Indira Gandhi’s pro-cartoon line is not for schools
India’s government and the presiding Nehru-Gandhi dynasty have a problem – not the policy vacuum, sliding economy, weak leadership and bullying by coalition partners that are only too well known, but a new one that has been entirely of its own making in the past week.
The government is banning cartoons in school textbooks provided for teenagers because of uproar in parliament caused by MPs who are anxious to be seen to be protecting the interests of Dalits (“untouchables” in the Indian caste system) and other political icons.
There are two aspects to this political appeasement that was first announced last week by a terrorised-looking minister for education, Kapil Sibal (below) and then by a terrified-looking Pranab Mukherjee, the government’s leading politician, as they pleaded with screaming MPs to let them speak.
First, the decisions go against the views of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, mother-in law of Sonia Gandhi who now heads the dynasty and governing coalition, as The Indian Express has pointed out this morning…….
“Cartoonists have become an integral part of the intellectual life of a modern society,” wrote India Gandhi in 1983 in an introduction to a book of cartoons by Keshav Shankar Pillai who drew the 1948 cartoon that kicked off the row. “Some draw without intent to draw blood; some remove masks and hold a mirror to the face of society. There cannot be a cartoon without a certain amount of irreverence. But it depends on the cartoonist whether the irreverence aims at malice or irony… Shankar was not afraid to wound if there was a reason to do so,” she added, seemingly approvingly.
But maybe more significantly, Congress ministers are doing much the same as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did ten years when it was in power and Murli Manohar Joshi, who held Sibal’s post as education minister, hired Hindu-nationalist writers to eradicate Marxism and glorify India’s ancient Hindu past in school textbooks. He ordered, for example, the removal of a sensitive line written by historian Romila Thapar that “beef was served as a mark of honour to special guests” in ancient India, but that “in later centuries, Brahmans were forbidden” from eating it.
Is the way that Joshi was removing words that he didn’t like from textbooks any worse than Mukherjee-Sibal’s removal of cartoons? Joshi of course was insidiously feeding the Sangh Parivar’s nationalist line into children’s minds, hoping to indoctrinate future generations. But isn’t it just as dangerous in an open democracy for Mukherjee and Sibal to remove political cartoon commentary from textbooks as it was for Joshi to remove a reference to beef-eating?
If Indira Gandhi was content to see cartoons showing her setting fire to Congress leaders (right) when she split the party in 1969, how can Sonia Gandhi, her daughter-in-law, allow ministers to ban it from textbooks and Sibal to describe another one as “shameful”?
It seems that there are two icons that cannot be touched in modern India. One is the Dalit caste, which is an important vote bank, especially in Uttar Pradesh (UP) where Congress and the Gandhis did appallingly in recent state assembly polls. Top of the untouchable (in modern terms) list is Bhim Rao Ambedkar, a revered Dalit leader at the time of India’s independence, who was glorified by Kumari Mayawati, a modern Dalit politician who was chief minister of UP till the recent elections.
In the cartoon that was withdrawn last week (top), Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, is raising a whip behind a snail on which Ambedkar, who at the time was thought to be drafting India’s constitution too slowly, was sitting. A Dalit MP called the cartoon “insulting to Ambedkar, Nehru and the whole nation.” Others talked of the risk that such cartoons would “poison young minds”.
“The demand that criminal action be taken against those who permitted the cartoon’s publication is reflective of a larger malaise among many of India’s politicians,” The Hindu newspaper said two days ago. “Apparently, they think there is more political mileage in creating controversies over irrelevancies than addressing genuine issues facing Dalits such as backwardness and discrimination”.
The other icon is the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty whose current leaders have woven a web of protective untouchability around themselves that makes mocking the family unacceptable.
But the ease with which special interest groups can whip up emotions and political support goes far wider in a society that seems to lack the capacity for self-deprecating irony and laughter and for accommodating divergent views. Such issues are maybe not surprising in a massive and rapidly changing country where the sense of humour and other attitudes vary widely, especially between urban and rural areas and vastly different levels of education.
That has been shown for several years by the establishment’s tolerance of opposition to the late M.F.Husain, one of India’s leading artists, for his depiction of Hindu goddesses, and its implicit support (courting the Muslim vote bank in the UP elections) for opposition to Salman Rushdie visiting the Jaipur Literature festival in January. In Mumbai, a leading rationalist faces jail for “outraging religious feelings” by pointing out in March that drops of water dripping from the feet of a statue of Jesus was not a miracle but leaks from a blocked drain.
This week’s events are all the sadder because MPs gathered last Sunday for a special session to mark the 60th anniversary of India’s parliament. In speech after speech, they extolled the virtues of an open democratic society that they pledged to defend. That was two days after they had disrupted parliament till the Ambedkar cartoon was withdrawn, and one day before they screamed and shouted again until the other cartoons were banned.
The MPs “showed a total lack of acumen and wisdom by wasting the nation’s time on a complete non-issue,” wrote The Hindu. “Worse, they have ensured that public life in India, already awash with hurt sentiments of one kind or another will now be inundated by a torrent of demands to ban more and more expressions of culture, art and knowledge”.