“The State gets away with symbolic gestures, withdrawing a cartoon here, building a statue there, but there is more than meets the eye”

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Anand Patwardhan: Filmmaker

Anand Patwardhan
Anand Patwardhan, Photo: Shailendra Pandey

What is your reaction to this cartoon controversy?
I think the issue is more complicated than merely freedom of expression. Oppression of Dalits has gone on since Independence. When the cartoon first came out in 1949 nobody took it seriously because at that time the betrayal of Dalits was not yet evident. The nation was two years old, Ambedkar was alive, he was the Law Minister, he was writing the Constitution. So, there was a lot of hope in the air. Even if the cartoon might have hurt some sentiments at the time, nobody made a fuss about it. The mood in the country was upbeat. You can’t compare what the attitude of the people then was to what it is today when there are attacks on Dalits everyday. Caste has not been dismantled. We call ourselves a modern state and practice an ancient caste system. Thanks to his enormous contribution, Ambedkar is deified by the community. Anything that seems to attack him becomes a serious issue. I am not saying this is good but it is understandable. On one hand there is deification, on the other there is desecration by those who are anti-Dalit or who want to provoke an incident. Every other day one hears about Ambedkar’s statue being desecrated, like it happened at Ramabai Colony. These are calculated attacks on the community.

As far as the State is concerned, its response of withdrawing the NCERT books is an empty gesture because they are not actually annihilating caste and don’t have any intention of fighting the caste system. In fact Kapil Sibal’s so called Right to Education Act reinforces the idea that the elite will study in good schools while the poor will only start their education after six years of age, go to schools without teachers or with inadequate infrastructure only to drop out at age 14 to join the labor class. Does this not reinforce the caste and class system? The State gets away with symbolic gestures, withdrawing a cartoon here, building a statue there, but there is more than meets the eye.

Then taking into account that it hurts the sentiments of the people, do you suggest it should be removed from the textbooks?
I am making a complex argument, don’t simplify it. There is a long history of oppression of a community. I don’t support censorship but I do support debate. I don’t think the cartoon is completely innocent and instead of removing it, it should have been analysed in the textbook. Why would a cartoon depict Nehru holding a whip over Ambedkar and the snail marked Constitution ? The casteists of the day did not like the fact that at Gandhiji’s insistence Ambedkar was made the chief draughts person of the Constitution. Perhaps this animosity is reflected in the cartoon? Later, Ambedkar resigned as Law Minister because Nehru gave in to Hindutva forces who did not want Ambedkar’s draft of the Hindu Code Bill to be passed. So if anybody cracked the whip it was Ambedkar, cracking the whip in the sense of trying to keep the country on a secular path. It did not remain on the secular path for long.

The people involved, like Yogendra Yadav, did write articles, explaining that the cartoon was misinterpreted, that Nehru was not meant to be seen as cracking the whip on Ambedkar but rather on the snail representing the constitution.
The Constitution itself was taking a long time for very good reasons. The bottom line is that the cartoon is a non-issue that should not be overplayed. The real issues are the continuing atrocities against Dalits and their exclusion from the educational system. Symbolic issues should never hide the real ones.

A review committee will now to look at caricatures of all political leaders.
That is what I am saying. These empty gestures have no meaning and end up doing damage. They can’t face the fact that they have done precious little for the community. Politicians who are playing up this issue are equally bankrupt because they themselves have done nothing for their community. So it’s a short-cut being played by everybody.

Janani Ganesan is a Correspondent with Tehelka. 
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