The celebrations commemorating 60 years of Indian Parliament were accompanied by political solidarity with Parliamentarians uniting to uphold the dignity, supremacy and sanctity of the Houses. The Prime Minister’s speech emphasised the need for serious introspection on the daily routine of disruption of Parliamentary proceedings. Oddly enough, just two days before these special sessions, both Houses had been adjourned over a 63 year old cartoon included in a political science textbook published by NCERT in 2006. The illustration by Padma Vibhushan recipient and India’s foremost satirist, Shankar, portrays the pace of framing our Constitution and does so by using a snail, titled Constitution, on which Dr. Ambedkar is seated, holding its reins along with a whip, with Pandit Nehru standing behind him also holding a whip. Those opposed to the cartoon believe it shows Dr. Ambedkar in poor light and are insulted that the leader of the Dalits is portrayed as if he was receiving a lashing. Notably, the cartoon appears with text that details the tedious task entrusted to Dr. Ambedkar and therefore notes the time it took him to build political consensus in formulating the document that enshrines freedom of speech and expression, which is exactly what those opposed to the cartoon are seeking to curtail.
That there should be limits and reasonable restrictions on individual freedom is something even the Constitution stipulates. But is the current controversy yet another manifestation of the growing intolerance festering across Indian society which is increasingly getting divided across caste, religious and communal lines? No political party (including the ruling Congress) saw the humour in the cartoon and stood in defence of its inclusion in the textbook. Does this tell us that there is political mileage to be achieved by raising such issues, which if overlooked, can lead to lost political opportunity? Are we as a nation and as individuals becoming a little too sensitive? Do we no longer have appetite for humour, something which was common in the Mughal Durbar of Akbar who regularly entertained the wit of his trusted minister Birbal? It is indeed time to introspect and recognise that we don’t need to take ourselves so seriously and maybe it’s also time we understand the role of political satire in democratic functioning.
In America, political cartoons are termed as “ungentlemanly art”, but yet no one underestimates the enormous talent and effort it takes to produce this type of graphic satire. In fact, cartoon art has often been used to address serious issues in social history, politics and economics and has been regarded as an important tool to illustrate the mood of the times. Such is the dedication and tolerance to political satire in American democracy that the website of the American Senate, under the Arts and History heading has a section dedicated to political cartoons and caricatures. Additionally, the Library of Congress has one of the world’s largest collections of cartoon and caricatures which it has been acquiring since 1840. Interestingly, the Library of Congress in collaboration with a few public schools runs professional development programs one of which is titled “Congress in the Public Eye: A Look at American Political Cartoons.” Using primary material sources, this program sets out its purpose to “facilitate student’s understanding of how the relationship between citizens and government is based on freedom of expression” and requires students to “investigate the artistic and persuasive techniques used by political cartoonists, evaluate the meaning of cartoons, and begin to formulate their own ideas about our government and how Congress works.”
British tradition of political cartoons is not far behind. The Brits also maintain a comprehensive archive of cartoons that appeared in British newspapers over the last century. The collection is held by the Joint Information Systems Committee and many educational institutions in theUnited Kingdomregularly use the graphics for education purposes, perhaps what the NCERT was trying to do. Britain’s former Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, known for his unmatched wit, commented on cartoons by saying, “Just as eels are supposed to get used to skinning, so politicians get used to being caricatured…if we must confess it, they are quite offended and downcast when the cartoons stops…they fear old age and obsolescence are creeping upon them.”
But, while cartoonists have for centuries poked fun at political functioning, notably humour has not always been their main aim. The goal was as much to provoke as to entertain. The attempt appears to be to deliberately shock or incite a reaction or otherwise share public opinion about a particular event through a sharp edge of irony. Admittedly, humour is always influenced by one’s cultural setting. It is rightly regarded that a nation’s wit is linked to the historical development of the country. How funny somebody finds a certain incident depends on many factors including age, personal experience, level of education, geographical location and social setting. Therefore, humour is something which is not always transferable in another country. What somebody from one area may find hilarious may not be amusing at all to somebody from another location.
And in a country as diverse as ours, it is practically impossible to gauge how anyone may react to a happening. The Courts are frequently called in to decide such issues and have noted that “these days unfortunately, some people seem to be perpetually on a short fuse, and are willing to protest, often violently, about anything under the sun on the ground that a book or painting or film, etc. has hurt the sentiments of their community.” The Court observes that “these are dangerous tendencies and must be curbed with an iron hand. We are one nation and must respect each other and should have tolerance.”
Arguably, school textbooks can do without cartoons and one of the advisors on the “controversial” textbook acknowledges that textbooks are not the site for an unbridled exercise of freedom of expression. But what is alarming is the Governments response to the outcry and the real danger may well be how easily the State is willing to curb the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution on account of threat of demonstration or violence. Let it be remembered that the freedom of expression is a liberty guaranteed against the State and hence it is the duty of the State to protect it and the State cannot plead its inability to handle hostile audience problems to give up the freedom granted to the citizens. In fact, the Courts have held that “open criticism of government policies and operations is not a ground for restricting expression.”
But as an eminent sociologist noted “in all democracies there is a tension between the rule of law and the rule of numbers.” And the unfortunate reality of coalition politics in India is that political parties will try to garner whatever mileage they can even from identity based politics. But by allowing politics to dictate the content of our textbooks and school curriculum, even the politicians have set an extremely bad precedent. It is dangerous if this is being done to curtail political dissent. It can be catastrophic if the intent is only to appease certain factions of our diverse society, especially the ones who assert themselves aggressively. Eventually, as someone said, when you lose your laugh you lose your footing. But let’s hope we lose neither our sense of humour nor our sense of mutual respect and tolerance and embark upon the journey of the next 60 years of Parliament with the same bonhomie that was displayed recently.
Satvik Varma is an advocate & corporate counsel based in New Delhi & founder of Independent Law Chambers.
First Published in The Financial Express on 17th May, 2012