THIS IS a lampoon feast that might have daunted even the legendary satirist K Shankar Pillai. After all, how does one capture all of this in one frame? A man who founded the Children’s Book Trust in 1957 is suddenly declared unfit for children’s minds in 2012. A man honoured by successive governments with Padma awards and postal stamps in his name is derided by Parliament circa 2012 for being casteist. A man respected by intellectual giants is suddenly reviled by pygmies.

But it doesn’t end there. What begins as a controversy over one cartoon of one icon in a Class XI textbook gallops swiftly — in the space of a weekend — into an oceanic sense of affront by a whole political class. Leader after leader rises in Parliament, aghast at how cartoons in school textbooks are “poisoning” children’s minds, “denigrating” politicians, “endangering” democracy and inculcating “totalitarianism”. This spectacular show of unparalleled political agreement — wondrous gift to mark 60 years of India’s parliamentary democracy? — ends with a blanket call for a ban on cartoons from all NCERT textbooks. The Congress, the BJP, the Communists, the socialists, the TMC and smaller political groups of every hue who can never come together for anything significant — not land acquisition Bills; women’s reservation; farmer relief; anti-corruption laws or even economic regeneration — endorse this unanimously.

Only one brave man, Sharifuddin Shariq, National Conference MP from Baramulla, dares to breast the tide and ask: Aren’t we going overboard? Should we not introspect?

Here’s how a nine-year-old reacted to last week’s absurd cross-party call for a cartoon disarmament in textbooks. “Why are they so literal?” he said. “What happens to governments? Do they become blinded by power? I should become the government!” And India’s political leaders think a 16-year-old can’t cope with complexity.

So what cartoon would Shankar have made of our beloved country this week?

Illustration: Anand Naorem

OVER THE past week, Pandit Nehru’s message — “Don’t spare me, Shankar!” — has been quoted by dozens of commentators. It should have been enough to bring perspective back to the debate. Nehru’s delighted exhortation to a man who lampooned him and all his contemporaries mercilessly — Shankar even made a cartoon of Nehru 10 days before he died, emaciated, exhausted, running the last lap of his race with a torch on low burn — speaks of all the qualities one searches for in a leader: intellectual discernment, self-confidence, unwavering commitment to liberal values, and a gift for laughter. It spotlights the real crisis at the heart of the cartoon controversy: a colossal failure of intellect.

Most disturbingly, this failure is not an individual one. Akali Dal MP Harsimrat Kaur screamed about violated 16-year-old minds. Congress chief Sonia Gandhi thumped the table. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee promised a rollback. Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam alleged a conspiracy. BJP veteran Yashwant Sinha asked for resignations. CPI leader D Raja said “historical circumstances had changed”. And HRD Minister Kapil Sibal, who declared the cartoons to be “offensive and inappropriate for textbooks”, not only ordered an instant “inquiry” into the role of NCERT officials “behind” the books, but summarily withdrew all the textbooks and set up a committee to review them and come up with “appropriate alternatives” in a month.

These speed-on-acid reactions are not the product of one misread cartoon: they are signposts to a dangerous continuum. An insidious stockading of freedoms. Repeated and unhealthy capitulations to the “politics of hurt”. An erosion of constitutional values. A subversion of Parliament and educational autonomy. A climate of simple-minded political correctness. A culture of dumbness. Before the cartoons, the celebrated AK Ramanujan was excised from textbooks. Earlier still, there was Rohinton Mistry. As sociologist Ashis Nandy says, from a democracy, India is fast moving towards becoming an “out-and-out psephocracy” — a society led by a political class only interested in electoral maths and tools to wrest power.

Urdu writer Gopi Chand Narang, a Padma Bhushan and Sahitya Akademi Award winner and a contemporary of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, captures the zeitgeist despairingly, “I think literary luminaries like Ghalib and Faiz would have been exiled or sent to the gallows if they were to be a part of today’s cultural set-up. Ghalib questioned the existence of gods. He is worshipped across the globe but what would have happened if he had written his poem today? Would we have banned him because he hurt the sentiments of Muslims?

“And to think a political party like Congress, which owes its history to the likes of Nehru, is at the helm of affairs. Will we wipe from the minds of our children the rebellion of writers who wrote during Emergency, who tore apart Indira Gandhi with their pieces and cartoons and poems? Have we become so intolerant as a society? Ban Manto then. Manto spoke about the plight of the prostitute, that she should be accepted as a part of our society. Should Manto now be dropped from school books because he endorsed prostitution? Is this what we are coming to?”

LOW SELF ESTEEM is always a bad motivation for public action: in a season of disillusionments, the cartoon controversy is a PR disaster the political class could ill afford. There is a high degree of intuitive dismay about it in the country. Justifiably. The capacity for laughter is the health card of any society. Political cartoons capture the emotional underlayer of events. Journalists can only stick to the facts; master cartoonists reach for the illuminations. They make bare the kernel. They hold up the crazy mirror.

The inability to read a cartoon correctly, therefore, speaks of many impending civilisational disasters. As Ravi Shankar, cartoonist and managing editor of The New Indian Express, says, “Our politicians are mistaking dissent for sabotage. This is alarming because parliamentarians are a reflection of our times — the overall lowering of IQs and EQs; the scary lack of literateness in our society. During Independence, we were led by highly educated scholars. Whether you agreed with them or not, the whole country was driven by ideas.”

‘The arrest of the cartoonist in Bengal, the Internet control laws — this is all part of a shutdown of democratic freedoms we take for granted,’ says Sudhir Tailang

Sudhir Tailang, cartoonist with The Asian Age, and one of the most voluble critics of the 14 May capitulation, says, “It’s enough to drive one mad. The freedom to lampoon and dissent is an index of our democracy. If these politicians don’t have the intellect to appreciate a cartoon, what sort of a Parliament do we have? This crackdown is just the beginning. The arrest of the cartoonist in Bengal; the sweeping and draconian Internet control laws — all of this is part of a shutdown of the democratic freedoms we take for granted.”

As a gesture of protest and solidarity, TEHELKA invited cartoonists across the country to send in cartoons for this cover story. But the simple inability to read a cartoon is not what this is about. Post facto, many political leaders have tried to sidestep their PR disaster with a sleight of hand. Mouthing devout lip service to “freedom of expression”, they say they have nothing against cartoons in newspapers; it’s just textbooks and the danger to “impressionable minds” that have them worried.

This discourse about the “impressionable” mind and what is fit for it is even more dangerous than a bunch of adults mistaking satire for sedition. To understand the full seismic scale of what went wrong on 14 May, therefore, it’s important to know the provenance of the cartoons that were hurled so rudely into outer space by our Parliamentarians, like angry Olympian gods exiling imperfect mortals.

These cartoons were not some irresponsible, standalone jokebook on politicians, designed to stoke scorn in schoolchildren. They were part of an elaborate, carefully monitored exercise to revamp school books, undertaken by some of the most thoughtful and respected academicians. In 2005, under UPA-1, while Arjun Singh was the HRD minister and the universally lauded academic Krishna Kumar was NCERT director, a massive initiative was launched to draft a New Curriculum Framework (NCF), all the way from Class I to XII. There was a widespread sense that children were deathly bored with their dry textbooks — which were like Neanderthal relics in a satellite age. The vision was to breathe new life into the curriculum and nurture curious, questioning minds.

Only one brave man, Baramulla MP Sharifuddin Shariq, dares to breast the tide and ask: Aren’t we going overboard? Should we not introspect?

Driven by this impulse, textbooks across subjects were rewritten in new, interactive, creative ways. Once ready, they were subjected to extensive peer review by an official monitoring committee, set up by the education ministry, and headed by intellectuals like Professor GP Deshpande and the tribal philosopher Mrinal Miri. The committee also included Dalit scholar Gopal Guru, historian Zoya Hasan, several bureaucrats at the state chief secretary and central joint secretary levels, civil society members and many other academics.

Political scientists Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar — both of whom have now resigned, and one of whose office was vandalised — were entrusted with revamping the political science textbooks from Classes IX to XII. It’s particularly ironic that they are being accused of disenchanting schoolchildren with the business of democracy because their intention — and their practice — was exactly the opposite. “We have all grown up on textbooks that made democracy and the Constitution seem some remote set of rules, irrelevant to our lives. Indians feel so easily disillusioned with politicians because what they see is so different from the preaching they heard in the classroom,” says Yadav. “The challenge before Suhas and me was, how do we confront this empty idea of politics and restore a basic faith in democracy?

“We came to the conclusion,” he says, “that we had to replace the fiction of democracy in the classroom with reality. We had to engage children with real examples from all over the world and show that the beauty of democracy is that even through the complexity and messy nature of it, some crucial and shining underlying values are protected by it.”

They did an excellent job. The six textbooks rewritten under their aegis are wonderfully lively and dynamic. Each chapter is broken into short interactive modules, with two children Unni and Munny posing all the thorny questions that would dog any child’s mind. Every cartoon in the book is supported by an accompanying thought-provoking question that leads back into the body text. For instance, in the book Indian Constitution at Work for Class XI, the chapter on the making of the Constitution, which provoked such fury and umbrage in Parliament, has wonderful cartoons on Iraq and the European Union, among others. The cartoon on the EU’s failed attempt to write a Constitution — captioned “The Feuding Fathers” — asks students to wonder, “Why did the EU fail? Does this always happen in any Constitution-making?” In another cartoon, depicting Nehru playing a music conductor between two groups singing Jana Gana Mana and Vande Mataram, the accompanying question says: “The Constitution makers had to address themselves to different aspirations. Here is Nehru trying to balance different ideologies. Can you identify what these different groups stand for? Who do you think prevailed in this balancing act?” Elsewhere in the chapter, the question is posed: “What do people do if they find out their Constitution is not just? What happens to people when a Constitution exists only on paper?”

Each time, these questions feed back into the body text, which reinforces the positive and dialogic nature not only of Indian democracy, but democracies across the world.

One of the most exasperating — and dark — aspects of the fiasco is the rank ignorance that drove it. Defending his party position, Congress spokesman Manish Tewari told TEHELKA, “Satire and humour have a place in society but if satire and humour are going to become the basis for imparting serious education, it impels a revisit of the issue. If impressionable minds are going to be taught a satirical version of Indian democracy, then somebody needs to have a look at it.

“Nobody is opposing the cartoons per se,” he continued. “What people were being sensitive to is the manner in which they are utilised. If the cartoons in the textbook had been supplemented by something else and there was a balance, then people would not have been that sensitive. I haven’t seen the textbook but apparently the whole textbook is cartoon-based.”

His casual concession is shocking. If a party spokesman has not even seen what he is talking about, how can he voice such a strong view on it? Would it interest him to know that the cartoons are indeed supplemented by “something else” and the texts are not entirely “cartoon-based”? Unironic though he may be when he says it, at least Tewari is honest enough to admit he is mouthing off on something he has not done his homework on. The trouble is, it’s evident most of the cross-party Parliamentary rage on display on 14 May was propelled by similar knee-jerk ignorance.

What does this say about contemporary Parliamentary decision-making?

KAPIL SIBAL’S disturbingly hasty gunshot on 14 May, withdrawing the NCERT textbooks written under the NCF and banning cartoons as an educational tool, is a bit like playing Russian roulette. Which of the bullets in its chamber will hit the country first?

The decision brings with it harsh implications. First of all, it is an insupportable and public violation of the academic autonomy of the NCERT and all the schools that use its textbooks. As former NCERT director, Krishna Kumar says, “I am puzzled. Why would they want to wreak such institutional damage? Look at it from even a purely procedural issue. The monitoring committee that reviewed these textbooks was created by the education ministry itself under UPA-1. The committee still exists. If Parliament felt so strongly about it, why didn’t the minister refer these textbooks back to this committee for review? How can the government simply order the NCERT to withdraw the books?”

But apart from the procedural impropriety, in one fell swoop, this unilateral decision has also reversed and damaged a unique and positive experiment in Indian education. The NCF — which was celebrated in a front-page New York Times article on 15 August 2007 as a mark of India’s maturity as a democracy — had finally managed to break through the wooden, unimaginative bureaucracy of Indian school textbooks. Now, both the curriculum’s vision and the reputed scholars associated with it, all lie potentially discredited. The subject of a potential “inquiry”.

Harish Chandra Shukla ‘Kaak’ |

The absurdity of the situation is reflected in an angry kaleidoscope of voices. Pranay Kishen, Allahabad University professor and writer, says, “What do I tell my students in class next term? That they will get new textbooks because what their seniors read was actually flawed? So their seniors have grown up with wrong ideals, have got their basics wrong?”

Sanjay Srivastava, professor of sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi, makes an even more important point. “It is critical for a democracy to invest in humanities,” he says. “We don’t just want students to be engineers and MBAs who go to coaching institutes. We need people who can think critically about society and that only happens when there is an interest in social sciences and humanities. This controversy has undermined a very important effort and is a loss to education. We will go back to a system of education that is uninteresting, deadening and does not deal with the present.”

There are other dangers the controversy has reinforced. As Srivastava says, “We are propagating a culture of uncritical attitudes, where we turn our heroes into religious figures rather than leave them as fallible but great human beings. This episode assumes our teenagers are fools and infantilises them. Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar have long been appearing in cartoons. We don’t need to protect our kids from exposure to such things.”

The grim and grimmer ironies are hard to duck. Many of the cartoons under assault have been done by national stalwarts like Shankar Pillai, RK Laxman, Abu Abraham and OV Vijayan. Which self-respecting adult in touch with reality can sensibly defend the idea that work by these men is unfit for 21st century hyper-connected, hyper-aware teenagers’ minds?

Krishna Kumar quotes a line from Hindi poet Dhumil, now dead, to evoke the precious precariousness of what he and a band of academics had achieved. And which now lies in danger of being trampled out. Describing a metaphorical desert scape in the poem Sansad se Sadak Tak, Dhumil writes, “When we see green grass in patches, we feel afraid.”

The fear arises out of the question: will it be allowed to live?

ON 14 May, it had looked like India’s entire political class had morphed into a cartoonist’s delight: a single squiggle of idiocy. Now, slowly, the dissent is beginning to build up. Scattered voices of criticism from within the political class are beginning to sprout. Despite its hefty bruises, the underlying values of democracy are starting to assert themselves. And, with the lovely irony that keeps one’s faith in India alive, the cartoon controversy is quickly becoming a textbook case of how Yadav and Palshikar would have reinforced the idea of democracy in motion to 16-year-old schoolchildren.

A day after the sad spectacle in Parliament, BJP veteran Jaswant Singh began to speak up against his ilk in television interviews. “The demonstration in Parliament was frightening,” he reiterated to TEHELKA. “All the parties displayed unacceptable levels of intolerance. Parliament is a deliberative and legislative body. It should not ever become an inquisitorial one, delivering instant judgments. The way in which it instantaneously rejected cartoons by committed and talented Indians was a disgrace.”

Janata Dal (U) spokesman Shivanand Tiwari is as indignant. “I feel all the MPs behaved like a crowd, without applying their mind on such an important and big issue,” he tells TEHELKA. “The curriculum had changed for the first time after Independence and, ironically, Ambedkar had been properly introduced in the textbooks and given his due for the first time. But nobody bothered to read the text beneath the cartoon. So many politicians said these cartoons denigrate political parties and democracy, but have any of them read even a single sentence in these books that says we are all thieves and corrupt? Instead, these books inform children about the importance and meaning of democracy. I’m a strong critic of Nehru but I admire the tact with which he stood his ground, rejecting the pressure to declare India a Hindu nation, defending the vision of India as a secular nation when communal passions were running high. Things were much more difficult then. The Constituent Assembly was performing the dual function of drafting the Constitution and acting as Parliament. But even in those trying circumstances, Parliament behaved well. Now, 60 years later, confronted by such a small uproar, the government immediately yielded. What does this say about all of us?”

This sentiment is mirrored by several young MPs, willing to break ranks with their party veterans. “I find it both amusing and disturbing,” says BJP MP Varun Gandhi, “that the two or three issues for which MPs have come together has been for raising their own salaries, putting red beacons on their cars and slamming cartoons.” Manvendra Singh, a former BJP MP, says, “The whole episode demonstrates that we have a severe lack of reading in our country — not reading Competition Success Review, but provocative, dissenting history and literature.”

It seems almost a sorry cliché to reassert how mortified Nehru, Gandhi, Ambedkar, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad and dozens of other visionary founding fathers would have been to see their intellectually bankrupt progeny. So the question for even these early dissenters is, how far are they willing to go to make their voice carry?

Will they help breast the tide? Will they take up the debate in Parliament again, in a saner wave?

IN ALL of the cacophonous noise this past week, the apparent Dalit upset over Shankar’s cartoon bears closer scrutiny because it cracks open the difficult question of where “hurt sentiment” fits in a democracy and how it can be reconciled with the constitutionally enshrined freedom of expression.

India is becoming an out-and-out psephocracy, a society led by a political class only interested in electoral maths and tools to wrest power,’ says Ashis Nandy

In this cartoon, as is now well-known, Ambedkar sits astride a snail with a whip. The snail has Constitution written on it. And Nehru stands behind both, also with a whip, while India’s teeming millions stand waiting in the background. It would seem clear to an unbiased eye that Shankar’s jibe was at the slow, snail pace of Constitution-making, which must have seemed particularly tortuous to Indians back then. By no stretch of imagination is it aimed at denigrating Ambedkar. Even though Nehru — a Brahmin — has been placed with a whip behind Amedkar — a Dalit — Nehru’s eyes are trained on the snail, not on Ambedkar’s back. Clearly both men are trying — as a team — to whip speed out of reluctant steed. And Ambedkar has only been made to sit on the recalcitrant animal because he was its primary driver: the chairman of the drafting committee.

In the now-controversial textbook in which it was included, this is made even more explicit. The text below the cartoon tells students: “Cartoonist’s impression of the ‘snail’s pace’ with which the Constitution was made. Making of the Constitution took almost three years. Why do you think the Constituent Assembly took so long?” This question then segues into a laudatory description of the lofty Constituent Assembly debates that surrounded the writing of it, reinforcing the idea that the deliberation was worth the delay.

Still, some Dalit groups felt the inclusion of the cartoon in the textbook was an assault on their hero: why, they asked, was a Brahmin shown with a whip behind a Dalit?

Just the articulation of this affront — unexamined for legitimacy — triggers a chain of assertions and actions that are becoming depressingly familiar in India. Some rump group of the hurt community will go and vandalise the offender; and the government of the day will cite a “law and order” hazard and instantly capitulate, banning book, film, art, play, cartoon or whatever artefact of human imagination they can lay their hands on. It’s happened with Hindu rage against MF Husain and AK Ramanujan; Muslim rage over Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen; Maharashtrian rage over James Laine and Shivaji; and now Dalit rage over Shankar (to name just a few instances).

As far as the State’s capitulations go, disappointingly, this is always triggered by a lazy eye on votebanks. The treacherous tools of what Nandy calls a “psephocracy”. But many intellectuals, who would denounce Hindu excesses on these counts, feel morally constrained to reach for an uneasy nuance when the affront is expressed by historically oppressed groups like Dalits or religious minorities. But Mukul Manglik, history professor at Ramjas College, Delhi, is refreshingly unequivocal in his reasoning.

“My primary alarm is the increasing grip of the politics of hurt sentiment over this country. It does not matter who uses it,” he says. “I’m not even debating whether the grouse is genuine or manufactured. Let’s take it for granted that the sentiments of hurt are always real. The question we have to answer as democrats is, what should our response be?”

Sudhir Tailang | The Asian Age

Manglik’s fear is one every Indian should quickly get attuned to. “The problem,” he says, “is that each time this happens, we find the response is an attack on the culture of democracy. Through the 19th century, people mobilised themselves to fight for rights. Now, each time people are mobilised, it is not in defence of rights but against them. This is how a fascist political culture is created — by mobilising people against democracy, in the name of sentiment.”

The position Manglik settles on seems an unassailable one. The academic world must always be “all ears”, he says. Open to debate and a review of its positions. But it is the process that is important. “We have to be clear what we are committed to. Do we want civil liberties, rights and democracy? Then, no matter who we are, or how historically wronged we may be, we have to ask ourselves, in what way should I express my hurt? Is the response I’m choosing expanding the realm of liberty?”

While conceding that ground, filmmaker Anand Patwardhan urges a more complex debate around the Ambedkar cartoon. “I think the issue is more complicated than merely one about freedom of expression,” he says. “The oppression of Dalits has gone on since Independence. When the cartoon first came out in 1949, nobody took it seriously because the betrayal of Dalits was not yet evident. The nation was two years old, Ambedkar was alive, he was the law minister, he was writing the Constitution. Even if the cartoon hurt some sentiments, nobody made a fuss. There was a lot of hope in the air. You can’t compare that with the mood today, when more than 60 years later, there are still attacks on Dalits every day. Thanks to his enormous contribution, Ambedkar is deified by the community. So anything that seems to attack him becomes a serious issue.”

Patwardhan’s argument is that rather than remove the cartoon, a more complex analysis should have been included in the textbook. “I don’t think the cartoon is completely innocent,” he says. “Why would a cartoon depict Nehru holding a whip over Ambedkar and the snail marked Constitution? The casteists of the day did not like the fact that at Gandhiji’s insistence, Ambedkar was made the chief draughtsperson of the Constitution. Perhaps this animosity is reflected in the cartoon?”

Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad has just one straight arrow to shoot. “At least, opinion on the cartoon is divided among Dalits. Ambedkar’s grandson feels it’s absolutely fine, as do some JNU professors, while others feel it has slighted him. But how come there is only one opinion among the cartoonists and commentators of the caste elite? And how come all the defenders of freedom of expression have never questioned why there are such few Dalits in the national media?”

He adds, as an afterthought, “The problem with the cartoon is that a political scientist like Pratap Bhanu Mehta or a Chandrabhan Prasad may understand the cartoon, but a student will feel confused.”

THIS BRINGS one back full circle to the question of “preparedness” that exercised Parliament so comically on 14 May. When is a mind mature enough to be set free? How did we agree children are ready to vote at 18, but are too silly to think independently at 16? In a sense, this is the most crucial question. The freedom of expression debate is often couched in dangerous and falsely paternal tones: our society is not yet ready to deal with offence; it’s not yet ready for its freedoms. But quick on these assertions, come questions: who will decide when India is “mature” enough to think for itself? Who will ladle out the correct portions of freedom?

Better then to take a leaf, yet again, from India’s inspired beginnings. In 1947, we were a feudal, illiterate, colonised society. Still, our founding fathers made a leap of faith and decided to declare India overnight into a modern, democratic State, with universal adult franchise. They did not wait for ephemeral milestones, when they would judge that Indians were “equipped” to deal with freedom.

Despite the messiness of democracy in motion, by and large, we have kept the faith.

With inputs from Tehelka Bureau