Friday, July 20, 2012

This Godly Delusion Is the controversy over the Ambedkar cartoon warranted? Can’t we laugh at our revered? Anuradha Raman

“There’s nothing wrong in being grateful to great men...but there are limits to politics, bhakti, or hero-worship, is a sure road to degradation and eventual dictatorship.”
—B.R. Ambedkar
Constituent Assembly, Nov 25, 1949
His words have often proved prophetic. The compact of allegiance to democratic, secular ideals that he forged into the Constitution of India has guided India well for 60 years. But is Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar a figure above questioning? Above critique? (Leave alone being lampooned?) Should he be made out as the prophet he never wanted to be? Last week, Parliament, whose enduringly stable framework and accommodative ambits he helped define, answered those questions in the affirmative. Taking offence to the reproduction of a cartoon of Ambedkar in an NCERT political science textbook for Std XI, our MPs overwhelmingly decided to scrap the textbook. Wait, Ambedkar may have disapproved.
Genuine debate has been kept at bay; what passes for debate is the building of ramparts around an icon. Historical (and current) oppression is a fact; he had fought it with the tools of cold reason. With that, he set the template for modern India. Deification, for all its allure, risks going the other way. It’s by nature restrictive; it reduces Ambedkar to a demigod in need of protection, a Dalit icon only, not the modern colossus all of India must take pride in—and assess too. “In a way, it’s a corollary of deification that you wouldn’t like to see your ‘god’—or have him seen—in negative light,” says Anand Teltumbde, a professor at IIT-Kharagpur.

The controversial cartoon by Shankar
But first, is Ambedkar a prophet? For those who think he is, as Kancha Ilaiah argues in a column, it’s a given: in authoring the Constitution, he authored a revolution, and, being a Dalit himself, through that act created new terms of existence for the oppressed. In fact, that’s what makes that act an inalienable part of modern India reinventing itself. That is perhaps the very reason why deification will be reductive, and not exhaust the full radical potential of Ambedkar’s lifework. That is why he must be restored to political philosophy.
“Ambedkar is more than a god for us. It’s through the Constitution that he gave opportunities to people who had none.” Milind Kamble, Chairman, Dalit India Chambers of Commerce “It’s a corollary of deification that you would not like to see your god in a negative light.” Anand Teltumbde, Professor, IIT-Kharagpur

“Ambedkar is not easily accepted as a leader of the country. Cartoons like this can be interpreted as insulting.” Gail Omvedt, Sociologist, rights activist “One can’t be blind to the politics being played out in the name of Ambedkar. But there is a section of activists who think he’s a god.” Gopal Guru, Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University

“The real problem in our society today are so-called champions of SCs and Dalits who can’t tolerate any criticism.” Paramjit Singh Kainth, President, Chamar Mahajan Sabha “I don’t see any merit in the controversy. It’s an attempt on the part of political parties to gain mileage.” S.L. Virdi, Advocate, writer

“The depressed worship him as a revolutionary who gave them respect and identity. How can we mock him?” Thol Thirumavavalan, MP and leader, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi “The cartoon diminishes the stature of Ambedkar. For me, he’s not a god, but he gave an identity to those who didn’t have one.” D. Raja, Senior leader, CPI

“It’s not criticism of Ambedkar but the reinforcement of caste prejudices that surfaces from time to time that is a problem.” Meena Kandasamy, Poet, writer
Ambedkar’s words in the Constituent Assembly may, in fact, belie the very people deifying him or calling him a prophet—and because of the very prescience with which he seems to have pre-scripted the necessary conflict in society today. It was owing to his ethically grounded legalistic approach—not a blind politics by any means—that Dalits are now in a position to successfully protest what they see as an injustice to their icon. Does that latter act then constitute a regression?
Thol Thirumavavalan, the MP from the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), a close ally of the DMK, who first flagged the issue in Parliament and was joined by parties across the spectrum, clarifies that his comments were made only in the context of school textbooks. “For the depressed, Dr Ambedkar is worshipped as a revolutionary who gave respect and identity to them. How can we mock him for slowing the pace of work on the Constitution as shown in the cartoon when despite ill-health he worked on it for a record eight months?” he asks. He belongs to a party that shuns any form of worship. Thirumavavalan says his concerns are confined to treating all leaders with respect and not belittling Ambedkar. He isn’t for deification; he’s only addressing his people (and shoring up a votebank). But many Dalits see god in him. Says Milind Kamble, a successful businessman, “He’s more than a god. Gandhi became a mahatma after his death; we have seen Ambedkar as a living prophet.” He could be a photograph or a plaster figurine, a subject of veneration and inspiration in millions of Dalit homes. In his coat and spectacles with the Constitution in his hand, he has been an inspirational figure for those on the margins, those at the bottom of the caste ladder, and all those who wished to see an egalitarian India. Besides framing the Constitution, he also challenged the Hindu order. In 1956, over six lakh people belonging to the backward castes embraced Buddhism at Ambedkar’s call. He is seen as the one who emancipated them from the shackles of a faith that refused to acknowledge them. Today, with the awareness and power afforded by education, their natural gratefulness and debt is being exhibited, ironically, through a certain touchiness. This is what D. Raja of the CPI says, “The cartoon diminishes the stature of Ambedkar. We forget that Indian democracy is because of the Constitution he gave us. For me, he is not god, but he gave an identity to those who didn’t have one. That’s important.”

Not funny? HRD minister Sibal during the cartoon debate

In Maharashtra households, as Y.S. Alone, an assistant professor at JNU, tells us, “it’s not uncommon to hear ditties woven around Ambedkar being sung even now—Andherya vastita Bhimanna lavalay diva (In darkness, Bhimanna has lit a lamp) or Uddharli koti kule, bhima thujya janmamoole (Because of your birth, many families blossomed, O Bhim’).” There are also those who accept nuance. Gopal Guru, a professor at JNU, says, “Common Dalits, involved in everyday acts of resistance and assertion, don’t treat Babasaheb as a god. They treat him as an exemplar, whose teachings have to be critically followed. But there is a section of activists who make him out to be a god.”
Nothing exemplifies this better than UP, where Ambedkar’s radical intervention in modern Indian history was reduced to statues, replicated ad infinitum by the BSP. That the price—Rs 5,000 crore for the upkeep of parks and monuments—might have had more really ameliorative use for lakhs of people—Dalits or other disenfranchised groups—became a dead argument. Ex-CM Mayawati, whose initiative the memorials were, never tired of saying that while prime land worth thousands of crores was grabbed by Congress regimes in Delhi to raise memorials like Rajghat, Shanti Van et al, not one memorial was erected to Babasaheb. She has changed all that—scores of Ambedkar statues dot the UP landscape.

Picture story A Shankar cartoon from Hindustan Times, 1933, lampoons Gandhi, M.K. Acharya and Ambedkar

It was sometime in the early ’70s, when electoral politics became increasingly competitive, that the importance of the Dalit vote was realised. (The general blossoming of identity politics through the ’80s and ’90s shaped Dalit politics too.) Says Teltumbde, “The political class began iconising Ambedkar (statues, roads named after him) This was seen as embodying Dalit esteem, honour, prestige. It was devotion to an icon,” he says. Devotion, the very thing that leads to intolerance to jokes or cartoons. Here, sociologist Gail Omvedt asks us to be aware of the fact that for some groups, he is a more powerful leader than Gandhi or Nehru.
Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar of the RPI agrees. “In a country that swears by prophesies, Babasaheb’s words on mixing religion, caste and society are almost prophetic and it is easy to make him a prophet. It is also easy to build a mythology around him.” He cautions against deification and says it’s much tougher to follow the philosophy of a man based on rigorous intellectual introspection. “When she was CM, Mayawati found nothing wrong in the textbooks. But when the Parliament debate took place, she was the first to demand that the book’s authors be jailed. How ironical. She spent her time building parks and statues.”
This, then, is the question: Once granted iconic status, can Ambedkar be the subject of a critique—a cartoon even? Poet-writer Meena Kandasamy says, “There have been critical essays on Ambedkar no one takes offence to. It’s not criticism but the reinforcement of caste prejudices that surface from time to time that are problematic.” Wary of making Ambedkar a god, she argues he has the same importance Martin Luther King has for black Americans.

Image making An Ambedkar statue being worked on in Mumbai. (Photograph by Amit Haralkar)
Strangely, the uproar over the cartoon has found no connect in the state of Punjab, where the 38 per cent Dalit population is largely unmoved by the happenings in Parliament. Here, Dalit politics follows its own trajectory. The last two or three years have been marked by a movement called ‘Mission Chamar’, more cultural than political, and aimed at inculcating pride in the Chamar caste with slogans like ‘Garv se kaho hum Chamar hain’. Its proponents do not see anything derogatory in the usage of words like Chamar and assert that it is time they shed the baggage of the past.
Says Paramjit Singh Kainth, president of the Chamar Mahan Sabha, which initiated the movement in the Doaba region of Punjab, comprising Jalandhar, Kapurthala and Hoshiarpur districts, “Most often these SCs and champions of Dalits who claim to be Ambedkar followers but are intolerant of any criticism—they are the real problem in our society today.” Dismissing the current wave of intolerance as complete humbug, Kainth says they don’t subscribe to it. Says S.L. Virdi, advocate and well-known Dalit writer, “I don’t see any merit in the present controversy, which seems an attempt to gain political mileage. They are clearly exploiting the name of Ambedkar but don’t have any intentions of following his teachings.”
The real fruits of Ambedkarism should mean anyone—and that means, inclusively, anyone—can engage in the democratic space without a sense of anxiety. Assertion can be quietly powerful. For, that’s exactly the way in which Ambedkar was more powerful than the Nehrus and the Gandhis.
Ambedkar Contemporaries Who Got A Rap
M K Gandhi Was often made fun of in cartoons, some of which called him a fakir-politician. Sarojini Naidu called him ‘Mickey Mouse’. He never objected. Motilal Nehru Had no problems with being ridiculed. Was himself a great wit. Once said that water is pure, but even purer is liquor, being distilled.

Jawaharlal Nehru Laughed at cartoons of him facing the problems of a new nation and of his equations with other political leaders. M.A. Jinnah Sarcasm, dark upper class wit—these were his forte. Was pilloried, lampooned. The deification happened only in Pakistan.

Sardar Patel Not a particularly humorous figure. His policies were often attacked in cartoons, but he never objected. Sarojini Naidu Had a great sense of humour and mercilessly teased all the leaders about private and public matters.

By Anuradha Raman with Chander Suta Dogra, Sharat Pradhan

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