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ĎAmbedkar had to ensure that the interests of each group was adequately represented... Nehru wanted to get on with governanceí

The cartoon controversy

Much of the problem in this country springs from our inability to see people as human beings. Each person is seen through the prism of caste, class, tribe and religion. Politicians have ridden on these divisive platforms to gain and retain political power. Hence, it suits them to perpetuate these disparities even when they know how these fault lines can play out in a country as diverse as India.

There is a case for positive discrimination for people from that strata of society which has missed out on account of non-inclusive development. These people have been condemned to remain at the lowest rung of the economic ladder and need special interventions to get out of the poverty dungeon. But to have a general reservation on the basis of caste, tribe or creed perpetually is not equitable as it tends to benefit the creamy layer that already has access to power and can, therefore, cream off the benefits due to the poorer sections of the reserved categories.

Dr B.R. Ambedkar may have been a Dalit but he was also an enlightened and evolved human being who gave us a Constitution which, though imperfect, has allowed us to engage with democracy for 62 years. That we have not come apart at the seams despite disparate elements trying their best to wreck the secular nature of our polity, is a telling account of the maturity of the Indian people. When it comes to the crunch, the Indian polity does not flounder. It is the politicians who tend to ride the bandwagon of caste, tribe and religion and to make mountains out of molehills.

In fact, some politicians are so keen to be noticed (they probably suffer from some attention deficit syndrome) that they will rake up non-issues such as cartoons in textbooks while skirting issues of life and death such as lack of potable drinking water, shelter, livelihoods, the depleting environment, growing poverty and a pathetic healthcare system. These are issues that matter to people. But do our members of Parliament care?

Fresh textbooks

How then can a set of MPs claiming to belong to a particular class clamour that all these good efforts by well-meaning scholars be trashed? And why should the minister of human resource, Kapil Sibal, and finance minister Pranab Mukherjee pander to these misplaced sensitivities? The Babasaheb Ambedkar cartoon is not the only one in the textbooks. The books are replete with cartoons from some of the best cartoonists of India and abroad. It also depends on how one looks at the cartoons and thatís what an illustration does. It provokes a lot of lateral thinking.

Ambedkar sitting on a snail and Nehru shown behind him with a whip does not in any way indicate that Nehru was whipping the Dalit icon. He could well have been hurrying up the snail on which Ambedkar was shown sitting. And the snail could well have represented the disparate groups of this country that often pull in different directions thereby slowing progress in all fields.

Ambedkar had to ensure that the interests of each group were adequately represented; hence, the delay. Nehru wanted to get on with governance. He came from an elite background and could not possibly have understood the pressures and pulls that Ambedkar had to deal with. These would have been good discussion forums for students. The cartoon had nothing to do with demeaning Ambedkar.

Too many icons

The problem as many have rightly expressed is that we in India have too many icons who have with time been converted into deities ó all for electoral politics.

Arun Shourie had rightly stated in his book, Worshipping False Gods, that our propensity to deify human beings tends to imprison us in a primitive time warp. A progressive society is rational and argues things out. It does not take anything out of context and turn an innocuous discourse into a moral dialogue of hurt sensibilities. This is precisely what keeps us from entering the 21st century intellectually although we are already there chronologically.

Sad waste

It is sad that some of those who should be looking at improving the lot of the poorest in this country are wasting the time of Parliament in trying to curb freedom of expression in school textbooks. Letís not forget that we are looking at a generation of young people whose mind space is far ahead of most of our MPs. They get nearly all information from the Internet. This is an online generation and has to be handled very adroitly by good innovative teachers who are ably guided by equally inventive textbooks and study materials. I am particularly offended by the fact that the home of one of the advisers on the textbook committee, Palshikar, was vandalised. Is this the way to express dissent in a democracy?

And what about those young people who are actually learning from these texts? Has anyone even bothered to ask them whether the learning materials are offensive? Several online petitions addressed to HRD minister Kapil Sibal have gone across the country asking people to sign and say that they support the textbooks under scrutiny and see no offence in any of the cartoons included in them. They have also demanded that academics be left out of the domain of politics. In fact, this is the first time that an issue has created a vertical divide between academicians and politicians.

I think it was Ramchandra Guha who once said that he could not handle a camera but that his daughter had wittily observed that the instructions are idiot-proof so even a bozo could read and understand them.

In this case, we should collectively decide to tamper-proof all study materials from parliamentarians riding the wave of caste politics. We should pass a law to that effect!

(The writer can be contacted at patricia17@rediffmail.com)