Sunday, Aug 07, 2022

Slowness And Sensibility

If the Ambedkar-conceived Constitution can be amended 97 times, can’t a textbook, which has to be treated as a work-in-progress, be amended?

Slowness And Sensibility
Slowness And Sensibility

“The Untouchables have no Press. The Congress Press is closed to them and is determined not to give them the slightest publicity. They cannot have their own Press and for obvious reasons.”

—B.R. Ambedkar, 1945

When I was first alerted to Shankar’s cartoon on 10 April, it struck me like a whiplash. I am no teacher, nor do I have children of my own; and textbooks are a distant, oppressive memory. In the English-medium textbooks I grew up on in Andhra Pradesh, forget Ambedkar, caste was rarely mentioned. Like most privileged Indians, I was to discover all this shamefully belatedly in life.

When a reporter from a national newsmagazine called me for a ‘quote’ on the cartoon row, I asked her if she even knew where Ambedkar was born. Silence. One leading cartoonist-columnist, Ravi Shanker Etteth, refers to Balasaheb where he means Babasaheb: “An opportunistic Dalit politician takes a 1949 cartoon drawn by Shankar on Balasaheb Ambedkar as an excuse to whip up the backward vote bank” (19 May 2012, The Sunday Standard). Our textbooks don’t tell students that Ambedkar, unlike Gandhi, did not have to travel abroad to realize what it meant to be thrown out of a train; and that after having earned a PhD from Columbia University he had to hide his identity to rent an inn in Baroda, and was kicked out when discovered. Dandi, yes; but neither teachers nor students are aware of the momentous Ambedkar-led civil rights struggle for water in Mahad in 1927; most newspaper editors wouldn’t be able to name the four newspapers Ambedkar edited and published. Any small-town Dalit activist would know all this. Forget our MPs, the non-Dalit intellectual classes’ collective ignorance of Ambedkar seems pathological.

My concern over the cartoon in the NCERT Class XI Political Science textbook, Indian Constitution at Work, is how would children and teachers in a classroom read it in a society where caste prejudices and stereotypes are still rampant. Given the general hostility towards Dalits and those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds entering elite English-medium schools—as witnessed in the near-racist opposition to the idea of including the poor (read ‘lower’ caste) in rich people’s private schools through the Right to Education Act—my fears are about how the largely upper-caste teaching community (who handle NCERT textbooks in English) would frame the cartoon. A year ago the principal of Delhi’s elite Shri Ram School, Manika Sharma, was quoted in Wall Street Journal (4 June 2011) as saying she was “horrified” and “jolted” when the floor-sweeper from her home enrolled her child in the school where Sharma is the principal. When saying, “I can’t sit across the table from someone who sweeps my floors,” she was just brazenly vocalizing the fear of millions of well-off Indians who think the ‘outcastes’ should only serve, stand and wait. And remain locked up when you holiday in Thailand.

Now, how would Manika Sharma or students trained by her read this cartoon? How would their reading potentially impact the self-confidence and self-worth of the 25 percent—children of sweepers, shoemakers, drivers, dhobis and vegetable vendors—being coaxed into these elite bastions by the RTE Act? Suppose there was just the odd Dalit student in a classroom, what are the chances of her different reading of the Shankar cartoon getting a hearing from Sharma-type principals? She would likely be shouted down just like voices from the Dalit movement are being booed at by self-righteous upholders of ‘freedom of expression’—a term as carelessly bandied as ‘merit’ was used to attack reservation.

A snail moves tardily and a rotund Ambedkar seems to be slowing it down further. Slowness is something ‘undeserving’ ‘quota’ students are routinely accused of. In fact, a graphic novelist who has done a book on the Emergency, said in a Facebook post,

“Everyone’s asking: It’s been there in the book for 6 years. What took you so long?”

Apparently Dalits are ‘slow’ to even realise an insult.

Ambedkar’s whip is limp; while Nehru’s is taut—after all, the latter’s the ramrod-erect national patriarch. Ambedkar cuts a sorry figure. Yes, the chapter in question discusses Ambedkar’s crucial role several times, yet stops short of mentioning how and why his favourite project, the Hindu Code Bill that gave the rights to divorce and property to women, was defeated both in the Constituent Assembly and later in parliament when Ambedkar was law minister in Nehru’s cabinet. While resigning as law minister in disgust, he had said,

“To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex which is the soul of Hindu Society untouched and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on dung heap. This is the significance I attached to the Hindu Code.”

But can we expect one textbook to do everything?

Images and symbols tend to have a stronger and more lasting impact than words. Almost every conscientised Dalit has a picture of Ambedkar in his/her house; they are familiar with his trials and tribulations; the more educated Dalits keenly engage with his key works. Ambedkar is a rallying point, a symbol of hope, of possibilities of exit from the morass of caste. In contrast, finding a picture or work of Ambedkar in an average non-Dalit household would be as rare as finding beef cooked with asafoetida—unlike Dalits, the brahmanical classes have little to gain by embracing Ambedkar’s anticaste ideas. Upper-class feminists don’t really own up Ambedkar as their ‘liberator’ despite Dalit feminists highlighting him as an icon of women’s liberation, which he was. Brahmin historians writing about beef forget to cite Ambedkar.

Let us not forget that as recently as 2006, at the height of media-fuelled anti-Mandal II mania, students at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences burnt Ambedkar’s books in the hostel corridor, made vulgar gestures, shot a video of this, and circulated a CD among fellow students during their annual cultural festival, ‘Pulse’. These arrogant and ignorant students would not long ago have been in Class XI or XII taught by some Ms Sharma.

It is understandable how political parties across party lines use this occasion to shower a patently false love for Ambedkar and his iconic status but remain silent about the recent judgement in the 1996 Bathani Tola massacre of 21 Dalits, where all the 23 accused were acquitted. But that shouldn’t rankle us much. We live in a country where justice for real crimes is elusive, even impossible; a country where it is far easier to win ‘justice’ for symbolic crimes. While justice in the 2006 Khairlanji carnage seems structurally impossible, retribution for the symbolic desecration of Ambedkar becomes easier. And when Dalits are forced to take solace only in symbols, who is to be blamed? Hence Mayawati’s heavy investment in symbols.

What rankles is how liberal and even left intellectuals, who claim to be fellow-travellers of Dalits, have imposed moral pressure on Dalits and Dalit intellectuals to come out and stand in support of retaining the textbook in all its sanctity. Dalits have been portrayed both in the big media and alternative media such as the blog Kafila as ‘emotional-devotional’ fanatics, who lose all ‘rationalism’—something non-Dalits gleefully point out Ambedkar stood for. What incapacitates non-Dalits from getting emotional about Ambedkar?

I recall ribbing my friend and cartoonist at The Hindu, Surendra, who had the tendency to show his ‘common man’ seated, reading the newspaper or watching TV, and the woman of the house always serving tea or coffee, standing. He was unwittingly reinforcing gender stereotypes that R.K. Laxman and Shankar had perpetuated; stereotypes that, it could be argued, reflect reality. What if one such cartoon should find its way into textbooks? Should we not seek amends so that children are not fed stereotypes of gendered division of labour?

What makes us think Shankar, Laxman, Surendra, Ajit Ninan or E.P. Unny are beyond prejudices that the Dalit-free media they work for and the society they are part of are saturated with? Here’s the late human rights activist and commentator K. Balagopal on a 1990 cartoon in India Today:

“The picture shows [V.P.] Singh and a bunch of Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST) and BC men and women happily lolling in a sea-borne ship with three flags indicating the three categories hoisted on the deck, grinning cruelly at the Forward Caste students, who are sinking all around with their degree certificates held high. It is difficult to imagine a more atrocious caricature of reality, which is almost exactly the opposite, notwithstanding all the laments you hear about quotas.”

This was at the height of Mandal-I when many such offensive cartoons flooded the print media. What if this very India Today cartoon were to be used in a textbook to explain the Mandal Commission? Should we say it’s a matter of freedom of expression? It’s one thing for a newspaper/magazine to feature such a cartoon and quite another for it to be re-used in a textbook.

This is just one part of the story. What has been lost sight of in this debate is an engagement with what the textbook actually sets out to do. On reading it, I realized it was radical in many ways and how it would be unwise to throw the baby out with the bathwater and the sink. Let me highlight some of its salient features. This is a textbook that uses the word Dalit several times unapologetically. This seems a first, given that as recently as in 2008 the Haryana government ordered a ban on the use of the word Dalit interchangeably with Scheduled Caste in all official parlance.

Here’s a passage from the textbook that would have made Ambedkar proud.

“As early as 1841, it was noticed that the Dalit people of northern India were not afraid to use the newly introduced legal system and bring suits against their landlords. So, this new instrument of modern law was effectively adopted by the people to address questions of dignity and justice.”

In the last chapter, the textbook proffers another strong opinion:

“Is it a coincidence that the central square of every other small town has a statue of Dr. Ambedkar with a copy of the Indian Constitution? Far from being a mere symbolic tribute to him, this expresses the feeling among Dalits that the Constitution reflects many of their aspirations.”

Only Dalit aspirations? For now, we shall let that be.

Earlier, Chapter 2 asks its young adult readers to imagine a scenario where one Swadesh Kumar visits his village with his friend. At a roadside hotel when they order tea, the shopkeeper asks Swadesh Kumar’s friend’s name and after ascertaining his caste serves him tea in a an ‘earthen mug’ while Swadesh is served in a ‘nice mug’. The textbook writers ask the students to reflect on whether they think this involves a ‘violation of fundamental rights’.

In another scenario, the textbook makes students imagine that they receive a postcard from Hadibandhu, a ‘member of the Dalit community’ in Puri district in Orissa. Men from this community refused to follow a custom that required them to wash the feet of the groom and guests of the ‘upper caste’ during marriage ceremonies. In revenge, four women from this community are beaten up and another is paraded naked. The postcard writer says:

“Our children are educated and they are not willing to do the customary job of washing the feet of upper caste men, clear the leftovers after the marriage feast and wash the utensils.”

Then the critical pedagogical import is driven home:

“Assuming that the facts given above are correct, you have to decide: Does this case involve violation of Fundamental Rights? What would you order the government to do in this case?”

Another exercise tells students that caste groups previously associated with scavenging are forced to continue in this job and that those in positions of authority refuse to give them any other job. Their children are discouraged from pursuing education. Students are asked which of their Fundamental Rights are being violated.

Not just this, the textbook boldly underscores the limitations of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system and how this may benefit majority communities at the expense of social and religious minorities. And then it says unambiguously,

“The proportion of Muslims in the population of India is about 13.5 per cent. But the number of Muslim MPs in the Lok Sabha has usually been less than 6 per cent, less than half of their share in population. A similar situation prevails in most State Assemblies.”

It explains proportional representation (PR) and earlier debates about separate electorates, and sows further doubts in the minds of the student-readers when it concludes,

“the FPTP electoral system can mean that the dominant social groups and castes can win everywhere and the oppressed social groups may continue to remain unrepresented.”

Who is to take credit for the new radical language this textbook speaks? Of course the Dalit movement and post-Mandal consolidation of OBC interests, which have created enough intellectual, social and political pressure to warrant these long-overdue changes. The textbook ends with a ‘request for feedback’ and asks readers to suggest ‘changes you would like to see in the next version of this book’. Clearly, they would not be averse to rethinking one cartoon that to many seems to paint a poor picture of Ambedkar? Or may be include a counter-cartoon? We could also ask the textbook committee to consider informing students about Mahad, about Ambedkar the newspaper-editor, and tell them how and why Nehru’s Congress ensured that Ambedkar could never get elected to the Lok Sabha.

But first we need to acknowledge that neither the textbook nor Ambedkar is above criticism. An online petition called ‘In Defence of Critical Pedagogy’ signed by academic luminaries—mostly with upper-caste sounding surnames—seems to treat the textbook in question like a sacred text, as if it were the Bhagvad Gita that statues of Gandhi show him holding. If the Ambedkar-conceived Constitution can be amended 97 times in 62 years, can’t a textbook, which has to be treated as a work-in-progress, be amended? Suhas Palshikar and Yogendra Yadav, the capable advisers to NCERT who resigned petulantly without even debating the issue, should be brought back on the NCERT board; they only need to place their ears closer to the ground.

Till such time, we can live with this textbook, celebrate its triumphs, and enjoy Unnamati Syama Sundar’s fitting riposte to Shankar.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in The Indian Express on 24 May 2012. Anand is the coauthor of Bhimayana, the graphic biography of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, and publisher of Navayana. Syama Sundar is a cartoonist and researcher in Jawaharlal Nehru University. His M.Phil in 2009 was on Telugu cartoons in colonial India.)


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