Has India lost its ‘cartoon’ humour?
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?