru behind him, whip in hand, while the entire nation watches. The problem arises from the perception: is Nehru driving the snail with a whip? Or is he driving Ambedkar with a whip? If the latter, then the image of an upper-caste PM driving a dalit – that too a leading dalit figure who is an icon to the dalit community – with a whip, makes for uneasy viewing. That it did not rouse such a response in its own day, and that Ambedkar himself did not object, is beside the point. Today, the aroused political consciousness of the dalits has made us all more sensitive to such problems of representation, and rightly so. Similarly, many images of women which in 1949 might not have aroused comment, would certainly invite objections today.
    The NY Post once had to apologise after there was a furore against a cartoon it carried, depicting President Obama as a chimpanzee who has been shot dead by police officers, who comment, ‘They’ll have to find someone else to write the next Stimulus Bill” (the scene was a parody of an actual incident where a chimpanzee who violently attacked a woman was shot dead). The cartoon was, on the face of it, a comment on the ‘Stimulus Bill’ being introduced by the US Government. Now, cartoons depicting George Bush as an ape did not invite protest. But the depiction of the US’ only black President as an ape being shot dead, raised uncomfortable resonances of the long history and continuing racist culture of depicting black people as sub-human and inflicting violence on them. Is it not possible that the cartoon showing Nehru and Ambedkar might (perhaps without the intention of the cartoonists and the textbook authors) carry similar resonances evoking the history and continuing culture of holding dalits to be subordinate to upper castes, as ‘taadan ke adhikari’ (deserving of a thrashing)?
    It is true that all those who prepared the textbooks, and the experts including dalit intellectuals to whom it was sent, did not, during the preparation of the textbooks, see the cartoon as objectionable. But if in retrospect, there is widespread resentment against one interpretation of the cartoon and the wisdom of its place in the textbook; if the cartoon is seen as having a (possibly unintended) potential to strengthen caste prejudices and distract from the overall spirit and purpose of the chapter, we believe there should be a review of the cartoon. We believe the authors of the textbook should be open-minded and willing to reconsider the wisdom of their choice, and that there should be a review of that cartoon in that chapter, by a panel of academics including the authors as well as leading dalit intellectuals. If the panel finds the cartoon to have any potential to strengthen casteist notions, it should be replaced with more appropriate content.

    No to the Culture of Censorship and Bans,
    But Yes to Willingness to Revisit Textbooks in the Light of Democratic Concerns and Egalitarian Principles
    Should we support the ban on the cartoon and textbook imposed by the HRD Minister? In the first place, we question the commitment and concern of the range of leaders who are doing politics over the cartoon. After all, we wonder why not a single of these leaders – be it of the ruling Congress, or the Dalit and ‘social justice’ parties – is yet to raise any concern inside Parliament over the recent shocking acquittal of all the accused in the Bathani Tola massacre, where 21 dalits, mostly women and children were slaughtered by an army of upper caste landowners?
    Secondly, we must recall the ugly precedents of right wing forces dictating bans and censorship of educational material – be it the question of beef-eating in textbooks of ancient history, the recent withdrawal of Rohinton Mistry’s novel in Mumbai University, or that of AK Ramanujam’s essay in Delhi University. A culture of political decrees on the content of our textbooks and curricula is extremely dangerous and unhealthy. Such educational material must be decided through a process of reasoned debate and discussion. And we should also not play into the hands of the prevailing culture of banning expressions of political dissent: Mamata Banerjee’s crackdown on a cartoon of her, and Kapil Sibal’s attempt to remove images critical of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi from the internet are cases in point.
    However, while firmly rebuffing censorship and bans, we should always be willing to revisit educational material in the light of fresh concerns about upholding egalitarian principles.

    Will Reviewing the Cartoon Be a Surrender to Attacks on Academic Freedom?
    One question is being asked: “If we agree to review this cartoon in response to hurt dalit sentiment, tomorrow will we able to protest and object when right-wing groups demand deletion of anything claiming ‘hurt’ to hegemonic ‘Hindu sentiment’, as the saffron right routinely does?” This argument is flawed. There is a world of difference between amending a textbook to appease certain political or social groups, and between doing the same to uphold democratic principles and egalitarian values. After all, when the saffronised textbooks of the BJP regime were replaced, was it an act of censorship or ‘appeasing’ minority sentiment – or was it a necessary act of correcting bias? This time, too, the cartoon should be reviewed, not only because dalits say it hurts them, but because there is a possibility that it goes against egalitarian values and is not sufficiently sensitive to the dominant discriminatory culture that prevails in society.
    Would review of the cartoon amount to denial of freedom of artistic or academic expression? No, because textbooks should be a collective endeavour, seeking to encourage and uphold democratic values and egalitarian principles. This particular textbook too is a product of such a process – and there is nothing undemocratic about revisiting that process in the light of fresh concerns about egalitarian values.
    Kapil Sibal has hinted that all cartoons that ‘disparage’ any political leaders might be reviewed, and now other MPs too have objected to all the cartoons in the textbook, on the grounds that they show politicians ‘in a bad light’, and is therefore ‘dangerous for democracy’! This is preposterous and must be opposed tooth and nail. All public figures are legitimate subjects for lampoons, and banning such would amount to banning dissenting voices. Most cartoons in the textbook under question actually strengthen democracy by encouraging a questioning rather than reverential mindset in students. In this context, this particular cartoon of Ambedkar and Nehru should be reviewed, not because it is critical of leaders, but to investigate if it has a potential to reinforce discriminatory caste stereotypes, and to replace it in case it does so.
    This particular cartoon in the textbook should therefore be subjected to a serious process of review by an appropriate panel of academics including the authors and other experts including leading dalit intellectuals. And if the cartoon is found wanting in sensitivity to existing discriminatory caste stereotypes in society, it should be replaced.

    Issued by All India Students’ Association (AISA) and Left and Democratic Teachers’ Forum (LDTF)

    • Jenny permalink
      May 15, 2012 6:01 PM

      But what is this whip business, yaar? One guy holds it onto the other guy and…
      C’mon, look at the cartoon closely…
      As someone commented in the beginning, visuality and the politics of representation are perhaps more complicated than it appears.

    • Mohit permalink
      May 15, 2012 6:24 PM

      Kudos to Radhika for pretty descriptive and coherent comment.

    • May 15, 2012 7:01 PM

      Typical. Who decides standards of hurt? Or if the hurt is “widespread”? Why should standards of license and expression be upheld in certain cases(Mamata) by the left and not in others?Also, don’t follow the argument differentiating right wing ideology with egalitarian principles of democracy;surely egalitarianism entails equal response to all situations? Or do aggrieved groups have a more primary right to claim offense?
      If your position is that the interpretation of a cartoon( that wasn’t meant to be malicious) has the potential(in a certain spectrum of opinion) to cause harm and therefore be withdrawn, how is the left any different from the right who claim everything has the potential to divide the country/race/state/language, and hence should be censored? If you’re batting for Ambedkar, surely you’d take into account his on-record disapproval of governmental overreach.

      • Radhika permalink
        May 16, 2012 12:21 AM

        If you read carefully Dhrubo, the argument we are making is not about someone’s hurt sentiments. Sentiments slip away easily. It is about ensuring the upkeep of democratic values , including constitutional values of equality, that is anyway to be maintained as per the core curriculum.
        The massive anti reservation prejudices, caste atrocities (which includes physical violation of the bodies of the dalits) and the vandalisation of Ambedkar statues, gives a meaning to the cartoon, that is beyond the comment of the snail’s pace or what the lesson proposes to do. It is the image of Ambedkar, a dalit leader of his time being whipped that makes uncomfortable viewing. It resonates of body violation of dalits in cases of atrocities. This is still a social sorrow of our times. If protests have highlighted this aspect, which escaped earlier considerations, what is the problem in reviewing the cartoon? Textbooks, howsoever well written need to go through regular reviews, in any case. If a review is done to uphold democratic values, ensure greater engagement with the visual and text, it will only enrich it further.

        On the other hand, each attempt of the right wing to change the text has been about peddling its own homogenised world view, muddling history , and inked by hatred for other voices and versions. The government’s move to ban the textbook, with all cartoons removed and unleashing a witch hunt in NCERT, without undertaking a true review process only smacks of the same right wing moves. Notably it is not driven by worries of caste atrocity or any great sensitivity towards upholding democracy, which is what is of concern to us.

      • May 18, 2012 11:23 AM

        Yes. Exactly. Historical context fray sentiments which in turn are linked to the democratic values you talk about. Can there be an objective review of “hurt” ? Since the state needs to be objective about every complaint, it must also review right wing concerns as legit concerns, right? My problem with reviewing something that came about after an extensive( and ostensibly democratic) process of churning, is that, it opens everything up to bland de-politicization and pandering. So no one would be ever able to move away from the politics of hurt.

    • May 16, 2012 12:29 PM

      A very well thought out piece. I entirely agree with the posting by Radhika on behalf of AISA and LDTF. I appreciate the following lines in particular “There is a world of difference between amending a textbook to appease certain political or social groups, and between doing the same to uphold democratic principles and egalitarian values”. Kapil Sibal should have instituted a process of review of the textbook in the light of the current debates rather than imposing an uncritical withdrawal and a direct ban of cartoons.

    • May 16, 2012 12:54 PM

      Very well argued piece. I agree with the position you take. The particularly liked the formulations ‘There is a world of difference between amending a textbook to appease certain political or social groups, and between doing the same to uphold democratic principles and egalitarian values’. It would be appropriate to call for a review of the textbook in the light of the debates.

  15. Shiva Shankar permalink
    May 15, 2012 8:54 PM

    While the stupid violence is obviously to be deplored, I cannot believe that Mr.Nigam does not know that it is also Dalits, and other citizens too, who are protesting about the cartoon in the text book, not just politicians.

    • Kavita Krishnan permalink
      May 16, 2012 9:14 AM

      Shiva Shankar, I agree with you – we cannot assume that all those who are uncomfortable with that cartoon are self-seeking and politically motivated goons. What would dalits who do not make it to classrooms and read textbooks, make of this cartoon that has spilt off the pages of the textbook into the pages of newspapers? Isn’t there a chance they are seeing it as an extension of Ambedkar statues being vandalised, his name being removed from schemes? In this case, deification, which Ambedkar abhorred, might also be partly a reaction to desecration. Therefore I really feel we need to arrive at a consensus on an academic process to take dalit concerns on board and address the issue, while firmly opposing govt censorship and bans.
      Even Hari Narke, I notice, has one line where he says ‘it would have been welcome had the objection to Shankar’s cartoon come via the same or similar medium instead of a violent attack.’ Which means he too is not saying that any and every objection to this cartoon is authoritarian and fundamentalist by definition. Prakash Ambedkar too has said the cartoon is being interpreted differently now (as compared to 1949) by the dalit person on the street; and while he has not joined the bandwagon of those asking for the heads of Yogendra Yadav and Palshikar, he had pleaded for removal of the cartoon, prior to the row in Parliament. Are we to lump such voices together with the politically-motivated goons and censors?
      I see in today’s paper that Anand Patwardhan ( has tried to make sense of why dalits protest against the cartoon now, and why the same cartoon didn’t evoke protests in 1949. “The cartoon in its day did not rouse controversy because the nation was young and hopeful. Ambedkar was drafting the Constitution….Today, repeated betrayals have frayed the sensitivities of dalits, but the iconic persona of Ambedkar is etched in their hearts forever.” I think there is nothing to be ashamed of in being sensitive to those frayed sensitivities, and that there are ways of doing so, while rebuffing the mindless and motivated censors and goons.

      • Shiva Shankar permalink
        May 16, 2012 12:25 PM

        ‘… nothing to be ashamed of in being sensitive to those frayed sensitivities’? It is my sensitivities too that are frayed.

      • Kavita Krishnan permalink
        May 16, 2012 12:50 PM

        I am here demanding sensitivity from those on Kafila whose sensitivities are not similarly frayed by that cartoon… Of course all our sensitivities are frayed by desecrations of Ambedkar.

  16. Nivedita Menon permalink*
    May 15, 2012 9:20 PM

    See the posts on this issue on FeministsIndia, especially Shipra Nigam‘s with which I am in total agreement,

  17. May 16, 2012 12:31 AM

    I support the cartoonist’s right to freedom of expression and get it published anywhere. But as far as its display in text books is concerned, I think it is a delicate matter. If it is quite controversial, with some groups opposing and some supporting, etc. then better that it is taken out of text books, because children are not expected to be fed controversies. However, I am stressing that the cartoon per se is not objectionable or in any way defamatory to anybody. It is critical no doubt but such criticism is permitted and also should be welcome. Only the place of its placing may not be appropriate.

  18. May 16, 2012 8:25 AM

    A couple of issues about reading the cartoon, to add to Radhika’s insightful post. One, there is an element of human charm about a free-standing Nehru, vis-a-vis an Ambedkar who is shown riding a snail — a slimy dirty creature one would not like to touch. Who cares about the Constitution when looking at a cartoon??

    To understand this better, one should think of the news viewing public in those times and these. Nehru was the leader of the nation, the ‘washed’ and anointed one (delightful metaphor!). Ambedkar was perhaps an important figure in the news-readers’ imagination, but ambivalent — the memory of his ‘treachery’ vis-a-vis Gandhi’s paternity was too recent, as was perhaps the memory of Gandhi’s assassination by Godse. But largely an upper-caste readership.

    When you had an upper-caste readership, cartoons had to be funny to them. Extending contemporary Indian film theory about what makes a film a box-office hit, one couldn’t then or now, write an article which did not gratify in some complex way the readership’s fantasy of its own importance. If you wrote in the Times, it was one kind of readership, and if you wrote in the Hindu it was another, only a slightly different shade. The same applies to the cartoon with even more force (look at today’s cartoon — 16th May — in The Hindu about how a politician inflates himself — named caste-politics — with a bicycle pump).

    The visual image is a very shifty and fluid thing. What is connotes is subliminal it is never direct or simple. Far more than a text, a cartoon can be a vicious instrument of sarcasm, resentment and bitterness, without ever being open to criticism. This is because an image never says anything direct — it only points and it always runs a little wild in relation to its caption. Also who can criticize the sublime sense of humor of a Laxman, Mario, or Shankar? They are the jokers in the pack. The citizen as joker.

    I agree that if today there is a kind of litmus-catalytic effect of a few members of parliament turning the color of the parliament a deep blue, it is to be noted that somewhere, little by little, the power of the readership is changing hands. More power to the blue.


  19. V. Geetha permalink
    May 17, 2012 2:23 PM

    Thanks, Radhika for your thoughtful piece. I thought I’d bring in another argument. Thol. Thirumalavan of the Dalit Panthers of Tamil Nadu who raised this issue most stridently turns 50 this year. His has been a momentous political journey – from leading an angry group of young dalit men into sustained protests and agitations and creating a new generation that stands on its political dignity and vocation for justice, he has emerged as an important dalit politician in Tamil Nadu, determined to make his presence felt in Delhi.

    The price demanded by our electoral democracy for this rite of passage has been hefty. And some of it as been blood money – the incitement Tamil electoral politics offers by way of Tamil nationalist rhetoric to all those ‘blood brothers’ who speak in the name of a widely linked fictive kin identity forces them to align horizontally with other Tamil men, than address vertical contradictions, of class and caste. And this invitation to be part of the Tamil nationalist brotherhood has meant that the Dalit Panthers rely on iconic gestures for the most part, while doing caste, and on heady rhetoric while doing language. It is another matter that on the ground the Panthers still inspire hundreds of young people to defy caste injustice – the leadership is committed to other ways of doing politics.

    It is in this context that one must view Thirumavalavan’s views on the cartoon: if it were the1990s, he would have steered a rich polemical debate on the subject, raised questions, urged people to write, but since that time is past and the energy of the last decade and more has come to invested in rousing symbolic gestures, we have him leading an argument in parliament on this subject. Neither the Bathani Tola judgment nor the gruesome Paramakudi killings of last year prompted Thirmavalavan to act with as much verbal alacrity. Having said that, I must note here that since the press does not report on his speeches in parliament, we did not get to hear of them. In any case, picking on an iconic subject that the media is bound to pick up is a ritual that Thirumalavan has perhaps learned to perform as he walked the road from Tamil Nadu to Delhi. If only he had displayed a similar sensitivity to getting all of us in Tamil Nadu to read Dr Ambedkar better or to discuss his views – sadly all we hear from him these days are Tamil nationalist exhortations peppered now and then by references to other political matters, such as this one.

    • radhika permalink
      May 18, 2012 2:57 PM

      Thanks Geetha for pointing out Thirumavalavan’s journey. Your post demonstrates how media feeds on icon politics. The resulting chain of events is for all to see: Neither the media, nor the Parliament nor the consequent debates in civil society dwell on Bathani Tola judgement or the gruesome Paramakudi killings, as much as it does on icons.

  20. yet another indian permalink
    May 17, 2012 5:41 PM

    The ‘brilliant’ comments by Radhika and Srivatsan have arguments that can well be used any fundamentalist group to request to ban anything they dont like.Tomorrow someone can say that a cartoon on Mamta is an insult to all women and hence it should not be allowed. This sort of slippery slope argument can be used in many ways to block anything critical of any section of a society or an individual. Soon this will backfire as the same ‘logic’ can be applied against teaching any text that critically questions any norm or any value or personality that is dear to some section of the society. Only then Radhikas and Srivatsans will realize that they have no defense against such claims. Soon mens’ groups may argue any feminist text that ridicules/criticizes men in general cannot find a place in curricula.
    By their own ‘logic’ Radhika and Srivatsan should support such claims. Once such a ‘logic’ is articulated it cannot be used only in support of some groups, either you are with it or you reject it.

    • radhika permalink
      May 18, 2012 2:41 PM

      There is more to this world than “you are with it or you reject it”.
      Cartoons are political statements, they communicate in a succinct manner our world view. I make cartoons myself and I know how our politics translates into certain visuals and imagination. Thus, removal of cartoons is not my case at all, as political science books indeed must include visual politics. If anything we must push for more of it rather than less.
      Unfortunately, the kind of defence that you are making, ignores visual politics. Creativity, fun, liveliness is not beyond our social contexts, in an abstract neutral space. Neither is the portrayal of cartoon as edutainment becoming of any discourse on critical pedagogy and thinking.
      The political science textbooks are indeed far better than what we have ever had, and an acknowledgement of the existence of another view that finds it casteist, would make the defence credible, and communicate the intent better. Infact not doing so is causing great harm to the textbook.
      Please read my original post on the guiding principle behind a textual cartoon, and how our response need to be directed by democratic and egalitarian concerns, and not necessarily sentiments.

  21. Aditya Nigam permalink*
    May 18, 2012 3:46 PM

    Since I last responded to some of the comments, it has now become clear that more and more dalit intellectuals have been coming out in opposition to the dominant strands of dalit political leadership and some of the intellectuals. It has become clear – and today’s brilliant piece by Harish Wankhede in the Indian Express is a testimony to that – that there is a vibrant critical dalit intelligentsia in existence in the country. I am told by friends who know Marathi that in the Marathi press too, a much more complex debate has been going on among the dalit intellectuals. Those who believe that we must abandon our critical faculties before a cacophony of ‘frayed sentiments’ wallahs, seem to me to be advocating a position that basically amounts to supporting the most aggressive and retrograde voices within them. They are of course, free to do so, but in my own humble reckoning, I want to not join any bandwagon – in whatever name it may manifest itself. Our troubled times do not afford us the luxury of doing so, if we wish to see a properly democratic culture take hold in our public life.

    • Jenny permalink
      May 18, 2012 5:56 PM

      In that piece, the writer is concerned that “the Dalit constituency will again be objectified as identical to any right-wing fundamentalist group unfit for a vibrant and tolerant democracy”. No wonder, because the cartoon is often reduced to a dalit issue.
      Whereas, it has signs of oppression and casteism that should be a larger concern of democratic consciousness.

  22. Saikat permalink
    May 18, 2012 8:05 PM

    What needs to happen is the textbook should now include a commentary the present furore/debate/claims/criticism on the same cartoon to provide a present day context. Of course that is only possible via a review – a democratic one!
    Excising the cartoon on the basis of hurt sentiment – even considering the unbalanced historical relationships with Dalits and the rest in our country – will be harmful.

    Also, by the by, intellectuals condeming voilence, Dalit or otherwise – really a lazy thing to do.

  23. Nivedita Menon permalink*
    May 31, 2012 10:02 AM

    A pernicious campaign over email and on Facebook is accusing us of censorship. This is my personal response to it as one of the seven admins of kafila.

    First of all, please take alook at our comments policy, which has been up for years on our About page.

    Moderation of comments is our prerogative. Our comments policy clearly says this. The last word on comments is that of the author of the post or of the kafila member who posts a guest post. Sometimes this may be done in consultation with the small group of admins. Comments may be not published for a variety of reasons – because they are ad hominem attacks or nasty in tone or off-topic. But one important reason is also content. If kafila has served any role at all as a place where rich debates take place within a broadly Left spectrum, it is because we act as editors of the debate. No publisher will publish every manuscript submitted to her/him, even if it is of the highest quality. Just as with a publisher or a journal, every kafila author has an idea of how a debate should go, and that is unavoidably a subjective decision.

    Our comments policy says: “We want Kafila to be a forum in which we can explore complex ideas together. Polarised for/against debates or Big Fight-type slanging matches do not help us develop our ideas, but freeze us into unalterable positions.”

    To term this kind of curating and editing of a debate, “censorship” would hold some merit if Kafila did not give space to different and opposing points of view, which in fact, it does. Not only in comments but also through solicited and unsolicited guest posts.

    We are thus committed to giving space to a variety of views and subjects, even those we do not agree with. This “we” here refers to individual authors on kafila because there is no “kafila line”, which would be evident to anybody who has read kafila regularly, because kafila authors themselves debate and disagree with one another through comments and separate posts.

    On this particular debate, it would be evident that all the posts have comments that express a variety of views, including links to important contributions to the debate in other forums, that completely disagree with the opinion expressed in the kafila posts to which they were comments – for example, Anoop Kumar’s post and the Savari post are both linked in comments to the Critical Pedagogies post.

    As a policy we do not generally re-post pieces that have already appeared elsewhere in print or on-line, but only link to them. Only a kafila author her/himself may re-post on kafila pieces they have published elsewhere, but we do not generally do this with guest posts.

    One particularly egregious allegation is that we sat on one (unsolicited) guest post submission (a statement by two political organisations) for two days and then we posted it as a comment. In this particular case, while we were taking a call on the submission, the writer of the statement herself decided to post it as a comment on a subsequent post by a kafila member, and we approved it. One would again like to emphasise the prerogative of Kafila members to decide if and when they want to publish (unsolicited) guest post submissions. We try our best to find the time to respond to all unsolicited submissions, but we also expect people to be aware that nobody on kafila does this as a full time job and we will take time to reply to submissions.

    The suggestion that if we do not publish every comment and unsolicited guest post received, we are censoring views, is ridiculous. Kafila is a team blog with 22 members and it is their right to publish what they like on their blog, just as it is your right to decide the content of your blog or Facebook, or the books you publish.


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