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Cartoon controversy – In conversation with Satyanarayana: Sharmila Rege

June 5, 2012

Guest post by SHARMILA REGE

Satyanarayana’s interview addresses the crucial issue of a sharp division between the dalit and the left/liberal viewpoint on the NCERT textbook cartoon controversy. Clearly, Satyanarayana’s foregrounding of this difference is not a denial of the differences between the positions taken by dalit intellectuals in this debate. Further, Satyanarayana is referring not just to responses by dalit academicians but to the presence of critical viewpoints in the larger dalit public sphere – the very perspective/viewpoints that Liberal/Left/feminists have in a sense not seriously engaged with, equating them to ‘manipulations by opportunistic dalit leadership’ or /and ‘always and already emotional iconisation of Ambedkar’.  In fact, despite   important differences between the arguments put forth by Satyanarayana, Gopal Guru, Anoop Kumar, Harish Wankhede, Raj Kumar and other dalit intellectuals; all of them interrogate these hasty conclusions about irrational or manoeuvred dalit publics. Gopal Guru  contends   that the controversy has created a field of power in which even the supporters of Ambedkar and Dalits have ended up reproducing the compounded insult  through two assumptions –that Ambedkar belongs to the dalits and that dalits are pathologically emotional and thus not capable of rational independent views.

Guru and Satyanaryana’s arguments raise uncomfortable questions for feminists – at least   for some of us who have since the 1990s sought to revise our understanding of histories of feminism and sought to rethink its futures in dialogue with dalit-bahujan feminists.  Do we as feminists think that Ambedkar just as much belongs to us?  Further, why does our patently feminist engagement with the power of emotions – individual and collective – fail us when it comes to listening to dalit publics?  Feminists by and large have gone along with the thesis of emotional dalit iconisation of Ambedkar that renders dalits as incapable of going beyond symbolic identities. Some even go on to contrast the rationality of Ambedkar’s thought and practice with the ‘irrationality’ of dalit public’. The rationality with which dalit public on the Pune University campus responded to vandalism of  Suhas Palshikar’s office – their divergent views on the cartoon apart – is good enough to put at rest all those who are worried about dalits becoming deserving claimants of Ambedkar’s legacy.

Satyanarayana’s interview makes a strong argument for the existence of dalit publics, manipulation by leadership and iconisation notwithstanding, and calls for more reflexive listening by liberal-left scholars to the many voices that constitute the dalit publics.  Significantly he locates the process of iconisation historically; thus revealing the thin theoretical and empirical basis of the several arguments on iconisation .He draws out the politically charged and highly loaded contexts within which the representations of Ambedkar come to assume different meanings in different social locations.

I am reminded of Baburao Bagul, the well known dalit writer and intellectual’s analysis of the academic neglect of Ambedkar’s writings. Bagul draws attention to  the two or more decades after independence in which the tendency to turn the national movement into a form of historical, mythological movement of ancestor worship  led not only to academic neglect of Ambedkar but  labelling of  the Phule-Ambedkar discourse as ideologically particularistic. Further, in the 1970s, the challenges posed to the academia by Dalit Panther ideology and activities and dalit literature—at least in Maharashtra— came to be co-opted through frames that evaded the epistemological challenge posed by Dalit Panthers.  As Satyanarayana mentions in the interview, Mandal opened up a new dialogue between dalit and liberal/left/feminist academics. Many of us left-liberal- feminists came to recognise the manufacture of ignorance in our institutions of higher education and ways in which one is complicit through the privileges of caste and education. The greater representation of Ambedkar and dalit writings  in textbooks  that Aditya Nigam mentions in his response to Satyanarayana’s interviews, were  no doubt enabled  by the impact of the dalit movement on the mainstream.

If the engaged debates on Mandal brought forth greater sensitivity to the changing social composition of classrooms; dialogues with dalit intellectuals and activists for many of us   initiated a process of learning to read Ambedkar and also think through perspectives strategies that throw  the gaze of the dalit bahujan students back on to curricular and pedagogical practices. This promoted several experiments in curriculum transformation and design of innovative learning teaching materials – the NCERT text books being an important case in point. Following the cartoon controversy, Anoop Kumar’s nuanced articulation of his experiences of the classroom and Satyanarayana’s foregrounding of the right of dalits to ‘different’ interpretations really push us further to fathom the multiple complexities involved in such projects.  How do we as teachers, move beyond merely including the excluded contributions of Ambedkar to address the right of the dalit to divergent interpretations of representations of Ambedkar?

Critical questioning of the cartoon by dalit publics is as Satyanarayana reminds us, neither  an opposition to the textbook nor denial of  its immense contribution to pedagogic innovations. In fact, I would agree with Satyanarayana that a dialogue with dalit publics, which would very much in keeping with the dialogical spirit of the textbooks would deter state intervention. This I recall was a position that was hinted at by Prakash Ambedkar in his statement to the  Marathi electronic media  immediately after the controversy broke out .

In response to Satyanarayana’s interview, Aditya Nigam raises questions about non-dalit academics and activists working  in close interaction and conversation with  dalit intellectuals, being reduced in the last analysis to  ‘upper caste’ agents.  As a   non- dalit Phule-Ambedkarite feminist, I do admit to sometimes feeling pained /hurt  at such ‘last-analysis’ – but recognize that such reminders from dalit feminist comrades and critics has always been an opportunity to unlearn and relearn.  I have found very useful sharp criticism of my work by dalit feminist scholar and activist Abhinaya Ramesh   who details the complex structures and processes of brahmanical surveillance as they operate in our academia and points to the limits of border-crossing. In the same vein, I see Satya’s intervention as underscoring the vital significance of deliberations on discord and divides  in the process of building  sustained dialogues . It is not as if we liberals- left- feminists simply cannot, despite ourselves, transcend our caste selves but yes the journey can be long – requiring us to go back and forth – never giving up listening and dialogue.

Lastly, processes of representing Ambedkar in textbooks and other learning-teaching materials, would definitely be enriched if we were to look at what SAVARI  has  rightly referred to as the amazing rich collection of visual material on Ambedkar. We may add to this also musical compositions and booklets that circulate within the spaces constituted by the Ambedkarite calendar events in Maharashtra. The rational critical dimension of the booklets and the rich social imagination of the music do not only question the caricatured and distorted conceptions of dalit publics   but reveal that   multilayered representations of Ambedkar have a much longer and richer history outside the formal print media- in the dalit counterpublics. Ambedkar as the maker of the Indian Constitution continues to occupy the imaginary of composers and singers of the Ambedkarite gayan parties.  I will end with one such composition performed by a Buddhist Mahila Mandal, documented at Mahad in 2004

One who says Jai Bhim,

Knows the Value of Jai Bhim

He knows that Baba’s Constitution,

is the real pride of India,

Why sing the false praise of the Yogi?

India is a great nation,

Because it is here that Phule and Ambedkar were born…

They went away just the way they had come,

all shattered to pieces,

Who says our nation stands on the Rupee note,

You must say only that what is true,

My Bhima lifted the nation,

 just on the nib of a pen

It would serve us well to remember the words of Zhingubai, a dalit woman composer/singer from Murtijapur, a gentle reminder that understanding the relation of dalit publics to Ambedkar  is no simple task ..

My father called him father,

my mother calls him father,

I call him father,

my son too calls him father,


Try searching in the world

one such relation,


Does anyone share this kind of relation,

like the one we share with my Bhima?

Sadhus and saints have come and gone,

my vows and prayers too,

 none bore fruit.


Where were you yesterday,

today you have come so far,

in your hands smeared with cow dung,

he placed a pen!


Sharmila Rege is the Director of Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, University of Pune.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Mohit permalink
    June 5, 2012 12:11 PM

    Really insightful text. This indicates that, as Gopal Guru already suggests, sometimes there are oversimplifications in debates to show that dalit public is full of emotion and iconoclastic. This article leads us to realize the importance of dalit as a dialogic subject. The importance of symbolic should not be reduced to iconoclasm or unreasoned but there is always a creativity in these symbolic gestures which through imaginary of ‘caste free society’ want to put an argument of accessing ‘real’. Here, is the subject who is in dialogue through these gestures. For more detailed look of these examples we can see Gopal Guru’s essay ‘understanding multiple images of Ambedkar’. Where a image of Ambedkar on one rupee coin symbolizes the dalit imaginations to criticize Dalit politicians who are involved with ‘petty politics’.

  2. Ammu Abraham permalink
    June 6, 2012 12:13 AM

    “Where were you yesterday,

    today you have come so far,

    in your hands smeared with cow dung,

    he placed a pen!”

    That is the best, the pithiest iconic statement about Ambedkar.

  3. June 6, 2012 12:21 PM

    While following the whole discussion on Dr. Ambedkar’s cartoon ‘controversy’ i just remember his quote: “Turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform; you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill this monster:-Dr. Ambedkar (1936)”

  4. Aditya Nigam permalink*
    June 6, 2012 1:02 PM

    Dear Sharmila,
    Thanks for this piece. I see it as an outcome of agonized reflections of an upper caste feminist on her own subject-position in relating to dalit scholarship and intellection. My own position and writing for many years now has been of this order: that is to say, using the work of dalit intellectuals and scholars to destabilize my own certainties and dearly held beliefs – upper caste leftist that I am (I wonder where Satyanarayana saw the liberal in me though!). For me this has been an immensely intellectually rewarding experience and I shall always remain indebted to the intellectuals in conversation (often silent) with whom my own thinking has developed.

    I should also take this opportunity to state that unlike many recently-converted ‘bewildered’ brahmins (who have seamlessly shifted positions from writing theses on Gandhi to an infatuation with Maoism and now holding aloft the banner of dalitism without batting an eyelid), I have never had the condescension to ‘ make heard’ or ‘represent’ dalit politics and life. It is certainly not due to any upper caste benevolence that the dalit voice today is being heard and none of us can claim any credit for it. For me this engagement was and will remain a way of not allowing my own subject-position to go unchallenged.

    That said, I must say that unlike you I now feel liberated from the burden that weighs down on you quite evidently in this piece. I feel liberated because, if am always and only ever going to remain an ‘upper caste leftist’, why must I forego my right to disagree and hold a different opinion? What I read in Satyanarayana’s diatribe is simply this: you ‘left-liberal’ intellectuals should have conceded our demand at the outset. You dared to enter into a debate and hold a different opinion. Yes, I am guilty of that and I am not apologetic about the fact that I did not first take a poll of dalit intellectuals’ opinions before forming my own! I could see – and still see – that there were different opinions about not just the cartoon in question but about the larger perception of what dalit politics is all about, among dalit intellectuals. By what right should Satyanarayana’s opinion be taken as the more authentic one and Gopal Guru’s or Anand Teltumbde’s as inauthentic? Who decides what the authentic dalit voice is? The situation has incidentally reached such a pass that one commenter on Kafila has even labelled Gopal an upper caste agent and another has on facebook angrily asked why Anand Teltumbde is not attacking the upper caste intellectuals – as if he too is now their agent, answerable on their behalf.

    Nobody has ever held that the cartoons were beyond debate. Debate there must be. Why should a demand be conceded without public debate simply because a section of dalits is raising it? I personally do not care a damn about the cartoon, but what is the principle to be adopted here? No debate because we are dalits and claim to speak for all dalits? And when the parliament stepped in to take a decision to remove all cartoons and put all the textbooks to some so-called review without any further ado, what were we expected to do, according to Satyanarayana? An intervention was required at that point itself.

    I am saying all this because I share the angst that comes across in your writing but certainly do not want to implicate you in the opinions that I am expressing here. However, I have one quarrel with you. The way in which you have put together all the intellectuals mentioned above from Satyanarayana to Gopal Guru and Anoop Kumar and seem to suggest that they are all actually saying the same thing leaves me a bit aghast. For then, it seems that it is I alone who am responsible for making this divide between the supposedly ‘rational’ and the ‘irrational and manoeuvered dalit publics’. There are two crucial points that I need to make here:
    (1) That the distinction between an ’emotional/ sentimental dalit public’ and the ‘rational upper caste’ has actually been made by Gopal (in the manner of his ‘theoretical brahmins’ and ’empirical shudras’). The point that Gopal makes through these distinctions is not the facile one that dalits are emotional and upper castes are rational but that these are the slots that brahminism has created and many non-dalits who simply want to affirm the discourse of hurt eventually end up affirming the intrinsic non-rationality of dalits. I have, of course, long disagreed with Gopal on this huge investment in ‘rationality’ – even while essentially agreeing with his central point. Clearly those who are given to thinking in dichotomized categories (and here I am thinking of the more recently converted upper caste flag-bearers of dalit hurt) cannot understand that this is not simply about emotional and manipulated dalit publics. The point that Gopal is making and which I cited at length in my piece is that emotions and hurt sentiments do not exhaust the spectrum of dalit politics – that there is a world beyond. Like anyone with a feminist sensibility, I am only too aware of the need to get past this relentless demotion of sentiments, emotions and the affective.
    (2) Secondly, my argument was pitched at a completely different level. I made no special case about ‘manoeuvered and irrational dalit publics’ but rather pointed towards a general tendency in our politics where hurt sentiment has become a default language. Let me quote what I wrote in the course of the debate on my first post:

    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.

    My own argument has been about the ways in which the institution of the political party (and I singled out the Congress as the key culprit here) manipulates and plays with the popular sentiments of different sections as and when it pleases. Now, I do not subscribe to the rhetorical argument that says that if you are suggesting popular will can be manipulated you are insulting the section concerned. This kind of rhetoric assumes that all the information that we need to have is already available for people to take a deliberated decision or that politics is only about rational decisions. (Some brahmin boys, flag bearers of dalitism, have been spinning themselves silly about this supposed ‘reason’ versus ’emotion’ dichotomy (on facebook), without even getting the point that is at stake here). Such rhetoric overlooks the actual ways in which political mobilization takes place – essentially as mobilization of affect. What, for instance, do we say when thousands of Sikh men are out on the streets baying for the blood of the Dera Sacha Sauda chief because he apparently dressed himself up in robes that mimicked their Guru? What of Hindutva mobs demolishing the Babri Masjid? And what of the Gujarat massacres where apparently OBCs, dalits and tribals all participated to some extent or the other? This is not, let me repeat, a dalit-specific argument but refers us back to a conundrum that political theory too has no answer to.

    Letr me end by reiterating one more thing: Ambedkar (and his writings) is nobody’s private property. They are intrinsically part of our history and we neither need anybody’s permission or certification to study his life-work. Similarly, caste is very much a matter that we all have to and will continue to have to grapple with. The pervasiveness of caste structures our very modernity and the lessons that we have learnt over the years – after Mandal and in conversation with many dalit scholars are important for our understanding of this structuring of the modern. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we must simply stop thinking for ourselves. Intellectual engagement to me can only be critical engagement or not at all!

    • June 7, 2012 8:10 PM

      Though i find so many disappointing arguments by Aditya Nigam. However, i want to respond to one of the arguments made above. “….on facebook angrily asked why Anand Teltumbde is not attacking the upper caste intellectuals – as if he too is now their agent, answerable on their behalf….” I find this is completely false statement, since your letter do refers to other names, please do that. Because i see this in a different way. This was in the response to Dr. Anand’s article in EPW. on Bathani Tola case. The article basically criticizses Dalits movement for paying so much attention to Dr. Ambedkar’s so-called cartoon controversy but the same response was not there for the Bathani Tola judgement. His intention was to critique Dalit movement, which is also important. And certainly it is historical fact that Dalit movement has been through self-critic position in many ways, which i dont want to explain here that. Saying that why should the Bathani Tola case be only a responsibility of Dalits to protest, where are the liberals lefts and others. I find no critique on the non-Dalits in his writing, which is also a serious problem. And also what is about Judiciary, here i want to recall Dr. Satya’s view on it, “Dr.Satyanarayana says “I don’t have faith in Judiciary, in the sense that the kind of judgement they delivered, highly elite, upper caste and if there is one institution which has not changed from the colonial period to now it is Judiciary. You don’t have Reservation in Higher Judiciary, dalits have been asking. OBC’s have been asking demanding time and now. They are not accountable and corrupt…, there is no transparency in their appointment, and they manipulate, they indulge in all kinds of scandal. There is no way you can condain the judiciary. It is enormous and tremdously powerful. It is like a Andhra Pradesh Grey hound police, if you give them the power to judge, the power of our future and freedom. Then it is the end of democracy. This is what worrying me very much. Well meaning intellectual, liberal they go on writing about there is a creative judgment….. it is very scary. One example if you look the all the massacre of Dalits from 60s to now. From Belgi, colomani, karmachedu to Khairlanji, what is the history of judiciary? Judiciary time and again gave judgment while striking of these cases, by supporting the upper caste, supporting the police; it has never given a favorable judgment. What is its record on reservation, consistently for several times Indian government has to go for amendments? Because they have give such Judgment were the constitution has to be amended. Late Balagopal use to say “the power of the Supreme court is such even the very constitution has to be amended, if they give a Judgment, even if it is a wrong Judgment it is not according to the lateral of the law, what you have to do is that you have to amend this it happened in the case of SC/ST reservation, happened in many other cases. When they say especially the Dharmasalam the 9 member judge or bench decides something that it is illegal, and then the only way for the political leadership is to go for amendments. In the case of classification of the SC reservations, that is the case the supreme court four member judge has said Classification cannot be done because SC’s are united, and we want to see them united people. Even if there is injustice we want to see them united people. This is what the supreme court has said. .. this is the case they have enormous power, they can destroy the country and you invest so much faith in supreme court and judiciary….this is a really scary situation.” This is also shared by Bojatharakam, a senior advocate in AP High court. Moreover, why only Bathani Tola, what about Soni sori, and every day dalits getting killed and raped, these are also important.
      This was the major overall argument. As Aditya point even if there is a ‘different’ views from Dalits, doesnt it show the democratic politics within it.

      • shipra permalink
        June 8, 2012 1:51 PM

        Nobody has denied the existence of democratic politics or diversity within dalit voices or within ‘upper caste intellectuals’ .
        The point someone like Anand Teltumbde is making is very simple – it is not to say that symbolic struggles around iconic identities cannot be made, they can and are often made and are important. But so is the need to self introspect and move beyond them in any constructive and emanicipatory politics. As someone who is invested in that movement , it was an insider’s voice asking for self reflexivity and self criticality and should have been given that space instead of being made to speak for upper castes also. Whether the upper caste intellectuals are investing in it or not is not his concern over here, he was speaking to the movement.
        Just like as a feminist if i ask why is it that we cannot move beyond investment in symbolic gestures , however significant, to more constructive issues like actual sexual harassment in workplace, i cannot be asked why am i not blaming men for not taking up this cause . It is understood that a wider critique of male patriarchy already exists and is accepted as such. We are trying to move beyond that in refocussing our energies within the movement.

  5. JGN permalink
    June 6, 2012 1:45 PM

    @ Aditya Nigam, “upper caste leftists” getting a dose of their own medicine from the Dalits?

  6. June 6, 2012 5:59 PM

    I have the feeling that from the many posts here and elsewhere that between the equally homogenized ‘dalit view’ and the so-called ‘left-liberal’ view, no one is really against the NCERT text-books, no one is clinging too hard to the cartoon, and no one is against regular review processes, no one is against making sure that dalit scholars have greater participation in the process of text-book writing, and no one is against dalit public having a voice in this issue or any other. So what is the lingering unease? The issue now, I think, is surely about how dalit and non-dalit intellectuals can come together in anti-caste struggles. Can they come together at all?

    Reading some of the outpourings against putative ‘left-liberals’, I can’t help thinking that this has more to do with pent-up anger; and reading some of the bewildered responses from the latter, it also appears to me that finally, long-standing misgivings and unease have been aired. At least for me, as an upper-caste born woman intellectual, this is a chance to think through precisely that unease. These, therefore, are tentative thoughts, a certain thinking aloud.

    And I must say this isn’t new to me at all. Long ago, when I aspired to be in the SFI in the 80s, I was plagued with the same, the very same, unease — the fear that one would be always interpreted as an enemy no matter how one tried to change, in the final analysis. Only that the criterion for belonging was class — so one could always be faulted for not having the right class perspective if one differed from the view that was presented predominantly as that of the working class. If one did not confirm, then one would simply have to leave the circle. Sure, by exposing oneself to other views, one did learn, change, and that has been truly valuable. But if such learning should necessarily extract such a price each time — of the constant threat of being identified as an enemy — then there is something wrong, I’d think. So my objections to the egregious patriarchy in the SFI could only be a product of me being ‘rich little miss’! I have no illusions whatsoever that the SFI and dalit intellectual circles are one and the same; I am only noting how similar the fears they evoke in the self-critical elite person are.

    I do think that guilt-production is anti-political. It locks the dalit and anti-caste elite caste intellectual in a relation of sympathy, by the latter, of the former. I see this playing out in some of the writings of upper-caste intellectuals who have participated in the homogenizing of ‘left-liberals’ and aim at producing guilt in them. I am not referring to Sharmila’s post as part of this writing — it is not belong there, since it seeks to reflect on the upper caste intellectual’s guilt rather than produce it. These authors who claim to be unambiguously ‘pro-dalit’ state and re-state in different ways that all we need to do is say yes to the particular viewpoint they identify as truly ‘dalit’. (If by this is meant the demand the cartoon be removed and the interpretation that it may be insulting to the Dalits in ways unseen by others, then my impression is that this has been conceded quite some time back, and by most of us lumped together as ‘left-liberals’). This absolves the upper-caste intellectual of taking serious responsibility for her/his positions — she/he merely endorses, never undertakes the difficult task of thinking of anti-caste strategies of critical savarna-born people as separate, if related, to those of the Dalit peoples. A broader anti-caste struggle can only be one that accommodates a variety of strategies, and I find it difficult to think that the latter’s struggle would be the same as the former’s.

    The relation of sympathy bestows on the dalit intellectual a sense of victory, which is however quite an ambiguous one. That it is ambiguous is evident from some sympathetic elite writing which waves with gusto the flag of the currently-most-popular view accepted as truly ‘Dalit’ but still sounds utterly condescending towards Dalits. Such sympathy might help to solidify the boundaries of dalit identity politics, but will work against broadening anti-caste politics in the long run.

    If I have learned anything for my own struggle against caste from this debate, it is from paying attention to the differences between the views aired by the dalit intellectuals and those who speak on their behalf. For example, while many of the readings of the whip and Ambedkar’s form seemed completely contrived and simplistic applications of ready-made interpretations, the questions raised by Rajkumar gave me a completely new way of looking at it. The reason is because unlike the ready-made interpretations pressed into service hurriedly and awkwardly, it is clear that Rajkumar’s insight comes from the experience of the dalit child in the classroom — his question whether everything slow needs to be whipped into moving faster made me rethink the symbolism of the whip. I did not agree with many other views he put forth, but found many other points illuminating, especially about the need to make the NCERT truly inclusive. I realized that without actively resisting guilt-production, one can hardly learn anything self-transformative.

    But outside this debate, the sad truth that I have observed in occasions that called for an anti-caste alliance between dalits and savarna-born people critical of caste is that instead of enabling a mutual shaping of selves that would help both to break down ubiquitous brahmanical values, what plays out is a game of strategic agents, each side trying to blackmail the other, and each trying to remain as discreet as possible to retain dialogue, and sometimes also trying to return the blackmail!

    I see this often even in personal friendships where a Damocles’ sword of accusation always hangs above expressions of love. I would want to be part of only a wider anti-caste movement where all of us can practice self-critique without fear and work to shape each other lovingly. I see that possibility in Sharmila’s experience and strive to remain hopeful.

    • JGN permalink
      June 6, 2012 8:09 PM

      Why the “savarna-born people critical of caste” did not allow K.R.Gowri to become the CM of Kerala? The syndicate media would have projected the differences of opinion between V.S.Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan as a fight between “savarna-bron” and an OBC if they were not from the same caste!!

  7. M. Raja permalink
    June 8, 2012 12:20 PM

    There’s a new petition that perhaps should make people introspect. It shows how the larger dalit opinion on this issue is not about what people in Delhi think. It’s not just about what Guru or Teltumbde or Anoop Kumar said. From Bama to OP Balmiki, Dhasal to Gogu Shyamala, Gail Omvedt to Uma Chakravarti, Ajay Skaria to Ajay Navaria, Sivagami, Meena Kandasamy, V Geetha, Ravikumar… a range of names have signed… See
    They say the struggle against the cartoon is democratic.

    • shipra permalink
      June 8, 2012 7:48 PM

      Since we’ve been asked to introspect on this petition ( though I wasn’t aware that the issue was now about a north south divide) , here are ome reflections : While it is welcome in terms of its attempt to bridge the gap between the apparently polarized positions (the so called ‘left liberal’ as opposed to the ‘dalit voice’), it leaves me with a deep sense of disquiet on several grounds. In the spirit of democratic dialogue and debate then :

      1. To the statement: “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 National Curriculum Framework on which the textbooks are based.”
      I wish the rationale behind this was clearly worked out – on what grounds are we asking for the reconsideration of an objectionable cartoon in this manner while not critiquing the process and the manner of the intervention? Thorat committee is already there to reconsider the cartoon in any case. The review is happening. But what is the point in urging Kapil Sibal to desist from seeking any major overhaul – because he will have to react in a similar fashion whenever a demand for review and change in the textbooks is raised, as long as the people involved have enough ‘muscle power’ and ‘voice’ in the parliament – and here I am thinking of right wing idealogues, not of marginalized voices. Unless you come up with a strong critique of the process, while demanding that dalit concerns be taken on board – this exercise makes the entire process deeply vulnerable. The modalities and frame of reviews has to be discussed, debated, institutionalized in an effective and inclusive manner. How will it be possible to argue against the many competing claims and alternative demands, and say that only this demand is legitimate since it expresses a dalit voice? To counterpose an alternative to Satyanarayan’s comment, I wish the voice that had emerged stated that though there were clear objections to the cartoon, we realize that this view might not be shared by other dalit and non dalit voices, so we ask for a review through a due process and through a proper dialogue and debate.

      2. To the statement in the new petition submitted to Professor Thorat: “We find it insulting that some intellectuals suggest that people protesting the cartoon fail to understand the “productive power of laughter” or that there’s a “fear of cartoons”.”

      This overlooks the fact that the statements being critiqued were made against the politicians and parliamentarians who had come together to protest against all the cartoons in the textbooks that appeared to be subversive, that seemed to incite questions in children’s minds.

      3. To the statement (again in the new petition to Professor Thorat): “We wish to express dismay over the adamantine attitude of some of our academic friends who seem to treat the cartoon as sacrosanct.”
      People have just held on to a different interpretation of the cartoon, while nobody has denied the need for a review keeping in mind the sensitivities of a marginalized community. In a democracy and a democratic struggle, differences of opinion have to be allowed, not ridiculed.

      4. To the statement (once again in the new petition to Professor Thorat): ‘However, the textbook writers must realize that they have not done a favour to Dalits by such inclusion which was long overdue.’

      Nobody claimed any credit for any inclusion, merely stressed, over and over again, how the texts were produced through a collective process and shaped by insights that came from social and political movements. And I also wish the very Hari Vasudevan, Suhas Palsikhar and Yogendra Yadav accused for resisting the removal of that ‘insensitive cartoon’ were also given some due credit in the petition for helping to produce the textbooks.

      5. To the statement: “The text does not inform the students that a Drafting Committee chaired by Dr Ambedkar drafted the Constitution. In the light of absence of 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.”
      I wish the pedagogic strategy of the textbook had been engaged with more fully before coming up with this critique. Since Nivedita Menon has responded to this on kafila, let me quote her “the passage in the text-book that states that there were 8 important committees, that were chaired by 5 persons, one of whom was Ambedkar. Is this not sufficient for a school text-book on the drafting of the constitution? All the Committees are not named, nor are the absentee (official) chairpersons of the 8 committees. The point of the book was obviously to introduce the process of constitution making to students, and I don’t think that detailed description of all 8 committees and the names of the 8 chairpersons etc should have been there, for students to mug up.”
      6. Finally to the statement :
      “It is time we realized 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. These two sites of struggle are not non-permeable. Quite often the iconicity of Dr Ambedkar has been used by Dalits 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.”
      The point about symbolism of iconic struggles is well taken, but the point about permeable sites of struggle is open to many readings. At one level, it makes the general point that all democratic struggles of dalits are in some way related, a point no one will disagree with (but I feel that in referring to the way the politics is unfolding in two different sites, Anand Teltumbde was making a different point– as an insider, who has invested in the movement. To me it seemed that he was expressing a misgiving and unease about a trap a movement can sometimes fall into by not moving beyond symbolism.). At another level, the statement seems to say: all those who fail to see the violence signified in the cartoon will also be blind to the atrocities against dalits in Bathani Tola and other places. This, to put it mildly, is a chilling accusation!
      Here it is also important to remember that many dalits and non dalits had been wary of the manner in which the intervention had come, in terms of both its source as well the eagerness with which political parties across the board were keen to demonstrate their dalit sympathies, crusading for a cause which many of them had no love for, and where for them the stakes were so little (a few textbooks and their writers). This was not necessarily a statement about the ‘manoueverability of dalit publics’ but a recognition of the fact that political mobilization around affect and assertion of identity is a political reality and requires some introspection.
      As has been pointed out, none of us can presume to be the dalit voice. We can only engage and be sensitive to it. But does this listening involve that we give up our right to disagree? A lot of us, including myself, on hearing different voices, could see long ago that other possibilities of reading the cartoon existed which might offend or be a cause of concern. It is also entirely possible that sometimes problematic material can be overlooked even by people invested in progressive politics and well aware of the silences, erasures and violence of a liberal discourse on caste. Any worthwhile exercise of knowledge production is bound to be vulnerable to such problems. What we need to do is to differentiate legitimate claims from those which are not, and define the process through which such differentiation can be done. But this can be only through dialogue and debate, and an institutionalised process of review. And surely every claim and demand even of marginalised groups cannot be seen as legitimate, and every articulation of disagreement ought not to be seen as evidence of being insensitivite to issues of marginality.
      Our understanding of the manner in which caste interrogates dominant frames in academic writing owes very little to parliamentary intervention, it is shaped by wider social and political movements which nurtured these critiques. There was much more in those textbooks to ‘hurt other sentiments’ which I do not care for (from upper caste to right wing to neoliberal). The parliament, though representative of dalit interests, is also representative of these other interests and can act in deeply authoritarian ways once a precedent is set to allow for this kind of an intervention to go unnoticed. So academic autonomy is important not as a preserve for upper caste elites, but to make academics both political and accountable to different marginalised constituencies. I continue to hold that democratic institutions within academia itself need to be strengthened, made more inclusive. By all means lets discuss, debate and think of ways to do so. But I wish the engagement with instititutions and structures where multiple competing claims, marginalised and non-marginalised exist, was spelt out more clearly when a demand for a structural redressal is made. Or are we to declare that this war has to be fought outside institutional structures and anything which helps promote a cause, however worthy, has to be asserted irrespective of what it implies for institutional democracies? Then we are out there beyond investment in institutional redressals, fighting other equally assertive claims – both marginalised as well as majoritarian. I believe we are being naïve if we think we can come up with a petition supporting one claim and cause, without engaging with how these claims are to be concretized, on what principles and on what grounds, in any democratic polity.

  8. ravi permalink
    June 8, 2012 5:40 PM

    This is a badly drafted petition high on rhetoric low on substance. This controversy will backfire as the govt. will use the review process and other mechanisms to ensure that such radical texts are not found in text books in the future.

    ‘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.’

    The petitioners argue that anyone who disagrees with them on this issue are supporters/perpetrators of such violence against dalits.This is plain nonsense.

    ‘We are also deeply saddened that because of this one aberrant act, the otherwise democratic and rational engagement with this issue that Dalits and some non-Dalit intellectuals opposed to the cartoon have engaged in — through news media, blogs, Facebook, and the Internet — has been portrayed as emotional and infantile. ‘

    This is a big lie as any reader of Kafila would know.

    ‘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.’

    Yet another lie.They quit protesting the unilateral act by the govt. The demand was made and conceded in the floor of the parliament without any discussion with academics or review by academics. It was not students/teachers who made that demand.

    ‘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.

    This point is silly because as it has been pointed out the text does justice to his role and his chairing the committee has been discussed in the text book in Xth standard itself.

    Such badly drafted petitions will be used to review text books, rewrite progressive texts and the outcome might not be the one the petitioners wanted.To whom they will petition then?

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