Has India lost its ‘cartoon’ humour?

May 15, 2012

The Indian government’s decision to withdraw a controversial cartoon from a political science textbook this week couldn’t have been more ironic. Just a day earlier, India had observed the 60th anniversary of the first sitting of its parliament, seen as one of the pillars of the world’s largest democracy.

While it is best left to our imagination as to why the cartoon, roughly as old as the Indian republic itself, created the controversy now, the government’s reaction to the row is alarming and sets a dangerous precedent. The cartoon shows India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, holding a whip as the father of the Indian constitution, B R Ambedkar, is seated on a snail. It was first published in 1949, and was reprinted in a textbook a few years ago – without anyone batting an eyelid. The cartoonist’s intent was to caricature the slow pace at which the constitution was being finalised.

The government’s decision now to withdraw the cartoon and subsequently review all textbooks could be perceived as an attempt to pacify a certain section of society. Ambedkar is an icon for the cause of the Dalits — India’s former “untouchables” – and is deeply revered by millions in the country today.

But has the Indian state gone too far to regulate the freedom of expression?

A few instances in the past are a case in point. In 2011, the government passed a law to regulate content on the Internet.

In June, New Delhi police sparked an outcry with a heavy-handed crackdown on anti-corruption protesters camped out overnight.

Last August, Gandhian activist Anna Hazare was arrested ahead of his fast against corruption — drawing thousands of protesters onto the streets of the capital. And most recently, the government asked a TV network to move the premiere of the National Award winning ‘The Dirty Picture’ to the late night slot.

It looks like the government is taking a leaf out of Mamata Banerjee’s book. The chief minister of West Bengal sparked an outcry after a university professor was arrested for sharing a cartoon which poked fun at her.

It’s strange to see such apparently mild cartoons causing a ripple in a country’s establishment. It is even more curious as to why the Nehru/Ambedkar cartoon ended up being the sole target of the current row, especially when the textbook contained cartoons depicting other leaders as well.

Cartoons offer an interesting mode of academic engagement in classrooms. But thanks to the intolerance demonstrated by some of India’s politicians, students may be deprived of interesting ways of learning about their own past.

So what is the government’s next move? Ban all cartoons from being published in the press? Or ban all newspapers and magazines?

7 comments

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I am really sorry that you are bringing in four or more entirely different contexts together and drawing a conclusion which is very ill informed.

“The government’s decision now to withdraw the cartoon and subsequently review all textbooks could be perceived as an attempt to pacify a certain section of society.” –

Do you consider the aspirations of millions of people belonging to Dalit community, OBC and other downtrodden communities as unnecessary and irrelevant? In your write up which seems to go in all directions, a superficial understanding of caste system, which is the mother of all racisms is apparent. The cartoon is about a man, a political figure whose popularity is increasing by the day, even years after his death. A post about this iconic figure and a controversy regarding him should be a well researched one, to say the least. Please go through the following link to understand at least to some extent what the seemingly plain commonsensical “humour” you are referring to here is not so humourous after all.

http://feministsindia.com/cartoon-contro versy-whos-laughing/ -

Posted by Nikhila | Report as abusive

//But has the Indian state gone too far to regulate the freedom of expression?//

Well, India is home to a multitude of differing choice and preferences. Be it political, cultural and religious people in the country are free to exercise hundreds of views on a moot point. Both for and against.

Controversies surrounding political cartoons are a tiny minority. It would not have sufficed for Mr. Arora to limit his arguments within 500 words, had he accounted the tug-of-war between State chief ministers and Central govt on NCTC or FDI or Jan Lokpal bill, the state Vs people at the newly commissioned nuclear power plants South of India, two charged-up parties at the Jaipur meet in allowing author Salman Rushdie into India, who should own Babri Masjid, MF Hussain’s exile, Cheerleaders in IPL matches, appointment of Madurai mutt, Ram Sethu project between India and Lanka, legislating on Indian Muslim Personal laws and the recent rage surrounding choice-picking of Brahmin sperms by childless couples.

Had there been no division of opinions on freedom of expression, India would have remained today a united country sans border with Pakistan.

Posted by maGiK | Report as abusive

The hollowness of the projected glorified past is as distinct as ever. As if drilling the pledge every single day of the school life nationwide weren’t enough.

Posted by Anuja | Report as abusive

The Orwellian Left have always been the prime movers of censorship and suppression of free speech – the better to peddle their dogmas unopposed.

Posted by san-man | Report as abusive

Our culture has a great phrase for this “vinash kale vipreet buddhi”. Just about sums up everything the Govt is doing.

Posted by Vijayendra | Report as abusive

@Nikhila: I don’t believe anyone opined that any sections of the society is ‘irrelevant’ or ‘unnecessary’ … the question is, would we, as a collective citizenry, allow ourselves to go down this path? If we do, then nothing can really get done – every issue would find someone or other who would like to block it, and therefore, impose their will on the rest of the nation. Only solution is to enjoy democracy and be strong enough (as individual or a community/segment) to take little issues like this in stride. Think more about how real progress can be brought to your community, and thereby, to the entire nation, rather than spending energy on negativity. As the saying goes, weak person gets angry sooner than a stronger one. Lets develop a thicker skin!

Posted by Ustad | Report as abusive

we are not former untouchables we are untouchables in our motherland please verify facts and report.my suggestions to reuters is not to hire moorons and amateurs.i challange reuters make a cartoon on prophet and then see what sought of humour can happen Baba saheb is no less than a prophet to our communities be careful when reporting such issues or else it wont be any more a humour.

Posted by Dr.Krishna | Report as abusive